Grand Junction, Colorado
"I have quite the green thumb," says Cook, CEO of Happy Roots Plant Pots. She enjoys gardening so much that, as a couple, she and Fiot surrounded themselves with over 100 indoor plants in their condo during the COVID-19 pandemic.
But fungus gnats began breeding in the soil of all that desirable greenery. The couple rectified the situation after they learned about bottom watering: allowing the plants to wick water up through their roots. "Essentially, it keeps the topsoil dry, which kills off all the eggs and the bugs that are living in your topsoil," says Cook. But the watering soon became a "cumbersome activity," a laborious process. "We would take my potted plants and put them in large trays of water, either in the bathtub or the sink," she says. "It would take hours every single weekend for me to take care of our houseplants."
Cook and Fiot, the company's CTO, put their heads together to come up with a solution: their very own patent-pending plant pot. In their system, the plant grows from soil placed within a flexible rubber liner, which has aeration slots running perpendicular along it, and drainage holes near the bottom. The liner fits snugly within an attractively-glazed ceramic pot. An indentation at the top of the rubber liner serves as a funnel to pour water down into, which pools at the bottom of the ceramic pot the rubber liner sits within. A transparent window-like viewing space at the bottom of the ceramic pot allows a gardener to see how much water they've added. From there, the water gets drawn up to the roots by capillary action.
"We're both very creative, but in different sorts of ways," Cook says about the couple's plant pot collaboration. "Marc is more technical: He's got an engineer-mind. And I'm more artistic. So we were able to combine our creativity to come up with this idea."
Cook and Fiot employed 3D printing throughout the process, first to build their prototypes. Then, they used 3D printing to make molds for both the ceramic pots and rubber liners. "We've even been able to develop a lot of our own tools using 3D printing where we otherwise would have had to buy industrial equipment," says Fiot. One example, which saved them several hundred dollars: their own pump which is used to fill the ceramic pot molds. "We pride ourselves on being very technology-driven," adds Cook.
The production work -- all done by Cook, while Fiot works his separate day job -- takes place at the Business Incubator Center in Grand Junction. Slip casting allows Cook to create the basic form of the pots. After drying in a kiln, the clay bodies are glazed. Cook also casts the rubber bottoms that fit underneath the pots, which allow them to grip to surfaces. Additionally, the windows along the bottom used to gauge the water level. And she uses molds to cast the "impact-resistant" rubber liners, which will ultimately hold the soil and the plants. "It's UV-resistant and it's a non-leaching material, so it's safe for any herbs or anything you want to eat," says Cook.
African violets and Christmas cactus grow especially well in the pots, Cook says. She adds, "All of our plants -- from the succulents to the tropicals -- really enjoy our pots."
Since October 2021, they've sold hundreds of pots in 4" and 6" diameter sizes, priced respectively at $48 and $58. Sales predominately take place at farmers markets, festivals, and in-person events at, for example, breweries or wineries. Online sales also occur via the company's website and Etsy store. "I think we could dramatically increase our sales by having bigger sizes," says Cook. "Obviously, with the limitations of how big our printers are, it just becomes a logistical challenge of slicing patterns into pieces, so we can print them and make them bigger. The bigger it is, the longer it takes."
Given that the business is still less than a year old, Cook and Fiot appear to be happy about how far they've come in such a short amount of time. "Obviously, there's a lot more room for us to grow," says Cook, "but we've come a very far ways."
Challenges: Cook says, "The biggest challenge is definitely scaling manufacturing." Given how much work it takes to do what she does presently, Cook wonders what the business would look like in order to be able to eventually cast "three times this amount every day" -- or more.
Opportunities: "I think we have a lot of opportunity in marketing," says Fiot. "We'd love to get into the wholesale options more. Even, maybe, licensing. Our online has yet to really take off, but there's quite a bit of potential there with other marketplaces like Amazon." They could use additional advice in that realm, says Cook: "We think we could reach a more targeted audience."
The company presently benefits from a mentor with the Small Business Development Center Network, who meets biweekly with the couple. And the Grand Junction Business Center has also offered classes dealing with topics like hiring, insurance, bookkeeping, and best practices.
Needs: Capital: "We imagine, if there were more money, how quickly we could grow and the equipment we could purchase," says Cook.