As a quick recap, we AutoMicroFarmers spent most of last year developing a small, dresser-sized aquaponics system, the AutoNanoFarm. However, after chatting with many potential customers, including some of you, we realized we just could not build the system for a low enough price to make it a good-value deal for you.
So, After pivoting away from the AutoNanoFarm, we’ve been thinking about ways to make a less expensive larger aquaponics system (AutoMicroFarm). A few months ago, we came up with a design that we haven’t seen in other aquaponics systems. The inspiration for the design are frame-set pools, such as the one below:
Both the fish tank and the vegetable bed are containers made of flexible laminated (BPA and vinyl-free) material supported by a metal frame. See the sketch below:
We started searching for prototype manufacturers that could make the two components for us: the metal frame, and the flexible waterproof fabric container. We found a metal frame reseller who put together a frame package for us, for what we felt was a reasonable price.
However, we’ve had no luck finding someone to make the container. One custom pool manufacturer quoted an outrageous price for us. So, we would like to reach out to you, dear fans. Do you have contacts at Intex or Sonne who would be willing to talk to us? We tried cold-calling both of them, to no avail. Do you know of any manufacturer/machine shop here in the US, who could glue or ultrasonic/plastic weld the container for us? Or, if you’ve done something similar, can you teach us how to do something like this ourselves?
About a month ago, we put up a simple survey to find out which product (AutoMicroFarm or AutoNanoFarm), you, our dear readers, preferred.
As a quick aside, the AutoMicroFarm is a larger aquaponics unit the size of a large table (~32 square feet of growing space) that goes in a dedicated room/greenhouse and can produce a substantial amount of food. The AutoNanoFarm is a smaller, dresser-sized aquaponics unit (~2 square feet of growing space) that fits well in a kitchen, dining room, or the deck, designed to get you started on aquaponics.
If you chose the AutoNanoFarm, we also asked how much you were willing to pay for it. We found that of the survey respondents, ~75% want the smaller product, and ~50% want the larger product (you were allowed to choose both, if you wanted to do so).
Those of you who wanted the smaller version, ~45% were willing to pay less than $250 for it, ~35% were willing to pay $250-$500, and ~8% were willing to pay $500-$1,000.
We explored if it would make sense to sell the custom parts (the wooden stand, the vegetable bed, and the plumbing) for up to $250, and the whole kit for up to $500. However, the only way we would be able to get the price of the custom parts down to $250 and make a sufficient gross margin is to ship you an unassembled, unpainted/unstained wooden kit that you would have to paint/stain and assemble yourself. You would then need to purchase and assemble the rest of the off-the-shelf parts. After working hard on this, we just do not see how we can add $250 worth of value to this kind of a product experience.
So, we have decided to limit our focus to our original vision; we are going to pause the development of the AutoNanoFarm for now, and resume the development of the larger AutoMicroFarm system.
In our last blog post, we had written that we will put up a survey about the AutoNanoFarm. However, after further discussion, we would like to take another step back, and get a broader overview of your interest in the AutoMicroFarm products in general.
Here is the link to the survey form, with just a couple questions:
We appreciate your input. It will help guide us in our next steps.
We apologize for lack of updates during the summer. We’ve talked about the future and direction of AutoMicroFarm with a lot of interesting people, and got lots of advice on what to do next.
When we considered the advice, discussed it among ourselves, and thought about what we wanted to do with our first product—the AutoNanoFarm—we realized we need to re-evaluate our AutoNanoFarm design. The reason we want to do that is to get a better overview of the different AutoNanoFarm designs possible, while staying within a small form factor (~20 gallon aquarium, 20-40 gallon vegetable bed).
(As a quick recap, the AutoMicroFarm is the larger system we have in mind; two systems with grow-beds totaling in a fifty-square-foot area would provide the majority of the food for one adult. In contrast, the AutoNanoFarm is a small, two-square-foot micro-garden system ideal for apartments and those just starting out with aquaponics.)
In our first survey, you have indicated that self-sufficiency and growing instead of purchasing food excites you the most about the AutoMicroFarm; the have-to-have features are automation, low cost of entry, and ease of use. However, we had created that survey before we started focusing on the AutoNanoFarm as a first product. So, when focusing on the AutoNanoFarm, the self-sufficiency feature does not really apply. To that end, we would really like to find out what you will find valuable in the smaller form factor of the AutoNanoFarm.
We have a few different concept designs that we are currently working on. In the next post we will have the designs of different types of systems, the trade-offs of each, and most importantly, a price range of what it will cost initially. At that point, and within two weeks, we’ll post a second survey to get your opinion of what it will cost and the need-to-have/nice-to-have features that are most important to you.
If you have any suggestions about what we should consider, please let us know.
The two most common types of constructive criticism we’ve received from the beta launch of AutoNanoFarm are about the price and the aesthetics. It’s an interesting pair of criticisms, because at low volumes, these two factors compete with each other. Reusing off-the-shelf components that are already manufactured at high volumes for other purposes helps keep the cost down, but doesn’t allow for the most attractive design. At high volumes however, a custom design for AutoNanoFarm can be inexpensive.
