Is agile agtech an anathema to agriculture?

December 4, 2018

At the recent 2018 Future Agriculture Challenge (FAC) startup pitch competition, a persistent theme in the agtech space was front and center: how well (or poorly) startups engage with farmers. We’ve recently explored this topic in detail, as improving the dialog and interactions between farmers and founders is absolutely critical to the success of agtech, and to hitting the ambitious goal of agriculture becoming a $100B industry.

Matthew Fealy, founder HortRobotics Australia and a Nuffield scholar who has studied technology adoption extensively, got to the heart of the matter when he asked the FAC pitch competition founders about their board’s farmer to geek ratio. Behind that tough question is a concern I hear frequently: agtech founders don’t speak to enough farmers. Failing to seek farmer input is a mistake that entrepreneurs cannot afford to make.

Founders often need help to move from “technology push” to “solution pull”

Not seeking enough farmer input is a valid criticism of the agtech industry. Founders often need help to move from “technology push” to “solution pull”. Where the argument gets nuanced is around the topic of minimum viable product (MVP). There is confusion about the difference between product functionality and product quality. This confusion risks promoting an unhelpful stereotype about the startup customer engagement process.

Customer discovery 101

First, a little background. Startups, by their nature, have limited resources. Their main goal is to stretch those resources to achieve one primary aim: product-market fit. Product-market fit is startup jargon that means a product or service that customers can’t do without.

To do this, startups begin with a theory about what product its customers need, and then seek evidence of to confirm they have indeed met those needs Because it’s is a theory, the startup wants to invest the least it can to get the evidence it needs. The product delivered to test the theory is the minimum viable product. Just enough to learn what the customer loves. The results of the testing helps to refine the product in an iterative fashion. Each new release, an iteration, seeks to reach the goal of product-market fit. This approach, often referred to as lean startup, helps reduce waste, at least from the startup’s perspective.

Shouldn’t startups wait until the product is ready, then give it to customers to use?

Does lean startup work in agriculture?

Problems emerge in how farmers experience this lean approach. Their experience is often that the startup has over promised and under delivered. Farmers often feel that they are being given products that are not ready or even fail. Farmers are then the ones who bear the cost of that failure. This is a disastrous outcome. Farmers are time poor and surrounded by risk. If the end result of the lean approach is to waste their time and not deliver a result, then is this the right way? Shouldn’t startups wait until the product is ready, then give it to customers to use?

To find answers, it’s helpful to explore the reasons why this is happening. When a farmer ends up disappointed with what was promised, it can usually be attributed to:

  1. Features promised were not delivered
  2. Features promised did not work
  3. Features delivered were not useful

Reason #1 is a communications breakdown. Either the startup set unreasonable expectations that were not met, or the customer was not aware of the true status of the product. Startups who knowingly engage in this behavior are bad actors and undermine the ecosystem.

Reason #2 is a major challenge for startups. It’s incredibly hard and extremely expensive to rigorously test products. Still, startups have to do better. The agtech community, and each startup within it, must take responsibility for delivering high-quality products.

Reason #3 is a key part of the iterative learning process of early customer engagement. The definition of what is not useful can be wide-ranging. Too complex. Too simple. No real benefit. These can be addressed. Yet, there is a saying in some circles: half a product is better than a half-baked product. That is almost always true.

There is no point throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

We need better tactics, not a new strategy

In all three cases, these are not problems of strategy, but problems of tactics. There is no point throwing out the baby with the bathwater. The lean startup process is an incredibly efficient style of innovation and it helps startups to spend money wisely. Yet, there are things that can be done do to improve the experience for farmers and still keep the benefits of an iterative approach:

  1. Keep solving problems that prevent farmers and founders from talking early and often. More interactions will help ensure that product ideas are well informed by farmer needs before work begins.
  2. Manage expectations between farmers and founders about product validation and verification. Support models for product trials that are open and honest about product features. Never compromise on product quality. Acknowledge farmers for their time and input in this key phase of product development.
  3. Align incentives by enabling farmers and founders to collaborate better during early-stage development. Seek out models that share the economic returns of these early investments.

Product validation is a vital stage in the evolution of powerful innovation.

Putting farmers at the center of agtech innovation

Farmers need to be at the center of early-stage agtech innovation. Doing this will help ensure product ideas are well informed, and ensure that solutions solve real problems. It will also enable more, and earlier, product validation- a vital stage in the evolution of powerful innovation that can transform industries and create value for users. Farmers play a critical role in the feedback loop at the center of lean innovation- we need more farmers involved, and we need to properly acknowledge them for their role.

Startup founders need to work hard on their geek-to-farmer ratio. It is also important that understanding of early-stage innovation improves. Startups need the opportunity to collaborate with an understanding early audience to refine their offering and transform it into an innovation that has an impact. If we can get this right, everyone wins.