Brian Feretic is the Founder of Blossm, a community marketplace to buy, sell, and trade plants.
Victoria talks to Brian about how coming up with the concept happened, getting started in a very scrappy way and then filling in gaps, and opening up the app to have full marketplace functionality with buying, selling, and trading capabilities.
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VICTORIA: This is the Giant Robots Smashing Into Other Giant Robots Podcast, where we explore the design, development, and business of great products. I'm your host, Victoria Guido or Tori. And with me today is Brian Feretic, Founder of Blossm, a community marketplace to buy, sell, and trade plants. Brian, thank you for joining us.
BRIAN: Hey, it's great to be here, Tori.
VICTORIA: Great. I'm excited to hear more about Blossm. Why don't you just tell me a little bit more about the concept?
BRIAN: The concept actually happened at the end of 2019, and I'd already been a plant enthusiast for a couple of years. I was actually just going on my way to surf in my town of Ocean Beach, San Diego, and I stopped by this garage sale. And when I came back to pay my neighbor, I brought this rubber plant that are propagated just as a neighborly gift. She flipped out. She was ecstatic. She's like, "Oh my God, I'm such a huge plant person. Thank you so much. Why don't you come into my backyard, and I'll give you a plant tour, and you can pick something out."
And what was cool about this was it wasn't just like a simple exchange. It was like this hour-long interaction with someone that lived four blocks from me that happened to be this big plant nerd like me. And I got her whole story. She went through all these different species I didn't know about. And then, she helped me pick one out, which I still have to this day. It's this crassula succulent. When I was walking home with my new plant, I was like, oh wow, I got to go download the app for this. I would have never known this person that lives four houses away was a big plant person like me.
And when I got home, I searched the App Store. I did a Google search. I just couldn't find what I was looking for, which was basically this plant-swapping plant-connecting platform where I could find fellow plant nerds in my neighborhood. And so that kind of set me off on this path. I did some more research and decided...I was like, you know what? I'm going to commit to this and make this happen for myself and for my community.
VICTORIA: Well, what do you think makes someone a plant person [laughs] or like a...how did you describe yourself? A plant nerd? What sets that user apart?
BRIAN: We'll say it's like on a spectrum where people can shift along the spectrum. But I'd say when people start treating their plants more than objects and more what they are. They are these living things. They're beautiful. They bring people joy. I find it therapeutic to take care of them. And then the beautiful thing about it is that these plants grow, and you can propagate them and share them with your friends. And I think that is a critical aspect of this whole plant person thing.
VICTORIA: So the plants have become a little more like pets, and you can grow them in a way that creates a community around your friendship and your local area.
BRIAN: Yeah, exactly. That was actually the early signal about this whole plant world is that I saw people creating plant-dedicated Instagram accounts as if it was your dog or cat. And that was something that I realized this is a different type of person. This is a very passionate person willing to, like, they're so proud of their plant babies, we call them. [laughter]
VICTORIA: Right. And it's funny, you say, plant babies. When I think of people I know who I would consider plant people, they do talk to their plants like their babies. They're like, "Oh, it's so cute." [laughs] Or they're like, "Oh, he's not feeling so well." So I think that's great. And so you started to do some research into this community, into this group. What surprised you about your early findings?
BRIAN: This was actually something that I didn't realize until I dug deeper was that I thought that it was only going to be a local thing. People wanted to experience what I did with Sondra, who's the neighbor I swapped with, this in-person connection, swapping, checking each other's gardens out and houseplants. But I learned very quickly that people ship plants to each other not only within your own state but across the country, and this is global.
And I was just like, how do people ship plants? Turns out I do it all the time, almost weekly now, for years. That aspect was critical to realize, all right; this plant community doesn't necessarily have to be bound by physical in-person distance. It can connect online, and people share all over via shipping.
VICTORIA: That's really cool. So you decided that there's a whole international community. So is that when you decided to really start building something like an application to help people?
BRIAN: I remember just throwing this idea out to a lot of different friends, like, various backgrounds. And I was like, "Hey, what do you think of this idea about connecting people through this shared love?" And there is not one person who thought it was a terrible idea. And then I remember talking about it with a roommate at the time, and basically the same thing. I was like, "Hey, man, imagine people connecting through the shared passion. Who knows? Maybe even love can blossom." And he was like, "Dude, that's what you should call it." I was like, oh, that's a great name. It's about three and a half years now, and it's stuck ever since.
VICTORIA: I love that, [laughter] about sharing love, and how the name came about, and just starting with your friends and people you knew and bouncing ideas off of them. But your background is not specifically in technology. So what about your background applied? And what did you have to learn new to take along this journey?
