WORKING THE DREAM
an interview with Patch founder, Freddie Blackett
By Joy Molan
Freddie shares with us the most important lessons he's learnt over the years and practical tips for people with brilliant ideas looking to transform them into successful businesses.
Freddie Blackett is the co-founder of Patch Plants, a London-based company that makes it easy for Londoners to transform grotty, shoebox rooms into Pinterest-worthy, urban jungles. Freddie came up with the idea for Patch in his early twenties, and has since grown his start-up into a hugely successful enterprise that hand-delivers plants and accessories to over 50,000 people across the city. When he agreed to chat with me for an interview, I was buzzing with questions. I love those drunken nights in the pub discussing far-out business ideas as much as the next person, but I haven’t got the first clue when it comes to turning the germ of an idea into a successful venture. Luckily, Freddie was there to set me right, in his charming and generous manner, with all the lessons he’s learnt along the way.
What first inspired you to set up Patch?
I came across the idea from my personal experience. I was working as a Brand Consultant and I was working on some cool and varied brands like Jamie Oliver and Cancer Research, solving problems that were stopping businesses connecting with their customers. It was basically problem-solving commercial sudokus - complex but lateral problems. I would have been happy staying in this career but nowhere near as happy as I am running Patch.
I just came across this problem first-hand when I moved in with my partner, Clemmie, about five years ago. When some couples move in with each other, they are starting with a blank canvas and put together a Pinterest board of what they want their place to look like. Usually it will end up reflecting each person’s tastes about 50/50. But there was none of that with Clemmie - I was very much moving into her flat. It already looked pretty good, so I had to find corners of the place to personalise and make my own. The only space in the flat that I could make my own was the balcony. It was minuscule, it barely deserves to be called a balcony. It was more like an ashtray - both literally and figuratively. But it was somewhere I had free reign to make my own.
Ultimately, I failed to turn it into an urban garden. I couldn’t find any inspiration that was relevant to me. All brands in this category were tailored to experienced, out-of-town dwellers. All the businesses were offline, outside the city and not convenient to access. So, with my brand-strategist hat on, I identified these problems. But, I didn’t think I could do anything about it - I wasn’t a gardener and I didn’t know anything about plants.
Six to 12 months later, no one had done anything about this gap in the market and I’d started to learn a bit more about plants. I realised I was a really good candidate to try to solve this problem, because I was coming at it from the customer’s perspective as a complete novice - rather than this quite exclusionary world of gardening. So, I started the business.
What was your first step getting the business off the ground?
I got very brand strategist-y around it. I spoke to about 40 people who I thought were in my demographic. They were quite structured, focused interviews so that I could understand their experiences of buying plants. I took down every detail, even if they went to the loo in the IKEA. I wanted to know every step of their consumer journey! From this, I realised there was a real need for Patch and I distilled all my findings into a ‘lean canvas’. A ‘lean canvas’ is a strategy on one page that helps you identify what the problem is, what the value proposition is, what the solution is, what the marketing channels might be, what your revenue looks like and what your costs structure looks like etc. This helps you lay it out in a neat fashion and is something you can then pitch to investors to raise venture capital.
Something I see in a lot of people who want to start businesses is that they fixate on the solution not the problem. You have to think about what the need is for what you are offering. Is the world going to be just fine without this business? The severity of the need will give you a good idea of the value of the idea. Unless you can really articulate a clear need then it becomes quite difficult. We’ve always had three problems at the heart of Patch: lack of inspiration, lack of access and lack of know-how. Having these to guide us has allowed us to grow and successfully incorporate new product-lines, like indoor plants as well as outdoor plants.
Aside from your experience as a Brand Consultant, what other sources of information and experiences helped you grow your start-up idea?
I found two resources really helpful. One was the British Library which has a business and IP section with lots of helpful reports by Mintel and Euromonitor. These papers usually cost £5K, but you can get them for free at the British Library. This gave me a tonne of quantitative insight into the UK and European plant markets.
The second was a start-up hackathon event called StartUp Weekend. You turn up on Friday evening, pitch your idea to a group of like-minded people and you work on those ideas together. You literally spend 72 hours on that idea, getting your idea from a problem to a value proposition to a prototype. At the end, we pitched the idea to a panel of judges and we didn’t win anything, but a couple of people told me I should take it forward. This gave me some confidence that it wasn’t a random act of idiocy.
Once you know that your idea is worth pursuing, how do you get funding for it?
I think it is hard for people - I didn’t know where to go at first. But I looked to my network and a guy I went to school with was working as a mentor at the StartUp Weekend. So I asked if I could take him out to breakfast and he kindly obliged. He thought it was a cool idea and, as Head of Marketing at a venture capitalist, invited me to pitch it to his colleagues. Then they made me an offer of investment; so, selling equity in the business in exchange for cash to start it up. This worked for me because, as a generalist, I needed people who would give me practical advice and help me make it happen. But there are other ways of doing it. There are organisations like Business Angels who can help with investing in businesses.
