Plantfolio’s Origin Story
Welcome to the plantfolio blog! In this first post, I’ll tell you a bit about my houseplant background and explain where the idea for an indoor potting station came from. Then, I’ll talk about creating a design, testing materials, building the initial prototypes, as well as getting feedback from testers.
Why an indoor potting station?
It was Fall of 2019 when the initial idea for plantfolio really began. I was about 4 years into the process of getting into plants. If you’re already a plant person or refer to yourself as a plant parent, then this is something you have probably also experienced. If not, let me explain.
For many of us, sometime around your mid-twenties to early thirties, if you don’t already have pets or kids, you might find yourself “getting into plants”. In my experience, this is especially true if you live in a city, rent an apartment and work in front of a computer all day. Of all the addicting vices out there, it’s pretty tame, relatively inexpensive, and only moderately annoying to the people around us (usually).
What does getting into plants look like? Symptoms look a bit different for different people and there are quite a few stages, but for me the first couple years looked like this:
- Frequent trips to my local plant nurseries, Home Depot and Lowes
- Buying a bunch of plants that look cool, that I have no idea how to care for
- Losing the little name tags that come with the plant and forgetting what they are
- Initially overwatering and killing half of them
- Forgetting about the other half, letting them dry to a crisp, then overwatering them to make up for it - again, accidentally killing them
- Reading blogs, watching videos and talking to experienced plant people (in my case, my parents) who told me what to get and schooled me on how to keep my plants alive
- Getting a jade, and a pothos and keeping them alive for more than two months despite moving them four times
- Changing my Linkedin to “botanist”
If you live in an apartment - particularly one without access to a porch, deck or patio - you’re doing these activities in your kitchen, in your sink, on your countertop, on the floor, or even in your bathtub. You’re cutting open trashbags. You’re spreading newspaper on the floor. You’ve got the vacuum, the Swiffer, the sponge all lined up, ready to go.
As enjoyable as taking care of plants can be, the mess involved with indoor plant care can be a pain in the ass. Wouldn't it be great if…
At some point, the wheels started turning. Wouldn’t it be great if I had a compact, self-contained workstation that could be set up quickly when doing my plant activities (plantivities)? This station would keep in the dirt, water and debris so I don’t have to worry about a big cleanup when I’m done. When the work is done, it cleans up quickly and folds up to be stowed somewhere convenient.
This problem statement became the goal.
Designing an indoor potting station for houseplantsI wasn’t calling it plantfolio until December, but from the start, plantfolio had to be small enough to stow on a shelf in a closet or on top of a fridge. Set up, it needed to be large enough to fit a medium sized plant and pot on one side and a full bag of dirt on the other. It needed to fit on a countertop. It needed to be sturdy. It needed to be water resistant. It needed to minimize mess by limiting dirt, water and debris from flying out and getting on the table or floor.
Paper and cardboard model I started with after sketching ideas
It also needed to look cool. I wanted it to have a classic, old-school vibe that implied durability and quality. Later, upgrading to a wooden frame, I hoped to make it feel almost like a piece of furniture, while still being a tool. For some reason, the L.L. Bean canvas beach bags stuck in my head. So that’s where I started. After drawing up sketches, and creating a paper model, my girlfriend and I went out one Saturday to a fabric store and found a lightweight canvas. Then, with a utility knife, a hot glue gun, wooden dowels and rubber flooring material from the hardware store, the first prototype was created (see below).
Ugly and barely usable, creating this was a great exercise in figuring out the overall form as well as what not to do.
After showing this initial prototype to some friends and family, I decided to move away from the rubber base to a wooden frame, resulting in the next iteration.
I was still using off the shelf supplies at this point, but things were starting to come together. It was somewhat useful, though still pretty clunky. The canvas proved to be too bulky and was difficult to work with. My girlfriend’s mom hooked me up with an extra sewing machine (thanks Christine!), which made things a bit easier, but canvas was overkill for the use case. She suggested checking out sailcloth.
Sailcloth was a game changer. Lightweight, easy to sew, easy to clean and water beads right off of it. It was perfect for the sidewalls which were a key part of the design. The plantfolio’s sidewalls provide a splash guard for watering as well as for dirt. With added loops, they can be used for tool storage while you work, and because they’re rigid and sturdy, early testers actually used them to prop up their plants while repotting, which has proven to be a useful ability. With the sailcloth material tested it was time for the next revision of the frame, the inner mesh and the removable tray.
