If the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it’s how scarily dependent we are on imported food, and how susceptible we are to global influences that can disrupt supply chains, leaving supermarket shelves eerily empty. It’s something that Singapore has taken to heart: in 2019, the “30 by 30” initiative was launched, with the aim of locally producing 30% percent of its nutritional needs by the year 2030
. The government and corporations alike have embraced technology and innovation to make the most of the limited space we have, but Thorben Linneberg and Mark Newton—co-founder & Chief Executive Officer, and Chief Operating Officer of Aerospring Hydroponics, respectively—know that more needs to be done.
There’s a saying: “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” While Aerospring Hydroponics
doesn’t deal with marine animals, they do work with the power of water—specifically, water-based hydroponic systems designed for both indoor and outdoor use, providing the proverbial fishing rod and know-how that allow anyone and everyone to grow their own produce 24/7, 365 days of the year.
Thorben’s interest in urban farming started long before the pandemic, however. The thing that inspired him? The inconspicuous tomato. Thorben and his wife, Nadine, were annoyed by the fact that the beautifully red, tasty, on-the-vine tomatoes cost a whole lot more than the pale, slightly bruised larger versions that we usually settle for, and set out to grow their own tomatoes. The limited space in their home led them to experiment to create a system that was as efficient, simple, and modular as possible. This pursuit, coupled with the realization that gardening made him so much happier than his stressful corporate job, led Thorben to delve full-time into developing Aerospring Hydroponics.
Two years and two kilometers of 3D-printed plastic later, the first outdoor hydroponics system was launched in 2016. A second indoor iteration soon followed, allowing avid urban farmers around the world to grow their own produce no matter the season. Scroll through Aerospring Hydroponic’s Amazon page, and you’ll see review after glowing review on how the systems have completely changed the way that people grow and consume their food. Here, we speak to Thorben and Mark on their journey from the seed of an idea to a flourishing global business that’s helping self-sustainability take root around the world.
Thorben & Nadine Linneberg, the founders of Aerospring Hydroponics.
1. The both of you and Nadine all came from corporate backgrounds. What were some of your initial challenges while transitioning to entrepreneurs/business owners?
Thorben: I’d been a serial entrepreneur for a few years before I founded Aerospring Hydroponics in 2015. For me to adjust to the chaotic world of a startup was something that was already in me, but I’m not going to lie, starting a business is difficult! That’s normal and expected, though.
Mark: From hearing Thorben and Nadine’s story, one of the challenges was really the manufacturing side of the business. They didn’t have a lot of experience in manufacturing, and I certainly don’t, so to create and go to market with a product was a whole challenge in itself.
Thorben: You have to be naïvely positive to be an entrepreneur—if not, you won’t even start. I designed the product from scratch, did the 3D prints and tests, failed and changed things along the way, all the while having this naïve belief that I was going to make it. I think if the belief is not there, then the rest will not follow.
2. Could you share more about the prototyping process for the Aerospring system? How did you go from the initial draft to final product?
Thorben: The day that we decided to make it a business, the thought process was very much along the lines of, “If I’m going to do this, I have to come up with a product that can be packed into a box and shipped around the world.” That was one of the first priorities for me, because if I wasn’t able to do that, what kind of market can I reach? I certainly didn’t want to just sell in Singapore because I knew that this market wouldn’t be big enough to fulfill my dreams and ambitions for the future.
The next thing that I was focused on was coming up with a product that was easy to maintain. I understood from my own experience as a gardener that if you have a product that is difficult to maintain, at one point you’ll give up on it because it’s just too hard. If it’s super easy to do, there’s a greater likelihood that people will continue to use our product.
I don’t have any design or engineering background, but it was my own logic and experience that led me to focus on these two points. On hindsight, these were very important design decisions that were made that were paramount to the success of our product. I think it was also beneficial that we were urban gardeners first, and product designers second. So we understood how plants develop, and how to design a system that really works well for home use. It gives us an advantage over our competitors as well, because a lot of them aren’t gardeners.
Mark: This is a really important point—the greatest products in the world start with a customer problem or need. Thorben and Nadine were the customers themselves and created a solution for the problem they had, rather than simply seeing a gap or opportunity in the market. But of course, for new sellers, we’d recommend spending a lot of time doing competitive research. Do your keyword research and put a lot of work into your product title, descriptions, and product pictures. Research as much you can before entering a new international market so that you completely understand cross-border operations, from shipping to receiving, including customs clearance, etc.
Thorben has high praise for the invention of the 3D printer
3. Why did the team decide to sell to the United States (US) via Amazon? Was selling internationally via Amazon the team’s goal from the beginning, since launching in 2018?
Thorben: Initially, in the first few years, we only sold the basic system for outdoor growing. We wanted to sell to Europe and the US but were aware that there’d be winters, so there would be the months of July till April where we couldn't sell any systems, because July is too late to start growing. We wanted to have a full year of sales, so I decided to design the indoor system.