BRIAN: So my whole career, I've been involved within the science sector. I actually moved to San Diego to pursue graduate school in neuroscience. I was very curious about kind of full neural networks and how those contribute to behavior. Actually, the Ph.D. program I wanted to get into at UCSD, there's a specific lab doing this really cool research with this new innovative imaging technique. And I applied twice, and I didn't get in. And so I went into biotech.
But I would say probably two things helped me. I realize now going through this entrepreneur path, things that helped train me for this, was definitely a graduate school where you're pretty much broke the whole time. My lab didn't have too much funding, so you had to be really resourceful and creative to figure stuff out with minimal resources. And that's perfectly summed up the last couple of years, just like figuring stuff out.
We have no money. How do we get awareness of our product when we can't spend, you know, we don't have ad spend or marketing budget? And it just kind of requires you to get creative and think outside the box and just really think, all right, what do I do here? And I came up with some hacky-type strategies that have been very effective. [laughs]
VICTORIA: Well, very cool. It sounds like you found your team now to start working with you on this in a very scrappy way. So how did you fill in those gaps, maybe in your knowledge or your background on how to get this done by the people that you grew around you?
BRIAN: For me, it wasn't too difficult. Well, one, my background. I was very naive with tech at the time and just programming in general. So my first task, I laid out three options. It was like, one, I can learn how to code. I dabbled in it for a week, and I was like, man, there's no way. [laughter] Two, I was like, I can outsource it, maybe somewhat cheaply, but I don't want to spend all my savings on it.
But more, I knew that, you know, say you come out of MVP product, the product always is growing, adapting, evolving, or you encounter bugs. And I could just see how full of friction the process would be if I had to, like, all right, we have found a bug, send the contract out. They have to accept the contract. And I just knew progress would be too slow to operate in that fashion.
And the third option was, like, find a technical co-founder and pursue this dream with, you know, a buddy. I was like, all right, who do I know that is in the computer stuff? And that was my thought. And my first guy I pitched it to was a friend I went to college with at Bucknell University. And he was like, I think, "This is a good idea." But he's like, "I'm going to retire probably in five years, and this is going to be a very lengthy thing." He's like, "I'm not interested."
The second guy was extremely down for it, but it turns out he didn't know how to do any mobile app development. He uses a consultant. [laughs] And so the third and who I ended up working with was my surfing and climbing buddy Nick Mitchell. I just knew he did computer-type stuff. I pitched him the idea, and he was like, "What's up with this plant thing?"
BRIAN: And I was like, "Oh, dude, this is a rapidly growing market. I know the ins and outs really well. I know this audience. I'm one of them." He wasn't sold until he heard an NPR piece talking about the houseplant boom. And then his father sent him an article from the New York Times saying how millennials are embracing houseplants and driving this new houseplant market.
And so I think this was maybe end of December, now in 2019. And he hit me up, and of course, he's like, "Oh, dude, I want in. Let's do it." But I also wanted to make sure I knew he could actually do what was the task at hand. [laughter] So I had my other first friend vet his GitHub and stuff just to make sure. [laughs]
VICTORIA: Oh, cool. [laughs]
BRIAN: And he was like, "Yeah, you know, he looks good. Worth a shot." And it turns out Nick is excellent. He did all the front end, back end. He built this whole app basically from scratch. It's pretty amazing what he's capable of. So I got it right on the third try. [laughs]
VICTORIA: That's funny. And I'm not surprised it came from networking in the climbing community, either.
BRIAN: Right. There's a lot of smart...definitely a lot of smart people in the climbing community. And those are like my closest friends now. So it was kind of cool to find someone in that place.
VICTORIA: And I've been climbing with friends before, and you're talking about work or whatever. And they're like, "Oh, yeah, I'm also like an Azure architect," [laughs] like some specific skill that's related to what you need. And I think it's a similar cultural mindset of people you want to be working with too. Maybe that's just me. So, okay, so you found your partner. You had someone who had all the skills that you needed to make this happen. How long did it take until you really had something you were proud of?
BRIAN: So, for me, I was laid off in August of 2019. I was working at Celgene, and they got acquired by Bristol Myers Squibb for like 72 billion, so massive merger. And I was kind of getting over the field. And so I was already basically unemployed. Nick, when we started actually working together in...we'll just call it January 2020. We started working on it casually, and then the pandemic happened. And then he got laid off. And he did about a three-month stint before he got another job at ServiceNow.
