Fresh off a podcast recording with the DU Entreprenuer Program, Michele Ostrander, Founder and CEO, of RevoGrow sat down for an interview to trace the history and the future aspirations of the local food connection startup marking its second anniversary.
As the founder of a tech-based direct to consumer food connection platform, it is surprising to a lot of people that Ostrander was actually a farmer herself. After graduating college from CU Boulder with a degree in Environmental Science and Geography with a deep dive into Permaculture, Ostrander and her partner at the time acquired 40 acres in southern Colorado. Without much hands-on experience, she found herself transported just west of the Rio Grande river in a tiny town called South Fork, population 400. They named the farm Sol Mountain and got to work creating a permaculture farm. Realizing they were in a true food dessert (the nearest grocery store was an hour’s drive), they founded a farmers market with 15 vendors and a CSA with 20 members as well as a few restaurant accounts. At 9,000 feet elevation, they extended their season with a geothermal greenhouse, so much so that they were only NOT growing two months of the year. “We were really proud of it, but it was also a ton of work,” Ostrander recalled. They also raised chickens and bees and did landscaping projects to bring in some extra cash. “I realize now that the farm was my first business, but at the time I didn’t think of myself as an entrepreneur,” she said.
After three years, Ostrander was ready for something new and turned the farm over to her partner and moved to Fort Collins. Her intention was to apply for graduate school, but life took her in a different direction. After three years struggling to find outlets for the food she worked so hard to grow, sometimes having too much and sometimes not being able to fill the promised orders, her entrepreneurial spirit kicked in. Identifying and solving a problem is what every great startup is founded on and Ostrander shared her ideas with friend Justin Caswell. Together they imagined a technology solution to issues around connecting local food farmers, ranchers and producers to customers, both direct to consumer and wholesale. Caswell, with a tech, sourcing and logistics background, became Ostrander’s champion, offering to help build the site with her. With this RevoGrow began to take shape.
Ostrander spent the next six months researching other food connectivity models, interviewing farmers and potential customers about their pain points, wireframing the website and trying solving the last mile delivery issue. It seemed like their was either list serves like Local Harvest but this didn’t offer any payment gateways or logistic services or it was the full aggregation model with warehouses, trucks and a massive amount of employees. RevoGrow has no plans to house any of the food, only to be the platform that helps facilitate the sale with the features buyers and sellers need for order tracking and payment all with with built-in delivery and shipping options. This model is easily scaleable from Northern Colorado to nation-wide and even internationally.
Some background on the delivery issue: In 2016 the race was on to solve the delivery issue for food. Tons of players were in the space regionally and nationally. For a look at the different delivery models, read this. At the time, national companies like Farmigo, Good Eggs as well as regional Door to Door Organics were all operating in the space and raising some serious cash to grow ($16M, $53M and $10M, respectively). Each has since closed its doors or scaled waaaayyyy back (click here for a good read on why $53M wasn’t enough to scale). RevoGrow is not shying away from the delivery issue and are facing it head on by simultaneously building RevoGo as a separate entity that works with the platform to solve the last mile issue. Caswell, with a vast experience in sourcing and logistics, has created a “Uber-like” delivery model where farmers, makers and individuals can become a driver to get paid for their time to pick up and deliver. As RevoGrow scales up, the delivery becomes more efficient. Also included in RevoGrow are pick-up options, both at the farm or at a specific locations like a farmers market and shipping options with discounts from shippers like FedEx and UPS.
RevoGrow was officially launched in the spring of 2017 and the site was built off of an existing order/delivery service frame. After a month or so, it became clear that the site was cumbersome for both the seller and buyer and it didn’t solve some of the bigger enterprise issues around inventory, wholesale pricing and invoicing. Launching a platform intended for business to consumer (virtual farmers market) and business to business (enterprise soliutions for farmers and restarants) was going to take a complete overhaul built from the ground up. Ostrander and Caswell did what good startup founders do. They pivoted.
The site was pulled down and she and Caswell went to work incorporating all of the features the stakeholders asked for. They also rebranded adding “social” to their tagline of a virtual marketplace and incorporating a Facebook-type feed for users to interact with each other around local food. Ostrander spent the fall and winter of 2017-2018 building up the number of vendors on the site to which now has food products from Denver, Colorado Springs and Northern Colorado. Customers can select nationwide shipping, local delivery or pre-order for pick-up at the farm or a farmers market. “I want to balance finding enough buyers for the products we have on the site,” Ostrander explained, we are going to be focusing on marketing this spring and summer to attract buyers; customers need to know we exist.” For some people, purchasing products online is no big deal and to a smaller amount of people, purchasing food online is no big deal, but for a lot of people this is not the norm. Ostrander explains that a lot of products listed on the site aren’t available in a store, so if you want the best locally-produced jam or granola, this is the next best thing to a farmers market.
