Meet the Founder

Muddy Trowel: giving green-fingered millennials access to gardening

Leah Montebello
January 25, 2024

Simpatica chats with Stephen Folwell, founder of Muddy Trowel, a plant delivery service for every type of gardener.

Stephen Folwell, former CEO of LOVESPACE, the UK’s first storage-by-the-box company, started his “startup number two” in the midst of the pandemic. Using the lessons he’d learned with LOVESPACE, Stephen launched Muddy Trowel to initially support growers and gardeners during the Covid-19 crisis. Turning his green fingers into a business proposition, Stephen wants to disrupt the plant eCommerce space and make gardening more accessible and sustainable.

Where did the idea for Muddy Trowel come from?

Stephen: I had a long list of about 30 ideas that I was working on at the end of 2019. I had just moved to the board at LOVESPACE having been CEO there for seven years. A gardening startup was top of the list. I thought the existing experience of either having to go to a garden centre or online shop was offputting and confusing; it was unhelpful for people who just wanted to plant their first plant… there was too much choice, so many Latin names, and a lack of clarity about what plants grow best where. I’d grown up around gardeners, with some of my earliest memories growing plants with my parents. I thought it would be a great space for me to build a business. Then COVID happened…

I had actually caught Covid-19 early-on and was in bed recovering from it when I heard a report on the radio that plant nurseries, the backbone of the industry, were stuck with around £700 million worth of products that if they couldn’t sell through garden centres were going to have to be composted or burnt. At the same time, more and more people wanted access to plants and were exploring gardening during lockdown.

Given LOVESPACE was centered around collecting things from people locally and bringing them back, I knew how to do the logistics for this sort of thing. So I thought, why don’t we start something that could help shift the stock, save the plants and also provide much-needed cash for these nurseries. It would help right a wrong, and also provide us with some helpful lessons for the beginnings of Muddy Trowel.

I sent notes to ex-colleagues and friends who might be looking for a bit of a mission and said why don’t we start something up in 2 weeks. I said, let’s build a site, find some customers and build a brand. I sent that note on April 1st and we launched and received our first order on April 17th!

Did starting an eCommerce business delivering plants come with inherent logistical challenges?

Stephen: It’s difficult. There are two methods we could have taken. The first was a Bloom and Wild approach, where you use couriers and sell postable products. The problem with this is that a lot of plants are sent with a lot of cardboard packaging, which means you can only send certain kinds of plants and means you can’t send delicate or larger plants. However, the second option, which we had successfully executed at LOVESPACE, was the idea that we could do it using local couriers operating out of the nurseries themselves, and that’s the route we took for Muddy Trowel.

We originally started at different nurseries and offered bundles of plants and took them around a local driving radius. This avoided going through big overnight couriers or warehouses. It’s more expensive to start with, but once you scale it, in time it can look very similar to the economics you get when you go through a third-party courier.

Why the focus on plants for small spaces and why the interest in stocking nectar-rich plants for pollinating insects?

Stephen: We think that’s where the interesting customer segment is. Lots of young gardeners live in smaller places. It is a huge untapped market. This made the small spaces focus a natural one for us. The second question surrounding pollinators comes from our values: sustainability, simplicity, and joy. We know there is a huge segment of people who care about how they are spending their money.

Our world is important to us, so we do all we can to protect and enhance it. We source perennials, plants that are grown to last and select species that are rich in nectar for pollinating insects. We ensure our partners share this commitment to the environment and we explore the latest approaches to sustainability with respect to the materials we use, the processes we follow, and our operations in general.

What are the demographics of a Muddy Trowel customer?

Stephen: It could be anyone really, but the two main segments we have noticed are the young professional, who probably lives in the city and may have a balcony or shared patio. The second is suburban families, who may have children but are time-poor. They both want instant-impact no-fuss plant collections delivered to their doors.

Were you concerned about starting a business that is heavily seasonal? What does Winter look like for Muddy Trowel?

Stephen: Although lots of the plants we sell are very seasonal, winter is also the season for buying gifts, halloween, birthdays, and Christmas! There is a level of seasonality, but there is always work to be done, either in the garden or outside during the winter. In some ways, LOVESPACE is even more seasonal, so I am accustomed to it. In a way, I like seasonality as it gives the year a rhythm, with a set of milestones to work towards.

You currently operate in London and the South East, do you have plans to expand to the rest of the UK?

Stephen: We will be expanding at some point, but it depends on how fast we grow in the current geography. We will certainly go further in the UK but we will see if we touch every postcode. At the moment we’re really happy with progress in the South-East and there is lots going on.

Do you think that the pandemic has shifted people’s mindsets about the importance of nature?

Stephen: There is no doubt. Anyone you speak to has found even the smallest connection with nature during the pandemic. Quite a lot of people got into gardening too and have grown their own vegetables. Whilst I think some of those trends may not sustain in the long term, I think that no doubt from a spiritual level, that reconnection with nature has been really important for people. It definitely has for me.

The broader point of this is that spending time outdoors and gardening is great for mental health. Watching plants grow can be a real escape and meaningful, giving people something to look forward to. I have definitely felt that during my career and there are lots of interesting metaphorical connections you can make between growing businesses and growing plants!

What made you shift from a background in media to a background in entrepreneurship?

Stephen: I had a fantastic corporate career, first as a consultant and then in media. But I always had an entrepreneurial itch that needed scratching. I was 36 at the time when I left Guardian News & Media (as Director, Business Development and Brand Extensions) and thought if I don’t start my own business now I never will.

I was luckily introduced to Brett Akker, who had cofounded Streetcar which was later bought by Zipcar. He had just founded LOVESPACE and needed someone to run it. On-demand storage was something that I had on my original long-list of ideas for a business. I looked at the pedigree these guys had who were starting LOVESPACE, and I was delighted to join them as MD.

Fast forward to 2021 and LOVESPACE is a very successful company. It has now served 100,000 customers, is profitable, and is turning over around £6 million a year. I grew it as CEO, but after seven years I made a decision to hand on the reins to our then CFO,  Will Edwards. He is doing such a great job with it as CEO, which has allowed me to set up startup number two!

Where will you be in ten year’s time?

Stephen: Seven years ago I was driving a van and today I’m pruning plants, so who knows! It’s an adventure and that’s the great thing about being an entrepreneur.

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