But within those three months, he really cranked out like a full MVP. And then I had about probably at least 60 or 70 people I knew beta test the product for feedback and just initial thoughts. And so that was like a very critical time where we were all locked down. We have this cool idea. Let's just crank this out. So we had an MVP pretty quick. And then we actually launched it in June 2020. And I was already very stoked about the product. As long as it did its core thing, which is connecting people through this shared love, I knew it was like a proper test, a good enough test to see if this is a worthy endeavor.
VICTORIA: That's really cool. So was there any surprising feedback that you got from that initial beta testing?
BRIAN: Yeah. [laughs] So the initial concept was essentially like a Tinder for plants. [laughter] And I was just thinking about this idea, like, if people could just swipe on plants they've uploaded, and then if both people liked a particular plant and they swiped on each other, and they matched, it would open up a chat that would connect them.
And it took the...one of the issues with bartering, in general, is people are like, "Oh, I'd love to swap that with you." And they're like, "Oh, what do you want to swap? What do you have?" And a lot of times, people don't align with what they have and what they want to swap. So I figured that would get this kind of friction out of there, but still, the core was connecting people. And then, very quickly, people found it fun. And this is still a feature right now on Blossm, which we've moved to the homepage. And it got a lot of engagement and interactions on it.
But one of the simple changes was like, all right, maybe this is not the optimal way to present these plants people are uploading. Nick actually drew a lot of inspiration from OfferUp. And he was like, "Oh, this is very simple. This is a very clean way to present these things." So we started getting inspiration from OfferUp, and we changed that kind of swipe card functionality just to a scrollable grid. And that was a great insight on his part, and some of that has been core to the product from that point on.
VICTORIA: That's so cool. So I can just go in the app and see a whole list of plants that people are willing to trade.
BRIAN: Right. Actually, I would say another thing that happened very early on, too, was, once again, bartering is not the most efficient way to exchange things with each other. And within weeks, we're seeing people being like, "Oh, well, what do you want to swap?" And then people are like, "Oh, well, I don't want to swap for that. I already have that." And then other people are like, "Hey, I don't want to swap anything. I just want to buy it." And then other people are like, "Hey, I don't have anything. but how do I get stuff for you?"
So right away, we opened it up to full marketplace kind of functionality with buying, selling, and trading. And we didn't have necessarily any payment system to facilitate that. We would just connect people. And then they would use Venmo, or Paypal, or Cash App, or things like that.
VICTORIA: That makes sense.
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VICTORIA: Now you kind of got your core features figured out, and you see people engaging with the app. What are you the most excited about on the horizon in your roadmap?
BRIAN: We're about to actually finish the TechStars accelerator next week. Next week is our demo day. It's been such a great experience, and I feel blessed. But during this time, we're really figuring out, like, what's our big vision with Blossm? And we kind of went back to really harp on, like, we're more than just an e-commerce or marketplace. We're like this special passionate community where people can do this buying, and selling, and trading.
One of the things that's been the trend for years now is instead of just photos; we're about to integrate some video functionality. This is a lead in to the bigger goal. And the idea is creating this...we're calling this full plant experience focused around live video where people can engage with each other on this totally different intimate level and can really showcase their plant collection and give each other a plant tour. How do you take care of this plant? Is another big topic that always comes up.
It's just hard to really decipher what's wrong with something just from ecstatic images. And we imagine we could have live plant help. And then people can just show their plant up to the camera and showing a really holistic view of what's going on. And so this vision of live with video and creating a more complete plant experience centered around really using the community as this way to promote that and really build that even further.
VICTORIA: That's very cool. I think I've talked to you a little bit before about this giant fiddle fig I have in my office. [laughs] It's going to the ceiling. And I got it from Home Depot, so it may not be the highest quality. And I've asked you about, like, is it alive? It keeps dropping leaves. So if I had a video and I could just show you around and show you where the leaves are browning a little bit and where it's not growing, I could see the value in having that interaction like that.
BRIAN: Yeah, exactly. No one's doing that. And definitely, we want to keep innovating the space. We were first to market many years ago. And then, actually, we have some direct competitors that are blatantly just copying us, like copying email templates, features. And on one hand, it's flattering, but also we realize we have to be careful about positioning and making sure we stay ahead of the curve. And we think this is going to be the future and something that delivers really extreme value to this demographic.
VICTORIA: Absolutely. And you mentioned you're a part of a tech accelerator. Could you tell me a little bit more about choosing which program you went to and how that's affected your overall approach to your app?
