Building a marketplace to help a plant seller disrupt its own 100-year-old business

Building a marketplace that connects buyers and suppliers on a single, price-transparent platform is a great idea — unless it’s competing with your wholesale business.

For over 100 years, the Fiore family has been supplying trees and shrubs to landscapers across the country. Their business, Fiore Nursery and Landscape Supply, operated on the standard wholesale model: they sourced the greenery from growers across the country, and buyers came to them to purchase all the plants they’d need for building sites, golf courses, even zoos. Now Lisa Fiore, the fourth generation of the Fiore Nurseries family, wanted to use all that industry knowledge to create an online marketplace that would disrupt the family’s original business — before someone else did. And she came to Table XI to do it.

The result is LandscapeHub, a web-based, responsive, two-sided marketplace platform built in Rails and React. To learn what we needed to build, we started with a Google Design Sprint, an Inception and a lot of user research to validate everyone’s ideas. Then we paired with LandscapeHub as it built out a technical team, teaching their new hires how we solved tricky data problems and built a marketplace strong enough to support future growth.

The MVP we launched attracted investor interest — enough to turn LandscapeHub into a fully-funded marketplace startup. And it’s self-reliant. We worked with LandscapeHub’s new developers and CTO to fully transition ownership of the product, so they can run with it without needing our help.

“Working with Table XI was fantastic. They were super professional, extraordinarily organized. There was just a sense of alignment. They were very deliberate and diligent about understanding what our goals were.

Communication was a consistent commitment throughout the process. There were really no surprises because of that.”

Lisa Fiore, founder of LandscapeHub

How to create an online marketplace using 100 years of experience

It’s rare for a family-owned business to break with tradition, and even rarer for one to embrace the changes technology can bring. But even though she’s four generations deep, Lisa Fiore is forward-thinking enough to know that ecommerce is going to change her business one way or another. Building a marketplace startup was her way of getting in front of it.

To understand how LandscapeHub needed to work, we got to know Fiore's original business.

From the beginning, Lisa knew she wanted LandscapeHub to be a separate company, but one that could take advantage of all she’d learned at Fiore. And she had a long list of features informed by her experience. The goal was to give buyers — for the first time ever — a transparent online marketplace website where they could see every available plant, which suppliers had them, what types and sizes were available, and, most revolutionarily, how much everything cost.

“Table XI shepherded me throughout the process. I had a lot of operations experience, a lot of business experience, but I had never developed a tech product — they provided the guidance.

I trusted them. That was key: I turned everything over, I surrendered a lot of control, because I trusted the process and trusted them to lead me through it. They saved me a lot of time and hours and grief.”

Lisa Fiore, founder of LandscapeHub

The goal, ultimately, is for LandscapeHub to be a true two-sided marketplace startup, where suppliers ship directly to buyers, giving buyers alternatives to the brick-and-mortar distribution network. In the meantime though, Lisa needed to build a minimum viable product that could prove her idea was worthwhile, and worth investing in.

Using UX research to design for both sides of a two-sided marketplace

Lisa came to Table XI on the recommendation of a well-known Chicago-based entrepreneur we had worked with. We immediately knew we’d love to work on the project — transforming century-old businesses is kind of our hobby — and we suggested a Google Design Sprint to get started, because it lets us uncover the business needs, build a marketplace website prototype and validate it with real users in a single week.

We were lucky to have a client who knew her audiences deeply, but even with all Lisa’s — and Fiore’s — years of experience, we still needed to talk to the suppliers and the buyers to confirm their needs before creating an online marketplace to meet them. The first thing we found out: Those needs are very different.

The Fiore team — including the nursery dog — was able to give us great insights into both sides of the marketplace. 

While buyers were tech savvy and incredibly eager for us to build a marketplace website, suppliers were often still using Internet Explorer 8 and keeping handwritten notes for each tree, and they had to be convinced that a two-sided marketplace would actually benefit them. We did a lot of user research up front, and both sides helped us understand the landscape — with a lot of plant puns.

“We had our buyers and suppliers test the prototype, and that was a big learning experience for us. We walked away with a lot of insights based on what the users shared and demonstrated.

Of course looking at it now, it makes all the sense in the world.”

Lisa Fiore, founder of LandscapeHub

To mitigate some of the supplier concerns, we developed a system where buyers only had to send an Excel spreadsheet of their inventory to Fiore, instead of learning a new system. On the buyer side, we quickly had our assumptions about ecommerce checked. We expected people to fill a cart and buy what they needed, but that’s not how landscapers work. Because they’re buying for someone else, they’ll often have several quotes going at once, so they can help their clients compare prices. So we adapted to give them that functionality.