We have the nagging feeling that forcing off-the-shelf components such as an aquarium, a custom stand, and plastic containers as vegetable beds together into an elegant system is not the best way to go about it. There has to be a better way to create a system that accomplishes the same goals, but in a sleeker and more elegant package. After all, aside from its practical value as a small garden, and its educational value as an introduction to aquaponics, AutoNanoFarm is also meant to take a spot in your home as a conversation piece.
This thought would not leave us alone, so finally, we decided to do something about it. We were inspired by the elegance ofJellyFishArt aquariums, and wanted to create something similarly sleek. Also, the nautilus spiral kept returning to mind, and this is what we came up with:
In our preliminary design, the tank would hold about 20 gallons of water when reasonably full. the pump would be hidden in the top wooden spiral, and a misting system (aeroponics, to be technical) would deliver the water to the plants before returning back to the aquarium.
What are your thoughts on this idea? Here are a few tradeoffs compared to the current AutoNanoFarm:
Let us know what you think via your reply. As always, we look forward to hearing from you!
Finally, the day we’ve long been working towards has arrived: AutoNanoFarm is ready for sale!
Let us re-introduce AutoNanoFarm to you. AutoNanoFarm is a small aquaponics system that easily fits in your kitchen. This is a good system to start out with, whether you live in an apartment or you are looking into starting aquaponics and want to start with a small system before moving to larger systems. By getting familiar with a smaller system such as the AutoNanoFarm, you will be able to transfer the experience to the larger scale AutoMicroFarm that is in the development stages.
The AutoNanoFarm system uses a custom-built wood cabinet to hold a 20+ gallon fish tank and a container with two vegetable bed inserts on the top. The system utilizes a flood and drain method to pump the fish-fertilized water from the fish tank up to the growing beds at regular intervals, and drains back down. The growing beds filter the water and use the nutrients from the fish water for growing veggies, fruits, herbs, etc… whatever you plant. You can read more detail about the AutoNanoFarm here, and see pictures of it during assembly here.
Your AutoNanoFarm garden will be watered automatically. You just need to feed your fish, and add some water weekly to keep the tank full—you don’t have to change out the water, since the fish waste in the water will be used as fertilizer by the plants.
We have the kinks worked out, and we have a functioning AutoNanoFarm that has been running well. Below are actual pictures of the product, not renderings.
Front View of the AutoNanoFarm
The Growing Beds
The Aquarium, with two hard-to-see bluegill that we’ve taken from our first prototype.
Please note that this product is truly a beta product: there are things that you may find that are not ideal (for example, the flood-and-drain system we are currently using will make your aquarium water level rise and fall by about 25-30%. We have ideas on how to keep the water level fluctuations to a minimum, but we’re still experimenting with them). This is why we want your comments and opinions for further development based on your feedback. Multiple stain colors are available to stain the wood frame such as dark cherry, walnut, etc. The vegetable containers will be slightly different, but still using food safe plastics.
The beta version is ideal for you if:
If this is you, we would like to offer you an AutoNanoFarm at cost: $400. We will discuss the color you prefer (see below for the choices), and after a few weeks, deliver one to you personally, and set it up at your house. It will include the stand, the vegetable beds, the aquarium, the pump, and the plumbing. You will just need to provide the fish and the plants/seeds (or we can provide them, if you prefer, also at cost). Please reply to this email to order your AutoNanoFarm. If you would like to see our functional prototype in person, please get in touch with us to arrange it.
We’re eager to hear ideas and suggestions for improvement from you, this first group of early customers!
Michael of RestBackup.com recently wrote us AutoMicroFarmers a note of encouragement:
Thanks for the update. I think your project is really cool. I hope you can make it into a profitable business before running out of money like I did [with a previous project].
We were thrilled to receive the encouragement (and great advice in the rest of his email). After reflecting on his words, this is what we wrote back:
We’re hoping to become profitable within a reasonable timeframe, as well, but our financial runway is infinite: we’re bootstrapping, but more than that, we’re spending such a low amount (for a hardware project) that finances are not an issue.
Our biggest scarce resource, believe it or not, is interest/ambition/passion/enthusiasm, which we did not expect to be limited. We’re looking for ways to increase that, so any tips on strategies would be great and appreciated.
When we started analyzing and discussing possible reasons why our passion might be waning, we came up with several.
First of all, startups are hard: there are many setbacks, and you have to border on being naively, foolishly optimistic that you will succeed against the odds. That’s hard to do for smart, realistic people who are prone to cynicism.
Also, estimating progress, while having many benefits, also has downsides: what we thought should have been a trivial problem with a no-brainer solution actually took many hours of searching for the solution that will actually work. The slip-ups in estimation schedule are demoralizing. To all of you who thought we’d be further ahead of our development by now: we’re sorry. We’ve learned our lesson, and are more determined than ever not to make (or imply) promises we cannot keep. (It’ll be ready when it’s ready!)
Still, that leaves us with a question: how do we keep keep our interest and passion from waning?
