Investee Profile – Ecobain Gardens

We sat down with Roberta Bain, co-founder with husband Brian Bain, of Ecobain Gardens, to talk about the road they are on as they grow their business.

 The idea for Ecobain began in 2011 when Brian went back to school and got his horticulture certificate.  As a very entrepreneurial guy, he was always interested in plants, and had the idea that we should be able to grow food sustainably for local consumers.  Right now, 85% of our fresh produce is shipped in. And because we are at the end of distribution line, by the time that produce gets to Saskatchewan it is not prime fresh produce.

The long-term goal of the company is to establish smaller farms throughout Canada to bring high quality food back to the table.  Hydroponic vertical farming is how.  They have done the research to optimize operations and have a facility that uses 95% less water than traditional farming to produce nutrient-rich leafy greens and herbs – which are high value products – year-round, in a completely controlled indoor environment.

What began with a loan from Affinity Credit Union and some of their own money, they opened their first “proof of concept” facility in April 2013.  Within 2 years, they had their plans for a commercial farm, with a portion of the funding from SCN and BDC.

They had been seeking investment outside of Saskatchewan, when on the advice of Dave Denny, a friend, client and investor, they contacted SCN.  They knew they needed the investment to grow the company and they also knew they needed some expertise that neither of them had.

Brian’s strength is in processes, growing, and farm design, while Roberta manages the company operations.  They have a staff of 13 and are currently in the process of restructuring some of their business processes and their team following their time spent at Arlene Dickinson’s District Ventures accelerator for packaged goods companies, in Calgary.

When you decided to raise money, how did you decide on the amount to raise and what you were willing to give up?
The expansion funding was running into some financial trouble.  We knew that if we didn’t find investors, the commercial expansion was going to die. And we knew we needed some big investors to help us navigate and grow quickly to attain a national marketplace.

We had tapped into debt financing already and equity financing was the next step. We were looking at expansion and we knew how much money we were going to need to do that.  We also knew we needed more than money.  We needed help to guide our planned – quick – growth. Dave Denny, our initial mentor and investor, introduced us to SCN.

Brian worked with Dave Gauthier to help prepare for our first pitch to SCN. The feedback was great.  It helped balance the conversation between Brian and Jon Davis (another founder), as owners.  Their different skill sets brought different viewpoints (and contention) and with the investors experiences and suggestions, they helped us work through things to get the company to where we wanted it to be.

So, first we raised the money we needed, and then came the support.  The thought of giving up some percentage of your company is daunting, but we also knew that either we did that, or the company was going to seriously suffer.  That made it an easier decision.

As to how much we were willing to give up – the reality was, we gave up more than we planned to, but it meant keeping the company alive and that was our goal.  Also remembering that this could be a very big pie and so we didn’t give a big piece of a small pie, we gave a potentially small piece of a very big pie. Because the fresh food market is huge and the potential for our company is too.

Did you have certain skills or expertise you were looking for in an investor?  How did having investors impact some of your business decisions?
We didn’t know specifically what skills or expertise we needed but as the investors came forward, they brought their contacts, and wisdom to our business.  They were also able to speak to other potential investors and bring them in.

Generating interest from other investors outside of SCN was a bonus.  And it helped validate what we were doing, and planning to do.  We now have 8 investors, all with different backgrounds, and a Board of Directors with seats for 2 investors and Brian and I, as founders. We also have added an advisor, Bryan Kosteroski, from the Ag Council of Saskatchewan, who has an amazing depth of experience in ag supply chain management.

Board member Laurie Dmytryshyn introduced us to funding as well as helped us immensely as we grew our corporate structure. When we need advice or an opinion or connections, she is available. Gavin Preston, also an investor board member, has a financial background that we didn’t have as well, as significant experience in ag investing.  Another investor, Cliff Wiegers has such unshakeable faith in us, and that is so encouraging.

With the guidance of the board and our investors, we have made some changes to our business that will give us more control and more autonomy.  These changes include a rebranding of our products and a move away from our external distributor.

