Being on Zoho Books, it was easy for me to decide to move my website to Zoho Commerce. The story of Zoho and the bootstrapping that the company has done is inspiring. We want to take a Make in India product, make it global and compete with the global players.
- Gaurav Narang,
Founder and CEO, City Greens
Urban farming has seen a massive rise over the years in India. A few years ago, the word hydroponics would perhaps not have rung a bell with most people. But if one goes by industry trends, things are changing. A recent report by DataM Intelligence suggests that India’s hydroponics market will experience a compound annual growth rate of 13.53% between 2020 and 2027. One company that has been a part of this growth story to make it easy for urban farmers is City Greens, which, today, is the largest privately-owned research center in India for hydroponic urban farming. A bootstrapped setup, Gaurav Narang and his team started small and commercialized the product over time to make a success story out of it.
Hydroponics is the process of growing plants without soil, using mineral nutrient solutions in an aqueous solvent , usually water. Gaurav initially ran a startup in the healthcare domain. “We were ahead of the times. We helped a Gurgaon-based company launch their products in six cities across India. We then worked with a pharma company assuring them a zero-leakage supply channel,” says Gaurav. But they soon left the space and sold the company. A new idea was waiting to take off.
“Most of the patients we dealt with had lifestyle-related issues. Nothing could be better than prevention of such ailments,” observes Gaurav. The team began studying the food ecology in the country and realized that the reality of organic food was different from what was popularly understood. “Contrary to popular notion, pesticides are used in growing organic food as well, though there are specifications about their usage. We thought it would be even better if people could grow their own food.”
However, there was a problem. Importing an agricultural solution from the developed world and force-fitting it in the developing world wouldn’t have worked. None in the team knew agriculture. But they knew technology and decided to start with it. “We created a product which cost little to create, and we knew it would be the best in India. It was launched on the Amazon marketplace and it began picking up. Soon, we could create a line of products under our brand. The pandemic did throw up many challenges, but we are now able to cater to commercial customers and set up big farms. In fact, we have set up large farms of 10,000 sq ft. On our website run using Zoho Commerce, we run our B2C set-up. What you see on Zoho Commerce is my B2C venture.”
There were quite a few technical challenges when the venture started. For instance, all available data pertained primarily to Western crops and not Indian ones. “In the first two years we didn’t spend anything on marketing," Gaurav says. "We created a lot of content. We began developing a loyal following from there.”
The first few months of the pandemic were not easy for City Greens. Challenges came on the revenue side. But when things opened up, City Greens earned thrice the revenue in the very first month of unlock, and they have achieved breakeven over the months.
“A lot of creative people have been homebound and have been looking to pursue some hobby actively," Gaurav says. "While hydroponics is a bit sophisticated and needs some expertise, people have started taking it up."
The Solution and Benefits
There were practical reasons why the switch to Zoho made sense for Gaurav. The City Greens website was previously on Wordpress (WooCommerce), and several plugins were required for every additional work. Besides, there was the ever-increasing problem of limited server bandwidth. Being a startup, not much could be spent on servers. As users of Zoho Books, they already knew the company and Zoho's capability for handling data loads.
“Being on Zoho Books, it was easy for me to decide to move my website to Zoho Commerce. The story of Zoho and the bootstrapping that the company has done is inspiring.”
The Road Ahead
Over the last few years, hydroponics is being accepted more in the Indian market. “Many people want to try it today. It takes some effort and interest. There are two kinds of customers we have. Some try it out as a hobby. Some of them leave it in three months, and many have continued for more than three years. They learn and have fun growing food by themselves. There is a lot of traction in this segment. Then we cater to commercial businesses. We have started turnkey projects for large clients across the country.”
While City Greens is rooted in India, the eyes are set offshore. The facts, too, support this dream. After all, food sufficiency is an important global goal. “There are geographies where people do not grow food," explains Gaurav." Singapore grows only 11 percent of its food. The Middle East has its challenges. These are the markets we are trying to explore.”
The team at City Greens knew from Day One that they could sustain in the B2B market even under the high stress of the pandemic. “But B2C was important for us to remain bootstrapped and pay our salaries," Gaurav says. "It is 20 percent of business.” As City Greens sets its eyes on foreign shores, the focus is also on B2C. “They know hydroponics. Good work in the B2C segment gives recognition to your brand. The B2B work began after the pandemic, but we will give that a major push in the days to come. A lot of our challenges can be solved with automation, and that is something we have already begun work on.”