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Why producers learning to think like startups is good for the industry

Last year we ran our first cohort of the Farmers2Founders Bootcamp program. Farmers2Founders was built on the premise that primary producers are uniquely placed to create businesses that solve ag’s problems because of their on the ground experience.

Farmers2Founders programs are designed to accommodate the schedules, locations, and existing skillsets of producers, and leverage their industry expertise and insight to solve problems for other producers - whether it’s getting to market, value-adding their product, or a much-needed software or hardware tool.

There’s another founding principle that defines and differentiates Farmers2Founders programs. We believe that producer-led businesses can unlock massive industry impact if they are armed with the tools, skills, and mindsets of high-growth startups.

The Bootcamp was a key test of this. Over 3 months, we challenged, pushed, and supported 8 producer-led businesses to grow faster. Our goal was to train and transform the teams and get them to start thinking like a startup. This mindset shift can be distilled into three pillars: think lean, think digital, and think big.

Think lean: Great things happen when you unlearn the fear of failure

All founders struggle with sales. Talking to customers and asking for money is a big deal - a moment of truth about your product and your business that’s really scary. If the customer says no, then what?

As a result, it’s common for founders to spend more time building, in the hopes that with more features, more to offer, a better product - that when they do eventually try and close a sale, the answer is a yes.

This desire to have a ‘finished’ product before talking to customers can not only slow you down, but - if you’ve missed the mark - kill you all together.

Those from startup land who have come across Steve Blank or Eric Ries will know the advice to this: get your product in front of customers ASAP.

But this lean startup approach of seeking feedback early is not well-known or easily accepted by producers, for whom business is built on trust and reputation. Helping producer-led businesses get over this fear of selling an ‘incomplete’ product was a huge focus of the Farmers2Founders Bootcamp.

Whether positive or negative, customer feedback is a crucial tool for direction. It helps you make sure you’re on the right track, and decide what to do (or not do) next.

Many of the teams in the Bootcamp had to have this ‘moment of truth’.

Fee and Aran from Bitwise Agronomy were a great example. Bitwise is developing a digital tool called Greenview that allows vineyards and other horticultural producers to analyze side-on video imagery to tell them what’s happening in the field.

In order to develop Greenview, Bitwise needed lots of video data. They needed users to agree to capture video now, even though it would take 6 months or more before the finished product would be ready. What if customers weren’t willing to capture the data? Fee and Aran spent a lot of time and energy trying to think of ways around this chicken and egg problem, and worrying it might be impossible.

There was only one way to find out: talking to customers.

It turns out, the time lag was not as big a barrier as Bitwise thought. In fact there were plenty of vineyard managers out there who were willing to start capturing data now in order to have tailored analysis models by next season. Even at their early stage, the value proposition of Greenview was appealing enough to secure pilot customers like Pernod Ricard and Penley Estate.

Lee, Matt and Cassie from FarmSimple were another great example of the power of customer feedback. FarmSimple is building farm management software for family farms that have grown quickly and are becoming semi-corporate in size. When FarmSimple came into the program, they were hesitant to pursue sales because of concern that the product ‘wasn’t useful enough’ yet. Just ‘a few more features’ and then they would be ready to go and sell.

Shifting their mindset to appreciate the value of sales conversations and customer feedback helped FarmSimple make key changes over the Bootcamp. They realized who their key customer segment was and changed up their pricing structure and sales process to better suit. This saw them change their marketing language and bring on new customers at a greater rate.

So the first mindset shift for producers to think like a startup is to think lean.

Don’t spend ages creating a business plan or another feature instead of talking to customers. Get out there! It’s not easy to show your baby to the world for the first time. But better to know what customers really think, than stay in the shadows guessing and second-guessing. Once you know, you can make adjustments as needed.

What other ways can producers pick up the tools of startups to grow faster? Check out Part 2 and 3 of this series: the not-so-secret tools for growth, and the importance of vision!

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