BRIAN: Yeah. So last year, we added two more team members, so actually Nick's younger brother, Calvin, we poached from Amazon, which felt really good. [laughter] And then we had another friend, Ari Olmos, who we knew had experience in the startup world. He started, or I think he was, co-founder or CEO of a few other social mission startups. So he understood just the fundraising process was probably the most critical trait we're looking for, just someone that can help refine our systems, our processes, things like that. So now we're a team of four.
And we were like, all right; we need money if we want to keep this alive. And I've been full-time since the idea conception. Ari joined full-time. Nick and Calvin both had jobs. But we just knew it's critical for a high-potential startup like ours to really grow; we needed some sort of fundraising. And it seemed logical. We gave our shot at proper fundraising with some angels and VCs last year. There were very encouraging signs, but didn't necessarily translate to any checks being written for us. And then we applied to a bunch of accelerators; Y Combinator and TechStars were our top two.
We got a few rounds of interviews from TechStars, and the director, Ryan Kuder, who's great; he's actually based in San Diego. And I credit him to definitely being a key component here because I knew he really liked us. He saw the really good complementary team we built. We had a pretty mature product with traction and an active user base. And we accepted, and it did a lot of things for us. It was our first proper fundraising beyond a Kickstarter. So Nick and Calvin became full-time once we got in.
And then we just had this, like, you have access to this massive network and get this really detailed one on one mentorship. We had almost six or seven mentors that we met with weekly. They're always available to help. And probably the coolest thing about it is they're just there to help you. There's no two-sided, like, I'll help you if you can help me. We are here to help you build, grow, accelerate your business.
And they gave us really good insights on direction, really formalizing how to build in systems that will last much longer than the three month-program that essentially just mimicked a lot of stuff we've done on the program within our own team, like hosting little daily stand-ups every day. We've always done weekly meetings but using that time more efficiently, knowing how to test and measure more effectively. They've really just refined our company to be a proper business instead of four dudes trying to make this cool plant app.
VICTORIA: That's really cool. And I wonder now, like, after you've had this experience, what advice would you give yourself if you could go back in time to when this all started?
BRIAN: First thing that popped in my head was...and I kind of knew this going into it, like, this is a big project that needs time. Things that prevent startups usually is, one, you don't execute, or you just don't start it at all, or you give up too soon. And I guess I would tell myself, hey, things are going to be all right. Like, just keep sticking with it. And you're getting all the signals; this is something substantial and worthwhile. Just be patient, stick with it. Survive those valleys, and there are peaks on the way. And getting into TechStars was the ultimate validation. Yeah, I feel extremely blessed to be in it. And I think we're poised to do big things this year.
VICTORIA: That's very cool. So you've mentioned those peaks and valleys and how much time you have to spend on this type of starting a company [laughs] and building an app. How do you balance that with also having a regular life and going surfing and climbing?
BRIAN: It's tough to find your specific balance and especially during the accelerator where I didn't want to waste any opportunity. So there were a lot of times...I think January was a month straight no days off. And actually, I was injured so I couldn't surf, climb, or even play piano, so all my outlets. But just be okay with setting aside time to where you don't think about work at all. And it took me a few months to reach that point. And I found that as long as I have one activity or some exercise per day, either I surf or climb, I'm good. I don't mind working 12-plus hour days if I do one of those.
And then just to allocate one day of the week where I am like, I do a couple of hours in the morning. But one mostly day of don't think about work, just enjoy life. And that has been enough for me to feel refreshed going into next week. And so I think I got a good rhythm, and I got a good formula for what works for me. It might be different for other people, but it's important to set aside time where you don't think about it.
VICTORIA: Right. Yeah, just to turn off your brain. Sometimes I find, like, you know, you mentioned surfing and climbing helps you do that because you really just can't be on your phone [laughs] when you're out there sometimes.
BRIAN: Right. It's kind of funny because I'll almost say it's a catch-22. But sometimes, those things can be distracting, but they're also necessary for you to be focused if that makes sense. [laughs]
VICTORIA: Yeah, totally. Let me bring it back to plants. What is your favorite house plant that you have right now?
BRIAN: Man, it's changed over the years, but I do have one. It's like the most popular high-in-demand one; it's the Monstera albo. Its common counterpart is the Monstera deliciosa, which is all green. This one has white variegation on the leaves. They're just inherently beautiful plants. And anyone that sees it can be like, "Wow, that is gorgeous."
But I have one specific one, and why it's my favorite is that years ago, I was telling a climbing friend about the app, and I guess the app is out by now, but telling her about it. And she's like, "Oh, my grandmother was a huge plant person. My mom now takes care of them. I think she has one of those Monstera plants with the white on it. It was my grandma's though." And I was like, no way. I have to see this. And when I get there, she has this massive one, incredibly mature and old. I think she said it was almost 50 years old. I can't even believe this.
