Close contact to nature and appreciation for food: these topics are not only vital to children. Christoph Schmitz, founder of Ackerdemia and AckerCompany, talks about sowing team spirit, sailing against the wind, going hybrid in financing and enjoying the added value of professional transaction support.
Header: Christoph Schmitz / photo: © Gordon Welters
Christoph, you started very early to make the case for school gardens and a closer contact to food production. With your hand on your heart: How crazy did you have to be back in 2012 to create a social enterprise out of this?
I remember vividly what I thought at that time: It can’t be possible that in the 21st century, schools teach food production and sustainability only from books! Children have at least to learn once, outside in nature, that food doesn’t grow in supermarkets. In past generations, it was normal that you have a garden in front of your doorstep or a farm nearby and thus close contact to nature. This is why we wanted to show how a solution created by a social enterprise would work in practice. But the first reactions after founding Ackerdemia were really gross. People were only shaking their heads. One of the highlights was a comment from a lawyer that went like this: You do something with food, at schools, and with parents and children? Then you just have to add animals and you’re doing everything that you shouldn’t do from a legal perspective. Then the conversation was over.
So you had to put your heart and soul into it and sail against the wind.
Yes, but after a while, my strategy was to let it go in one ear and out the other and simply continue where we find support. For example, nobody except our EXIST advisor would have believed that we will win this grant. Once we had it, suddenly more doors opened up. This is also my personal advice to all the founders: Resist all critics and fault-finders out there, otherwise you will never get something innovative done. The crazier the idea, the fiercer the rejection. Obviously, our idea was so crazy that we don’t have any serious copycats to date – which I regret from the point of view of impact, by-the-way.
Not every social entrepreneur wants to put his or her skin into the adventurous game of scaling. Was it clear for you from the start that you would roll out your solution across Germany?
Absolutely, otherwise we wouldn’t have started our “GemüseAckerdemie” (“vegetable academy”) at all. Two things are programmed into our DNA: impact and scaling. In our very first pilot project, we appointed a bachelor to write a thesis and analyze our impact. Without evidence on our impact, we wouldn’t have continued. A second potential knock-out criterion was our scalability. If we had realized that we’re only able to scale to 10 schools, – since we have to be present every hour -, it wouldn’t have worked. We don’t have a digital product, however, so scaling with our model is more time- and resource-consuming.
„Two things are programmed into our DNA: impact and scaling.” Christoph Schmitz, AckerCompany
Speaking of models: Yours are constantly evolving and you recently brought a new office gardening concept to life with AckerPause. What are your experiences with adults approaching gardening? Do you have similar aha moments as you do with children?
One of the first projects with AckerPause was to plant patches on the rooftop terrace of Zalando. One of their employees asked me what we would do with the kohlrabi (turnip) in winter. At that moment I knew: O.k., the level of knowledge is not that different from the one that kids have in kindergarten. On the other hand, it means that we can create as much positive impact with adults as we do with children. There is a lot of openness, which is also further triggered by COVID-19. Of course, we all encounter temporary restrictions, which is why we launched a home office gardening program, too. But to receive such an offer from your employer is something completely different than having a Yoga class or the old school nutrition workshop. We have cool extras such as the AckerPause app that allows interdisciplinary teams to learn together in a playful way and have fun. It is a unique effect of AckerPause that it strengthens team spirit and social skills.
Systems change is very high on your agenda. What is your systemic contribution to solving the food waste problem?
We are strong advocates for re-creating spaces to truly experience nature. This is the root cause of the problem. Visible issues on the surface are lack of sustainability, unhealthy nutrition and food waste, for which you’ll find a lot of awareness trainings and appeals. But you can’t learn nature through a campaign. Those who haven’t experienced by themselves that a carrot takes an entire 5 months and not only 2 days to grow will throw it a away in a wink if it’s twisted or has a dark spot. It’s contact to nature and appreciation of vegetables that make a real difference. Yet this requires a lot of staying power and isn’t achieved in one election period only. In order to achieve sustainable and lasting change, you’ll have to invest in education for children and adults.
Since day one, you’ve put a lot of emphasis on impact measurement and published several working papers on your results. How important was this aspect for successfully approaching investors?
