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Episode 16: Nathan Griswold, Inhabitect


This week, Tim and I caught up with Nathan Griswold, of Inhabitect in Traverse City. Inhabitect designs and builds green roofs, which assist with stormwater drainage and cooling, along with providing the spaces for building inhabitants to use and enjoy. We chat with Nate today about what it’s like to run his green company in an area still embracing some forms of green infrastructure, the technology challenges he faces with his office in Leelanau County, managing staff, and more.

Show Transcript

Ruthy (00:00):

Welcome back to another episode of Terrapin Small Biz Connection powered by Terrapin Networks in Traverse City, I’m Ruthy Kirwan, and together with my cohost Tim Gillen, we share with you the conversations that we have with area business owners, founders, and managers, we believe here that it takes a special kind of grit and resiliency to run a small business in the Up North. And we’re passionate about bringing the stories of these companies and being open about the everyday realities, the good and the bad with you. Our audience, our guest today is Nathan Griswold of Inhabitect in Traverse City. Inhabitect builds green roofs, which as Nate will tell us in today’s episode involves a little more than just, you know, pulling out a paint can and painting the roof, green his rooftops, incorporate green architecture to help assist with storm water drainage and cooling and provide spaces for a building inhabitants to use and enjoy. We chat with Nate today about what it’s like to run his green company in an area, still embracing some forms of green infrastructure, the technology challenges he faces with his office located in Leelanau County, managing staff and more. Now I am going to hand this over to Tim to welcome Nathan Griswold of Inhabitect in Traverse City.

Nathan (02:01):

Well, thank you, Ruthy. Thanks for joining us for this week’s edition of the Terrapin Small Biz Connection. I’m Tim Gillen, founder and president of Terrapin Networks in Traverse City. We do small biz tech system and maintenance. On our show we talk with local -and by local, I mean Northern Michigan business owners- about their companies and what they’re doing to keep running and how they’ve grown and all sorts of things, kind of a, a business owner to business owner conversation. And this week we’re, we’re thrilled to have, along with us, Nathan Griswold from Inhabitect, Nate has a company that does green roofs, primarily. But there’s more to it than that. And he’s got some neat installations all over the place, not just Northern Michigan. He’s going to tell us a bit about that and what he’s done grow and how he’s made things get started and continue and flourish… Pardon the pun, cause part of it’s green stuff that he does. Nathan, hello and good day. And thanks for joining us here on the Terrapin Small Biz Connection.

Nathan (03:14):

Thanks for having me.

Ruthy (03:15):

Thanks Nate, how are you?

Nathan (03:17):

I’m good. Thanks.

Nathan (03:18):

So Nate, tell us a little bit about Inhabitect and what you folks do, what you’re known for, and maybe a little bit about how you even got the whole thing started.

Nathan (03:29):

Well, thanks again, you guys for inviting me. I’m always happy to talk about Inhabitect and how we got started here in Northern Michigan. A little bit more about my story and the company’s story. It really starts with me back here in Traverse City. I am born and raised a R was born and raised here. I went to Northern Michigan Northwest Michigan college and MC and I found my way down to Michigan state and got a degree in landscape architecture.

Nathan (03:58):

And from there, you know, I’ve really learned about a new and emerging market which was green roofs and found my way into a job there. And that venture took me and I was gone out away from Traverse City for almost 13 years, but my heart has always been here in Northern Michigan. So even in those years I was making the paint a big paycheck. The paychecks were no longer big enough to keep me from my home. So because of my passion with green roofs or about green roofs I found my way back here and really wanting to try to make it work. So I consider myself a boomerang entrepreneur. I, I went out you know, I was thrown from the throne from here. I had launched out and fell down from the nest, the nest, and then came back. And, and I’ve been lucky enough that my company has been successful. And I do lend that success to the mindset of this region and by mindset. I mean the entrepreneurial vision, many people have up here, you know, what habitat does is we’re designing, building and growing all forms of living architecture. So what that means is in a nutshell is we’re looking at landscapes from a more ecological standpoint from design all the way to installation.

Ruthy (05:29):

And so Nathan, can you describe for us exactly what a green roof is? I mean, I have a pretty good idea, but break down exactly how you put that together.

Nathan (05:41):

Well it’s not a roof painted green that’s that’s for sure.

Nathan (05:45):

Let’s start at the hardware store, buy some green paint and we’ll call it good. There you go. That was quick.

Nathan (05:56):

So it’s not green shingles or green metal. It’s a living, breathing vegetated rooftop. For lack of a better way of saying, it’s landscaping on your roof. So there’s various standardized answers to the question of what is a green roof and what is a green roof really is. Again, vegetated surface on a waterproof membrane. It’s something that is engineered to be on top of the rooftop.

