On March 18, Justin Marshall, the 32-year-old president and founder of Hydrobuilder, asked the majority of his employees to start working from home to help minimize the spread of the coronavirus.
Cannabis had been deemed an essential business in many states, including California, and growers still needed equipment and supplies. Like many e-commerce companies, sales at Hydrobuilder were surging, putting the company on track to increase sales by 40% over 2019.
Marshall was left with a tough decision: cease sales and possibly join the numerous other grow equipment suppliers that went under with the legalization of cannabis, or revamp operations to continue sales during the crisis.
Butte County, California, the home of Hydrobuilder, only had five documented cases of COVID-19 at the time, but with no end to the quarantine in sight, Marshall had the company prepare for the worst. The company issued new standard operating procedures to regularly disinfect every keyboard, mouse, door handle and packaging tool. The warehouse team dug into the cache of rubber gloves and N95 masks that were still on hand from the 2018 Camp Fire and continued to support hobbyist and commercial growers across the country.
“I cannot thank our team enough,” Marshall says. “We have a group of absolute rock stars who have proven that acts of kindness and compassion can and will brighten someone’s day. Without minimizing the seriousness of the situation before us, I believe we at Hydrobuilder have a unique opportunity to help those who are stuck at home in our own unique way.”
This wasn’t the first time the company had to face an unmitigated catastrophe. In 2018, the Camp Fire swept through Butte County, destroying 153,336 acres of land, 18,804 buildings and killing 88 people, making it the most destructive fire in California history and a natural disaster that still looms large over the area’s residents.
Marshall says his team’s thoughts and prayers go out to those affected by COVID-19 and their deepest gratitude goes out to the first responders who are on the front lines battling the virus and caring for the ill.
With the amended operating procedures in place, Hydrobuilder was able to keep its doors open, while successfully mitigating the risk of spreading the virus.
Even with just a skeleton crew on site and the rest of the staff working remotely, Hydrobuilder handled the increased demand. Surprisingly, Marshall says a significant portion of the new orders were coming from outside the cannabis industry. He believes many of those customers were looking for a way to decompress and “take their minds off the stress of the real world.”
“Gardening has been a way to explore nature and meditate for centuries, and I’ve asked the team to continue to do their best to be positive and provide value and exceptional service to everyone, as we have for years,” he says.
Marshall knows the virtues of therapeutic gardening, because he spent his first five years in the cannabis industry as a medical grower. At 18, Marshall was growing cannabis in Northern California, passing countless hours tilling soil in the summer sun and tending to his indoor flowers during the winter months. Since the grows were for personal use, Marshall financed his hobby as a front-end developer for Build.com, a website that sells fixtures for do-it-yourself home improvement and repair. He didn’t know it at the time, but he was developing his own set of skills that would become paramount to launching Hydrobuilder.com.
“I made a lot of really great connections at Build and am very grateful for the time I spent there,” Marshall says. “I learned so much by working at a top-100 online retailer.”
While helping Build.com grow from $100 million in annual sales to $1 billion, Marshall noticed that there were only a handful of companies selling hydroponics and growing equipment online. They operated on hastily made websites with numerous broken links and return policies that were shrouded in deceit. Marshall says there wasn’t yet a Build.com in the cannabis space, “presumably because the industry as a whole was still sort of ‘taboo’ and in a gray area.” He created Hydrobuilder and recorded its first sale on Halloween 2011.
“The timing of Hydrobuilder.com couldn’t have been better,” Marshall says. “We began at a time when no states had recreationally legalized cannabis and only a small handful of states had medical laws.”
Hydrobuilder started with just two people; one person would process orders during the day and another person would update the website and add new pages and products at night. Within a year, the company moved into its first office in Chico, California, just up the street from where Marshall cut his teeth in online retailing with Build.com. Marshall had kept in touch with his Build.com co-workers and regularly updated them about Hydrobuilder’s progress. Over time, he was able to recruit the same tech, sales and operations experts that helped grow Build.com into a giant in the world of e-commerce.
“At Hydrobuilder,” Marshall says, “we are not recreating the wheel. … We are taking proven web concepts from top companies and applying them to the cannabis space.”
While Marshall’s head start into the world of supplying cannabis cultivators was paying off, he wanted to take Hydrobuilder to the next level and in 2013 he struck a valuable partnership with Sunlight Supply, which is now Hawthorne Gardening Company. The relationship opened the door for Hydrobuilder to start selling many of the major brands used in the hydroponics industry, including Gavita, Sun System and Titan Controls, among others.
“Hydrobuilder works with all major brands and distributors in this industry,” Marshall says. “We are a one-stop shop for everything (in the) garden from seed to harvest.”
The partnership was a catalyst for massive growth, and today Hydrobuilder sells roughly 10,000 products online. Along the way, Hydrobuilder started offering its own in-house brands like its Covert Grow Tents and Covert LED Grow Lights. Normally a catalog that expansive would require considerable overhead, but Marshall says the company built its own custom software that allows it to scale while keeping the staff streamlined at 16 employees.
Hydrobuilder has two of its own warehouses and an office in Chico, California, but as a drop-shipping company, it sources inventory from 20 different warehouses across the country. Because the company has so many distribution centers, Marshall says it can keep the shipping times down to three days. He adds that on top of a huge catalog and quick shipping, his team can offer companies and hobbyists the individual attention that other major online retailers can’t.
“We’re large enough to provide exceptional pricing — really, compare us to your current supplier — but small enough to give you individual attention to cater to your business needs with our dedicated pro account reps,” Marshall says. “As we continue to expand into new product categories within the gardening umbrella, we’re always updating our website and app to meet the demands of our customers. We truly want to be helpful and feel we are an asset to any growing business … no pun intended.”