One thing we’ve decided early on is to put a minimum and a maximum weekly number of hours we work on AutoMicroFarm: the maximum to make sure we keep a balance on our lives and don’t burn out (it is a side project, after all), and the minimum to make sure we make progress every week. We’ve gone below the minimum on a few weeks, and really regretted it: things got better, and we realized we’d be further ahead if we had just pushed through.
We also found good advice in several articles around the web:
We also got really good advice on Sebastian Marshall’s blog when we asked his readers the same question; since then, Sebastian posted a really good post on seeing the benefits right away when working on a project.
Finally, Lukas Fittl wrote an excellent post on when to come up with new ideas, and when to execute on them as a guest on Ash Maurya’s blog. Mixing the ideation and execution modes willy-nilly can have a big negative impact on the morale and passion of a startup team.
In conclusion, the best way to increase our passion is to be successful as a startup… now we just have to figure out how to do that :). One thing we’re pretty sure of, our passion will get a good boost when an actual customer deposits money for the first product. Speaking of which, look for pictures of a fully functioning AutoNanoFarm very soon (but we won’t fall for actually promising a date when they’ll be posted!)
Do you have any (other) advice for us? As always, we’d love to hear from you.
We are sorry we’ve gone so long without an update. Now that we’ve finally gotten around to writing it, we want to tell you about two things.
Progress on our project has been like riding a roller coaster.
We get a lot accomplished one month, and the next—almost nothing. But we do have some good news. We finally have a commercial prototype of the AutoNanoFarm stand designed and custom built by a custom cabinet maker also located within the Research Triangle area of North Carolina, where we live. (We’ve posted pictures of the components here.)
The container and inserts are off the shelf parts from Target. We really didn’t want to spend the time trying to weld a custom plastic container and inserts, or fiberglass one, so we decided to give a couple local stores a second try. At first, we had no luck finding any inserts that had a square footprint and a container that was able to fit several inserts into it. Then it finally struck us: why “square”? So we picked up the first rectangular “inserts” on the shelf next to us and they fit perfectly into a larger container.
Then came the drilling of holes for water. We learned a good lesson for $7. If you are going to drill a hole into a clear plastic container, have the drill spin backwards. The first drill hole shattered the container and a ¼” hole turned into an ugly web cracked 1” hole. The crystallized structure of a clear container makes actual drilling a pain. The plastic can’t take the shear force and cracks right along the formation. The next hole we tried to drill in reverse by literally heating up the plastic and creating an opening without applying shear stress. IT WORKED! Forty holes later, and we have our inserts.
When we started to put it all together, we ran into several different problems that we’re still shaking out. It turns out that neither silicone nor other glues work well on rubber and plastic for a water-tight seal. However, just yesterday, we finally succeeded in getting a leak-proof system by ditching the rubber uniseal and using JB WaterWeld on the plastic parts. Now that we have an operational system, we’ll test it out to see if any minor adjustments and improvements have to be made, before we start making our first ten units for local aquaponics enthusiasts (if you are in the Triangle area and are interested in being a beta-tester, please let us know). We are already thinking of re-working the height of the AutoNanoFarm, because the veggie bed currently sits a bit too high (44.5” above the floor). Lower the top 4.5” will make the AutoNanoFarm fit right below the window without blocking the view outside.
We will have multiple stain and paint color options available along with different quality woods to choose from. Cherry, Oak, Maple, and others will make it a furniture piece that fits in perfectly with your current home furniture and decor.
We are also in the process of updating our website, so it is more user friendly and easier to navigate (including a newsfeed to our blog on the main page).
We are hoping to get some feedback and involvement from you.
We need your feedback on renaming AutoNanoFarm to a more commercially friendly name. AutoNanoFarm is just a working product name: it might be too geeky for the general population. Do you have any suggestions for the product name? We’ll take the most promising ones and create a poll on our blog.
We also need an off-the-shelf 24” or 36” x 12” x 12” inner dimension plastic container, if we can’t find one, we’ll custom manufacture it, but we would rather not. If you know where we could get such a container for a reasonable price ($10-$25 each), please comment with a link!
Happy New Year everyone!
We wanted to give you an update on our AutoMicroFarm progress. We’re making good progress on the AutoNanoFarm, with the design mostly finalized and the prototype well under way.
We have a vegetable bed and two inserts acquired as off-the-shelf plastic containers (we’re planning on drilling out holes in the inserts for our first couple prototypes). We are working with a local furniture manufacturer to make a high-quality wood stand to support the veggie bed and the aquarium. We are also going to use a standard 24” L x 12” W x 16” H 20-gallon aquarium that matches well with the 16.5 gallon-vegetable bed, assuming you fill the aquarium 75% full.
We will also start emailing this message to our 1500-strong email list. If, as a venerable twitter user, you want to receive these emails as well, feel free to sign up with your email at AutoMicroFarm.com. If you haven’t already, follow us on various social networks and share our posts with friends.
As always, feel free to get in touch with us (just email info at our domain), we love chatting with people interested in AutoMicroFarm.