Roman Gonzalez, founder of Gardenio, courtesy photo

At Brown University, Roman Gonzalez studied philosophy to understand big things like love and purpose.

He wanted to distill these difficult concepts and relate them in a way to make people’s lives better.

At the same time, he was working to reshape his relationship with food, and he learned that to make a good salsa, it was all about the ingredients. And there were all these different varieties of tomatoes. He became fascinated with the variety and breadth of nature and food.

“It made me really curious,” Gonzalez said.

He also started creating craft cocktails with different herbs, spices and barks.

“I would run around my neighborhood and I started smelling the jasmine. I noticed an orange tree. The world started looking different,” Gonzalez said. “All of sudden the world became very bountiful. When you talk to people who have been growing food for a while, they talk about the same thing.”

That planted the seeds for what would eventually grow into his startup Austin-based Gardenio, which is an online marketplace for gardeners aimed at Millennials and a “mission-driven company striving for a healthier, more sustainable world where anyone has access to the resources they need to grow their own food.”

Gonzalez, who has a background as a user experience designer, thought plants and gardening supplies were primarily being marketed to retired folks with straw hats and flowered shirts. With Gardenio, he wanted to create a better experience aimed at Millennials like himself.

“By connecting people to nature and to each other, I can have a really big impact in the world,” Gonzalez said.

Officially founded in 2017, Gardenio joined the DivInc Accelerator program, which focuses on helping founders from diverse backgrounds and women. It has established a young, creative, inclusive brand that celebrates diversity and cultural impact, he said.

Gardenio launched its first products in March of 2018. Gonzalez said he learned a lot from his early customers. He made improvements based on their feedback. Gardenio also has more than 30 people who work with the company as pro-bono consultants, who are 80 percent people of color and women and members of the LGBT community.

In April, Gardenio graduated from the Tarmac Accelerator and on August 16th, the company launched its mobile app.

Historically Gardenio has brought on new customers and built its community by throwing fundraising events, Gonzalez said. Long term the company plans to generate a lot of content and create videos and paid social ads.

This year, Gardenio also raised a pre-seed round of funding from  Austin angel investors Michael Barnes, founder and former CEO of Teacher Talent and Blanca Lesmes, CEO of BBImaging.

“I’ve known Roman for years and I’ve watched him methodically and obsessively build Gardenio from the ground up,” Barnes said. “When you see a strong tech professional become obsessed with a vision of the future that ties into an existential urge— to reconnect to the roots of our system of food— you know it’s got the right nutrients to grow into a huge business.”

Overall, the lawn and garden market is worth $49.9 billion with an annualized growth rate of 3.6 percent over the last five years, according to research firm IBISWorld.

Increasingly, Millennials are becoming an important part of that market as they embrace hobbies like gardening, according to Jennifer Mapes-Christ, manager of the consumer and commercial products team at The Freedonia Group. About 20 percent of consumers, ages 18 to 34, report gardening is one of their hobbies.

“With the rise of community gardens and community-supported agriculture, this group is interested in specialty gardening with heirloom seeds and gardening as a craft using specialty tools and taking care to create something unique,” Mapes-Christ said in a news statement.

Historically Gardenio’s business model worked by customers going to the website and ordering a grow box, a live organic plant, and the company sends them soil that is matched to the plant they are growing and a care guide that goes with that.

Now, Gardenio is shifting to a membership model and through the fall, it is taking pre-orders to launch.

“We will send you plant food in the amount you need it. Most people don’t know you have to feed your plants let alone knowing when to feed it,” Gonzalez said.

Gardenio is also launching Infinite lives so if a paying Gardenio member has a plant die for any reason – Gardenio will send a replacement plant.

“Gardeners grow,” Gonzalez said. “You don’t just do it once.”

Gardenio’s next big milestone is to have over 250 pre-order memberships and 5,000 people on its waitlist, Gonzalez said.

Gardenio was also a finalist in the startup category for a Mosaic Award, which celebrates diversity and inclusion in Austin’s startup community. The company competed against much larger ventures like Data.World, Aceable and Squareroot and The Riveter, which won the award.

“We’re this scrappy little team making waves,” Gonzalez said. “With very little resources we’ve been able to make some waves.”

Gardenio sees its competition as Home Depot, Lowe’s and other big box stores, which control 64 percent of the market for gardening plants and supplies.

“We’re not about giving you a million tomatoes we are about giving you the experience of having a relationship with a plant,” Gonzalez said.

Andrew Escher bought a large mint plant and got a small holy basil plant from Gardenio as a gift. He has both sitting on his porch still.

He likes Gardenio and would recommend it to a friend.

“They help me build confidence in my gardening ability, saved me time and mental energy to get things set up and I like the idea of growing my own food and herbs in the long run,” Escher said.

Gardenio addresses a big existential problem today, said Barnes, an investor.

”They say, “we are what we eat…” but if we don’t really know what we eat, can we really know who we are?” Barnes said.