Amid heightened interest in home gardening during quarantine, Pittsburgh startup PittMoss has raised over $90,000 through crowdfunding platform Republic — three times the original goal.
“This is very exciting for us,” said Ashley Mariani, PittMoss’ director of business development. “We are more humbled than surprised — we know we have something special and disruptive at PittMoss. But having others — from Silicon Valley investors to home gardeners — invest in us is a very rewarding feeling.”
In 2015, the company, which produces sustainable potting mixes from recycled materials, got $200,000 from celebrity investor Mark Cuban after founder Mont Handley appeared on the reality competition Shark Tank. Cuban continued to invest later as well, alongside additional investment from BlueTree Capital and other local investment firms.
“When we were on Shark Tank, a lot of people were watching at home,” she added. “People were like, ‘How do I get in on this?’
The more she thought about it, the more Mariani realized that crowdfunding makes good business sense. “Raising funds on Republic allows your fans to be actual participants in the company,” she said. “It’s also a really great publicity and marketing tool to expose our name to other investors.”
PittMoss makes environmentally friendly alternatives to traditional potting mixes. It may seem counterintuitive that you can hurt the planet by planting a victory garden, but most of today’s potting mixes use peat moss, found in bogs. Peat moss stores massive amounts of carbon dioxide, making it crucial in the fight against climate change. But that same carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere when it’s dug up, contributing to the glut of greenhouse gases. Mass cultivation of peat moss can also harm wetlands, home to some of the planet’s most biodiverse ecosystems.
Many traditional potting mixes haven’t changed their formulas since the ’60s – before plant lovers thought to be concerned about their hobby’s impact on emissions. In the meantime, the world has not only come to terms with the changing climate, but it’s also facing an overwhelming amount of paper and fiber waste.
Handley hoped to work on both these problems at once when he began experimenting with peat-free mixes in his own kitchen in 1994. Those experiments evolved into his company, and today, PittMoss transforms local waste such as recycled newspapers and cardboard into a full line of products that are peat-free. “In 2019 alone, PittMoss products prevented the emission of 570 metric tons of CO2, the equivalent of 744 acres of US forest or burning 628,062 pounds of coal,” PittMoss said on its Republic fundraising page.
“People say, ‘it’s just ground-up paper,’ but there’s actually a lot of science behind it,” Mariani explained. For instance, PittMoss requires two-thirds less water than traditional potting soils.
The company aims to have PittMoss factories all across the country, turning local waste materials into potting soils, and supporting communities with more consistent soil and composting. The company also plans to lend its science to more industries going forward, including animal bedding and the cannabis market.
That, however, requires more funding.
“We’re a really small team,” Mariani said. “Small and mighty. So we could really use the money to hire more people and improve on our products. In our busiest season, we have around seven full-time employees. We plan on using the funds from Republic to expand our marketing and advertising programs, as well as hire more independent sales reps to support our product.”
And though PittMoss hasn’t launched factories across the country yet, the company is already making an impact in the Pittsburgh area.
“There’s an amazing urban agricultural scene here,” said Mariani, citing sustainability initiatives by the City of Pittsburgh. PittMoss has also been working with Grow Pittsburgh, a citywide organization supporting community gardens.
“I used PittMoss in the East Commons Community Garden at Allegheny Commons Park, and the Whitaker Community Garden,” said Russ Thorsen, a community garden coordinator with Grow Pittsburgh. “Both gardens have 24-inch-tall beds, so we really needed something in there to help with compaction and water retention. I used coconut coir in the past. I wanted to switch to something locally produced, and made from recycled materials. The PittMoss Plentiful mix is working well! I’m excited to see how it goes throughout the season.”
On the hyper-local level, PittMoss has also been active in aiding beautification efforts in its home base of Ambridge, a small town just northwest of the city.
For several years after the Shark Tank appearance, PittMoss sold exclusively wholesale – bulk quantities of its mixes went to nurseries, landscapers, and commercial growers. But more recently, PittMoss expanded into consumer-ready packages for individual gardeners, which it sells online and in 150 stores nationwide. The eco-friendly gardening revolution is now on Pittsburghers’ doorsteps. With the help of the Republic fundraiser, PittMoss hopes that same revolution will take place nationwide.
Guest article by Noelle Mateer
Noelle Mateer is a writer recently returned to her home state of Pennsylvania after six years reporting in China. Her work appears in Vice, Deadspin, The Washington Post, CNN and more.