Planting the Seed: the Terracotta Herbs Story, Part 2

In an earlier post, I told the story of visiting my friend Chris's flat for breakfast in January 2020, noting his obsession with terracotta pots, and how Chris later teamed up with our friend Ernesto to start The Terracotta Herbs Company.

Looking back, I made it all sound suspiciously easy.

The truth is, starting any kind of business is tough - whether it's in the middle of a pandemic-induced recession or not. Contrary to what you might think, it's not the admin and financial cost that are the biggest barrier (at least not in Britain: you can do it for £12 and 10 minutes of your time online here).

No - the toughest part of a new business, I think, is mustering the motivation and energy needed to take a new product from idea-in-the-bath stage to thing-you're-proud-to-sell-to-Joe-public.

And so, given that it was Chris and Ernesto who birthed the Terracotta Herbs Company back in summer 2020 - shepherding it through from conception to design, from branding to packaging - well, as a partner in the business today I'm just extremely grateful to them both.

The rest of this post aims to tell more of the story before I got involved in autumn 2020.

Chris and Ernesto

Above: Chris and Ernesto with version 1 of their Herb Growing Kit

There were all kinds of challenges Chris and Ernesto of them faced during those early months of the business. Finding the right suppliers of terracotta pots, figuring out which herbs were worth planting, how much gravel and compost were needed, and perhaps the biggest challenge of all: the packaging.

I remember sometime in the summer, Chris and Ernesto both sharing with glee how they'd spent an afternoon throwing a cardboard box around the garden seeing what it would take to break the terracotta pots inside - to the amusement of Ernesto's garden squirrels.

The two of them spent many hours with box manufacturers working out the right amount of walling and cushioning necessary to protect three pots and three saucers from the dangers posed by gravel inside the box, and more threateningly, the vagaries of MyHermes delivery people.

Working on this kind of thing and investing your savings in buying product, during a time where you have no sales coming in (not to mention in the midst of the economic uncertainty of 2020), can be a hard slog, and I give them my full credit.

Once Chris and Ernesto had all the ingredients lined up to make the herb growing kits, there were still all kinds of other matters to be resolved. Chiefly the question of fulfilment: when orders eventually came through from Amazon or Shopify or wherever, how were they going to get the herb growing kits into the hands of customers?

Initially they'd hoped to use a third party fulfilment company (basically a warehouse that stores your product, prints out the orders when they arrive and posts them off to customers), and sent all the raw elements to a warehouse.

I think it's fair to say that the guys hadn't quite realised the sort of charges they'd be facing for all the work involved in making up the herb boxes. You need to wrap the pots and saucers in cushioning paper, make up the inner and outer boxes from flat cardboard, put the seeds into tiny envelopes, fill smaller boxes with compost and gravel, and put the whole thing together - it's a laborious process (though, as it turned out, actually quite fun - more on this in a later post).

The costs of labour with a third-party fulfilment warehouse just didn't add up when the time for all of this was factored in. So the decision was to move all the box elements back from a third party warehouse to a storage unit in Camberwell instead, so that Chris and Ernesto could themselves make up the kits 'in-house'.

I've written that sentence as if it was an easy job to change your mind and shift location. In truth, this meant Chris and Ernesto hiring two rickety vans for the day (is there a van company out there that doesn't give you the rustiest crappiest van in their collection when you're a one-off customer?!) and driving hours out of London down hidden country lanes to a hard-to-find warehouse with menacing 'do not enter or you will be shot' signs, before straining their lower back muscles shifting tonnes of terracotta pots, gravel, compost and cardboard packaging into those vans for the journey back to London.

Chris even crashed his van.

Remember, at this point, no one was being paid apart from the van hire company. Such is the life of an early-stage ecommerce entrepreneur.

I looked on all of this process with plenty of curiosity and sympathy, having started my own ecommerce website (Radical Tea Towel) years earlier and gone through many problems associated with getting a physical product business off the ground.

Anyway, once they had all the parts of the herb kits safely stored in their own unit, it was time to make up the herb kits: fold the boxes, fill the gravel pouches, pack the seeds and so on. A tricky and time-consuming process, although they had paid help from 16-year-old Ed (off school for the summer) and his mate.

During this time, a couple of early and smaller versions of the kit were sold on Etsy and Ebay, but there really was no solid evidence that this idea would actually work. I do remember hearing that one customer was annoyed that they couldn't ship to America though: "Tell Chris and Ernesto that I love their pots and want them sent to me NOW", she wrote.

By October, the time had come to pull the trigger and start sales and marketing. It doesn't matter how much time you've spent perfecting your product: if no one's heard about you, nobody cares.

If you read the original origin story post, you might recall how, after those initial summer months setting up the business with our mutual friend Ernesto, it was at this point that Chris left to work on a new business software business and I took over his half of Terracotta Herbs.

This made sense for me, as I'd had experience growing Radical Tea Towel using the various online marketing methods, and could see what great progress had already been made with creating the herb growing kits. I was delighted to reach a deal with Chris for his share and come on board to work with Ernesto. But that's not to say it was going to be easy - far from it.

This was the situation for Ernesto and me in late October:

Thousands of pounds invested in flat-packed cardboard boxes; huge packs of gravel and compost lying unopened on the floor of a tiny Camberwell storage unit; thousands of fragile terracotta pots and saucers on pallets in the same unit; hundreds of pre-packed first versions of the product that we'd decided weren't good enough.

No website.

No customers (apart from those two Etsy orders back in July).

No marketing plan, with Christmas around the corner.

No money left in the bank, and Britain in the midst of its biggest recession since the Second World War.

The stage was set.

Leave a comment