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How These Founders Fused Their Passion for Technology and Horticulture Into a Million-Dollar Startup

Let’s be honest, when you hear of someone having a growth mindset, you might roll your eyes. Surely every successful entrepreneur is moving forward in one way or another? But when I tell you that the founders of Silver Fern grow responsibly, I’m not just talking about economic acumen. I’m referring to soil and dirt.

Adam VanWingerden, his brother Stephen VanWingerden, and Kevin Short are growers. Their intimate knowledge of horticulture and their passion for technology makes them the perfect fit for modernizing the entire industry. It’s rare to possess both at once and it explains why Silver Fern is such a force for change.

Picture pallets of plants that need to get offloaded from temperature-controlled trucks and onto store shelves in record time. There is absolutely no margin for error because these are perishable products. An extra few minutes in transit could turn a store’s entire shipment into trash. But that’s not all – every store has neighborhood-specific orders. 

And what about the weather? Weather patterns can affect growing the actual plants and delivering them across the nation. And then, to complicate this more, every operator from the supplier to the distributor is using a different program to enter and record data. 

The trio behind Silver Fern got their start as one part of this supply chain. They worked for one of the top horticulture companies in America. Surrounded by six million square feet of greenhouse space and over 130 acres of land, the company had every variety of orchid, perennial, and succulent plant you heard of and many you probably didn’t.

But when a cannabis conglomerate acquired the company, the culture changed overnight. The workplace became toxic and the trio became disenchanted with executives who didn’t stress the importance of teamwork. So, the trio left to try their hand at entrepreneurship under the name Silver Fern.

Fixing What’s Broken

To build something new, the founders of Silver Fern first looked backward. Throughout their careers, they experienced many of the industry’s inefficiencies and now they had an opportunity to correct them. It has always been a data problem, Adam explains: “It’s hard to juggle forecasting, space planning, replenishment, filling orders, and business data.”

Many companies tried to collect, interpret, and manage all these data points, but they fell short.  “We tried many different ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) programs to handle supply chain management, inventory control, and everything from demand planning to production planning. None of them worked.”

Technology was supposed to make the work easier, but instead, it caused bigger headaches. “We went through several failed implementations that all stemmed from clunky legacy software that hadn’t been updated in a long time.” The founders believed they could build something that integrated all of the industry’s data points to save growers time and money. 

But the founders had their work cut out for them. The industry had barely changed in 60 years. Gardening became industrialized when Kmart opened the very first retail garden center, and that quickly led to greenhouses around the nation industrializing their processes in record time. 

Figuring out solutions for big-box gardening centers (think Kmart, Lowe’s et al) was far from easy. Adam explains why: “Data analytics offers answers, but the people who start greenhouses are passionate about growing. They aren’t sitting behind a computer crunching numbers. This means that the industry has matured quickly while the software lagged.”

When growers attempted to work with technology companies, the process was laborious and expensive. Why? Tech companies viewed growing as an extension of manufacturing, but the needs of each industry are different. As a result, growers shelled out big money only to find that they couldn’t do what they needed to with it. 

Container purchase orders and sales orders were often sitting on Excel spreadsheets that didn’t sync with existing technology, for example. Many shipments were dead on arrival (literally) since shippers couldn’t access the data. Plants were delivered to the wrong locations or often not all. These mistakes were costly and time-consuming to correct.

Don’t Be Afraid to Think Big

Silver Fern focused on building an intuitive approach that could work with existing software on the market. Idealistic? Perhaps. The founders didn’t want growers to feel overwhelmed. Instead, Silver Fern’s “Work Suite” is a collection of software tools that customers can customize to their business and existing platform.

One part of the Silver Fern suite, “Restock,” is an account management system that ensures timely replenishment to maximize sales and reduce waste. “Report” connects to existing data sources to produce internal business documents like invoices and UPCs.

The company also offers Internet-of-Things (IoT) devices that combine hardware and software to allow customers to control greenhouse equipment from a desktop or a mobile device. The apps work with both Android and iOS and can work offline too. 

Working at the kitchen table.

Full Steam Ahead in Lockdown

The timing of Silver Fern’s launch wasn’t ideal. One of the founders had become a father and a global pandemic loomed. Nevertheless, the trio pushed ahead as planned, knowing that growers faced uncertainty every day and yet still persevered.

Silver Fern got to work when the rest of the world shut down. They tapped their network of colleagues and offered prospective customers a new way to approach mining and organizing data. Their enthusiasm was infectious and people were willing to take a chance. 

Soon enough, phone calls translated into contracts. Traveling around the nation when the world was effectively locked down made for an interesting business debut. But the viability of the business depended on whether it could fulfill its promises. 

By Growers for Growers

Upgrading an entire industry would need a compelling sales pitch. At first, Silver Fern charged a low installation fee to entice growers to try out their technology. Once the installation was complete (at cost), it would charge a subscription fee to cover a combination of mobile, web, and desktop applications.

But it was their background in the industry that won hearts. “We’re built by growers for growers. We also happen to be techies. Bringing the two together is what we’re good at. It’s what we love. You pick the modules that fit your business and we’ll integrate them with any existing system you have.”

Knowing an industry so intimately does have its setbacks, however. Knowing what’s in store for you can be wildly intimidating. “It’s a very challenging industry,” Adam says. “My microeconomics professor in college said three of the most challenging things in business are perishable inventory, seasonality, and weather dependency. We’ve got all three – check, check, and check.”

Seasonality means that some growers are doing roughly 70 percent of their sales (think $400 million-plus) in just 10 weeks. The margin for error is minuscule. “You can’t make a mistake in those ten weeks. And then there’s also weather dependency. Do you want to shop for flowers outside at your local garden store when it’s 50 degrees and raining? We need to make sure that we have the right products at the right stores at the right times.”

Then there’s factoring in lead times. “If you want to grow a plant, you have to think about it a year in advance. You have to make sure that you have all the materials – including plastic, light, seeds, plugs, everything at the right time, build it at the right time on the production line, set it in the greenhouse, and grow it over a certain period. Then you have a very short window to ship it and an even shorter window to sell it. And, by the way, you need to take care of the plants during the entire process so that they don’t die.”

On an empty plane in a global pandemic.

Silver Fern’s inventory management applications help businesses with long-term planning. “One of our biggest customers ships vegetable plants all over the United States. We built them a mobile app that allowed them to see exactly what was living at what location. Before, they visited customers and asked what they needed and then rushed to fulfill orders.” 

It all comes back to data. Some Home Depot locations sell cucumber plants at a brisk rate while other sites need tomatoes. There’s a science behind this, and it involves both quantitative and qualitative research. And that’s not including trend forecasting. What’s the hot plant in 2023? Fiddle Fig has had its day in the sun. Now, companies are knee-deep in numbers and focus groups to ensure that your immaculate mid-century modern will have just the right plant come fall. You can thank Silver Fern for their help. They are about to launch a new division called “Forecasts.” And that, my friends, is growing with the times. 

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Andrew Gazdecki
Andrew Gazdecki
Andrew is an award-winning serial entrepreneur with three exits. He’s the founder and CEO of MicroAcquire, the world’s most founder-friendly startup marketplace, and its rebellious child, Bootstrappers, which gives voice to the entrepreneurial underdog. When not building businesses, he writes for Forbes, Entrepreneur, and now, Bootstrappers.

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