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Why the Race for Ag Technology Adoption is a Marathon, Not a Sprint

“Successful innovation is not a single breakthrough. It is not a sprint. It is not an event for the solo runner. Successful innovation is a team sport, it’s a relay race.”  — Nguyen Quyen, Olympian

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Yes, it’s a cliché, sprint vs. marathon, but after working with or observing a fair number of agricultural start-ups over the past 30 years, the wisdom seems to hold true. When we are pushing the envelope with new technology, it’s critical to know the race we’re running.

It’s clear that some companies new to agriculture only want to sell product fast, raise capital, flip the business, and EXIT, not necessarily taking a true interest in farmers or their real needs along the way. Could it be this lack of realistic expectations has slowed the adoption of ag technology, rather than increase excitement and pull through? Yes, I think so.

Start-ups out to create a business serving farmers must understand the nature of the challenge. It’s not a sprint we’ve entered, no matter how much we want to cross the finish line and meet the expectations and desires we may have set for our investors. And, expectations are individual and personal, which makes it difficult to satisfy all, whether it’s at the farmgate or in the board room.

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Before we start our race, are we asking tough questions and seeking to answer them honestly? How many acres might benefit from our technology? What will our eventual penetration in the marketplace be? How many farm operations will actually buy this thing? How much will they pay? Is ours a solution in need of a problem? Or is there a “real” need?

Fudging the answers to these questions in order to arrive at something that might be commercially viable is certainly a great temptation. And, what we might believe is “commercially viable” may not necessarily be viable at the farmgate.  Or perhaps we’ve pre-positioned the product offering to capture the imagination of investors, but not necessarily solving a problem or a need of farmers.

Some young companies may try to sell their product before it’s complete, as they feel that 65% to 70% is adequate to start generating revenue, as they continue development while selling. But 65% to 70% is a “D+”— below average, barely passing.  They may be okay with a high rate of failure, but If I’m the grower receiving the poor quality, I won’t be satisfied. My expectations are unmet and I’m not likely to stay quiet about it when my neighbors ask. So, what did our rush to market yield? When farmers buy something, they expect it to work, reliably, and accurately, just as any other consumer. But unlike the consumer market where a new gadget fails and the customer returns it for their money back, if technology fails on the farm, it could severely impact the grower financially.

By nature, most farmers are “tinkers,” so they are interested in the next new things, especially if it involves the nuts and bolts of new iron. But this does not mean they are willing to “pay to try” something new. There are many new products, technologies, and gadgets. Farmers cannot pay for every innovation out there, especially when no real value has been provided. If they are assisting a company to validate the technology, then they have enough skin in the game, as their livelihood is at risk if the product fails.

Sprint or Marathon?

Every farm and farmer are unique, their wants and needs vary as much as their crops, soils, and families. Hence, our product offering must be fluid to meet their specific needs and expectations. So, it’s not just showing up for the race and toeing the line, we must be committed for the long run and understand that the short AND long-term implications of decisions we may be asking any given farmer to make.

Following a “race plan” – a solid business development plan consisting of a slow methodical vetting process – is necessary with any new product/technology. Such a plan can ignite engagement to better understanding the variables and establishing aggressive, but reasonable, expectations across the value chain, especially for the farmer.

There are no short-cuts, or end-arounds, to achieving good, reliable, and repeatable results. We must put in the time if we are to avoid pitfalls and accelerate our pace to commercialization. Successful innovation is a team sport and we must set the farmer up to be a successful winner on our relay team.

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Avatar for Steve Watts Steve Watts says:

Allan, this is an excellent and well reasoned article. Your years of experience in the real world are clearly evident. Hopefully at least some of your recommendations will be followed. Much of the technical falderah that has risen since corn hit $8/bu. (for a relatively short time) has been developed for “technology’s sake” and in hope’s of turning a quick buck. Such self-serving efforts stand little chance of success and will undoubtedly be shunted to the sidelines one-by-one, just as they should be. The rallying cry for hoodwinked ag technology investors is set to become, “Caveat Emptor”. For complicit ag technology investors it is about time to start looking for a new industry to “shake down”. Steve Watts

Avatar for Mark Bunyard Mark Bunyard says:

Allan, thank you for your thought provoking and highly relevant article.