BRIAN: And then I asked her. I was like, "Hey," [laughs] I was like, "Can I have a little bit of that?" [laughs] And she was like, "Oh yeah, just go ahead. This is a plant. I'll grow it back." And I felt a little bad because I took a nice big cutting like multiple leave cutting. And she absolutely did not care and just was so happy. Turns out she had three of these like big mother plants. There's one cutting that had very low variegation, so it showed barely any white on it. Over time, I grew it out. Every subsequent leaf kept showing more and more white. And now it's just so beautiful.
I check up on it every day, and every new leaf is just more beautiful than the next. And it's a special one. And it was gifted to me by my friend's mother. It started off like you can say a lowly variegated plant, and now it's just thriving and beautiful. So it has some history, and it came from a friend. So without a doubt, that's my favorite one. [laughs]
VICTORIA: That's very cool. Yeah, I know those Monsteras that you're talking about. They're really interesting-looking plants. I kept one alive for a short time, and I'm very proud of myself for it. [laughs] So I'm interested in using Blossm to keep my plants alive possibly. But that's awesome. Thank you so much for sharing that. What else can I ask you? Is there anything that I should ask you that I haven't yet?
BRIAN: Well, we could actually segue from what you just said. This is an interesting thing. So I think everybody who's been through this has gone through this exact process. So they have a couple of plants. They're like, what's wrong with my plant? How do I take care of this? And they go down the Google rabbit hole, or they happen to buy one of these plant ID plant care apps. Usually, they're like freemium. You get a couple of free tries, and then you have to buy a subscription or whatever.
I also did this. And I was like, you know what? These apps suck. They just don't work, or they're too general. The best plant advice you can get is from other plant people because there are so many variables. Like, which growing zone are you in? What kind of light do you have? What's your ambient humidity, temperature? All these factors come into play on how to properly care for your plant and what could be wrong. And the best advice I've gotten was from other plant people.
And so we have, like, beyond the marketplace grid, we have this fully functioning community forum essentially like a Facebook group in a way where people can post questions about what's wrong with my plant, or what plant is this? Or share memes and just nerd out. And it's been such a critical component I think of Blossm to cultivate this community. But it's also just very functional and effective because really the only way to get that advice and care information is by interacting with other people. That's something we want to build upon in the future too with that whole live and video capabilities.
VICTORIA: Yeah, that makes sense. Just a funny story, sometimes I'll call my mom who's a big plant person, and ask her questions, and she's like, "Well, you should go check that book I got you." [laughter] It's like, it's not helpful at all. [laughs] But yeah, no, I think that's right. I think people get excited about AI and image recognition. But sometimes it's still easier to get a real effective answer from a human.
BRIAN: Yeah, I'd be curious with the whole AI getting its spotlight right now. And without a doubt, I could see applications there for it. Right now, I don't think that exists, but I'm very curious and excited to see what happens with all of it. It's going to be cool.
VICTORIA: Yeah. Well, that's awesome. And I am excited that what Blossm does is really create this community around plants and learning about them and with the people around you. Do you have any final takeaways for our listeners?
BRIAN: Hmm, final takeaways, you know, shameless self-promotion; if you love plants or you're getting into plants, Blossm is tailored for the plant person, which is what I think makes it special. And more general, I never intended to be the entrepreneur. I never intended for Blossm to be like, oh, this big tech company. I just had something I was super passionate about and wanted to see come alive for myself and for other people.
Without a doubt, that passion paired with perseverance, I think, are critical attributes to follow any idea to the end or to some level of success. So don't be afraid to take that leap. By no means has it been easy. It's been the most difficult thing I've ever done but also the most rewarding. It's been really fun too. So if you got a cool idea, maybe try to build it out, find a good co-founder, a good team. Give it a go and create something for everyone.
VICTORIA: Well, I really loved your story, Brian. I think you've found your niche. You built something. You took advantage of the time you had when you had it, and look where you are now. [laughs] I'm very excited to see what comes next.
BRIAN: Cool. Yeah, thank you so much for having me. This has been lovely, and yeah, stoked to listen to the next episodes too.
VICTORIA: Excellent. You can subscribe to the show and find notes along with a complete transcript for this episode at giantrobots.fm. If you have questions or comments, you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. And you can find me on Twitter @victori_ousg.
This podcast is brought to you by thoughtbot and produced and edited by Mandy Moore.
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