What it's REALLY like to work in an agtech startup

5 key insights from 3 podcast guests with very different experiences

Chances are, if you’re thinking about a career in agtech, then you’ve considered working for a startup. Startups in general can be unique and unfamiliar environments, but agtech is especially unique given it’s a relatively new industry that combines cutting edge technology, natural systems, and complex global supply chains. Such a complex industry creates opportunities for people with a diverse range of skill sets and backgrounds.  

The three guests on our recent podcast episode illustrate this perfectly - each have very different areas of expertise, but have all found their place at an agtech startup.

  • Soroush Pour - Head of Engineering at Vow. He left the fintech world for agtech, after helping to build Plaid (Visa recently tried to acquire Plaid for $5b+)

  • Alissa Welker - Farmer Acquisition and Engagement at Steward.  She began her agtech career with Farmers Business Network, cold calling 100’s of farmers across the midwest each day.

  • Kerryn Thomas - Head of Operations at Goterra. He left a career installing electrical systems for large mining companies to join an agtech startup.

Check out the podcast to hear their full stories and insights about what it’s really like to work in an agtech startup. In the meantime, here are five things to consider if you’re exploring a career in an agtech startup.

Agtech startups are solving society’s biggest problems

Soroush: I wanted to work in an area where there was a critical need. So for one,  simply the scale of the food system - it’s essentially the world's largest user of land, water, and in many cases,  greenhouse gas emissions. Also, the scale of impact on human cultures, around the world. All of these things showed me just how impactful this area could be.

The 20,000 foot view is that, I looked at the food system and I said the part which seems, that it needs the most work for this thing to be around in 20, 30, 40, 50 years, and for us to still be able to enjoy it, is animal agriculture. It's the most resource intensive part of the system. And,  with 7 billion people on the planet, soon to be 10 billion, we couldn't do it the same way and expect good results or the same results. So that's the area that kind of sucked me in.

Venture-backed agtech startups grow FAST-  this has pros and cons for employees

Alissa: I was employee number 60 when I joined Farmers Business Network.. And I think when I left, four years later, they were at over 400 employees. I had just graduated college as they were just starting their office, so there was no company culture yet. We worked off of our standing desks that were stacked on Yeti coolers, one on top of the other. 

It was fun because nothing was figured out. And I actually loved that. We were just writing our job descriptions as we went, because nobody knew what would actually work. 

Basically, FBN was building out the model of like, can inside sales work for agriculture? There's always this belief that to do sales and agriculture, you have to drive up the driveway and go shake the farmer's hand and, and they wanted to see if it was possible to do it differently. So I was cold calling farmers. There were some days I cold called over a hundred farmers a day. I had zero desire to be in sales in the long run, but knew that it was a really good place to start.

But, when something is growing that fast, there's infinite possibilities, but you also have to carve out a space for yourself that works because I feel like especially as a young person coming in, you become this person that wears a ton of different hats and it's very easy to get lost in the shuffle. And then all of a sudden you don't have any expertise in one specific thing. 

Successful agtech startups stay laser-focused on their customers

Soroush:  So I would try and learn something and delve into it and then write about it either personally, or publicly, using things like Air Table.So essentially like a table of, you know, here are the problems and here’s how they connect. My attempt to kind of wrangle that complexity into something I could understand. (you can read his list of problems here).

One of the first things I did was actually just work on farms. Then I started it to write down specific problems I saw. I was like, “Oh, that piece of machinery, doesn't talk to that as a piece of machinery etc.” Then, I just started trying them out being like, okay, let's turn this into like a mini product. So I started taking those concepts and kind of just playing around with them with actual customers.

Alissa: I think building out the customer experience for the end user, for the farmer, is incredibly important. And you have to balance farmers being very skeptical of everything because they're being sold to all the time with the kind of startup culture of like, oh, we have to move really fast.

Be prepared to work outside your comfort zone

Kerryn: There’s no third parties to call upon. In a startup, you might have a very small team, but a skilled team at the same time, with a whole lot of varied skills and experiences. So you try and just utilize the people you have on hand, because, you know, the money is not there.  And also, a well-established company already has a lot of procedures and policies, which sometimes with a startup that's still coming in place.

The projects definitely run differently to large companies. In a startup, it's still trial and error- we’ve got new iterations coming out and it's a constant trial and error to see what does or doesn't work. I’ve certainly had plenty of setbacks. And you can’t let it get you down. You just think, what do we need to do next? 

Is working at an agtech startup for you?

Kerryn: Sometimes in multinational or big companies, it feels like they lose sight of the employees and you feel like you're just a number to the company.  And, so what was so appealing about Goterra is that everyone's involved. Olympia being the CEO -  she's out on the tractor, you know, shoveling waste as well, just with everyone else. That’s an eye-opener when coming from some larger companies, where that just wouldn’t ever happen

Soroush: My first piece of advice is do it, because there is a huge amount of opportunity, a huge amount of important unsolved problems, far more than I think you'll find in places like, you know, a Software as a Service (SaaS), or building the next, social media app. I really do believe that.

Secondly, just get involved. One of the things that really differentiates people who are successful in startups, from those who aren't, I think is just simply bias towards action. So not people who talk about it, who think about it, who intellectualize it, but just jump in.

.Enjoyed this article or the episode? Please like and share it! It was brought to you by the AgThentic Group in collaboration with the Future Farmers Network., aspart 2 of a series on careers in agtech. See part 1 - Breaking into agtech, when you’re not from a farm and don’t “look the part.”

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Disclosure: Tenacious Ventures, part of the AgThentic Group, is an investor in Vow and Goterra.

Key takeaways