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In Conversation with Seedball: Ana Attlee Talks to Ally Hoadley

Updated: Oct 6, 2018

Seedball wants to fill the world with wildflowers and save bees and butterflies! In 2010, Seedball founders Ana and Emily were Conservation Scientists at Aberdeen University, researching how to save the world. Then, they spotted an advert for a training course to help environmental scientists become entrepreneurs. The spark had been lit!

In this week’s A Focus on Nature blog, our own Ally Hoadley sits down with Seedball co-founder Ana, to talk all things Seedball, nature, and how to successfully grow your own conservation business!

Seedball founders Ana (left) and Emily (right)

Where did you get the idea for Seedball and how did you get started?

We did NERC (The Natural Environment Research Council) EnvironmentYES (Young Entrepreneurs Scheme) – you should definitely take part in it if you can! It’s basically an MBA (Master of Business Administration) in 3 days. They taught us everything you need to know about how to run a business and monetise your academic ideas as we knew we wanted to fund environmental projects.

EnvironmentYES starts with ‘what is a problem in the world you wish you could solve?’ then works backwards and asks what kind of business would help solve that problem. I’m now on business number four based on this principle!

Then for my Masters I researched Cycle Route 66 in York and looked at its value as a wildlife corridor for birds, bees, butterflies and bats and remnant wildflower populations. The research basically showed that where you had a diverse level of wildflowers you have higher levels of biodiversity – that wildflowers are a simple way to increase biodiversity!

After my PhD I did a permaculture course - it’s a way of gardening that doesn’t disturb the earth. You’re trying not to dig, it’s a sustainable form of farming. There are 3 tenants: earth care, people care, and fair share – one doesn’t exist without the other. Conservation must include people as they’re there!

I came across Masanobu Fukuoka who published a book called One Straw Revolution. He used clay and seed seedballs as a way to farm – you just threw them on top of soil and crops grew! It’s efficient, you only needed two people, and it protects the crop from birds. From reading this we began to connect ideas and find a simple way to grow wildflowers, as there’s the problem of wildflowers being difficult to grow from seed.

Me and Em had tried multiple summers throwing seeds down! We tried with a greenhouse but we’re rubbish gardeners, we didn’t have the time as researchers to do this properly and we needed quick fix, a simple way to grow.

How easy did you find it to start your own business?

The course gave us the skills and vague confidence (not full confidence!) we needed to get started.

Our research has been the most useful thing. For our PhDs Emily focussed on climate change and environmental tourism and this looked at how it may be possible to get people to care about nature through business; my PhD looked in part at how you get people motivated about doing something about conversation – it was both environmental and social, as is Seedball.

It might be hard to get out of academia – but once you come out you are very well trained for business due to the highs and lows of academia you have all the time where you’re only as good as your last paper. You’re never at a fixed spot like a business. It’s all delayed gratification – we were prepared to eat pot noodles for five years before having a profit!

What advice could you give our members if they’re setting up their own businesses? Any dos and don’ts?

Simple answer is just do it! Don’t delay and procrastinate – the world needs action takers. If you have an idea don’t put it off – you don’t need to know more! Put stuff out there - the main variable to success is hard freaking work and humbleness.

Also find mentors – during our PhDs we were used to having a supervisor so we found a mentor to guide us through our business – Yu Jin Tay, who has been amazing! The main thing is just do it. There’s not enough of us doing it, trying to make a difference for the world.

Many of our members are looking to make that transition from conservation student to employed conservationist – what helped you both to make the transition?

Getting out and being with other groups of people. Surround yourself with people doing the things you most want to do – it affects everything! Try and become part of the team of people doing what you want to do. Don’t be afraid to ask to collaborate on papers, or businesses with people – often even at this stage I offer my services for free so I can be part of something. Offer more than people expect and be prepared to do it for free.

When I was at Aberdeen University I volunteered my time to take notes in the meetings of Aberdeen Centre for Environmental Sustainability, later I helped them with conference organising and this led to me meeting Stephen Moss and Rob Lambert at a Bird and Art event in London. In the end I even wrote a paper where Rob was one of the co-authors.

You don’t have to be the best student, just the most passionate!

How have you kept conservation at the heart of Seedball?

It’s the central reason we started. We are a not for profit - we started off with ‘the problem in the world you wish you could solve’ from our NERC training which was we wanted to help bees and start nature reserves.

But how do you start nature reserves if you’re not rich? How can we help nature in the cheapest way? We’re a not for profit – so all our profits, all our money is going to starting nature reserves in urban areas near people.

We have been part of the ‘River of Flowers’ project – all about connecting communities through wildflower corridors in an urban landscape, and have founded ‘Project Maya’ where urban nature reserves are managed by people for people and nature, using the permaculture principles and here we have run campaigns such as the Peat Free pledge, later supported by Stephen Moss.

We also give away Seedballs for free to schools and community groups – when we get ones shaped not quite right we call them oddballs and give them away!

On to the Seedballs themselves – do you have a favourite Seedball?

The bee mix because it’s our first one and the reason we started everything!

How important is it to you that the Seedballs are all native species?

It’s been massive. We wanted people to realise how beautiful and important for nature our own native wildflowers are. They’re as beautiful as anything in a garden centre!

Do you have a favourite story of people planting the Seedballs?

Our favourite ones are always the community groups. There is one in Leeds on the road I used to take to university. They turned it into a massive wildflower corridor using our poppy balls – seeing the impact it has had has been huge.

Another one is Hartlepool estate – they’ve filled it with wildflowers! They’ve put them everywhere – even behind bus stops! It’s brought people together.

Gill Hickman (@lussas on Twitter)– is someone who deserves so much recognition too! She’s a teacher, and over time she’s filled so much of the area where she lives and surrounding schools with Seedballs. We send her all our oddballs!

What are your plans for Seedball going forward?

Nature reserves is the main plan. We want to expand our reach globally and with different wildflower mixes, and different animals in mind. If anyone has any ideas for new mixes please send them in to us!

Finally – an AFON-themed question! – what is one thing you would encourage everyone to Do#NowforNature?

Plant wildflowers now! Autumn is the best time to plant wildflowers not spring – our seeds like a cold snap. We have been brainwashed by gardening centres that spring is the time to plant wildflowers but we’re British – our wildflowers want to be planted now!

If you’re a not-for-profit organisation that centres around planting wildflowers, get in touch with Seedball now if you’d like to be sent some oddball Seedballs! There’s no excuse to not get planting!

And keep your eyes on the AFON social media early next week for a very exciting competition from AFON and Seedball!

If you want to find out more about Seedball head over to their website, and make sure you’re following them on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram!

Ally Hoadley is an MSc Conservation and Biodiversity student at the University of Exeter, Cornwall Campus. She is the Online and Social Media Manager for A Focus on Nature, and Presenter for NatureWatch, the student-led wildlife documentary series. Check out her website and follow her on Twitter!


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