Northumberland Brothers on their Grow Sow Simple Gardening Kits and Dragon's Den Investment
With the belief that everyone should have the opportunity to experience the thrill of growing and eating their own fresh herbs and vegetables no matter their circumstances, Northumberland-based brothers Dan and Joe Robson created a range of gardening kits
‘It then got to a point during Covid where me and Joe thought we’ve just got to give it a shot and applied. We didn’t hear anything so completely forgot all about it but then when I finally got in the Den I realised why people make these mistakes. It’s so different to watching it in your living room, especially the pressure you’re under. The BBC and everyone there was amazing, but once you’re in that den no matter how many people you’ve got behind you, unfortunately you are on your own and you’ve got nowhere to hide. The dragons gave me a rough ride but we came out well and I was happy with the result.’
Luckily for Dan his pitch impressed the dragons, receiving an £80,000 investment from local businesswoman Sara Davies. As well as the money, Sara has also invested her expertise into Grow Sow Simple. ‘Sara’s exactly as she appears on the TV, she’s so approachable and lovely,’ says Dan. ‘We’re still in the process of the due diligence stage because it takes a bit of time and we’re so busy, but even before we’ve got the investment, Sara’s been massively helpful in terms of advice and we’ve already been reaching into her contact book.
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‘She’s been into the business to see us a couple of times and it’s just nice to have someone on board who’s been there and who’s achieved so much in their career. I also think with us both being product-based it’s really nice to be able to talk to somebody who’s from that world as well.’
As well as everything Sara can bring to the business, just the exposure of being on Dragon’s Den has been a massive helping hand for Grow Sow Simple. ‘We’ve had lots of different companies get in touch, all of our online orders have gone through the roof and we’ve now got Royal Mail turning up everyday for the business,’ says Dan. ‘Also B2C wasn’t a huge market for us before, we’ve always been B2B retail, but now that’s taken us down a different route which we were really excited to pursue.’
Dan has been intent on making Grow Sow Simple work since the day he finished his degree. ‘I did a masters course in multi-disciplinary design innovation at Northumbria University and as part of that I did a project working with guerrilla gardeners,’ he explains. ‘These guys find derelict or disused plots of land that are being ignored or neglected and in the dead of night they tidy up the land, put flowers down and make it really pretty. I always wanted to work with the guerrilla gardeners so when I found out there was a small community in Newcastle, I went with them.
‘Seeing what you’d done the next morning was a really nice feeling but more importantly from a design perspective I realised these guys used very eco-conscious materials, as they had to leave the plot of land with the flowers they’re putting there and they weren’t able to come back to it. They had to give the plot the best opportunity to survive on its own so they used materials such as cardboard and clay, and I thought, why is no one doing that commercially?
‘The idea for the business was sort of born from that. In 2014 when I handed my thesis in, the next day I handed my business plan in to a venture capital company and we managed to raise some capital to start the business. I was straight out of the frying pan and into the fire, and we basically built the business from there.’
Since then Grow Sow Simple has evolved into three branches of products: SeedCell, MicroGrow and Build & Grow. SeedCell is a biodegradable pod containing seeds – it’s made from 100 percent recycled materials and is 100 percent compostable. These pods come in themed sets such as burger toppings, salad patch, herb garden or cocktail botanicals, and you have everything you need to grow for that purpose inside the box. All you have to do is plant the pods and wait.
‘You push the pod into the soil, it will absorb all the moisture and it will direct that to the seed without over watering it because the fibres of the pulp pod can only absorb so much,’ explains Dan. ‘As there’s a maximum level this will prevent it from drowning and it will push the pod open, start to split and the seed will emerge from the middle – this is patented technology so it’s super unique to us and all developed in Newcastle. You’ll then have a nice healthy plant and as the pod breaks down it creates a mulch around the plant which is a micro-fertiliser.’
