Building an AgriTech Startup
The Lessons Learnt - Team, Culture and Product
“It is not the mountains ahead to climb that wear you out; it is the pebble in your shoe.”
What is it about entrepreneurship that people risk everything in their life to start a venture? What is it that they can see which others cannot? From my own experience it is a deep down belief in something and a strong conviction that you can launch a product or a service which will change the status quo.
Entrepreneurs are passionate about the cause and are willing to go through the pain, sacrifices, failures, and be relentless and persistent to bring the idea to fruition. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, money is not a primary motive for an entrepreneur to take those risks. Money is on the list, however I believe, money is an incidental thing which happens to a well-run, successful venture.
Welcome to the first newsletter of this month. In this article, I will share with you some real learnings, learnt in a hard way, from building and scaling the AgriTech startup. These are written from the perspective of the Co-Founder and the CEO of the company. Ultimately, whatever happens in the company is the CEO’s responsibility and the buck stops with him/her.
Although the article says “AgriTech”, the lessons can be applicable to any other sector, however, some of the lessons are specific to Business to Business (B2B) software-as-a-service (SaaS) companies.
Digital AgriTech is still new and what we are seeing now is the Second Generation of the companies in the market. Below is a quick overview of the evolution of the digital AgriTech and a few companies in each cohort.
Please note that the year boundaries are approximate and this is not an exhaustive list of the companies in each period. These companies are a few examples showing the evolution and maturity in the sector.
In the Vintage period and during the first half of the First Generation, there was a big emphasis on the Farm Management Systems (FMS) and Precision Agriculture. The second half of the First Generation and the early Second Generation companies moved towards creating different Point Solutions (IoT, image analysis, AI/ML, financial solution) and marketplaces. They definitely seem to have learnt from the startups ahead of them in the First Generation. It is interesting to see that some of the marketplace companies which entered in the agriculture sector moved out of the traditional e-commerce sector as they got crowded or squeezed out.
This article is compiled based on the number of talks I gave at the Accelerate Cambridge Programme at the Entrepreneurship Centre, Cambridge Judge Business School over the last few years. The talks titled “Unknown Unknowns” covered the learnings under following categories:
Team & Culture; Product; Sales; and Finance.
Due to the amount of the content to cover, I will cover only Team & Culture; and Product in this article.
Team & Culture
It takes a village to build the company. By far this is the most important category and my major learnings are in this category. Ideas are important but even more important is clean execution. That will not happen without a great team and the culture which supports the team. The team and the culture go hand in hand and feed into each other - it is a lethal combination.
Team building, the sequence: It is interesting to see how SaaS companies start and evolve. That evolution depends on the founder(s) background(s). At KisanHub, we started with an engineering team, then hired for customer success, sales, product management and marketing, in that order. In hindsight, we should have hired a product manager early on. Ok, we made another mistake there, instead of getting a product manager we hired a VP-Product and tasked that person to build the product function. This doesn’t mean there was no one who played the role of a Product Manager, in the first few years that responsibility went to myself and a couple of other people in our engineering team. We should have also prioritised the marketing function early on. Ideally, with the founder backgrounds, and with the product we were building, the sequence should have been - engineering, product management, customer success, and sales+marketing.
Senior leadership: The scaling of B2B SaaS companies happens in stages rather than in a one straight transition. There are so many moving parts one needs to get right. When we raised a decent round we tried to scale prematurely. Hiring “senior” people too soon and promoting a few early hires to the senior roles who did not have necessary operational experience was a mistake. Watch out for what I call “Blind men and the elephant syndrome” - pseudo experts who have some knowledge, who bring no “wisdom” to the table and who act like consultants can kill your business. Your senior team should have the same level of ambition, passion, integrity and be willing to go through the highs and lows of venture building with you.
Every time you hire a senior, experienced person, that person comes with a certain baggage. Please make sure that the on-boarding of the senior team members happens in a structured way and they get enough time to understand the culture and processes of your company. Unlearning something is a part of learning. The on-boarding process is needed for any employee, however, I would like to emphasise the added importance attached to the senior team. Watch out for the “pockets of sub-cultures'' which might develop within your company under the leadership of such senior team members. If this happens, acknowledge it, go back to on-boarding and/or addressing it swiftly. Also, be aware of the new senior team members who will start changing the processes as soon as they join the company. It is perfectly ok to change something but only when they have had enough time to understand the business, culture, clients and the product. Just to change something because “this was not how it was done at my old company” is not acceptable. Your senior team (and rest of the team), should be capable of operating in a demanding, chaotic and uncertain environment. Finally, As Jim Collins says in his book Good to Great, make sure you have a right person on the bus and make sure that the right person is sitting in the right seat.
Founders and the team - look after yourself: Early on Hanadi Jabado (then at the Judge Business School) mentioned to me that “building an enterprise is like running a marathon and not a sprint”. That is so true. At that time, I didn’t quite understand the gravity of that statement. However, I do now. The landscape changes everyday, you go through one wave and immediately after that, even before you have a chance to breathe, you see the next oncoming wave already. It is relentless. The only way you can go through this is “regular work and rest cycles”. You need to slow down every once in a while, think, refresh and get back to work with a fresh mindset. Please take breaks and allow yourself to recharge those batteries - in fact, I will say avoid draining your batteries completely and do not run on flat for a long time. As every once in a while you could do with that spare capacity to tackle unforeseen events. Having a proper routine and regular exercise helps. Personally, I found regular walks, yoga, and meditation useful.
