Four lessons from a startup founder

Wednesday, 30 January 2019

Ros Harvey photo
Ros Harvey
Founder and Managing Director, The Yield

    With a vision to transform agriculture and improve global food production using AI and big data, The Yield is an unconventional startup. Here are four crucial lessons CEO Ros Harvey has learned, which she will discuss at her Australian Governance Summit session: Secrets of success: From startup to sustainable global business.

    I'm a woman over 50 with a background in international development rather than technology - I am not a conventional founder. Our team, diverse in gender, background and age - is not conventional. And our approach – one that is focused on long-term transformation over short-term disruption is not conventional either. But to transform an essential industry like agriculture—which has a reputation for deeply ingrained practices and passionate, knowledgeable practitioners—requires an unconventional approach.

    People often ask what advice I can give to like-minded companies, eager to make a mark on their chosen industry. Here are the four lessons I’ve learned.

    Are you here to solve a real problem?

    It’s easy to fall in love with an idea, or a piece of technology, and think that’s enough to build a business. But the challenge is how you apply that technology to solve real problems for real people.

    To do this, you need to know your customer. Not just of them, or about them, but as people.

    My first employee Libby, our Business Analyst, followed growers around for months, carefully observing their behaviours and frustrations through changing seasons, growth stages and weather, and the impact these events had on their businesses, employees and families. Once this vital information had been gathered, we could sit down to talk solution design. Libby then continued to work with the growers to test and refine the product until we got it right.(Incidentally, those growers have become some of our biggest champions, because they saw how serious we were about understanding their pain points).

    The agtech industry tends to suggest growers have been slow to adopt tech because they are risk averse – but this is not something I’ve ever bought into. Think about what a grower does, day in day out – it doesn’t get much riskier than battling Mother Nature to make a living. This issue is not an aversion to technology - we have seen that growers are willing to accept technology if it is easy to use and consistently delivers meaningful value to them.

    The lesson? Don’t blame end users for poor adoption. The reality is, if you don’t know your customers well, you can’t solve their problems. On top of that, if you don’t deliver intuitive, easy to use and reliable products then users won’t adopt them. You must execute these critical elements well, or you will fail.

    Do the hardest thing first

    The conventional wisdom, when developing a new offering, is to start with a Minimum Viable Product – something with just enough features to engage early adopters. Generally speaking, it should be the easiest thing you can build that offers value to potential customers.

    But our MVP was neither small, nor easy. Sensing+ for Aquaculture involved putting electronics in salt water, in open remote bays in Tasmania’s unforgiving roaring forties. It had to be 100% reliable - it was being used for food safety regulations, so there was no tolerance for downtime or gappy data. It was both technically and bureaucratically complex, and possibly the hardest thing we could have cut our teeth on.

    But in creating Sensing+ for Aquaculture, we learned some crucial lessons we would later apply to the development of Sensing+ for Agriculture. We learned how to develop robust sensors to collect data, and how to harness powerful platform technologies like the Microsoft Azure suite to apply artificial intelligence and machine learning to that data. We learned how to use that data to provide oyster growers with highly accurate water and climate predictions for their microclimate, three days in advance. And we learned that for growers, being just three days ahead can mean an enormous difference.

    These were crucial lessons we applied to the development of Sensing+ for Agriculture, resulting in us creating a robust, reliable IoT solution that gives crop growers reliable microclimate predictions for a range of conditions, seven days in advance.

    Design to scale from day one

    I’m passionate about making a global impact through our work. But we can’t do that one farm at a time, and so we had to design systems to scale.

    Our goal has never been to flip the business and make a quick dollar. It is not what motivates us and doesn’t suit agriculture, which is all about long-term trusted relationships. Our customers are our community, so we’re playing the long game. We want to create long-term Return on Investment (ROI) for our investors. To show we are serious about this, we put it in our company constitution.

    Designing systems to scale can take longer in the beginning, but they pick up momentum faster. The trick is to learn constantly, systemise what you learn and keep building on it. It’s a tricky balance, that requires you to make the right technology choices and put dollars where they matter most.

    It’s a lot about collaboration, because you need so many different skill sets – people who know hardware, software, data science, UX, the market, operations and, of course, your customer. Collaboration and really good communication skills matter as much as technical excellence. We purposefully built a diverse team across experience, culture and gender. In this way, we’ve already laid the foundations for globalisation.

    Vision is fluid, not static

    Identifying problems to solve is not something you do just once. It needs to be an ongoing, iterative process. There is no room for resting on your laurels. In competitive markets there will always be new players looking to snatch opportunities out from under you.

    Keep ideating and interrogating your current products - even if they are successful. Any industry (especially one as hot as agtech right now) will be rife with people eager to exploit any gaps in the market. They might discover a gap that is yet to be filled, or one that hasn't been convincingly solved by existing products.

    From the outset, The Yield went after some of those gaps and made it our business to excel at them. While plenty of providers offered one or two pieces of the puzzle, we identified early on that no-one was offering a true end-to-end, comprehensive solution.

    Our work with growers taught us this was a real pain point for them, because it complicated deployment and meant support ranged from disjointed to non-existent. Offering Sensing+ as a professionally installed and maintained, end-to-end system has set us apart in a hotly contested market.

    With the wealth of information and platform technologies available to us, there has never been a better time to innovate. But the unsung hero of innovation is resilience.

    Be willing to try and be willing to fail. Be willing to take the path of most resistance. Aim big and be patient while it happens. Course-correct frequently, to ensure you’re not missing out on opportunities.

    Real transformation takes time and is more about the people who use the technology than the technology itself. Which is why people, and the real problems they experience, must always be at the heart of what you do.

    Technology is how we can achieve transformation. People will always be why.

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