How NOT to run an Urban Mushroom Farm

Part 1 of 3

The glorious mistakes that caused the downfall of Pad en Stoel

Pad en Stoel Zjef Joachim Bart

In recent years Zjef Van Acker, one of the founders of the 12 steps to farming, has been working hard on establishing another urban agriculture project: Pad and Stoel, an urban mushroom farm in the city of Antwerp (Belgium).

It was a beautiful journey, yet Zjef and the team made some crucial mistakes that caused the mushroom initiative to fail. If we want to make our food system completely sustainable, we need to learn from each other. Therefore we convinced him to share his hard learned lessons with the 12 steps community.

In the first episode of this three part series, Zjef shares the first two glorious mistakes that set the stage for the downfall of Pad en Stoel. In part two and three you will learn three more miscalculations, the consequent crisises and to top it all off: a unique life lesson.

The Story of Pad en Stoel

Zjef Eryngii 12 steps to farming

Picture by Cathy Verhulst – 2019

Every time I met someone in 2018 or 2019, they told me: “You’re doing really amazing with Pad en Stoel!”.

And it’s true, Pad en Stoel, our mushroom urban farming project in Antwerp, had always been amazingly popular. We were a success on social media, and we were recognized and praised everywhere we came. Pad en Stoel was a business that was supported by many people, and we could be very proud about that.

Yet, every time someone remarked that it was going really well with Pad en Stoel, I couldn’t help but also feel a very uncomfortable sensation. I loved the praise but I could not lie; From a business perspective Pad en Stoel had always been one big mess!

There were many reasons why Pad en Stoel struggled, and many reasons why it eventually failed. A lot of those reasons originate from the fact that a farming business is one of the hardest businesses to run. However, this is not an article about external events and situations causing challenges for the farm (we knew them too before we started).

This is an article about the mistakes we, the people running Pad en Stoel, made.

You will find that there is no such thing as one mistake that caused the downfall of Pad en Stoel. You will find that there was a big accumulation of mistakes that lead to multiple crises. And for this article, I picked out the 5 most important mistakes and 2 most critical crises.

I’ve written this down as a kind of therapy for myself, and I share them with you so the next similar projects don’t make the same mistakes.

Also, do understand that this is my personal view on what went wrong, other members of the team might see some things differently.

Pad en Stoel logo 12 steps to farming

Mistake 1: The sin of impulsivity

It all started at the end of 2017, right before we started growing mushrooms.

Three guys with the same dream met. All of us wanted to do something awesome with mushrooms, and we wanted to do it professionally. One of us, Joachim, was a super hard worker who loved to grow mushrooms and had a great sense of entrepreneurship. The other, Bart, was a curious scientist who could meticulously build a DIY-mushroom-farm. And then there was me: 5 years of experience in networking, education and research around urban farming. Moreover I had helped create an educational series called “The 12 steps to become an urban or vertical farmer”.

The stars were aligned and the dream-team was ready to go.

But…we forgot something.

Pad en Stoel young Oyster mushroom
Pad en Stoel trio Joachim Bart Zjef

In my vertical and urban farming networking days, many people had come to me with one simple question: “How do I start an urban or vertical farm?” I always advised everyone to take their time and first go through “the 12 steps documentary series”, to learn from the many other urban farming pioneers.

Yet – when the time had come to start my own business, I failed to follow my own advice. With Pad en Stoel we were too impatient and too impulsive. We hadn’t taken our time to answer all the needed questions and look at the business from multiple angles.

We soon realised that we had started too fast. Yet, there was no turning back anymore, we were in the beginning of 2018 and already growing and selling mushrooms. Moreover, we at Pad en Stoel had enough motivation and willpower to learn and grow quickly.

Yes, even though we had made a big mistake by starting too impulsively, we would make up for it with sheer willpower, motivation and hard work.

Mistake 2: Experience? We don’t need experience!

One of the reasons Pad en Stoel was so popular, was because we had a subscription for individuals. Every 2 weeks a customer would get 3 different types of mushrooms. It was fantastic to see how people were so amazed and happy with all the varieties they had never even heard about.

However, we had priced our mushrooms to what the bigger mushroom-companies and supermarkets were asking. And because of our impulsivity we had no idea if that was enough money for our business to grow in a healthy way.

In fact, it turned out that our initial business and financial plan was wrong. We had estimated that we would grow much more mushrooms with much less effort and money.

Everything went much slower and less euros than expected came in.

Zjef Van Acker yellow oyster mushroom pad en stoel 12 steps to farming
Pad en Stoel mushrooms 12 steps to farming

It soon became clear that we lacked a lot of experience in business, logistics, growing…. We lacked too much experience in order to run a business with a healthy mental state.

We were always rushing and solving problems.

Still – we were entrepreneurs. Rushing and solving problems is what entrepreneurs do. So we raised our prices to the point where we were at least not losing any money. And we kept on going.

We would make up for the lack of experience soon enough.

Moreover, we had an amazing long term plan that would change the way society would see food.

Pad en Stoel urban mushroom farming

End of part 1 of 3

How not to run an urban mushroom farm

In the first episode of this three part series, Zjef shared the first two glorious mistakes that set the stage for the downfall of Pad en Stoel: Impulsivity while not having enough experience! These two sins on their own are not enough to make a business fail, in some cases they can even be beneficial.

However, in the next parts you will learn three more miscalculations that together with the first two mistakes caused some serious crisises. And at the very end, you will find a unique life lesson.

Click here to read part 2