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  • Writer's pictureTim Hammerich

Accelerate AgTech Adoption: Avoid These 3 Killer Assumptions

“If you build it, they will come” is a great movie line but not much of a business strategy.

Missing from many agtech startup plans is a clear framework for customer adoption. No, I don’t mean a hockey-stick chart for what it looks like going from zero adopters to significant market penetration. I mean the story.

Who exactly is the customer (hint: “farmers” is not sufficient)? What does it look like for that customer to be exposed to the idea, then get over their initial resistance to change, feel compelled to try it out, fully realize the risk-reward, then eventually embed that idea into their operation? How do all of these steps happen at scale?

The situation becomes even more nuanced when you consider factors such as multiple farm decision-makers often spanning multiple generations. Then there are employees to consider if THEY will actually embed the idea into a farm operation.

Real adoption is complicated — and technology is meaningless without adoption.

Randy Barker is the CEO of In10t, a company that specializes in farmer adoption of new technologies.

“…the only way that we can (assess customer adoption) is to get the technology to the farm” says Barker. “It’s not always the most flattering feedback. Where we see companies be successful is when they become very open minded to that farmer experience feedback, they can respond much quicker.”

I interviewed Randy as well as North Dakota Farmer Chad Rubbelke and Compass Minerals’ John Grandin for a podcast episode about how to accerlate agtech adoption.

Killer Assumptions

Randy’s expertise in the field of agricultural technology adoption as well as the experiences of Chad and John provide some insight into what adoption should look like. Effective agtech adoption can be achieved in different ways, but it will definitely not include any of the following three killer assumptions.

(1) Assuming all farmers are the same.

Each farmer is distinctly different. Each detail of location, size of acreage, crop mix, age, family dynamics, cultural practices, risk appetite, balance sheet, future ambitions, etc will impact how they view a new technology. Often agtech startups want to show a large total addressable market (TAM) so they tend to want to lump all farmers into one category. Randy recommends not only understanding who your target market is, but also knowing how you can modulate your offerings to meet the needs who may not be in exactly the same situation.

“If you treat farmers as individuals, and think about how to modulate offerings to meet their needs…you’re going to see a complete tipping of how things work” — Randy Barker

(2) Assuming if you build it, they will come.

The traditional way of developing products was to do so in secret. Then once the product was ready, huge investments would be made in marketing campaigns to reveal the solution to the market. But this is unnecessary in today’s agriculture. “The cost of being wrong” says Randy, “is really risky.”

In10t recommends getting the product out to a farmer as soon as possible gather feedback and iterate. But to do this effectively, it’s important that the company has this process very well thought out. The idea is to develop the product alongside the customer base. This requires much more thought than just shipping a half-baked product.

“Probably the biggest negative outcome is a complete waste of time on everybody’s part — primarily the grower” says John Grandin of Compass Minerals about the importance of getting this right. “If Chad has a bad experience with our product because we just didn’t think it through far enough…Not only does it cost him some time and angst for that happening, it also will put a pretty bad taste in his mouth for not only our product, but probably our company as a whole.”

The well thought out process by Compass and In10t not only ensures they get the quality feedback they need from farmers like Chad Rubbelke, it also creates goodwill with him whether or not each product performs to his liking. For Chad, he likes being able to be a part of using new technology before most of his peers.

“We’re able to use products and implement products into our farm that could be ten years out for the average producer, so it’s a huge benefit for us. Some of these are paid trials — yes. But the end result for us is that we can implement these and see a yield boost way before anybody else understands how these products work.” — Chad Rubbelke

(3) Assuming you know the feedback you need to hear.

Companies need to go into a farmer trial with a clear plan. But they must also welcome and even encourage feedback they didn’t necessarily want or expect. Farmers brought into the product development process should also feel like a trusted partner, not pushed to give the company what they want to hear.

“I’m not looking for a home run every time, I want to learn with them.” — Chad Rubbelke

The rewards of an open channel of communication can lead to feedback that can save companies from going the wrong direction. Plus they build trust with customers, and can provide insights on what resonates.

Open communication is something everyone says they want. But in practice, it does not come without sacrifice. Compass Minerals takes transparency to new levels, sharing information even if it shows failures along the way.

“All of this information: good, bad, or ugly. Compass Minerals prides ourselves on the fact that we share it all. We don’t just share the wins or all of the positives. We’ll openly show places where we’ve failed as well as where we’ve won.” — John Grandin

A Model for Accelerating Agtech

Adoption is tricky, but cracking the code can be done. Companies like In10t provide expertise in designing the process and bringing the right people to the table. Those people must include a farmer that embraces the experimentation process like Chad. Finally, the company must willing to fail, openly communicate, and listen to all feedback.

The farmer must feel invested in the process. The best farmer collaborators are naturally curious and great at executing new projects. They bring a high attention to detail when it comes to activities like managing data. They also should be the type of person who sees the bigger picture of trying to create better agronomic products for farmers in general.

In10t has a network of over 1,500 farmers interested in being involved in the product development process for future agricultural technologies. Randy and his team have built an effective model to help farmers and companies of all sizes to work together to accelerate adoption.

“We like to talk to these companies. It does us no good if we’re going to get a product and trial it and never hear from them. For them to sit there and want the information, and actually use the information and make themselves better, is just huge.” — Chad Rubbelke

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