Editor’s Note: After having Audrey Bolduc judge during the semi-finals of the 2017 McGill Dobson Cup, The Dobson Chronicles’ Andrea Di Stefano sat down with her for an in-depth interview about how they got their start and where Groundit is headed next.
Everyone’s had those moments, after hearing of an idea or product, that the first thing that comes to mind is “…why didn’t I think of that?”
Audrey Bolduc and co-founder Mitalie Makhani’s winning pitch in the 2015 McGill Dobson Cup had judges quickly extending offers of mentorship and support. Their idea was simple—converting used coffee grinds into organic fertilizer—but what wowed listeners was the team’s research, preparation, and the obvious fact that they’re in love with this idea.
Since winning the cup and completing her BCom, Audrey moved her startup forward and has been invited back to judge this year’s McGill Dobson Cup. As a recent winner, Desautels graduate, and young entrepreneur, she represents a real-life guide for moving forward from theory to practice—school to start-up—and shares invaluable insight into translating education, passion, and experience into start-up success.
I’ve always had an entrepreneurial side to me; when I was 8 I picked raspberries and sold them to my neighbours.
Andrea Di Stefano: What’s happened since you won the McGill Dobson Cup in 2015?
Audrey Bolduc: After winning, I still had a year of university to undergo, so it was really tough at first. I was working part time to pay my bills, finishing school, and working on Groundit. I hustled like crazy. This past summer, I finished my BCom and dove into Groundit full-time; we started with 20 coffee shops, and since then we’ve acquired some really great clients including Café Névé, Vice Media, and Joe Beef. Right now we’re at full capacity, so we’re looking to hire someone to help with operations, and we’re excited to take on my co-founder, Mitalie, full-time after she finishes her Ph.D.
ADS: What inspired you to dive into starting a business while still at school?
AB: I’ve always had an entrepreneurial side to me; when I was 8 I picked raspberries and sold them to my neighbours. I also always hated having bosses, so for me it was a no-brainer. This idea came to me quite naturally because I drink a lot of coffee. I became aware that coffee-making always leaves a “puck” of 25g coffee grinds, and started asking people what they did with these grinds. Most said “aw, I feel really bad about it, but it just goes in the trash because the city doesn’t offer any services”. This is how I started wondering how I could re-purpose coffee grinds.
I did some research, and then met my co-founder, Mitalie, who’s doing her Ph.D. in Soil Ecology. We realized that the best way to reduce this waste is to provide a healthy alternative to chemical or manure-based fertilizer. The coffee grinds have to be composted to lower the acidity; but when it’s composted properly it actually a super good alternative to chemical-based or manure-based fertilizers, which can contain harmful chemicals, pathogens, etc. So we’re closing the loop: redirecting trash from the landfill, and providing a safer and healthier alternative to traditional fertilizer.
ADS: I heard that your fertilizer is organic. What does that mean exactly?
AB: We’re not certified organic, although we don’t use any chemicals and only use all-natural ingredients and processes. It’s 100% natural, meaning we don’t add anything to our fertilizer. To be certified organic, producers only need to include about 20% organic ingredients, so stuff that’s labeled “organic” may actually still contain a bunch of chemicals. Our fertilizer contains literally zero chemicals; all our nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium comes from vegetables and natural plant matter. [Editor’s note: nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium—often referred to as a soil’s NPK value—are essential to plant health.]
Part of our mission is to provide the best fertilizer possible. Mitalie does quality control to ensure the compost doesn’t contain any meat or dairy to avoid potential pathogens; she also ensures that the amount of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium is extremely competitive—better than what’s currently on the market. When we have to, we use straw or mushroom strands to accelerate the decomposition process or to add nutrients. All this ensures that our fertilizer is extremely good for plants and doesn’t give off any strong odours—a lot of our clients are in urban settings, so we don’t want them to have anything harsh-smelling in their spaces.
…we’re closing the loop: redirecting trash from the landfill, and providing a safer and healthier alternative to traditional fertilizer.
ADS: What are your impressions of the McGill Dobson Cup, and what made you want to return as a judge?
AB: In the McGill Dobson Cup semi-finals in 2015, I remember that the judges loved our idea so much that they gave us their business cards, and eventually became our mentors. That was a turning point in my life; just having someone believe in your idea, and willing (despite being busy business people, running multi-million dollar companies) to give us their time and guidance to succeed was a wonderful feeling. I want to give this feeling to someone else, to give them guidance. If I really believe in their idea, I want to help them succeed and potentially even work together.
