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Business Inspiration, Small Business Spotlight

How a Family Tragedy Pushed an Entrepreneur to Launch His Innovative Company, Focused on Health & Community

Phil Weiner, Founder and CEO of UrbnEarth, shares his small business story with Kabbage. 

Phil Weiner is the Founder & CEO of UrbnEarth, an eCommerce company that makes growing food and flowers easy, intuitive, and educational while providing access to the health benefits of homegrown food and a community of people concerned about living healthy.

In 2008, Phil Weiner’s life changed. Following the tragic loss of his father to diabetes, he set off on a personal journey that would not only shape his future, but also provide thousands of people around the world with access to the health benefits of homegrown food. Here’s his story of how he started his small business, found success, and continues to grow.

Creating a Sustainable Product

After the death of his father in 2008, Phil founded his homegrown food startup, UrbnEarth and launched a one man mission (well one man, plus six-employee mission) to change how people think about and access their food.

“Growing up in Washington D.C., I knew that many urban areas did not have access to fresh food that is necessary for a healthy lifestyle and sought to create a product that would make healthy food available to all communities,” Phil said.

In 2013, Phil launched his very own eCommerce product and won $50,000 in funding in the Cupid Cup entrepreneurship competition. To say that year was a slight improvement to 2008 was an understatement. Phil’s first eCommerce product was the UrbMat – a ‘guided’ gardening mat that grows 12 types of herbs including arugula, basil, carrots, cilantro, chard, lettuce, marigold, parsley, kale, radish, spinach, and a buyer’s choice between tomatoes, brussels sprouts and catnip.
UrbnEarth claims you can produce 13 pounds of fresh, GMO-free produce per season with the UrbMat, and says growing a garden with it is as easy as lying the mat down in soil and plugging it in to a gardening hose. Producing a high volume of inexpensive food in a relatively easy way definitely is a plus. But, what we love the best about UrbMat is that it’s both sustainable because it lasts for more than three years with reusable seed pods and it’s charitable – each purchase of UrbMat allows UrbnEarth to donate two meals to starving children in the U.S. in partnership with 2 Degrees Food and Feeding America.

urbmat gardening mat

Since releasing the beta prototype a little more than a year ago, Phil’s mission to cultivate and inspire the next generation of growers have helped grow over 52,000 kbs of food for more than 4,000 users in 20 countries and has donated more than 8,000 meals. They’ve done all of this while being self-funded.

“We’re not really a home gardening product and don’t think like a lawn & garden company, Phil said. “Our goal is help people access the health benefits of homegrown food but thinking about design, user experience, digital disruption and giving our customers information and support when they need it.”

 

Initial Challenges

 

While building his sustainable, homegrown food company, there were a few hurdles along the way similar to what other small business owners run into. Phil noted that it’s a challenge for UrbnEarth to ensure each of their customers have a positive end-to-end experience with his product.
There are so many outside factors involved with growing food, and UrbnEarth can’t control things such as climate, sunlight and soil conditions. Because Phil doesn’t just want to create a product, but actually be part of a health journey for his customers, he makes sure his company takes a lot of time to focus on this full experience, brand mission and customer service that comes along with a UrbMat purchase.

“We’re not just creating a product, but helping people lead healthier lifestyle and giving them the tools as well as the resources to start achieving that,” Phil said.

Phil built his company on the understanding that not only do his customers need an affordable way to grow, but they need education and resources for their journey as well. His team has also started to look at the ways they can leverage digital in partnership with their physical gardening mat product. Soon they will launch a full digital experience for their growers by including things like localized growing instructions available from a mobile device.
Phil mentioned while they have had their challenges, a lot of their success lies in the fact that their team is focused, efficient and the best at what they do. Instead of outsourcing, they use their limited resources to the fullest and do all design, production, packaging and fulfillment of their products from soup to nuts.
His best advice for other business owners is pretty sound:

“Be there – focus on one of your ideas and see it through all the way to the end,” he said. “Entrepreneurs usually have many ideas, but in order to create something great, you have to focus all of your risk in one area. And when things get tough, which they will, you have to be strong enough to will your business forward.”

Community At the Core of Their Growth

From the start, Phil knew he didn’t want UrbnEarth to be just another product; he wanted it to be an all-inclusive experience with community at its core. Over the years, gardens have played a critical role at the community level in helping families meet their food needs by increasing access to fresh and nutritious foods at low cost. So, Phil decided UrbnEarth would be much more than a guided garden product – it’d also be a community of people concerned about health who want to change the way the world views and eats produce.

turnips grown with urbmat

“We’re proud to make products that get people back to their roots and reconnect them with the Earth,” he said.

UrbnEarth believes that their products will:

  • – Improve nutrition and health by providing exercise and fresh, healthy vegetables.
  • – Strengthen the community by enhancing connections between people and give people a chance to share food with others.
  • – Clean the environment by improving soil and growing plants that filter the air
  • – Make communities beautiful

Big Plans Ahead

The initial success in the past year for UrbnEarth is just the start to the company’s journey, according to Phil. In the next five years, UrbnEarth plans to cultivate 250,000 new growers and hopes to inspire one million people to take an interest in healthy, hyper-local food and join their community.

“We’re focused on building the afterthought once you plant. This customer support creates a sustainable solution to urban food problems. Our customers will never grow alone.”

However, Phil is a very sharp entrepreneur and therefore also understands the limitations and opportunities that lie ahead. As he so eloquently put it:

“One company cannot ignite a community; a community must grow itself from within. But if companies work to inspire change makers in every community, this vision can become a reality.”

We couldn’t agree more. Good luck, UrbnEarth! You have the whole team at Kabbage urging the success and growth of your small business.

Find out more about Phil and UrbnEarth at urbnearth.com.