Due to the fact that we are a good example for best pratices and have already received several awards, interested investors could check the impact box very quickly. They rather turned their attention to our economic viability then. Those investors we are working with are all very impact-driven and don’t try to discuss with us about an exit or a higher profitability of our business model.
Your first financing round for the non-profit arm Ackerdemia e.V. took place in 2015, in the form of a hybrid combination of mezzanine capital and donation (see graph below). How has the collaboration with FASE helped you to prepare for follow-on financings?
Back then, we were the first “Verein” (registered association) that FASE advised on such an innovative hybrid financing model. It was a very exciting experience for us, since it has created a great foundation for the following round. Without it, we wouldn’t have been able to learn important aspects such as driving our business plan forward or gathering practical experience from a professionally managed transaction process. It is similar to gardening: What really counts is practice.
“The first financing round with FASE was a very exciting experience for us, since it has created a great foundation for the following round. Without it, we wouldn’t have been able to learn important aspects such as driving our business plan forward or gathering practical experience from a professionally managed transaction process.”
Out of this experience, what are your top 3 tips to social entrepreneurs on the hunt for capital?
My first and maybe most important piece of advice is to take your time to develop your product or service. In other words: Don’t go too early to market since it only distracts you from the essential things. With Ackerdemia, we were lucky to have an entire year to develop our product in very close contact to 6 schools, to be present at every lesson and to see it through the lens of the teacher. Until today, we benefit a lot from this pilot year, since we were able to stake out our claim and build a solid base for our concept. With our new solution AckerPause, we were too hasty at the beginning and had to adjust a bit on the fly in order to come to convincing answers to all important operational issues.
Lesson no.1: take your time for a solid proof-of-concept.
Exactly. And now comes the second advice right away: focus, focus, focus. I have seen so many social startups that got bogged down in too many ideas. We faced the same risk. For example, we could have implemented our office gardening concept right at the beginning, too. But we knew that we wouldn’t be able to put both solutions up to speed in parallel. Given scarce resources, you should always dive into one idea only and put everything else aside for the time being.
And your third piece of advice?
To take care of securing a good source of financing as early as possible, so you don’t run out of air. We started looking for a follow-on financing right after we had secured the EXIST grant. I haven’t received a lot of great advice in my life, but the feedback from FASE and the insights I gained in the mindsets of investors were extremely valuable to me. I would even say that the learnings from our very first transaction process were more important than the money we received. When raising our most recent round with AckerCompany, we were much better prepared. But the access to suitable investors is equally essential: impact investors that engage in early-stage social enterprises are still a rare breed in Germany. It’s a strong value add in this respect to collaborate with the FASE team.
Since we’re talking about early-stage investments: You applied with AckerCompany for the European Social Innovation and Impact Fund (ESIIF) . What inspires you as a social entrepreneur to engage with this innovative mezzanine fund?
I find it very exciting that the EU strives to improve the ecosystem for social entrepreneurs with its EaSI Guarantee instrument and that we can get our financing round with direct investors matched by the ESIIF 1:1. The combination of FASE as the fund initiator and avesco as the fund manager sounds very professional to me.
“I haven’t received a lot of great advice in my life, but the feedback from FASE and the insights I gained in the mindsets of investors were extremely valuable to me. I would even say that the learnings from our very first transaction process were more important than the money we received.”
I’m sure you have experienced many beautiful aha moments with children and adults on your entrepreneurial journey so far. Is there one that you remember most fondly?
I remember that during our first ‘Ackerschule’ experience, I went with 4 boys to the school’s vegetable patch on a Saturday morning. When I asked one of the boys what he is expecting, he said “I don’t care, I’m a gamer, not a farmer.” Later, he was so entusiastic about gardening that he joined again in the second year. It was wonderful to see that many insights stuck to him when I interviewed him 5 years later.
If we were to have our interview again in 5 years from now, what would you like to be able to say about AckerCompany?
That vegetable beds have become as normal in any office as a cactus or an indoor plant. We want offices to have more vegetable patches than soccer tables.
Here’s more food for thought about school gardens, office gardening and contact to nature:
Case study on the first financing round of Ackerdemia e.V.: Case study 2015
Website Ackerdemia e.V.