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For over 60 years my family has owned and operated a medium sized dairy farm in Junction City, Wisconsin. I spent much of my formative years in a barn, working with grandparents, parents, uncles, aunts and cousins milking, cleaning, and making hay. And while I’m sure it gave them extra work and stress by having to fix their daily mistakes, the experience of working on that farm influenced my approach to entrepreneurship. , made me a founder of a better technology company.
We all know that farm life is very hard work, both physically and mentally (which is why I got my degree in marketing). But beyond grit and determination, there were some not-so-obvious lessons I learned early on from my family about what it takes to own and succeed in a venture.
These are some of the lessons I learned and how working on a dairy farm made me a better tech entrepreneur.
Related: 8 Lessons Entrepreneurs Can Learn from Farmers
make hay while the sun is shining
There is no way (yet) to control the weather. Meteorologists can predict it and we can plan for it, but we can’t dictate when and how much it will rain. Farmers are never “perfect”, especially in the Midwest’s unpredictable weather conditions. Farmers often have very little time to plant and harvest crops all summer without really controlling what the weather will bring. The saying “you need to make hay when the sun is shining” is still true today, and it’s equally true for starting a software company.
As a technology entrepreneur, I have come to accept that I can never own or control all market conditions. Businesses often have to adapt or adjust to the macro environment in order to function. Of course, the advantage of doing this in software is that there are no machines or livestock to pivot (although coordinating teams along new strategic directions can be like keeping cattle, especially as the organization grows). can feel). .
At my previous company, Disco, we had a great product that solved a customer problem. But for almost three years, the market considered it a “nice to have”. For the disco narrative to become operationally necessary, the market dynamics had to change and mature.
The disco had two “haymaking” windows. First, as platforms like Slack and Microsoft Teams start building their ecosystems, we’ll keep up with the momentum by launching apps to accelerate early growth, drive market interest, and raise funding. I was able to. Second, when COVID-19 and remote work became mandated, our value proposition on building a culture across our distributed workforce was a gamble. We were able to double his revenue in 6 months, secure a Series A term sheet, and do a great job selling the company to Culture Amp.
Conditions aren’t always ideal for your venture, but if you have a great product that solves customer problems, a dedicated team, and the bottom line to keep your business and support going, the weather will be. Please be patient and understand that things can change at any time. And when it does, make hay.
RELATED: What American Farms Can Teach Business Leaders About ‘Sowing Seeds’ Success
act on the horizon
AI and automation are improving efficiency in every industry, including agriculture. We have seen the evolution of automatic milking machines, but more recently the introduction of autonomous agricultural equipment and his IoT devices that monitor the health of crops and animals and leverage data to optimize yields. I’ve also seen These innovations are exciting, but the reality is that farmers need to choose these investments so they can sustain their day-to-day operations and keep their cream flowing.
What I observed was how our family tested new concepts while minimizing capital expenditure and minimizing disruption to daily operations. They approached innovation through creative and strategic funding to pilot hardware and new workflows, separating testing into smaller parts of farm operations before investing more capital. . Additionally, they would occasionally hire cheaper helpers (such as a stubby kid with a badly cut bowl) to do jobs that could be done on autopilot. This was my first exposure to Horizon Planning in practice. There, projects were planned according to experience and skill, with resources allocated and time slots that minimized disruption to the money tree.
When we were building our last company, we faced similar opportunities and questions about when, where and how to innovate. We have to weigh the tradeoffs between paying down technical debt and building tedious but important HR system integrations versus developing features like perks that we know our customers will love. I was often forced to.
Dividing team and product priorities into multiple horizons and focusing smaller groups on “more fun features” to keep operations running, pay down technical debt, and resource more cost-effectively on needed tasks and capital can be placed. Senior Engineer’s mindshare is reduced.
RELATED: I’ve been a tech entrepreneur for over 20 years – here are 5 key lessons I’ve learned along the way
Math and Margin Matters
Imagine Leonardo DiCaprio wolf of wall street I walked into the office wearing Dickies pants and boots. Farmers are basically day traders without much cocaine or hair gel. The financial models involved in understanding agricultural derivatives are no joke. Not only do farmers have to put up with the physical side of the job, but they mostly act as part-time stockbrokers.
Operational efficiencies through investments in technology that help my family actively monitor milk market quotes to understand margins, calculate COGS based on inputs from feed prices, and scale farms. I observed an improvement in From this experience, I was able to learn the importance of the balance sheet and cash burn. Also, how important it is to stay aware of market conditions and how they affect products, specifically how taxes, subsidies, and laws can be applied to the survival of the company. I also learned how to use
At Disco, these observations and lessons have helped the company operate incredibly lean while still being profitable. This is rare for a young, growing software company, and ultimately this is why the company has survived a dry period of stagnant growth.
There are many other reasons why I appreciate the farming experience. Dealing with ambiguity (animals are unpredictable), overcoming fear of heights, and the joy of working to create products that are good for you.
These baby-soft hands have softened over time, but I am grateful that Dairy has prepared me for becoming a tech entrepreneur. But most of all, it showed me how lucky I was to spend that time with my family and learn that lesson. And for the record, I’m pretty sure cows are happier in California than in Wisconsin. Listen in January.