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Produce grows $10,000 prize for PT man

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A Port Townsend entrepreneur who wants to change how produce is bought and sold won first place and $10,000 in the 2017 Silicon Valley Business Plan Competition last month.

Sam Lillie’s winning business idea is an online marketplace called Vinder, which connects local community growers of crops with local buyers. The marketplace is online at veggievinder.com.

“You can kind of think of us like Airbnb for veggies,” said Lillie, 26, referring to the popular accommodations booking website.

“We took first. We actually beat out 50 other companies that were in the competition,” Lillie said of the May 26 finals. The first-place finish is an improvement over his entry last year, in which he placed last in the finals.

“I was pretty ecstatic,” he said of winning first place this year. “It was a year of readjusting, pivoting and then just working to come back and do that, and make something work.”

IDEA FROM YP MEETING

Lillie said the $10,000 prize money would go toward marketing and also improving the Vinder website.

“We connect home gardeners and community gardeners that have an excess of food to community members who are just looking to buy produce,” he said, adding that shoppers at the site can buy right from their neighbors.

He said he got the idea for Vinder at a meeting of Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce’s Young Professionals Network. During the meeting, he learned that people wanted easier and less expensive access to fresh produce. Lillie said not everyone has time to attend a farmers market, and said some people find higher-end produce retailers too expensive. As a result, the people he talked to said they were purchasing lower-quality, less-expensive produce.

He wondered why people couldn’t just buy excess produce grown by locals in the community.

“We started on foot and bicycle. It was just me knocking on doors, asking people if they would be interested in selling their apples.” He did that for three or four months in 2016 and then hired a programmer to help create the business’s online platform. A revised website was launched Feb. 26. Use of the service has since expanded to 20 cities across 10 states, he said.

“The world is wanting this, and we do have plans to expand globally,” he said.

Traditional distributors, he said, typically collect about 35 percent of the cost of produce.

But Vinder bypasses much of that supply chain, potentially keeping costs lower.

SELL EXCESS VEGGIES

So, for example, if home gardeners grow more cherry tomatoes than they can eat and they’ve given friends all the tomatoes they can handle, the gardeners could sell the excess online rather than let the produce go to waste.

“And then the community gets that super high-quality produce and the grower gets whatever [money] they post them for.”

Growers may deliver the produce themselves and set a shipping fee, or they can have the buyer pick up the produce off their front porch.

“If you’re a buyer, you can actually see the garden in which your food is being grown,” he said.

“It’s really just a community-based company. It’s all about super local, you can say hyperlocal produce, and creating a transparent agricultural system.”

The site doesn’t charge sellers any fee for using the service, but buyers are charged a 20 percent markup.

Lillie said he works 90 hours a week on Vinder – a nonstop grind, he said – but added that it doesn’t make him any money, yet. He works part-time as an athletic trainer to pay the bills.

Dozens of sheets of paper cover two of the walls in his Port Towsend home. On one wall, the papers are printouts from the Airbnb website, showing each step an Airbnb user must take to list a rental online. On the other wall, there are similar printouts, but they show the steps that Vinder sellers and buyers must take to complete transactions.

ENTREPRENEURSHIP

Lillie said he’s been interested in entrepreneurship since he was about 6 years old, when he sold lemonade during the summer. He said he also sold coffee and hot chocolate in the winter, and candy at the middle school playground; he also washed cars. He viewed it as trying to find solutions to people’s problems.

Lillie said he studied international business at San Jose State University and then learned about the Silicon Valley competition. He spent $250 on airfare and crashed at a friend’s place to enter the contest.

He entered the contest last year with the idea for a smartphone app that could identify plants, but that idea earned him last place in the finals.

He said that this year, two hours after learning he won first place, he and others were out knocking on doors in the San Jose area, trying to drum up new customers.

“People had lemons in their trees, they had limes,” he said. He and his group added a few growers.

“I personally just like meeting our users and our growers.”

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