You’ve got the idea or the prototype - but taking the plunge into entrepreneurship in agriculture can be daunting, especially if it means leaving the security of your own job behind.
There are plenty of lessons to be gleaned from those who have truly “made it” and are well down the road as established founders and business owners. But sometimes, these insights seem so removed from your own reality when you’re just starting.
So, we’ve decided to share some advice from three producer-led startups in our Bootcamp Program who are achieving success early on in their new venture journeys.
1 . You need a strong understanding of how farmers think and what their priorities are.
Where tech companies can get it wrong sometimes is when they do the maths - and tell farmers they have a product which can save them time and money - but fail to understand their new technology may not be high on the list of priorities for a farmer who is running a large and often complex business.
This is something Bill Mitchell, the founder of Optiweigh, which manufactures an automated and mobile weigh-in system, understands well.
He’s a farmer near Guyra, NSW, and has experience in the corporate trading and commodity world.
“The tech company will say, this piece of agtech costs $1000, and if you install it, it will save you 20 litres of fuel a week and two hours labour. Therefore you’re getting a 20% return from this piece of agtech, and you should buy it,” Bill said.
But Bill argues what the tech company doesn’t realise is the farmer is listening to the startup’s pitch, thinking about the new tractor they need to buy or the money it will cost to fertilize this season.
“You’ve got a big list of all these things which are way more important and have a much bigger return to your business than a 20% return for a piece of agtech,” Bill said.
Bill has taken this understanding of the farmer psyche to create his own product; confident farmers would want it because he originally came up with the innovation to solve a problem on his own farm.
He needed a solution to weighing cattle that didn’t require fencing off an entire paddock and ushering the cows through. So he developed a mobile set of scales, where cattle essentially weigh themselves. A lick block entices the animal to place its front feet on the weighing platform, which can calculate the full bodyweight of the cow and record it in the cloud. Thereby turning a very time-consuming job into a largely automated one.
Similarly, Charlie and Amie Lange, the founders of Auscrimper, developed a unique crop roller because it initially solved a problem on their farm near Dalby, QLD.
“We built our first machine back in 2015,” Charlie said.
“It happened as our family started to implement a few more sustainable farming practices, with rotational grazing and then cover cropping to improve the soil,” he said.
Auscrimper’s roller is designed to knock down cover crops at the time of planting.
“You just attach it to your tractor, and the blades on the roller crimp the stem, which stops the moisture from being able to flow up the stalk of the plant,” Charlie said.
Charlie and Amie realized they had a winning product when other local growers became interested in using their roller. They began running trials, and its popularity grew through word of mouth.
“Then we started doing a bit more promotion, we started a website and a Facebook page, and we really started to get a bit of traction,” Charlie said.
Both Bill Mitchell and the Langes say their farming experience has been key to their success.
“It’s what allows you to actually know whether or not you’ve got something other farmers need,” Bill said.
Bill Mitchell from Optiweigh
2. A product and business model you can keep improving.
Clearly, you need a product that customers want. Once you get over that first hurdle of making sure you understand how customers will assess your product in terms of their business priorities, you need to then set out on improving it.
Chances are, there are other products like yours on the market - so you want to make sure your product is out in front - and you’re giving customers the best experience possible. Otherwise, you just frustrate customers by not delivering well on your promise.
Heath McWhirter and Emma Ayliffe are two agronomists turned entrepreneurs who have founded a social networking site for the agriculture industry called Yacker.
They have established a platform where farmers can see whether another farmer in their network is online and then call them for a good old-fashioned conversation.
“It just seems to be the way the industry works. A lot of farmers would rather use the phone than send text messages,” Heath said.
“It’s when a farmer has time for a conversation like they’re sitting on the tractor or a long drive, Emma said.
Emma also allows farmers to talk about more private issues and build relationships rather than broadcasting their concerns across Twitter.
“You don’t really want all your neighbours to know your sheep have footrot, for example,” Emma said.
Being a social networking site, Heath and Emma understand the customer experience is key to their success.
Their platform now has hundreds of users, and the founders are currently adding more features to the app, such as the ability to share photos and voice over IP.
Emma and Heath also know they need a business model that allows them to improve continually and, of course, generate revenue.
“You can spend money on software forever. But how do we make sure that our cohort analysis or our demographic and our engagement is consistently improving?” Heath said.
He said once the business model is right and there’s continual improvement, and then they’ll have a commercial venture.
Bill Mitchell of Optiweigh says he’s been looking at the best revenue approach for his business - deciding between capital costs versus an ongoing subscription for farmers.
“Everyone is selling subscriptions, but of course everybody hates paying for them… and we’re already starting with a big piece of metal, which we have to charge for,” Bill said.
Optiweigh also provides an analytics website for cattle weight gain, but Bill says charging a subscription for this doesn’t appear to be the best model, at least, at this stage.
“So we’ve had to adjust our pricing to build the cost of the website data into the unit price,” Bill said.
Amie and Charlie Lange from Auscrimp
3. The constant willingness to step outside your comfort zone.
Twelve months ago, Charlie Lange was a boilermaker, and Amie worked in allied health and contributed to the family farm.
“We could never have imagined we would be working for ourselves full time... both of us,” Charlie said.
They say it was “scary” to leave their jobs last year to commit to Auscrimper full time.
“But we haven’t really looked back. We love it. We’ve put on a couple of employees now too, and it’s just been a steady growth,” Amie said.
Amie says there has been a lot of personal development for them, both naturally shy and reserved.
“It was a huge step for us to not be afraid to ask questions, to be vulnerable and just really go for it,” Amie said.
“We’ve been really lucky. We’ve had people help us get up and running who want nothing more than to see us do well. And you need to be able to accept that help,” she said.
Em Ayliffe and Heath McWhirter from Yacker
For the founders of Yacker, Heath and Emma, going out of their comfort zone has always come naturally. They established their own agronomy consultancy in 2016 and then in the 2019 drought when there wasn’t much work for agronomists, and they came up with Yacker.
But what they have learned along the way is to challenge their own assumptions about what they think the consumer wants by actually testing it on farmers through surveys and conversations.
They’ve also learnt to be more structured in their approach to achieving their big goals.
“We were sort of flying blind, but with Farmers2Founders there’s an actual framework about getting a business off the ground and looking at what your product-market fit is,” Heath said.
“It’s also the network of people to just bounce ideas off and get critical feedback.”
Bill Mitchell, is currently expanding his knowledge in sales and marketing to reach more customers.
“It’s a big leap to go from farming to commercializing a product,” he said.
“I think getting cattle to stand on the platform was the easy part.”
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