PittMoss manufactures and sells soil and amendments from recycled materials. They are currently disrupting the horticulture industry by reducing carbon emissions and water needs, while preventing fertilizer runoff compared to CO2-emitting peat-based products. Since inception, they’ve helped prevent over 3,000 metric tons of carbon emissions since the company started, which is the equivalent carbon emissions of driving a car more than 7.4 million miles!
The company is growing today at around 40-50% annually and is working hard to grow at an even faster rate by innovating and outperforming their competitors. PittMoss currently generates $50,000 in revenue each month, but is aiming to achieve approximately $25M in sales by 2025. Big numbers, so how exactly are they going to do it? CEO Brian Scott tells all.
Who are you and what brand did you start?
I’m Brian Scott, the CEO at PittMoss, serial entrepreneur and angel investor. I have degrees in History from Penn State and MS in Software Engineering from Gannon University. As a former public company CIO, angel investor, adjunct faculty, I have also led seven different startups or turnarounds including PittMoss. Accompanying me is the founder of Pitt Moss, Mont Handley. Mont is a Purdue graduate and now sits as the Founding Board Member of PittMoss.
PittMoss manufactures and sells soils and soil amendments made from recycled paper, cardboard, and other recycled materials (like compost). PittMoss is a leader in today’s circular economy and is disrupting the “peat-focused” horticulture industry by reducing carbon emissions, reducing water needs, and preventing fertilizer runoff compared to CO2 emitting peat-based products. PittMoss also offers products for the animal bedding, vermiculture, composting, hydroseeding, water-filtration, and erosion management industries.
PittMoss is made just outside of Pittsburgh in an old steel town called Ambridge (which once stood for the American Bridge Company). PittMoss’ target audience today is focused on horticulture growers (commercial and home gardeners), landscapers, and animal owners (horses, chickens, and other small animals).
PittMoss has helped prevent over 3,000 metric tons of carbon emissions since the company inception, by reducing the need for peat-based carbon emitting products. The is the equvalent carbon emissions of driving a car more than 7.4 million miles, burning more than 337,000 gallons of gasoline and more than 3.3 million pounds of coal. It is the same amount of carbon sequestered by 3,918 acres of forests in one year and 49,606 tree seedlings being grown for 10 years.
How did Mont come up with the idea, brand name and logo for PittMoss?
Sierra Magazine published an article in the 1980’s about the carbon emissions related to peat mining. Mont used the story as inspiration to invent soil made out of recycled paper products to help reduce the massive carbon emissions related to peat mining.
The original name for the product was NuPeat, but the Canadian peat manufactures did not like the company representing itself as “peat”. So Mont and an early employee, Matt Knapp, got creative and named it Pitt (for Pittsburgh) Moss instead. Mont selected Aya as a logo/symbol for the company because he read an article about how the Andinkra tribe in Africa, placed the Aya symbol at the border of their territory to signify perseverance and strength.
Describe the process of how PittMoss was launched
After coming up with the idea, Mont spent about three years growing seeds in the material on a kitchen windowsill. Some days, Mont would come home from work and find the apartment reeked of ammonia or that the planter was moldy. After a process of tweaking the formula he came upon a mix that seemed stable. He realized that the next step was proving the scientific feasibility of the product. Mont recruited researchers at Purdue University and began to write SBIR grants for USDA, NSF and EPA. On his third attempt a grant was awarded by the EPA and the research was completed, and the product was deemed viable.
Fast forward a decade and Mont find himself working/living in Pittsburgh. There was a vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystem and he began to circulate and share his product. At the same time, Mont was still making the product, using it himself and giving it as samples to area greenhouse growers. A large grower suggested that if Mont made the product in volume, he would buy it and use it in his crop. He also offered us use of his property and equipment to build and operate a proof of concept plant. He earned a small grant from Idea Foundry and decided to build a production facility. Mont purchased multiple pieces of equipment that cost roughly $70k and used cashed out 401k funds and the equity of a house he had sold.
He promoted the product by inviting regional greenhouse growers to the plant and showed the crops growing in the material. The grower that was now our partner would discuss the benefits of using what we now called PittMoss. It was through this process that Mont learned how much water was saved by using PittMoss. Out most memorable moment was being selected to appear on Shark Tank.
Since launch, what has worked best to attract and retain customers?
PittMoss simply outperforms all of the standard soils used by the industry today with a number of positive environmental benefits. The company’s main strategy is to educate customers that there is a better and more environmentally friendly way to grow plants than what most people use today.
PittMoss is the only product using recycled paper, cardboard and other materials to make soils and soil amendments. Not only does it prevent these products from needing to be landfilled, it reduces the carbon emissions related to peat mining, helps reduce nitrogen runoff (leading to algae blooms in bodies of water), and water needs. It is a totally new, different, and much better way to grow plants.
With regards to business growth, how have things changed from a digital, revenue, customer and sales perspective?