Board: Investors are not your friends. They play an important role and your job is to deliver value to your clients through your product and create value for your employees and investors. Typically, early stage startup boards consist of investors and founders. That is not good enough. Having an independent, non executive director (NED) and/or Chairperson is essential for an effective, efficient functioning of the board. The founder, CEO needs someone to go to before/after Board meetings for advice, bounce ideas off and to prepare for the strategy sessions with the Board. NED will play a crucial role in all of this. In addition to that, NED can also play an important role in resolving any differences between the board members and/or founding team when they happen. I also feel that the Board member (or Investor) communication with your senior team (including your co-founder(s)) needs to be routed via you, the CEO. No exceptions. In the Boards where there is no Chairperson, the CEO has to drive the Board conversation and manage the communication assertively.
Communication: I know some founders think that writing emails is “communicating” with your team. It is not. The team dynamics changes completely when the team size goes past circa 10. Founders/CEOs need to make that extra effort to communicate regularly and let everyone know what is happening. You owe your team that clarity. Our team was split between Cambridge, UK and Pune, India so we had that extra responsibility in providing clarity to all team members across both offices. Also, be aware of the cultural differences when you have people working in different parts of the world - it does not come very naturally for some people to ask questions in the team meetings, especially, when they are not in the same room. So, it is your (and other people managers) responsibility to seek that feedback consciously. Weekly “All Hands” meetings and senior team meetings are a good place to start. This can be supplemented by routine 1-2-1s with your reporting lines. In turn, other senior leaders and people in managerial roles can cascade the 1-2-1s. Team outings, senior team day outs, strategy days help too. There is a certain advantage of going away from the office (working from home now) environment to spend quality time discussing not just tactical stuff but also the strategy. However, do plan such events carefully, set clear objectives and goals and send any preparation material well ahead of the time so the team can come prepared.
“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”
It is often not the lack of ideas which will kill your product but too many ideas will. KisanHub’s product had multiple pivots. It was a pure platform play rather than a point solution. Typical to the First Generation AgriTech company, we started with “book of records (BoR)” for farmers at the upstream end of the supply chain and providing the users with “insights” based on the BoR. Soon after that, through our early enterprise clients, the product started connecting farmers with their Producer Groups (or Aggregators) in the supply chain and finally it became a “farm to factory gate” supply chain software solution providing insights on suppliers, quantity and quality of the produce.
While we were building the supply chain platform, we also built a “trials management” platform for the research organisations to manage their field trials. This was built on the same foundation as the supply chain management platform. However, the target user group was different so effectively we had two product teams, two different sales processes and the same with customer success. On top of it, the team was split between Cambridge and Pune so it was like running multiple startups in one. The result of that was relentless activity going on for a number of years.
In my opinion, the best software developers are the ones who are not just good at software but they are also the domain/industry experts. Being a domain expert gives them that extra edge and they can add so much value to the product. This is why the products built by the teams at a cross section of technology and other fields (like finance, music etc.) stand apart. The people who have created them understand the user so much better. Being a First Generation company in the AgriTech sector, we had a slim chance of finding a software developer or a product person with a good understanding of the agri-food supply chain and farming. It took us lot longer to hire a new person on the team.
To summarise the lessons:
As mentioned above, we should have got a product manager early on.
We were working on too many ideas/experiments to see what works and what doesn’t.
The result of this was that the team was working hard and the resources were spread too thinly. We were not able to iterate quickly to enhance the functionality which was used regularly and also improve the performance bottlenecks as they were appearing.
Felt like racing against the time, all the time.
As the usage went up, as the new users were added, the data volume started going up and this had a negative impact on the user experience because of those performance bottlenecks. (Note: adding a new user meant that we had their data on farm, fields, crops, operations, weather (actual and forecast), satellite imageries etc.)
Be aware of the “gravity pull” from your early customers - your early customers are the cornerstone of the company and they always have a special place. The company relies on them for the user feedback and to understand the challenges, problems and friction in the system. Typically at that stage, there aren’t enough resources to gather the user data at a scale, to analyse and prioritise the features. In this situation, your early customers are your go to place and there is a chance that you might be solving problems specific to a customer rather than for the industry. Be mindful of that.
The “time to value” was high due to the seasonality of the crops. The user had to go through the whole season and wait until harvesting to see the value offered by the product. This was true for a number of different product features we had. In addition to this, due to the complexity and non-standardisation in the supply chain, we were not breaking the data silos fast enough to remove the friction completely. This meant our end users were still using multiple systems.
There is plenty written on Product development by a number of highly experienced people and I am not going to repeat that here. Having said that, I do recommend this meta-thread on Product Management:
Evolution of the product happens in so many baby steps. One also needs to remember that things do take time in spite of the structured, deliberate, logical approach in executing the strategy. In product development, going from an idea to a minimum viable product (MVP) to achieve a product market fit (PMF) is a very different journey. In fact, after spending almost a decade in AgriTech, I am not sure if the definition of PMF in AgriTech is the same as other sectors.
I sincerely hope you find this article useful in whatever venture you are building. I would love to hear from you. Please send any feedback by filling in the contact form on this page or through Twitter and spread the word by sharing this article.
“The only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle.”