Our Kickstarter campaign raised about SGD140,000, of which 50% came from Singapore, 20% from Europe, and about 30% from the US. But we decided to ship a full container of hydroponic systems to the US instead of just the ones from our Kickstarter campaign. We found a warehouse partner in Los Angeles who went the last mile to deliver all the pledges, and with the rest of the stock, we set up an Amazon account. In the earlier years, we were struggling with profitability so we also had a focus on nutritional systems and distributorship, but Amazon was really the key for us. After 7–8 months, we decided to go back to direct-to-consumer sales, and we slowly got better at marketing and using Amazon. It was really the optimism in Amazon sales that spurred us forward. Amazon is now our primary sales channel in the US, Canada and the EU. We use Seller Central to manage these countries, as well as the various SKUs that we manage. Today, our US sales make up about 65%–70% of our global revenue.
The Aerospring Hydroponics system is the result of Thorben’s quest for a product that is easy to use and maintain.
4. What were some of the early challenges that the brand faced, or key lessons you’ve learnt along the way as an Amazon Global seller?
Mark: Having that connection with the customer is really important. Small businesses do need to understand that there will be a significant amount of time and resources involved with starting out on Amazon, to communicate with customers and meet those Service Level Agreements. You should ensure you provide great customer service and receive feedback. If you’re selling internationally, make sure you have good response times and processes in place to answer questions or requests from customers. Also, make sure you understand Amazon’s return policy and how this will affect your sales and bottom line, and whether you can resale or refurbish returned products.
Some advice we’d share is to understand the competitive landscape and how your competitors are describing their products. Ensure that your product descriptions are clear and concise in order to reduce the number of returns due to misunderstandings. We’ve found tools like JungleScout to be very valuable in keyword research and automating review requests, but the best way to get good reviews is to deliver a great product and provide fantastic post-sale customer service. Amazon is a good online store to test new products and gain insights on sales and pricing. However, you need to have the marketing budgets to reach new audiences and build awareness. It can take time to drive sales when entering a new country, so make sure you have substantial budgets that can last.
The access to international customers is fantastic on Amazon, but figuring out how to compete on Amazon is an evergreen challenge for us—figuring out how to cut through the noise and target our audience, tapping into key words that people are searching for, and driving product sales but also having a good return on the investment. Nonetheless, selling internationally has helped our business tremendously. In 2021, our revenue doubled year-on-year, and in the US our sales increased nearly 350% year-on-year. Amazon has played a major role in our business and international expansion, and given us unrivaled access to potential customers and tools to reach them through advertising. We will continue to leverage Amazon in every new country that we enter. We have a global expansion plan, including North America, UK and APAC, and Amazon will be at the core of it.
Thorben: Today, we’re many years into this startup and the biggest challenges are now about supply chain and manufacturing, and the complexities of scaling. Mistakes are becoming more expensive. In the early days, we didn’t have a lot of sales so we didn’t lose so much, but today, if I get my manufacturing and planning wrong and we run out of stock, it can cost us $5,000 a day in unrealized revenue. Something that became painfully apparent when we were selling via Fulfillment By Amazon was when we ran out of stock, we stopped showing up in customer listings. We later only learned that we could switch over to Fulfillment By Merchant with a longer lead time, and use both options now. Those have been difficult challenges but again, you have to want this in order to succeed. And we certainly want it.
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5. The systems can be considered a bulky product. Could you also share some tips on managing the shipment of bulky items that might be helpful for other sellers?
Thorben: From both a cost-efficiency in transportation and customer satisfaction point of view, it’s helpful to have everything packed into one box, especially if it's bulky. On hindsight, we lucked out because the box that we packaged our outdoor garden in was also able to fit in all the extra parts for the indoor garden—like the tent, wheels, base, LED lights—which would otherwise have needed a separate box. Customers prefer to have everything at once, rather than multiple boxes and potentially shipments arriving at different times.
The original outdoor system (left) and the indoor system (right), which comes with an additional tent, LED lights and more so that edible plants can be grown year-round, no matter the season or climate.
6. Were there any challenges in convincing buyers to purchase a premium system that they had never experienced/used before, and how did you overcome this?
Thorben: I think the biggest convincing factor is the reviews. The reviews that you get on some products are one to two lines, or a paragraph, but our typical review is like a page of text. The people who choose to write in are really genuine, and it’s really easy to see that it’s authentic. I think that carries a huge weight in other people deciding to buy it. We’re not a cheap product but we’re worth every dollar. The ability of customers to give that feedback is what makes us win.
Mark: Apart from reviews, the information about the product that we include in our listings is immensely important. We’ve put a lot of time into trying to understand the purchase journey that people go on. Generally, people take anywhere between 2–4 weeks to make a decision on our product. Maximizing Amazon’s listing best practices
is very important—not only do we have bullet points, we’re using almost all the character limits to talk about the features of our product and what it can actually do. An avid Amazon shopper can very easily identify bogus products just through the ratings, listings, and information that the brands give. So the information we provide is hugely valuable in ensuring that people can make an informed purchase.
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7. How has Covid-19 affected the demand for indoor farming solutions? Were there any challenge that the pandemic posed to your business as well?