Tim (06:35):

So, say I have a warehouse or a storage unit with a roof. I have a membrane down on the rooftop to keep the water out, different to how I would normally do on a flat roof. And then on top of that, I actually put landscaping, I put dirt and plants and that helps get rid of rain water. It also helps cooling. It also helps heating and insulation. It does all those things. This in addition to just having some black rubber membrane that’s sitting out there baking in the sun, am I right?

Nathan (07:10):

Yeah, and there’s a lot of work you need to do to get that to work right. You need to start with a green roof profrssional You need to work with a green roof professional, like myself, that can help you answer all the questions. Like how much does it weigh? What’s the white right. Waterproofing, how much water will this roof hold? You know, one of the large, the main reasons green roof are used and they’re becoming so popular in North America is that they manage stormwater. So again, greens to infrastructure. So we’re in, when the water hits that rooftop, it’s not running off, it’s going to about 50 to 60% of that water is never going to leave that rooftop in city engineers, as well as site engineers, civil engineers, doing the stormwater calculations for that site. That is a type of stuff they need to know. They need to know how much water is hitting the roof and how much they have to deal with.

Ruthy (08:10):

Do you feel like, do you feel like most people who are working with you in Northern Michigan are coming to the table kind of already understanding the benefits of a green roof and what it’s from, or have you experienced like that more education is needed. And then speaking about Northern Michigan specifically, because I know that you’ve done this in lots of different places, but how has Northern Michigan in terms of coming into your industry and into your business with,

Nathan (08:34):

I think that depends again, depends who you’re speaking with, but you know, most people that I speak with that are from Northern Michigan are looking at green roofs from the number two reason. These are built is aesthetics or user’s space. So it’s the high end residential home that wants a roof deck overlooking like Michigan with some plants and some pavers or it’s the commercial developer architect that wants them up there. And the primary reason might be for stormwater, but they’re also thinking user space. The folks that I get the calls from know about the technology, they like how it looks and know that it can manage some water, but they don’t know the details. Your average citizen, they like the flora, that you can put plants, dirt, etc on a rooftop. The “dirt” is really a specialized soil, actually. The average user thinks that you just throw this specialized dirt on top of a shingle roof. But really there’s tons of different kinds of waterproofing membranes. Most people think of roofing, they think shingles.

Ruthy (10:15):

So Nate, as you say, you ‘boomerang’ back after you’ve got this landscaping degree from from MSU. After this, you start this business. Can you share with us what kind of challenges have you had with starting and growing the business, especially as it pertains to being in Traverse City and Northern Michigan? And as part of that, give us a little flavor of how you overcame some of that.

Nathan (10:46):

Well right out of the gate after starting the business, I found I had jumped into a market that’s a fraction of the size of the cities I was working in. There’s a lot of growth in this area, as everyone knows, but qualified jobs are limited. New build commercial projects are happening. In 2013 when I came here was a challenge, but I strategically knew, you know, there was a couple of new builds going on. One was at Cherry Capital Foods, one at the Family Cancer Center. But the biggest challenge was, you know, figuring out how to transition from a consultant sales guy in my last job, to operating a landscape company. Combing all those, selling, the technical part, educating, installing. That’s still a large part of my struggles. My team is growing greatly. I’ve got some great new hires and we’re all learning together here after 8 years. I’ve had a lot of support here locally from SBDC. They’ve been a huge help to me with the resources they offer. And they’ve plugged me into various other opportunities around the region. They’ve also assisted with project management training. they helped me find other things because you know, my business is very much not a normal landscape company.

Tim (12:42):

You’re not landscaping and you’re not roofing, you’re this interesting hybrid. What you’re describing is not uncommon for any of us in a small business. You’re good at doing a particular thing and you can see the opportunity, but as it turns out, there’s a lot more to it with the financing and bookkeeping and being able to keep a lot of other balls juggling. You started out thinking this would be about selling and architecture and designing and implementation of these roofs and green spaces, but youfind there’s all this background stuff. That’s part of the challenge. Much of us in northern Michigan ended up going into a business because we love the particular industry. Sounds like SBDC, the Small Business Development Corporation has been helpful for your business. I’m glad to see that they were able to help you in the way that they have been, and good for you for taking advantage of that resource. Let me transition to the next thing we’d like to ask about, tell us about how you’ve been able to use technology to help and propel your business. Has it been a challenge for you? Fill us in a little bit on the technology that you folks are using and how that’s helped.

