Owners reap a rich harvest from venture

CHRISTMAS came with an extra buzz for Sligo company Quickcrop when it won the innovation award at the National Enterprise Awards earlier this month.

Owners reap a rich harvest from venture

Selling flatpacked raised vegetable beds in Ireland and the UK, company founders Niall McAllister and Andrew Davidson are delighted with the award and the recognition of their company’s ability to innovate.

They believe Quickcrop is probably the first to sell flatpacked raised vegetable beds in Ireland and say they are definitely the only ones to develop software to help people grow their own vegetables. Mr Davidson says they were also the first in Ireland to grow vegetable seedlings for sale online.

This year the company has sold 750 flatpack beds and 1,000 boxes of live plants, mostly to consumers in cities. The products are 1.8m by 2.7m beds which start at €19.50 for a basic bed, rising to €149 for a more elaborate one with a garden seat.

Mr Davidson says this product has been designed with recession in mind, and that there is now significant scope in the “grow your own” market.’ Since starting out with vegetable beds, seedlings, and a soil mix, the company has expanded its product range and also set up its own seed company.

Prior to 2008, Mr McAllister ran a business supplies company and Mr Davidson was a graphic designer doing bespoke artwork for corporate clients. The economic downturn led to the exploration of new avenues by the two men who shared a gardening hobby.

“We realised we had complementary skills and started looking at ways of turning our hobby into a business. We asked ourselves what kind of business would do better in a recession,” said Mr Davidson.

Operating from a converted cowshed, they began by offering instant vegetable gardens. They made the beds, grew the plants, provided the soil, and put in the gardens for €395. This was very labour-intensive venture, and they knew is wouldn’t going to do well in recession, although they had good sales in 2008.

The aim was to sell flatpacked raised beds online, which started in 2009 when they designed a flatpackable bed and got a local sawmills to produce it for them.

“We had very small seed capital; we each put in €12,500,” said Mr Davidson. “To start with we built our own website, which was fairly rudimentary, but in 2009 we got some funding from Sligo Enterprise Board and we had it done professionally.’’

At this time, they put in two large polytunnels to grow seedlings. In 2010, they expanded the website to include lifestyle products because the growing season from February to June was short. They also began selling gift vouchers for vegetable gardens as Christmas gifts.

“We now do quite a good trade in the run up to Christmas and will be sending out orders until December 17,” said Mr Davidson.

The biggest innovation for Quickcrop may well have been the development of Growmatic software in 2010. The founders mapped out a plan for each vegetable, setting out when to plant, when to water, when to thin, and when to harvest, as well as how to deal with pests and disease.

“The guys who designed our website turned our blueprint into a tool which we now offer for free on the website. We plan to introduce a small charge next year,’’ said Mr Davidson

He believes Growmatic gives Quickcrop an edge over competitors, and also solves the biggest problem experienced by customers who want to grow their own veg. “This is lack of knowledge — they don’t know what to do or they don’t know when to do what,” he said.

Having set up a business which sells to Irish customers, Quickcrop’s founders decided the UK market, with its population of 65m, offered a ripe opportunity. They set up a UK website and sourced a company which could deliver soil there.

Mr Davidson believes Quickcrop has the potential to generate a turnover of several million euro within a few years.

“Our target for 2013 is €500,000, which is very good for a company which started out with funding of just €25,000,” said Mr Davidson.

That success now depends on the company’s Google, rating which they are working hard to improve. “It’s all about improving traffic levels, and over the last three months we have increased traffic by 260%,” said Mr Davidson. The company has focused on search engine optimisation, and increasing the number of links to its website by blogging. It also offered its software free to UK schools which also helped improve web traffic.

Mr Davidson says Quickcorp has undergone quite a transformation. “We started as vegetable growers using the internet to sell but now we are an internet business which sells vegetables.”

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