Do you think there is a certain type of person who is well-suited to starting their own company? Are there certain personality traits you’ve observed in other founders?
Speaking from my own experience, I am very stubborn but I am also really interested in consumer behaviour. I still do deliveries once a month; I’m always speaking to customers. This gives me an idea of what we have to work on. While I have a clear vision for the brand, it’s about being able to adapt based on what consumers are saying. For example, we started as an outdoor plant company, then we realised that so many more people don’t have outdoor space in London than those that do. We wanted plants to be a feature of everyone’s lives - so we pivoted and the business has been more successful because of it. I suppose it’s about having strong opinions weakly held.
You need to be very thick-skinned and enormously passionate. There are always going to be people who don’t admire what you’re doing. For us it was the traditionalists in our industry, who didn’t like that we were giving our plants silly names. You’ve got to take that on the chin.
You’ve got to have bundles of positive energy, which is hard work. When times are tough, you’ve got to be able to put on a brave face for those around you. As the founder, everyone looks to you for direction, energy and enthusiasm. Even when you have a bad day, you need to remember that things will be fine in the grand scheme of things.
Say you’ve checked in with a few people to see if your start-up idea is viable and you’ve done your consumer research, at what point would it be sensible to leave your day-job?
There is no robust, objective way to assess whether you should go ahead with an idea. It will be your gut. I knew I had to do it because otherwise someone else would do it. Your gut will be informed by talking to people and seeking advice from others. The start-up community in London is such a generous one and people are willing to just have a call with you to talk through ideas. Don’t worry about someone wanting to steal your idea - most people you talk to will just want to help. Plus, no one else will have the passion to execute that idea like you.
You just want to make sure you have some financial security before you take big steps, because there’s a lot of progress you can make while working. My old company was incredibly supportive and I was able to work on Patch around my core work for quite some time. Try to do as much work out-of-hours as you can so that you can raise a bit of finance and get going. In most cases, even if it doesn’t work out, you will learn something and improve your lot by just giving it a go.
To get Patch to where it is now, did you write a five-year or even ten-year plan?
Business plans are a complete waste of time. I’m writing one now and it’s the first time I’ve written one with any real process. We’ve been around for three years now and we’ve now got a good enough amount of data to inform relationships between “if we spend this way we will get this result”.
But before that you have no data - it’s just guess work. You’ll be fooling yourself and giving potential partners the opportunity to shoot you in the foot. Of course, you need to give investors an idea of what the future might look like, but it doesn’t have to be within a set period. You just need to show the potential of the idea e.g. if we get 10 per cent of market share of a market worth X amount, this gives us the opportunity to be a £X million business.
What you’re better off doing, is asking what is important in demonstrating progress. Avoid real metrics but think about what you want to push and how can we demonstrate progress, for example percentage growth rate. In the early days, it is probably about raising some awareness. Also think about what the risks are or the reasons it won’t work. How can you show you are mitigating that risk? For example, I had to show investors that after four months, I could hire a delivery driver that was as good as me, because there was a fear that delivering the plants ourselves was impossible to scale. Instead of trying to write a business plan and sticking to it, you should identify most important goals and biggest risks. How are you progressing toward the former and mitigating the latter?
Reflecting on your experience, what’s the most helpful piece of advice someone told you along the way?
There’s a quote from Richard Branson that’s goes “if somebody offers you an amazing opportunity but you are not sure you can do it, say yes – then learn how to do it later!” This is great advice for the first 12 months if everything is going swimmingly. I knew we were getting to that point when we had a decent sense of scale: we were getting 1000 orders each month and people on Trustpilot were loving the experience. After you reach that point, it becomes about learning to say no or not yet, so that you can focus on goals and work out where the most growth is going to come from. Doing 100 tasks badly is far worse than doing 50 tasks well.
What are the best aspects of having your own business and being the founder of a start-up?
It is incredibly rewarding that on a daily basis people are spending time and money on a product that you’ve helped to develop. It’s fantastic when people go out of their way to tell others about your business - many customers come to us after being referred by a friend. It’s also very rewarding to have the freedom to execute on what you think is a good idea. I am able to test ideas on a weekly basis, which can be difficult to do in more traditional workplaces.
On the internal side, there is a very tight bond in our team and our office feels like a home. There are dogs running around, it’s a bit messy and it’s got so much character. I love spending time here. A lot of the people I work with have come to Patch because they messaged me on LinkedIn and made an impression. Those people immediately go to the top of the list because they have shown that they are passionate about the business.
Ultimately, the best thing is the huge sense of reward that I get from working with people who are incredibly talented, determined and devoted to our customers and to our mission for greener, not greyer cities.