João Melo, CEO/CFO of Open Grow tells us about urban farming and the impact of Covid-19.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
João Melo: Thanks for asking; fortunately, COVID hasn’t reached my family, everyone is taking care and keeping safe, and so far, no one has caught the virus.
Can’t say the same for my business partner that had a few cases on his family, but everyone is recovered now.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Open Grow and had the idea to create GroLab?
João Melo: I was taking a degree in electronics and had a small passion for growing plants. From the start, I saw that the two disciplines could marry nicely, and soon I started to create control systems to help me take care of my plants.
I kept doing a few gadgets over time and, when I was ending the electronics degree, I had the opportunity to present my own project. No need to say that I went for a control system for a hydroponic system. This project granted my degree and opened the doors to my professional life.
Before founding Open Grow, I started working on domotics and lightning projects, later developing machines for production lines, and in my last job, I was a hardware developer for an energy metering company. During these times, I kept using my free time to improve the big and messy hydroponic control prototype with the knowledge I was gathering while also starting to dive into the entrepreneurial world through workshops and pitch contests.
At the same time, I was acquiring all the needed items for an indoor grow, lights, fans, etc., and soon realized that the control systems that you could buy at the time were old-fashioned and expensive. This showed me the opportunity to create a more complete and modern control solution for all the hobbyists that like me were growing indoor and needed more control… and that’s the story of how Open Grow was born, a company with a well-defined goal, to create the GroLab, an affordable and easy-to-use automation system for the Urban Farmer.
How does Open Grow innovate?
João Melo: Open Grow provides all-in-one control solutions to a wide range of growers around the world, scientists using our system to automate simulated Mars (Amadee-18) and Moon (IGLUNA2020 & IGLUNA2021) agricultural facilities, Universities using it for educational purposes, Urban Farmers that are converting rooftops to green and productive spaces, and cannabis growers producing industrial THC&CBD due to the change of paradigm in some major countries.
As a company, Open Grow provides the tools and know-how to any farmer to get into the new Industry 4.0 with minimum effort.
How does the coronavirus pandemic affect Open Grow business finances?
João Melo: The confinement made everyone start to make their own bread; you’ve heard that trend for sure. The same happened with gardening; since people were at home, they started to look for options to grow their plants indoors. So as soon as the confinement started, our phone started to ring more than usual, not only people looking for our GroLab control solutions but also looking for any kind of indoor agricultural equipment they could find. Fortunately, Open Grow was in a good position to answer all of them, and a lot of new customers were made during these harsh times.
Did Open Grow have to make difficult choices regarding human resources and what are the lessons learned?
João Melo: The hardest task was to find the right person to help us with the increase in orders. You can find people to work with, but finding a person with know-how in agriculture and technology and that understands the industry we operate in is not an easy task.
Fortunately, we found the perfect person for the job, and the team has grown in the past year with the intent to keep growing.
How did Open Grow customer relationship management evolve? Do you use any specific tools to be efficient?
João Melo: At Open Grow, we have a very personal relationship with our customers; we take personal care with each request and the communication involving it. This has been our best tactic since a happy customer is a returning customer, and so far, we’ve been able to retain our old and new customers using pure sympathy and 24/7 assistance. It might sound a bit off, but we use the Discord App daily to manage several aspects of the business, new products, suggestions, photos, and info of all packages delivered, even the shenanigans around the office sometimes go through there. Discord is for sure the most valuable team management tool we use nowadays.
Did Open Grow benefit from any government grants, and did that help keep your business afloat?
João Melo: Luckily, we did not stop working, and the business was able to take the toll of the first unknowns brought by COVID. The government aids us with the costs of public safety in our store by sponsoring the acquisition of masks and disinfectants and even helped us support part of our online advertisement costs to promote the online sale instead of the normal visit to the store. This was a valuable aid to help grow our business in the past year.
Your final thoughts?
João Melo: It’s a bit surreal to see all the backlash COVID has brought to the majority of businesses, and for Open Grow was a pivotal moment, where we saw the demand rising, and we needed to work more than ever.
We established partnerships with new suppliers, providing a huge range of new products to our customers, improving the current GroLab product, and even release a new GroLab product.
We know we are part of the few of the lucky ones in these troubled times, and we wish all the luck and success to the ones struggling at the moment.