By Robert Digitale The Press Democrat, Santa Rosa, Calif.
Justin Connell is quick to name the virtues of the small mobile garden that he's selling to the elderly and others with a limited space to grow food and flowers.
But he also acknowledges that his entrepreneurial efforts have been aided by the fact that he's only 21 years old.
"I think I'm getting away with a lot because of how young I am," said Connell, a 2010 graduate of Santa Rosa's Montgomery High School.
His patented creation, the Garden on Wheelz, recently went on sale at Friedman's Home Improvement's three retail locations.
The wheelbarrow-shaped product with adjustable legs allows the elderly to garden while standing or seated. It features 5.25 cubic feet of garden space, a "root aeration panel" underneath to make sure plants don't get too much water and a watering can stationed to capture nutrient-rich runoff.
Connell, a former starter on Montgomery's varsity basketball team, developed the product after becoming seriously injured in 2011 during a team basketball practice at Santa Barbara City College.
This fall his Santa Rosa company, LifeCycle Gardens, paid a manufacturing company in China to produce the Garden on Wheelz after attracting $450,000 in investment capital. One of the two investors is Pat McDonald, formerly one of the owners of REACH Air Medical Services.
McDonald, who coaches girls soccer at Montgomery, said he had watched Connell play basketball for the high school. More than a year ago the two men met by chance at a local training facility where Connell was delivering an earlier, wooden version of his mobile garden.
McDonald said he quickly became impressed with both the product and the young man, who he describes as "a go-getter."
"Where do you see a 20-year-old with so much drive?" he recalled thinking.
Connell looks back to his basketball injury as a turning point in his life. Having suffered a cracked vertebrae and two bulged discs, he was forced to wear a back brace and move back to his parents' home in Santa Rosa. He said he soon went from self-pity to determination to figure out the next chapter in his life.
He decided to pursue the Garden on Wheelz, a concept he had developed in a college class before his injury. He improved the product and in May 2012 entered it into an entrepreneurial contest at the college, where he won the grand prize of $4,000.
His time in Santa Barbara also allowed him to meet a key mentor, Ron Meritt, owner of Olens Technology of Pismo Beach.
One of the company's new products is a Bluetooth base station from which consumers can answer their cellphones even when the mobile device is in another room or left on silent mode.
Meritt and Connell traveled together this fall to China and visited the component makers for the Garden on Wheelz. Connell said he benefitted from Meritt's "seasoned eyes on the production process," but he also credited Meritt for giving him daily advice on the intricacies of starting a business.
Meritt, who has served as a mentor for a number of young inventors over the years, said he liked Connell's product and his desire to bounce back from his injury.
"He's an excellent listener," Meritt said. "You can tell he's been coached well and he listens well."
Ed Casey, a buyer at Friedman's, said he encouraged Connell to have the Garden on Wheelz ready for the store to sell this holiday season. The product is featured this week in Friedman's circular advertisement with a sales price through Sunday of $249. The regular retail price is $299.
"Vegetable gardening as a whole has enjoyed double-digit growth across the entire nursery industry in the last three or four years," Casey said.
Friedman's already sells the redwood components for large raised beds, he said. The Garden on Wheelz will appeal to those with small yards or no yards, including condo owners and apartment dwellers.
"This fits a good niche," Casey said.
Connell said his product next year will be featured in two major catalogs, one for facilities that care for the elderly and another targeting gated communities near golf courses.
As an example of how his youth may have helped him, Connell recounted how he managed to land a space in a senior living trade show in Dallas. The deadline was past and all the spaces initially were unavailable. But after hearing Connell's story, the manager not only provided him a prime space but charged him less than a third of the normal price.
"One of the things I've found out about this process is how willing people are to help a young entrepreneur," Connell said.