Thorben: Covid-19 impacted the world in many areas, one of which was the access to fresh produce. In Singapore, we had empty shelves in supermarkets, and that triggered people into thinking more about growing their own food. It really turned our business around; we more than broke even.
Mark: The pandemic helped our business grow, with more people working from home, a general interest in our product category, and customers having greater disposable income. The situation also required us to spend more of our energies on e-commerce which really helped our business. We’re riding on a global trend of sustainability, empowering people to live more sustainably by growing their own food at home.
Another advantage of growing your own edible plants at home: the next generation has a better understanding of where their foods come from, and the time, effort, and resources that go into every bite.
8. What are some common misconceptions that people have when it comes to growing vegetables/fruits hydroponically?
Thorben: The common misconception is that people might think it doesn’t taste as good because it’s grown in water. Another misconception is that everyone thinks they know what organic food is, and that hydroponic food are grown with nasty chemicals. But nutrients are chemicals, and it doesn’t matter if it’s organic or non-organic—the plant needs the same stuff. That’s another barrier to entry. Everyone knows that if you throw a seed into soil and you water it, it’ll grow. But they’re not so sure how it works in a hydroponic system. That barrier is the lowest in America, and the highest in Europe. The European market is more reluctant towards products that are inorganic. In the US, they’re open to either organic or hydroponic, they don’t view them too differently.
Mark: On paper it’s very clear: a seed grows into a seedling, which grows into an adult plant and then it’s harvested. But there’s a disconnect as to exactly how this works which has increased massively in the past 50 to 80 years, globally, as people have been more removed from growing edible plants. Adding in the complexity of the plants and their life cycle and climate, there’s a lot of education that needs to take place. We provide the hardware to grow the software, so you do need to put in time and effort into learning how to grow edible plants. It’s like a fishing rod—we manufacture the fishing rod, but you’ve got to go out and catch the fish.
9. Can you share how Aerospring is helping to make an impact on food security?
Thorben: If we assume we have 1,000 systems in Singapore, each growing 100kgs a year, that’s equivalent to 75 air freight containers of food. We’re achieving Singapore’s 30 by 30 initiative—every customer is able to grow more than 30% of their own food. On a corporate level, we have a service business and we’re setting up edible gardens for corporate offices, managing these gardens, and organizing farmers markets for these offices. We’re helping with the CSR aspect for these businesses, their sustainability goals, and creating employee engagement.
Mark: The 30 by 30 initiative is very important here in Singapore, but most of the focus has been on indoor farms or vertical farms. Globally, this has proven not to be an economically viable model. Particularly, in Singapore, it’ll continue to be a challenge because of electricity bills. Even if customers are interested in local produce, they’re still going to look at the price at the end of the day. So we feel that individual sustainability is important—being able to bring sustainability to yourself and your family, to take matters in your own hands rather than relying on what you can find in the supermarket. That’s very powerful, and is something that’s currently overlooked.
10. The most surprising thing(s) you’ve managed to grow:
Thorben: I’ve seen strawberries in Singapore. Cotton is probably the most surprising thing. I didn’t even know you could grow cotton in the system, but apparently you can. I suppose when you send out systems around the world, some people put stuff in there that you shouldn’t. And sometimes it’s amazing to see what grows. I’ve seen a system in Las Vegas that’s filled with tomato plants that were so big you couldn’t even see the system. You shouldn’t do that, but we’ve seen so many surprising attempts and happy customers. People growing corn, cauliflower, broccoli, root veggies—again, that’s not supposed to work because there isn’t an area for the roots to grow, but they just popped out of the cups.
Each hydroponic system can grow 27 plants at once—potentially 100kg a year.
11. Can you share any interesting stories from happy buyers/growers?
Thorben: There are many! These are the happy pills we need to keep going. When we hear these stories, even just on Amazon reviews, I tear up a bit. It’s such a great thing to be able to impact people around the world in a positive way through sustainability. We’ve sold systems in Africa and Tahiti, and people have contacted us to thank us. After all these years, I’m still struggling after to articulate it; there’s some kind of joy that comes from growing your own food. It takes away the stress from your day, and makes you more balanced. In Singapore, people always think they’ll fail at gardening because that’s what they’re used to. Then all of a sudden, they have a system that blows their mind, and they're hooked. Once you get one, people typically want more.
Mark: Our best sales people and advocates are our customers—when someone goes to a customer’s house and they see the system, they become customers quite quickly too. We just closed a round of Series A funding, and 100% of the seven-digit funding came from customers. That’s a testament to how much they believe in the product. We think that’s very powerful.
I’ve been in the business for nearly a year and a half now. We run a retail business in Singapore so we get a lot of interactions with customers. Singapore has a very demanding retail environment, so when the staff aren’t able to cater to your every need, we sometimes get upset. But I can only count one or two times when a customer has come in and been rude or negative. What I can only boil this down to is that actively spending time with plants does something to your stress levels and your psyche. I think that’s the thing about gardening that Thorben and Nadine really want to pass onto the world.
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