Interested in uncovering new ways to engage your audience?

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Turning plants — in all their organic complexity — into points of data

Once we had the idea validated, we had to figure out how we were going to go about building the online marketplace. It may seem simple, but think about how many types of plants there are. Then how many sizes. Are they in containers, or balled and burlapped? Are they categorized by common name or Latin name?

Getting to know the products, and all their varieties. 

Data ended up being our biggest surprise on the project. Each plant had so many possible variations, and we had to normalize and represent all of them. To start, we wrote fuzzy matching logic to recognize when the same plant was being referred to by different names, or when sizes were listed in inches, in.s or ”s. After a lot of work accounting for all the variations in supplier data, we were able to develop a site that shows every available White Oak tree, for example — all the sizes, all the variations and all the suppliers in one place.

Some data issues we haven’t been able to fix yet. The site was designed for every plant to have an image, but right now few do as we work to figure out what type of image best serves buyers. We’re also working on getting better descriptions and potentially adding Fiore’s expert advice, content that will help the buyers and help the pages rank in search.

Building a marketplace that can expand — and the infrastructure to support it

When we laid out the initial product roadmap in our two-day Inception with LandscapeHub, we knew we’d start with an MVP, then add features once we’d had a chance to prove the two-sided marketplace business model (and secure investors). We’ve now made it through the MVP, and we’ve added features based on user feedback. The end goal is to bring LandscapeHub up to par with the level of service Fiore can deliver at its physical locations. It’s a lot of knowledge to collect and design, but already the product is taking hold. LandscapeHub is expanding across the Midwest — and adding suppliers beyond Fiore.

“We had successful seed round, but the work is full-speed ahead. The goal is to learn from the users, iterate quickly and prove product-market fit.”

Lisa Fiore, founder of LandscapeHub

To make sure the LandscapeHub team can keep up with demand, we had to set them up with an infrastructure that could scale — then teach them how to run it. The Table XI platform was easily up to the task, but as we helped LandscapeHub grow its development team, it started to make sense for them to bring their infrastructure in-house.

To make it as smooth as possible, we plotted out a two-week sprint to essentially take our tools, tailor them so they were bespoke to LandscapeHub’s needs, then migrate the whole application to the new system. To get it right, we started with a mini-Inception, mapping out the best possible infrastructure toolset to support the marketplace. We wanted to make sure every line of the infrastructure codebase worked for the LandscapeHub team, and that they understood each one.

Once we agreed on a plan, our DevOps lead Patrick paired with one of LandscapeHub’s new developers to write every line of code that would generate the infrastructure and power the marketplace. It was important to us to make sure the LandscapeHub team knew the system in-and-out, because the stakes are so high with infrastructure — architect it wrong, and you could end up accidentally spending thousands of dollars more than you should.

Because LandscapeHub had three environments — staging, demo and production — all of which needed infrastructure, it gave us an opportunity to teach them and then test them. Patrick would build the staging infrastructure, then explain it and let the LandscapeHub developer lead on building the demo environment. By the time they got to production, Patrick could step out entirely — the LandscapeHub team was confident enough to build on their own with Patrick as backup. In that way, we were able to transfer all of our knowledge to them, and even set them up with some new tools we hadn’t yet fully implemented ourselves.

Helping LandscapeHub’s team grow their marketplace business model

Part of the reason we worked so hard to earn Lisa’s trust at the start of the project is because we knew she needed a true technology partner. When we joined LandscapeHub, it was pretty much just Lisa and her team’s idea, with no tech team and no funding. Since then, she’s joined forces with Chad Cooper, the former CTO of Grubhub, four developers and an undisclosed amount of funding that should see them though the next few iterations.

We prepped LandscapeHub to continue growing long after our engagement ends. 

To make sure LandscapeHub can continue to grow on its own steam, we’ve worked hard to transfer everything we know to the new team. We’ve paired with the team extensively, and created documentation and style guides they can use going forward. At this point, they can continue to build their own marketplace without ever needing to call us for help. That means we can spend our time helping them solve the big, strategic problems. And, when LandscapeHub is ready, we can part ways, and the team will be fully self-sufficient. Because a true partner sets you up to succeed on your own, not depend on their support.

“Table XI was great in helping us integrate the new engineers into the project. They established the process we’ll be sticking to long after they’re off the project.”

Lisa Fiore, founder of LandscapeHub

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