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Q & A

How we came up with the idea for our app-based business

Sabrina Palme

Sabrina Palme and Andre Quintanilha of Gartenzwerg retrace their start-up steps and lift the lid of developing an app-based business

Despite its German name, Gartenzwerg is a London-based business that sells indoor smart gardens. It wants to enable “anyone to grow their own fruit and veg effortlessly at home using an app, no matter how much space, time or knowledge they have”. Sabrina Palme and Andre Quintanilha are the co-founders of Gartenzwerg (the German word for garden gnome). Here, they explain how the seeds of an idea grew into an app-based business.

What is Gartenzwerg?

The Grounded Type

Sabrina Palme (SP): “Basically, we want to change people’s understanding of gardening and how they get fresh produce, particularly those living in cities. We’ve created two compact indoor smart gardens – The Nature Guy and The Grounded Type.”

Andre Quintanilha (AQ): “They use smart sensors to monitor light intensity and spectrum, temperature, pH and water levels.

Andre Quintanilha

The smart sensors are connected to the Gartenzwerg app, which tells users if they need to water or prune their plants. Our smart gardens are designed to look great inside the home. We want them to become as normal as having a fridge in your kitchen.”

What produce can users grow?

SP: “About a third of people in Britain now grow some of their own food, but many others just don’t have the space, time or knowledge. Each of our units can accommodate six plants and it takes between two and four weeks to grow your own herbs and between four and 12 weeks for fruit and vegetables. Users can grow chillies, tomatoes, strawberries, spinach, radishes, basil, coriander, chives, mint and many other things.”

How did you come up with your business idea?

SP: “I always wanted to grow my own herbs at home, so I’d have fresh ingredients when I was cooking, but plants always used to die, because I’d forget to water them or there wasn’t enough light or rooms were too hot or too cold. It was frustrating.

“I moved to China to study for my MBA and there I met Andre. While studying, we found out about hydroponics [growing plants without using soil, by feeding them on mineral nutrient salts dissolved in water] and how NASA uses it to grow food in space. We were in a pub in Shanghai discussing how good it would be to have hydroponic indoor gardens for the home. Our business idea was born.”

How important was it to create an app for your business?

AQ: “Fundamental. Our smart gardens are IoT[Internet of Things]-enabled devices that communicate with users via the app. But our app is more than just a dashboard displaying data; it’s like a simulation in a computer game, with an immersive 3D user experience. It provides a super easy, fun and engaging way for users to grow their own produce. At the same time, the app provides a recurring revenue stream for the business, because users can purchase plants and supplies from us.”

How did you create the app?

SP: “Unlike most apps designed for businesses, the app developer we use comes from a gaming background, because we wanted a fun, gamified UX [user experience]. Besides the design work, we’re developing the app completely in-house, which gives us greater flexibility, because we can quickly fix issues and test to make sure they’ve been fixed.”

AQ: “At the beginning, we decided what the essentials of the app needed to be and what we wanted the ‘basic experience’ to involve. We then built the ‘experience architecture’. Each time we add a new feature, we seek feedback from our beta-testers. This way, we’re able to test the app at every stage and to minimise our development costs.”

What additional value does the app offer to users?

SP: “In addition to monitoring plant growth, the app tells you when you need to refill the water tank or spray water on the plants. And the app not only tells you when you need to, prune your plants, for example, but it also provides free tutorials that show you how.”

AQ: “The app also enables users to learn about the nutritional value and life cycles of the plants they’re growing and get recipe ideas. Depending on their experience level, users can unlock rewards through success points they collect on the app.”

What advice do you offer to someone thinking of launching an app-based business?

SP: “Preparation is key. If you have no development knowledge, speak to other business owners who’ve developed an app and learn from their experiences. Often they can recommend good app developers.”

AQ: “Don’t just go with the cheapest option. It’s tempting, but usually it shows in the quality of the finished app. Make sure your app developer is located near you or your main point of contact is, because it should make things much easier and faster.

“And, find creative ways to control your costs. Wireframes, for example, are a good way to test and get feedback on user experience without spending any money and time on coding.”

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