The Flyover Series is a collection of interviews with founders and key contributors of Chicago-based tech companies. Our goal is to help illuminate some of the terrific people and work in the Chicago technology scene.
This interview is with Mason Day, co-founder of GrowIt.
Ben: What is GrowIt? How did it start?
Mason: I’m Mason Day, co-founder of GrowIt. I grew up in the horticulture industry, watching the business side of things, raising plants from seeds, selling seeds, et cetera. I graduated college with a degree in agriculture and then went to a seed company where I started doing social media for some plant brands. At that point I got hooked up with one of the guys there. He asked me if I could help him get younger people interested in plants and gardening.
Eventually over a couple of beers, and meetings, we came up with this idea that we needed to be more mobile as an industry, to get people more interested in plants and gardening in general. We came up with a couple of ideas that really didn’t pan out, and eventually we said, “alright, what else is there? How else can we reach young gardeners without directly selling to them?” At the time I was single, and talking about Tinder, so we came up with the idea that plants are kind of like people. A lot of people base opinions about plants strictly on how they look. We wanted people to be able to swipe through pictures of plants and give them a rating.
At that point, we started incorporating Yelp into it. In Yelp, people rate restaurants in different areas, and the location can make all difference in the restaurant. The same holds true for plants. We thought that maybe people can upload pictures of their plants and others in their surrounding area can give them a rating, such as “Leave it, Like it, or Grow It.” Also, people who are new to gardening, or just don’t know much about plants, can search for plants in a way which is conducive to their needs. They can search based on their favorite color, perennials vs. annuals, what their planting needs are. We help them to identify that.
Ben: What was the first thing you did when you got started?
Mason: At the time Seth and I were working for a large seed production company in West Chicago. The first thing we did was present it to the executive board there. The board gave us funding to go ahead and get started with the Apple version of the app. They asked us to come back later, once we had proven ourselves, for an Android version.
Ben: Where did you find these first users, the plant enthusiasts and non-enthusiasts, in the first place?
Mason: Luckily, Seth and I have been in the industry for awhile so we have connections with retailers and botanical gardens, and with third parties who got us the rest of the connections. We located events in botanical gardens, invited people for beer and wine, and to come check out this new product that we have and give feedback. And of course when you invite people for beer and wine, the whole community shows up. Everyone is always willing to give you some feedback, especially after a beer or two.
Ben: What resources did you find especially helpful in Chicago?
Mason: First and foremost the community at 1871. When Seth and I pitched this idea to our funders, we actually said we wanted to work in a co-working space, and to get involved in the tech scene downtown, the startup community, and to really figure out who we were as a company. 1871 was the one place we both felt had the resources and the mentors to help us. Since day one we’ve been going to workshops there about marketing, coding, and analytics. We’ve been able to ask our mentors specific questions and figure out who the people were that we needed to get in front of. Our app developers have also been a huge resource because they know what’s going on in the scene better than we do. Also the connections we made through our funders were quite helpful in getting the word out to the horticultural industry.
Ben: What’s next for GrowIt?
Mason: We’re working on our big consumer push this spring. We technically launched in the app store last July, but it was really an industry version. Now we have been taking feedback and creating a better product for the consumer who doesn’t know as much about plants. We want to make it something that’s not only helpful but fun as well. We are also incorporating a bit of gamification, and we have a big update planned in the next couple of months. Then, we’re going to be hitting the big consumer flower shops and we will have a booth at the Chicago Flower Show this year. We will be speaking and doing a Garden Writers event at the show as well.
Ben: What is your number one takeaway from starting a company here in Chicago? What is the biggest piece of advice you would give to someone else looking to startup a new company?
Mason: The first thing is to dream big. Truthfully, when Seth and I first came up with this idea we thought it was impossible to do by technology standards. What we’ve found out is that there is hardly anything that is impossible these days. If you have an idea, run with it, because someone out there will want to build it. My second bit of advice is to try anything because you never know what’s going to work. You may send out a million tweets a day, or post a million blog posts, but you never know what’s going to catch someone’s eye and send you over the edge. If you can do it, do it, and do anything you can.