Nathan (14:23):

Yeah, sure. Well, I’ll start at where I’m sitting today. I’m looking out the window here in Leelanau County. Where my office and my shops are at, I’m looking at a satellite internet connection. That is a huge weak spot here in Northern Michigan. Internet, also cell phone. Here, I happen to be in a little dip. I’m 7 miles from the open space in Traverse City, right off of M72 on Bugai Road, Southern Leelanau County. And I cannot get wired internet here. I can’t get high speed internet. If it was a rainy day today, I wouldn’t have been able to take this call. I would have had to do this somewhere from home. And my cell phone barely works there. So those are huge hurdles of my business. Missed messages, missed calls, missed emails, missed zoom calls, that is a major, major problem. And you know, shame on me for not checking that out before I bought the property. But I learned my lesson there!

Tim (15:35):

You’ve got a cool company here, Nate. There’s a real upside to what you’ve got here. I was chatting with some fellow business owners in town here, the last couple of weeks, saying hey, I’m getting this Nate Griswold from Inhabitect coming on and they all said, “Oh yeah, I’ve heard about them” That’s pretty cool. I’m really encouraged that Northern Michigan in general has been open to green roofs and this vegetation on buildings. It feels like it’s a perfect fit for our lifestyle up here in Northern Michigan. That’s why you came back here after college, because it’s a beautiful place to live. Our outdoors means the world to us up here. What you’re doing, being so directly tied into that, seems like a really good fit and I’m thrilled you’re up here.

Nathan (16:35):

Thanks for having me. And if I could add, you know, one of the biggest challenges here as any business owner will know. You start out with a vision of, “I’m going to be a green roof company.” But then later, you’re really pivoting. Being open to pivots in your business is critical to any company.

Ruthy (17:08):

Nathan, how can listeners get ahold of you if they’re interested in finding out about Inhabitect, what is the best they can do that?

Nathan (17:14):

My email is You can also check us out on Facebook and Instagram. I appreciate what you guys are doing. This is the kind of thing that we need more of up here is this, you know, sharing of stories. You know the talent pool up here is limited. It’s hard to find good people, and you need good jobs for good people. That’s what I’m trying to be here, trying to create the lifestyle that i want for myself and my employees here in Northern Michigan.

Tim (18:43):

Nate, once again, thanks a million for taking a few minutes with us here. We sure appreciate it.

Nathan (18:49):

Thanks again. I’m always happy to talk to those interested in what we’re doing over here.

Ruthy (18:56):

Welcome back again to Terrapin Small Biz Connection with your hosts, Tim Gillen and myself, Ruthy Kirwan. This is the section of our show that we’d like to call “Tim’s Takeaway”, where Tim and I hash out the technological parts of our conversation that we just had. And today our conversation was with Nathan Griswold of Inhabitect, which is a fascinating green roofs company here in Northern Michigan. We brought up something in our conversation today, Tim, that I want you to expand on a little bit more. And that’s about connectivity. Nate was there in Leelanau County, 7 miles from the center of Traverse City at the Open Space and he really struggles with connectivity. So let’s get into that a little bit more, and what other small business owners might be facing with that as well.

Tim (20:17):

Yeah, that was kind of striking wasn’t it. We had an episode just a few weeks back, a very recent episode with Baris from socks Kick up in East Jordan. For listeners, if maybe you missed that one, it’d be fun to listen to out on our, on our website, as a podcast, you can still listen to it And while we made that recording Baris was in Istanbul Turkey and Ruthy was in Queens, New York City, in the borough of Queens. I was here in Traverse City and we all had a wonderful little conversation. And one of the things that we talked about that Baris brought up was that his internet connection in East Jordan. He’s in the old Duraplant in East Jordan, in Charlevoix County here in Northern Michigan. His internet connection was in some ways more stable than what he had in Istanbul, Turkey, which is a big city, 20 million people, 2.5 times larger than New York city. One of the things we talked about was that he’s got this great connection East Jordan and what a blessing that is for us in Northern Michigan. But I mentioned then that sometimes you can get 6, 7 miles outside of East Jordan and everything changes. And that’s a challenge for us. Here is Nate Griswold in southern Leelanau County, as he mentioned, I think he’s 6 miles from the Open Space, which is right in the center of Traverse City, right on the Bay. Out there he has very limited internet, no ability to get a cable, internet connection, or even any wired connection and allows a cell phone connection. He’s in kind of a dead zone. We have a customer that we’ve worked with for many years. The owner lives out in that neck of the woods. Same problem, man, it’s dead out there for connectivity. And you can’t get internet through any of the wired providers like Charter or AT&T or Verizon. It’s just a dead zone on a cell phone. So you do have some wireless options. There are some vendors around who do really good wireless connectivity, but you pretty much have to put up a tower to make it really work. You might want to put up a small tower on your property so that you’ve got some expense there, but it can be a pretty good internet or you’ve got satellite, which has, of course it’s built in latency issues.

