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This article was published on May 27, 2021

How to make it as a ‘non-specialist’ founder

Tips from three techies turned 'Agripreneurs'

How to make it as a ‘non-specialist’ founder

What do you need to start a successful business? Common sense would say business smarts and of course the know-how to succeed in your industry. But what if you only have the former?

The rise of serial entrepreneurship has brought about the era of the non-specialist entrepreneur. These entrepreneurs are generalists who specialize in starting, operating, and scaling businesses and not in the ins and outs of the industry they’re looking to disrupt. 

You’ll find them across all industries, with the most lucrative being those still on the cusp of their technological revolution. If your aim is to build and scale a successful business, why would you enter the overcrowded world of dating apps or food delivery? It’s the (let’s admit it) ‘less sexy’ industries like manufacturing, construction, and real estate where the real potential for disruption and success lies. 

Agritech in particular is a great example of an industry that was lagging behind in terms of tech adoption but is now experiencing a boom, with entrepreneurs applying new technologies to solve the biggest challenges facing farmers. 

But can non-specialists actually be successful in industries they don’t fully understand? And, perhaps key to this question, how do they actually gain trust from customers who are experts in their field?

We spoke with three Agritech entrepreneurs from X-Europe‘s Deeptech accelerator program about why they chose this field, how they broke into the industry, and what it took to develop and scale a successful business as a non-specialist. 

Could Agritech be a gold rush sector for serial entrepreneurs?

The global population is set to reach almost ten billion by 2050. In order to feed a population of this size, we’ll need to produce 60% more food

The problem is, farming is also one of the most taxing activities on the planet, taking up 70% of freshwater resources and 38% of the world’s land surface. The conundrum we find ourselves in is the need to increase food production at a rapid rate, while also decreasing our impact on the environment. 

Investors are already pumping money into this fast growing industry. In 2019, the global Agritech market was valued at $17,442.7 million and is projected to reach $41,172.5 million by 2027.

According to estimates by McKinsey&Company, with the rise of frontier connectivity technologies like LPWAN, 5G, and LEO satellites, roughly 80% of the world’s rural areas will be connected by 2030. This means greater access to data for the farming industry and a realm of new digital tools. The endless possibilities that increased connectivity could bring has the potential to add an extra $500 billion to global gross domestic product.

All of these factors make the industry ripe for disruption. But what if your only farming experience comes from playing hours of FarmVille?

Are tech expertise and entrepreneurial smarts enough to break into a completely foreign industry?

Alban Pobla, CEO of Dilepix, is the perfect example of an entrepreneur who doesn’t want to limit himself to one field. Instead, he’s used his expertise in robotics to explore new possibilities across industries.

As an entrepreneur, I’ve always been involved in projects working to solve the world’s major problems. Now, as an ‘agripreneur’ I try to make industrial agriculture (which will feed ten billion people in 2050) sustainable and lucrative with the use of technology and innovative business models. 

Agriculture is a great playground for those, like me, who love computer vision, edge computing, robotics, artificial intelligence, big data analysis and remains one of the last industries to have not yet made its digital transformation. This sector is full of opportunities for those who know how to seize them.

And that’s exactly what he did with Dilepix. The company’s software solution combines computer vision, deep learning, and robotics to help agricultural businesses solve a wide range of challenges including detecting crop diseases and weeds, fighting off pest invasions, monitoring livestock, making machinery more precise and autonomous, and more. 

For those who believe specialists are the only ones with the know-how to break into an industry, Pobla and his team are proving them wrong. As he explained, their experience and knowledge in the latest technology and how to apply it to different markets has actually really helped the team see problems from a different perspective.

Having experience in other industries keeps us from having blinders on. We’re ready to reconsider all the assumptions of the agricultural industry, because technological advances allow today (or will allow tomorrow) solutions that were once impossible and long ruled out, when they now have their place. 

Finally, there are always good practices which are universal and which we do not hesitate to apply at Dilepix, in particular, in terms of marketing, communications, customer relations, open innovation with large distributors, etc.

He shared that the key to closing the knowledge gap when breaking into a new industry is to get out there and start talking. 

Before and since the creation of Dilepix, we have carried out many interviews (over a hundred!) with all the players in the agricultural value chain to understand their needs. We go out into the fields and farms and compare our proposals with the daily reality of our customers. We started with the early adopters who were interested in technology and ready to follow us. Then we gradually moved up to those who have a functional interest in our solution. 

We always give ourselves time to discuss and exchange again and again with our prospects and our customers!