I also want to give back, because the McGill Dobson Cup gave me so much. It was an incredible experience; if I hadn’t joined it, I don’t think I would’ve had the confidence to do this on my own. I got some great feedback from people that actually know how to run a business, and validation—I knew that I wasn’t crazy; that my idea was actually a good one!
I literally use every class I took at Desautels at least once a week.
ADS: Given your studies at McGill and your startup experience, how important would you say learning about entrepreneurship is, as opposed to just diving in and doing it?
AB: Being an entrepreneur has a lot to do with your personality. You have to be extremely driven, because there’s nobody behind you pushing. Now, when I have a day off, I won’t be home watching Netflix or something… I’ll be out making cold calls, talking to potential clients, meeting suppliers. These are things you don’t learn in school.
However, business school taught me to know your market, human-centric design, research; really useful tools and practices that I wouldn’t really have been exposed to if I was just diving in. It also introduced me to resources that have helped me, and books like “24 Steps to a Successful Startup”. I still use my classes every day; whether it’s my Information Systems class, Finance class, Accounting class, Strategic Management class, Entrepreneurship class… I literally use every class I took at Desautels at least once a week.
ADS: What other books would you consider required reading for entrepreneurs?
AB: For all the female entrepreneurs out there, definitely “Girl Boss” by Sophia Amoruso—it’s a must-read for women entrepreneurs. Women are still the minority in entrepreneurship, particularly on the innovation scene, and this book is a beautiful story about a woman succeeding in building a multi-million dollar business. At Groundit I do a lot of b2b2c (business to business to consumer)—a lot of sales—so I also recommend “Magic Words” by Tim David. It discusses the power of words and how to close a sale.
ADS: Who inspired you most on your entrepreneurial journey?
AB: I don’t want to sound mean, but my parents inspired me because they have 9-5 jobs. My mom loves her job, she works at the Government of Canada, but I learned a lot from going to visit her and talking to her. I decided that I’ll do anything not to have a 9-5 job. Our parents usually want security for us; they prefer that we find a steady job at a big corporation. I’m young, I don’t have kids: so I don’t have much to lose. It’s a good time to take risks.
Do something you love; don’t open a business that you know is going to make money but you’re not passionate about. Do something you love and it’ll show; every day will be like a vacation.
ADS: What advice would you give this year’s McGill Dobson Cup winners, and other aspiring entrepreneurs?
AB: It’s all about how much passion and effort you put into it. It’s 20% the idea, and 80% hustle, hustle, hustle. What’s gonna make it or break it for you is how much you get to know your customer and go the extra mile for a client; put your everything into it and don’t be scared! Some people believe they need to enter the corporate world to gain skills, experience, etc. but I don’t believe you need that. If you don’t do it now, it won’t get easier later, and you definitely won’t have more time. Do something you love; don’t open a business that you know is going to make money but you’re not passionate about. Do something you love and it’ll show; every day will be like a vacation.
ADS: Have you considered partnering with different municipalities to enhance their own composting services?
AB: The city doesn’t have the same mission we do; their mission is to divert waste from the landfill. Our mission, however, is also to produce a very high-quality fertilizer, so in order to do so we have to be very careful about what we accept. The city programs allow meat, dairy, and there’s not much quality control; which is fine because that’s not part of their mission. Also, the city only serves residences, while we cater more to local businesses. We have very different missions, so our services are complementary.
ADS: What do you feel is the biggest trend affecting the future of your company and industry?
AB: Organic. There’s a lot of emphasis on organic pest management, organic fertilizer, natural crop management… consumers are increasingly looking for non-processed, organic products and methods that are more environmentally friendly. Also, more and more people are getting into vegetarianism because the meat industry, including dairy, is very unsustainable; so people are discovering vegetarian and vegan protein.
We discussed organic baskets, green energy, and municipal composting and recycling services. I loved hearing about the creative process that led to connecting two distinct and complementary needs—waste management and natural fertilizer—in a research-backed, forward-facing entrepreneurial solution.
Groundit offers small 1.5L bags of natural fertilizer for around $10; larger quantities and bulk purchases are also available.
Learn more about the Groundit team and what they’re offering at www.groundit.ca.