The company started slowly in 2015 with about $30k in sales of it’s raw/newly introduced “grower grade” product. Though the company was featured on Shark Tank, it really didn’t have any retail products available for home gardeners. With the hiring of Brian in 2016, revenues about doubled to $70k with continued sales of the grower grade product. But in 2016 and 2017 the company developed its first two retail products substantially growing revenues. In 2018 the company launched its all organic “plentiful” product to great success along with launching additional “finished mix” grower products and animal bedding products. 2019 was the first year the company had a full suite of both retail and commercial products.
For the first several years, the company was focused on R&D and proving the efficacy of its products. As the company enters 2020 all of the products are proven to outperform competitive products and the company is now shifting from a “performance” message to a positive environmental message – which is the true differentiator for this product and sector.
Revenue graphs by year > Revenue graph by channel/quarter with product launches notated.
How is the business doing today and what does the future look like?
With about 34% of material being landfilled today being cellulose fiber material and the logistical costs associated with moving peat from Canada, the company envisions a future where every major metro area has a PittMoss processing facility diverting this material from the landfill and upcycling it to a much higher value product that could be made/sold locally. Since the product works better than current solutions and also offers substantial environmental advantage, it is really a no-brainer that locally made soils would disrupt the current industry.
The company is growing today around 40-50% annually, but needs to grow at a faster rate to reach scale. The company intends to at least double in size annually for the next five years (on average). PittMoss believes that it can achieve approximately $25M in sales by 2025. With multiples in the 2x to 4x of revenue range, that would lead to a potential company exit in the $50M to $100M range. But there is also the ability for the company to totally disrupt and “own” the horticulture market while also making inroads into the agriculture market with soil remediation and fertilizer runoff opportunities.
To accelerate growth, the company also intends to license its technologies to recyclers, municipalities, and possibly land grant universities to open facilities across the country, lower production and distribution costs, and open up opportunities for agriculture in addition to horticultural uses.
The company’s exit strategy is to sell the company to a national company that would like to disrupt the current soil industry or partner with a larger funding partner to help the company meet it’s disruptive vision. This could be a current peat company, a company in the recycling of paper processing field, or possibly a products company that owns many retail brands. PittMoss has a list of potential acquisition/partner candidates.
What’s been the biggest learning experience since Mont started the brand?
1) It is very difficult to work through distributors in the horticulture industry. Most distributors carry too many brands and their sales reps are “order takers” not “sales reps”. They rarely aggressively push specific manufacturers or new products because they are more concerned about getting a new order more generally. So DO NOT RELY ON DISTRIBUTORS to build your brand. You have to hustle and direct sell almost every customer yourself. Use distributors as logistics companies.
2) Building a brand is very difficult – and expensive. There are no inexpensive advertising channels and managing social media (though technically free) is a ton of work and leads to relatively few sales. The best bet to build a brand is to have a compelling story and work very hard to get earned media mentions (free PR). Telling the story is critical, as many ways as possible.
What are your top 3 tips on how to setup an Ecom store for success?
The first step is to choose a platform (web site with e-comm functions) that meets your needs. Which means, understanding exactly what you want out of your website is critical before even starting. Planning ahead of time with wireframing tools to layout your ideas is ideal. Also, pay attention to “integration” functionality. For example, does your CRM, website, and email lists all work together?
What are some of your favorite online business tools you use to run PittMoss?
ActiveCampaign – e-mail platform to add signups from your new fans and to keep in communication with all of your new/old customers.
Canva – has been a great tool to allow us to inexpensively manage a lot of our own creative and helps tremendously with content creation.
Zoho – CRM software to allows us track our sales leads, keep good notes, and particularly to remind us to follow up with new and existing customers at the right time.
Shipstation- Manages and tracks orders and shipping
Zapier- Integration tool
*Find full list of tools/platforms at the bottom of the page.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts or other educational resources?
There are SO many marketing blogs available. HubSpot does a great job providing a lot of marketing advice for e-commerce businesses.
If there is a simple topic you want to improve your skills on, set a google alert for it and read up on any advice that hits your alert each day.
Who have been the most influential people for you during this business journey?
Our advisors and resource providers. Kelly Skoloda (a marketing genius and former partner at Ketcham PR firm), Don Morrison (former CEO of American Eagle Outfitters), Karen Rzpecki, CEO of ReCap Mason Jars, Wei-Shin Lai, CEO of Acoustic Sheep. Also Katherine Von Bergelin at Ben Franklin Technology partners for hosting educational events and connecting us with valuable resource providers.
Any other advice you’d like to share with other aspiring entrepreneurs?
If you are going to build an on-line brand, pick a high value, small/lighweight product to sell. Today everyone expects free shipping and companies like Amazon charge exhorbitant stocking and other fees.
Try as much as possible to build your own brand (without Amazon) and manage your own sales and shipping. If you have a compelling product/story, use that to get free advertising and PR as much as possible.'Choose a website platform with e-comm functions that meets your needs AND pay close attention to the integration functionality.'Click To Tweet
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now or open to new investors?
PittMoss is always looking for independent garden center sales reps that can focus on our product with their existing customer base and support in-store sales events.
The company will be launching a crowdfunding campaign in April which will make it easy for anyone in the US to invest in the company.
Where can we go to learn more about your current offers/promotions/programs?
Code: SAVE15 for 15% off an order