A lot of people have told us to focus on just one category of buyers, but so far the strategy is to keep it open. You can register as an individual to use the social feed and purchase products, as a seller or as a wholesale buyer, or any combination. “Down the road if it is really clear that the site is just an ordering software for just businesses that want to sell their product we could go that route, but for now we want RevoGrow to remain open and inclusive,” Ostrander commented. It took a lot of tech development to manage different kinds of users and make it user-friendly. “I don’t know that I have ever seen any other site with that functionality.,” she added, “it was a huge feat to build that on the back end.”
RevoGrow aimed for a July 1 relaunch of the new site and were co-branding the launch with a Local Food Independence Day campaign. “It turns out that early July is really busy for farmers,” Ostrander laughs, “and everyone else.” The team used the extra time to test the product and then relaunched again in October realizing the product was still pretty buggy. “We really improved the processes and the site was much tighter,” she said. I asked Ostrander how she would describe Revogrow using comparisons to current models. “It is more like the Etsy of local food with a social connection piece and an uber delivery model option” was her reply.
Vendors can offer both wholesale and retail pricing for both types of customers. The seller pays a membership fee of $1.99/mo for up to five products and goes up from there. There is also a small transaction fee that is tiered down the more products a vendor has on the site. The seller doesn’t pay for any of the delivery or shipping fees; that is all charged to the buyer. “That is how we have tried to balance the costs and make it fair for everbody,” Ostrander explained. RevoGrow will onboard the business and initially set up their store and then the vendor manages their inventory and store hours. Ostrander samples every product and to verify the quality as well as approve every product that is listed on the site. This helps with food safety oversight as well. Cottage Food producers can list to sell directly to consumers, not wholesale, and can only ship within Colorado. Ostrander is looking forward to the day when there is a device that can verify farming practices such as organic. “Right now its not a problem because we work so closely with every farm and visit them, but in the future as we grow, we need a tool to provide that verification,” she concluded.
The consumer to consumer model has taken a backseat. She hopes to build an app that is more simple and easier to use than a full blown storefront where neighbors can post extra veggies, plant starts or eggs to exchange within their area. The ideal is the more local the better, “Just because it hasn’t happened yet, doesn’t mean we are aren’t encouraging others to engage with their neighbors,” Ostrander said “that was definitely the goal and the vision and hopefully someday we will get back to that of a true shared economy.”
RevoGrow’s biggest goal is to help their vendors. Success is measured by the number of orders. Ostrander added “our model is based on a small percentage and our revenue is based on scaleability so we need a lot of vendors and a lot of orders to make this profitable.”
When asked to reflect on RevoGrow’s early stages, Ostrander said “everything takes way longer than you think its going to. We jumped way ahead of our ourselves and were super ambitious in the beginning. I think with RevoGrow it makes sense to grow slow and sustainably.” Next year she hopes to start expanding into one or two other markets such as southern California or Detroit. The company is in it for the long game to create a new local food option that connects people to local food and can reduce or eliminate food waste. There are so many steps in the supply chain and many places, including an agriculture-rich Northern Colorado, don’t have access to really fresh food unless you have the luxury of going to a farmers market. Yes, you can find really great locally-grown and made food at a grocery store, but what percentage of that dollar is going to the farmer who grew that tomato or the producer who made that salsa. “There are a lot of places where people are totally disconnected from their food,” Ostrander added, “I believe in a transparent and direct to consumer model,” Ostrander said.
The next focus for Ostrander and Caswell on fundraising and introducing their blockchain and distributive technology that is fundamental to food transparency and supply chains. “I really believe in this kind of technology and in three years I would love to see our infrastructure project built and for RevoGrow be one of the first applications on the new decentralized system [RevoVerse] that Justin is building,” Ostrander remarked. RevoKind, the parent company, is just beginning to launch this technology and have begun sharing their big ideas at conferences and groups who invite them to speak. We are excited to watch RevoGrow and all of its companies tackle the issues of transparency, delivery, connection and direct to consumer purchasing all benefitting our local food system.
Ostrander invites you to join RevoGrow as an individual member. You will receive grower and producer spotlights and specials as well as be connected to others who value local food. RevoGrow is offering a $10 credit that you can use to purchase any product available on the marketplace. Simply sign up and you will be emailed a code to use upon checkout (sign up by June 1, 2018). You can also follow the company on Facebook and Instagram @RevoGrowInc.