Ruthy (23:03):

And like Nate said, if it was raining today, we wouldn’t have been able to talk.

Tim (23:06):

Yeah. So that’s, that can be tricky. And one of the things Nate mentioned was that he had overlooked that when he bought this great piece of property. That’s always a note for us. It used to be we would look at property from a commercial standpoint, make sure that it got plowed out quickly after a snow storm or that you weren’t too far off the end of the beaten path. But now we also think about the technology side. That’s what that I think brings us towards is, is frankly the kind of work that we do at Terrapin Networks. And by that, I mean the consulting side, one of the things that you get when you hire us, is you get a tech manager and a consultant. That’s a lot of what I do. I’ll come in and say, let’s figure out the way to accomplish X or Y whatever it might be.

Tim (23:56):

And it’s important for us as business owners, to be able to be able to know what our options are, a consultant speaking with someone like me, who can help you at least understand what your options are. And maybe there maybe really don’t have any, but maybe you’ve got a couple and you may not pick door. Number one that I might recommend. You may pick door number two, but at least you knew what you were saying no to a door. Number one. And sometimes as a business owner, the options, aren’t great. I’m going to put up a tower for some wireless, even though Charter tells me that within a year, I’m going to have a cable internet here. But then, of course, that year, it’s kind of like how they said there would be two weeks to flatten the curve. Everything just keeps being moved to a new two weeks.

Tim (24:42):

Sometimes Charter might tell you that Charter Spectrum might say, that’s what their plan is, but it may not actually roll out for you and you end up waiting and waiting. So you make a decision. Do I put in a thousand bucks to get in some tower and get a wireless internet connection from one of the providers that does that? Sometimes those options aren’t always good, but at least, you know what the options are because that’s a challenge for us. If Nate’s physical business is a few miles closer to Traverse City, in this case, he may have different options. The technology can be a challenge. So these are not always easy conversations.

Tim (25:30):

One of the things we live with in Northern Michigan, sometimes people are 4 or 5 miles out and they have a fantastic cell connection so they can at least make, do with a hotspot. So it’s just good to find out what those options actually are. And sometimes the vendors aren’t the best place to go. I work with all these vendors, I have for years. I know what the options are and I can drill down to your geographic location and say, “here’s what your options are.” And again, they may not always be good, but at least, you know what they are. And you may go ahead and pull the trigger because it might make sense on the business side to do something that you may only get a payout after over a couple of years, even that can be sometimes worth doing, but at least you’ll know what you said yes to, or what you said no to. And that’s important. I think for any of us in business, to make that informed decision as to where you have a consultant who can help you figure out the options in which one might make the most sense,

Ruthy (26:31):

A consultant just like Terrapin Networks.

Nathan (26:33):

Just like Tim Gillen at Terrapin Networks. Yeah.

Ruthy (26:36):

Hmm. What do you know? Yeah, but truly

Tim (26:39):

That’s a big part of what I do. When you hire a tech manager, as opposed to just some guy who fixes things when they break or even the MSP kind of idea where they just look at devices and check things off a list, which can be valuable, but it can really miss. If you have an account manager whose job is to sell things, that’s a little bit different. That’s not how we do it. We are quite the opposite of that. Nothing wrong with that. It’s just not what we do. We come on as a tech manager, I come on as your tech manager and help you put all those little pieces together. Now we do the implementation. So you don’t have to mess with it. I’m responsible for keeping it running for keeping it secure for keeping everything in place like it’s supposed to be.

Tim (27:22):

So your staff could do what they do to make money and, and, and keep your promises to your customers and your promises to your staff and to your vendors and all those promises that any, any business owner has to keep. The technology can really help you do that. But when we have those geographic challenges, like we sometimes do in Northern Michigan, there’s ways around that usually. So you have to decide those things and that’s where a consultant that’s where I can help you figure out what your options are and what you’re saying yes to, and what you’re saying no to so that you know, that whatever you’ve put in places, at least the best that it can be from the available options.

Ruthy (28:01):

Well, that’s all the time we have to spend together today, Tim. Thank you so much for hanging out with me today. As we chatted with Nathan Griswold at Inhabitect, which I thought was a fascinating conversation. I know I’ve already said this a couple times. I think his business is so fascinating and cool and needed in the area and needed for the world around us. We’ve got a great roster of people who are coming up in the works- more business owners, more founders from the Northern Michigan area. And I’m very excited to see what we have together in store. So let’s hang out again next week and chat with them.

Tim (28:33):

I look forward to it. Thanks

Ruthy (28:35):

Me too. All right. Have a good day.

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