Earlier this month at CapCon 2017, I had the opportunity to talk to some of the worlds most successful entrepreneurs who are solving the worlds greatest problems. It was part of a 3-week cross-country road trip for me, that was a mix of business and discovery. With over 100 hours of driving logged, it was a time to reflect and plan for the upcoming year.
As I was traversing the United States, driving as far as Las Vegas from Eastern North Carolina, it was very much on my mind about how some of these big thinking entrepreneurs tend to focus on technologies and services that benefit those living in major cities. It makes sense. Big ideas can be expensive and need to be tested and refined in big cities where there's room for higher prices. As a result, when you drive through cities like Dallas, Denver and Philadelphia, there's awesome variety and thriving businesses around healthy food.
Not so much for the in-between towns I passed through. It's a constant rotation of McDonalds, KFC, Taco Bell, and even this 24 hour burger joint I'd never heard about until this trip, Whataburger. Umm, what?
At the event, I was most excited to see Kimbal Musk, brother of Elon Musk, a great entrepreneur in his own right. Per a recent NY Times article, his current ambitions can be summed up as follows:
'In short, he wants to create a network of business, educational and agricultural ventures big enough to swing the nation’s food system back to one based on healthy, local food grown on chemical-free farms.'
In support of his mission, Kimbal's 'Real Food for Everyone' campaign was presented at CapCon 2017 this month in Austin, TX where I had the chance to ask him the following question-
"How are rural farmers going to continue to survive the ever-increasing pressures from increasing economies of scale in agtech like his container farm and the wider and faster distribution networks afforded by Amazon?"
Here's the video if you'd like to watch the clip, but if you want the quick version- a solution still seems unclear.
Now, I absolutely applaud Kimbal and am rooting for him every step of the way. I don't blame him for not having the answer at the tip of his tongue. It's a tough question to answer. It's also one that high-profile farm startups can't seem to address yet. Real food, by his definition, is here, but for now only to the trendiest city near you.
But now there's increasing competition from Amazon's fresh food distribution network. What does a city of 5,000 do when container farms aren't economically viable, but Amazon's shipping partners are bringing in produce fresher then 90% of what's at your local grocery store?
I got the feeling talking to farmers throughout the trip, that those in 'Middle America' see technology already changing everything they see online, but look at their own small town wondering when, not if, they are going to be too consumed by it too.
It's on all of our minds, no matter the industry we're in.
Weighing heavily on my mind was how I was going to drive forward the mission of Bootstrap Farmer, which is to build a network of farm entrepreneurs who want to use our collective ideas & experiences to navigate these changes, together. Working with technology where it makes sense, but also focusing on the timeless principals that never change. Because the truth is, 8 out of 10 businesses fail in the first 18 months because these principles are never applied correctly. Those that survive longer either get lucky, or adapt and survive, until complacency hits and they stop, and sputter...
But getting back on point... what are farmers to do about falling prices, faster reach by distant markets, competition from robots and these 'container farms' headed our way?
Theres no single answer, but I've certainly got some ideas. I've been telling anyone who will listen of the Veg2Bowl model, because I definitely see that as one answer to make a farm business more dynamic. Its a lot of work, especially if you're doing it yourself like I did, and your local laws may also cause you more headaches than I encountered. But, even if the laws were in my favor, luck and business experience were not. I tried, failed and tried again at just about everything I did. Those war stories are in other blog posts, but long story short, I came out on the other side well prepared to face anything else that came my way.
Other answers can come from a deep look at your own business but from a different perspective. I find it best when I'm dealing with questions I feel like I've exhausted, is to talk to a mentor, a group, or someone who thinks a lot different than I do. That's why I go to events like this. Surrounding yourself with big thinkers and others who are a few steps ahead of you equates to accelerated learning. Every year, I'm getting better equipped in navigating that minefield a small business with big ideas grapples with.
As business owners, it's vital that we keep current on what changes are coming to our industry. At the same time, there are timeless principals that can get us through times of uncertainty and change. Those most willing to adapt will be the most likely to survive. Those that sit on message boards all day and complain will be the ones first steamrolled. They always are. They used to be the guy at the bar complaining about how the world is against them. Only the medium of communication has changed.
I lead with this because I think we need to reconsider what kind of experience our customers are looking to get from our value proposition in today's world. For example, the farmers market has always served a direct need to the community. Local produce was critical to survival, but we are clearly moving away from that. We've all seen farmers markets disappear as a result of these shifts.
At the same time, I'll bet you the surviving local markets carry some of that 'attraction' factor, where it's not only a necessity, but the place to be, on a Saturday morning. This is how I always felt growing up in rural PA at our farmers market, and then in Philadelphia, getting to experience the Reading Terminal Market on a weekly basis. People went for the experience.
With a new generation of consumers coming into their 'spending' years (millennials), we should consider what they are looking for in a farmers market experience that we may need to adapt to. It's probably not an original thought to say principals don't change- but preferences do. Younger generations constantly pushing the older ones forward, whether it be Rock music or Facebook. I'm paying attention to how their brains work in this uber-connected world they've never seen the other side of.
A race to the bottom on price just isn't good for anyone. Competing on prices leads to shortcuts on taste, safety and/or the environment in the long term. We should all have standards that don't even sniff the lower bar of these qualities or you're headed for trouble.
If you develop quality relationships, you won't be mainly competing on price. If you find you still are, perhaps it's time to reevaluate who you do business with. This is playing the 'long-game', so be careful that you aren't overzealous or make promises you can't keep. However, when you consistently deliver on your promises, other connected people in your industry will go to bat for you and funnel business to you for years to come.
Clear & respectful communication catered to the audience you're looking to connect with. There are books on these topics to refine your intrapersonal connections. Each audience requires its own language. The ways in which you'd connect with chefs are way different than how you'd connect with a retiree looking for a fresh produce delivery service.
Also, ask yourself, where's your customers' attention? They aren't looking at billboards anymore, they're heads are buried in their phones! If you aren't active on Facebook or Instagram by now, you're likely ignoring where your customers' attention is at in 2017/18. The efficiency in reaching your target customers via Facebook vs. more traditional methods is increasing every day. Doing a live video from your farm on your business page is free, yet most won't do it.
Adaption requires creative thinking. Leveraging your existing assets in ways you haven't considered is one of the best ways to strengthen your business finances, relationships, communication and is also a great way to offer and more quality products to our customers. Think of little partnerships you can make with other local producers, swapping product on your store shelves, combining storefronts, cross promoting on social and even joint ticketed events whether it be for business or charity. (Joint Farm + Food Truck events?!)
Over the next 5-10 years, there will be lots of changes coming to the farming industry. Duh, right? It doesn't seem for right now small farmers in rural areas need to be thinking about vertical or container farms, but I think they do need to seriously start thinking about leverage points- how to use what we already have- time, equipment & community, in new ways to build on what we have already created. We might be able to do all this while better connecting with our customers. It's up to us as business owners to brainstorm the best ideas with our 'circle of advisors', which I personally reserve for 'possibility' minded people as best I can.
Here's one easy leverage point I went for - I used the 10 seconds I had next to Kimbal to hand him my business card for Veg2Bowl and I said "I have one solution to your question." It's a shot in the dark, but you miss out on 100% of the opportunities you don't take...
I took my remaining seconds to ask him to stand up on a stool and take a photo with me.
Kimbal Musk, Square Roots Farm & Brandon Youst, Bootstrap Farmer at CapCon 2017.
Till next time...
- Brandon Youst
Founder, Bootstrap Farmer