With your success in raising money through SCN, can you share any insight for companies going through their process?
I have learned so much from how Brian sees the big picture. I learned to not be afraid to exude your passion – but have a strong story.  Don’t be over-confident – make a realistic offer (equity).  Practice. Practice. Practice, your pitch.  Know your numbers.  Less is more – don’t try and tell them everything in your pitch.  Leave room for questions and discussion.  Be open to comments and criticism.  If you are willing to take their money, be willing to listen and learn.

The ego and pride of the entrepreneur can be a real problem.  They think they are the only ones who know their business and in fact as the saying goes, ‘they don’t know what they don’t know’.  And that attitude holds the business back. You don’t want your business driven by your investors, but they bring more to the table than just their money.  Take advantage of it.

It was also good to see what the investor is looking for.  Certainly, they want their money back, and they’d like to make some money, but many do want more than that.  And we have been fortunate to have a group of investors who have brought so much more to our business than cash.

Can you talk about the environment for entrepreneurs and start-ups in Saskatoon (and the province), IRAP, Seeds for Dreams, Women Entrepreneurs, etc.
The Startup environment for ag innovation is awful in Saskatchewan.  It seems we are always fighting and pushing for what we need.  There is also no support for those willing to take a risk with companies like ours.  Programming tends to tailor to agriculture or technology and we fell through the eligibility on both realms, as we are not a conventional farm.  We did access IRAP for our R&D and that has been great.  Early on we received support from CYBF/Futurpreneurs.  Women Entrepreneurs was not available to us.  We only learned of SCN through Dave Denny, otherwise we were looking for funding in other jurisdictions. We did find an opportunity in BC, but the opportunity to do this all from Saskatchewan was what we wanted.  Seeds for Dreams was another group we found out about through SCN and that has introduced us to another group of people and their networks.  It also gave me a much-appreciated (and needed) confidence boost with the pitch coaching I received.  Brian had always been the voice and face of the company and now I know I can do it as well.  We won the first Seeds for Dreams Pitch and Vote night; a $6400 contribution to Ecobain’s ongoing operations.

Ecobain falls into a kind of no man’s land in terms of how we are categorized; and how we can access federal and provincial programming.  Though we are agricultural, we don’t own and operate farmland – we don’t qualify for any support from FCC or for most provincial agricultural granting programs.  Because we do and did conduct research to optimize our operations, we are considered a technology firm.  Sometimes policies need to change to adjust to the changing world, and in our case, it is happening too slowly.

You’ve been in the Arlene Dickenson’s District Ventures accelerator. Has it changed your focus, reinforced it, or a little of both? What might Ecobain Gardens look like next year at this time?
This was a 6-month program that we found out about from Laurie Dmytryshyn at PIC.  It has given us support, contacts, peer networks, connections we can call on at any time. We were more experienced than most of the others in the cohort and so it was an opportunity to see how far we had come and what we have accomplished with our business.  It validated all that we had done – the risks we had taken.  We had the time to look at our business and learn about our business culture and how best to build our team.  This was the opportunity to step outside from working in our business and take some time to work on it. We were re-inspired!

It really gave us a chance to see how much our investors have helped us to get to where we are today.  And it has confirmed how much support is needed for businesses to succeed.

We will be rebranding to Ecobain naturals and leaving the umbrella organization that we have distributed through for the past 2 years.  We have set the next 12/24month goal to double our sales once again for 2018, and then again for 2019 reaching our full capacity in the current facility.  We are preparing to expand with a second facility.   Our ultimate goal is to produce our greens to be affordable for everyone and we are on track to achieve that.

Final thoughts
The last two years have been a real challenge.  But looking back, if we had received all of the money we thought we needed, we would have been in real trouble. Money is so easy to spend.  Instead, we met people, we pushed ourselves to learn, and solve problems – we ‘MacGyver-d’ our way through lots of challenges and we are a better company because of it.