Micro Grow, is a microgreens growing kit – once again with patented technology. ‘Not content with just making herbs and things accessible, we looked at the microgreens world,’ says Dan. ‘These are hugely trendy, popular products that are coming up at the moment especially in regards to people growing at home and small space gardening – you can even grow them on an office desk. They’re real superfoods and full of nutrients – one gram of microgreens has 40 times the nutritional value of one gram of a fully grown equivalent – but what often happens when growing microgreens is they die off because people forget to water them. We therefore wanted to work to make growing microgreens really easy and accessible.
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‘With our products we try to basically
eliminate as many complexities as possible so that
it’s minimum effort, maximum output’
‘What we’ve developed is a really simple, affordable and easy-to-use system where you’ve got a small propagated tray with a base and a pad made of sucrose and wool. Just place the pad in the tray and then tuck the little wicking tab in. This means that the seeds aren’t in contact directly with the water so you don’t need to worry about any kind of salmonella or similar issues, but they are wicking the water up from the base. If you go to any professional microgreen growing farm this is what they’ll have but we’ve shrunk it down so it’s a self-watering, hydroponic, soil-free microgreens kit that can be delivered to you directly in the post via our subscriptions model. Every two weeks or month you can be sent a refill of the pads to keep your microgreens garden growing all year round.’
Finally, the third product (Build & Grow) is a children’s 3D puzzle made from 100 percent FSE-approved card with a small tray which is also made from card but sprayed with a special vegetable wax-based coating to make it hydrophilic. Kids simply build the puzzle, fold the tray into place, fill it with soil and seeds, then wait and they can grow a real garden in their puzzle.
‘It’s a really good way of getting parents to sit down with their kids and spend some quality time together, but it’s also all about teaching kids. The plants are all edible so they can eat the food that they’ve grown and it’s a really exciting way to engage kids with gardening and growing their own.’
The common link between all of Grow Sow SImple’s products is their focus on making gardening accessible to all. ‘Whether you’re a novice or an experienced grower, in an abundant allotment or on a tiny balcony, our ethos is we believe everybody in the world has or should have the opportunity to grow fresh fruit and veg or herbs in any space that they have available to them,’ says Dan. ‘What we’re trying to do is create a product that allows them to do that.
‘People are often perturbed or turned off at the idea of planting seeds because there’re lots of complexities – soil depths, pH, amount of water, etc. But with our products we try to basically eliminate as many complexities as possible so that it’s minimum effort, maximum output. Just plant it, set it, forget it, and away it goes.
‘They’re also small products in terms of their size, so you can put them into a pot on a windowsill or in a hanging basket – we’ve even had people sending us photos where they’ve pushed them into cracks between bricks and things are growing up the walls. They’ve got so much potential so that’s how we’re trying to make gardening accessible and give people the confidence to grow. If they’ve never grown flowers or vegetables before they can start with our products – we really see it as a gateway drug to gardening!’
Dan’s mission is to get ‘dirt under the fingernails of everyone in Great Britain,’ he claims. ‘We want everyone growing, and the plan is to start young by going into schools and working with them. We also believe you can grow our products anywhere, so we’d like to look at going all over the world and growing them everywhere. We want to spread the business to all four corners of the globe and get everyone growing.’
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For people unsure how to get into gardening, Dan offers some words of wisdom: ‘It’s the same advice I’d give to anyone looking to start a business, I think it’s just about getting involved and getting your hands dirty,’ he says. ‘Probably the best advice that I could give someone would be to use our products so that you’ve got a fighting chance of getting some stuff growing, but really just get involved. You’re not always going to get it right but I think that’s the beauty of it. You can always have another crack at it, it’s just about trial and error.
‘There’s also loads of research that links wellbeing with gardening, for example watching something grow, knowing you’re the reason it’s existing and giving it the love and attention it needs. Combining that with eventually taking it from plant to plate is an amazing feeling and one that everyone should get to enjoy. For anyone who’s thinking about gardening, grab some soil, grab some seeds and just get started.’