Winning over trust with the experts

Even with all the latest cutting edge technology in the world, as an outsider, it must be difficult to convince farmers who’ve been working in the industry their whole lives to try new ways of doing things. How do you win over their trust?

Tamás Bodnár, CEO of Agroninja knows this struggle well. 

It’s a challenge, even if you’re in this business for ten years, because you don’t have a farm. If you don’t have a farm and you’re not a farmer, and you are even further if you’re a tech guy from thousands of kilometers away.

His company’s first product, beefie, is a user-friendly application that solves what some might call a very large problem in the cattle industry. Like paying taxes, weighing cattle is one of those necessary evils that takes time and causes stress for both the animal and the worker tasked with leading and keeping a stubborn steer on a scale. 

With beefie, farmers can simply take a photo of the cattle in question with their phone, without having to disturb them from their grazing. Within 20 seconds they’ll have an accurate reading of the animal’s weight. 

I think the most effective way to gain trust is to be humble and ask good questions. Even if you don’t know everything about the industry, knowing the right questions to ask the experts (your customers) is the most important thing. 

We never want to tell them how to do their daily work, we just try to show them how our application could help complete a task (which is really a pain) in a way that’s faster, not stressful for the cattle or the individual, and much more cost effective.

When it comes to converting that trust into higher volumes, Bodnár admitted that, in the Agritech industry, it’s difficult to grow by word of mouth. He explained that, even if a farmer is happy with your product, they’re unlikely to spread the word to other farmers in the area as they’re usually not as extroverted as your typical influencer.

The Agroninja team also tried connecting with national bodies like agricultural chambers, breeding associations, and agricultural ministries, but this didn’t have as big an impact as expected. 

Instead, the company’s (quite unexpected) breakthrough came from a small article in a Dutch agricultural magazine. Somewhere along the way it was picked up by Brazilian farmers, translated into Portuguese, and as Bodnár described, Brazilians soon ‘stormed’ their website. Now a lot of their customers and newsletter subscribers are based in Brazil. The jump from their much smaller Hungarian customer base to Brazil opened up a huge market for growth. 

You may be surprised to find there are a plethora of trade magazines and media for the agricultural industry, even drilling down to niche topics like cattle herding or poultry. A placement in one of these publications could just give you the reach and credibility you need. 

Convincing customers to take the first bite

If you thought convincing farmers to adopt new technology was hard, imagine trying to convince the wider public to add a pinch of grasshoppers to their daily diet.

Hargol FoodTech grows grasshoppers for human consumption with their main focus being in two sectors: 

  1. The ‘New Meat’ market – improving meat products and plant based meat products with a boost of protein, health and environmental benefits, and added functionality including natural colors, flavors, and the enhanced ability to bind water and fat. 
  2. Fuel for fitness buffs –  their research shows grasshoppers are superior to whey protein and provide better amino acid distribution to athletes. 

As CEO Dror Tamir explained: 

Seven years ago I became aware of the global protein challenge and started looking for solutions. I remembered a story my grandparents told me as a young boy in Kibbutz Ma’anit. In the 1950’s Israel suffered from food insecurity and locust swarms (grasshoppers) flying in from Africa and destroying crops. While the Kibbutz members tried to save the crops and scare the grasshoppers away, they saw Yemenite Jews coming to the fields to collect and eat them. 

I learned that grasshoppers are food for many people around the globe. They’re actually nature’s most efficient protein source.

Even for a completely different and unconventional niche like grasshopper farming, Tamir shared that the same tried and tested business rules still apply.

Like in any other sales process you need to understand the needs and pain of your customer. We did a lot of research into the pains of the meat industry, the fitness industry, and the benefits grasshoppers can provide. 

The first thing we learned was that it’s important to keep the message focused and simple. Customers’ attention nowadays is very short. The second was to prioritize the benefits and focus on one or two that matter most. 

The education process is long for this kind of product, so third was full collaboration with media and opinion leaders on social media to achieve maximum and long term exposure.

For those thinking about starting a business as a non-specialist, whether in Agritech or any other field, Tamir left us with the following tips:

  1. Learn, learn, and learn. Never stop learning.
  2. Build a founding team with experts in the fields you lack knowledge in, especially the ones that matter the most for your new business.

Finally, the most important piece of advice all three entrepreneurs shared was to listen to your customers. They’re the real experts, and if you gain their trust by showing you really want to build a product that works for them, you’ll get the key insights you need to build a successful business.

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