The next iteration introduced a heavy duty steel mesh in a rubberized coating, a larger, sturdier wooden frame and reinforced sockets located around the perimeter of the indoor potting station. These sockets allow you to decide where you want the two sidewalls located while you work. In this case I wanted to do some watering over the sink, but didn’t want to splash the counter on the right, so I moved the sidewall from the rear location to the side.
Sending this version out to indoor plant enthusiast friends for user feedback, generated some awesome feedback to inform the next iteration. This feedback resulted in a deeper frame, questions around the type of hinge to use, alterations to the sidewall design and a material decision about the removable trays that sit within the frame.
From largest to smallest - Plaskolite prototype, drawer liner prototype, homemade silicone form
The inner tray took some time to sort out. The very first prototype started with black rubber flooring. Then I tried to cut, fold and glue soft plastic drawer liners. Then I tried to cut up a piece of plaskolite (the rigid plastic diffuser covers in fluorescent ceiling lights) and glued that together, which took forever. I tried each of these methods to avoid having to work with a manufacturer until I was absolutely sure the frame design was ready. I had tried 3D printing some other parts for the plantfolio prototype, but a 15” x 15” print was too large for any non-industrial printer and too slow and costly.
I really liked the idea of the potting station having a tray with a soft, rubbery, flexible material so you could easily take it out of the plantfolio frame when it filled up with dirt and fold or roll it up for easy disposal. It needed to be rugged, easy to clean and have a tight fit in the frame so dirt doesn’t escape between cracks or gaps.
The answer it turns out was silicone. After a number of inquiries and an attempt at DIY mold making, I found a manufacturer and was able to get a custom silicone tray designed and manufactured. The result is the set of trays in the photo below. They fit snugly, are easily removable and fold or roll up for dirt disposal. I hope you find them useful.
Feedback On An Indoor Potting Station for Plant Parents
It goes without saying that gathering user feedback and validating that your product is actually solving problems is critical. I’ve been involved in gathering user feedback in early stage companies several times. But those experiences were for software products that other people were building. As a physical product built by yours truly, this was a bit different.Before I began building the physical prototypes, I started by getting more active in some Facebook groups I had joined previously. I asked people how they solved problems associated with messy and time consuming indoor plant activities. The responses blew me away. This one question elicited over 100 unique responses from other plant enthusiasts. I wasn’t the only person with this problem! And people were trying all kinds of solutions.
It wasn’t until January of 2020 that the early prototypes were ready for user testing. To prepare, I created an onboarding deck in Google slides, as well as a demographic survey taken before the user testing. I also created a product testing survey to be taken after using the product. I then followed up with each user in a phone call or in-person session to hear their words directly and ask them questions. This resulted in some killer feedback, that enabled improvements between each iteration.
A few key learnings included:
- Users loved the look and feel of the wooden framed potting station along with the mesh center
- It felt sturdy to users and they liked that it could hold plants and pots
- In early versions, the inner trays were not tight enough to the wooden frame, which resulted in dirt spilling. This defeated the entire purpose of the product, which is what led to the decision for using a custom designed silicone tray
- People found the sidewalls to be useful, but nearly everyone who tested it wanted the wooden frame itself to be a bit deeper. This resulted in bulking up the frame, which created a deeper tray for actually doing your plant work.
Once COVID-19 hit, feedback slowed down a bit. But, I already had a lot of the key feedback needed to move the product forward. This feedback was worked into two additional prototypes and with some fine tuning, resulted in the product sold today.
I have loved creating plantfolio. And while we’re just getting started, I am really proud of how this first version has turned out. During the depressing months of COVID, bringing this product to life has given me the opportunity to be creative and solve problems so many plant enthusiasts experience! I stand 100% by the quality of the product and its ability to solve these problems. But if you’re reading this and don’t feel 100% satisfied, please send me a note and I will make it right. Or, if you have feedback for future iterations, please let me know. I am dedicated to building the best indoor plant tools possible.
Finally, plantfolio has also allowed me to connect with old friends and family. It’s a simple project, but it takes work! We’ve got a long way to go but I couldn’t have made it this far without all of you. Thank you!
Now, let’s get back to growing.