“This is where I walk you through my mid-life crises,” started Casey Nieman, Founder of AgriSync as he began to relate his own startup story as the guest of the March edition of the Business Innovation Zone’s Startup Stories Luncheon. While delivered with a smile, Nieman’s opening remark held more than a kernel of truth as this 40-something first-time entrepreneur talked about making a courageous leap from a safe and stable position with Microsoft into the world of mobile application development when he left a 14-year career to found AgriSync. Leaving a giant provider of horizontal business solutions to address the vertical needs of the agricultural sector that had been his birthright as a Kansas farm boy, Nieman was able to combine his twin passions of agriculture and technology while deciding the time was right to test his mettle as an entrepreneur.
The result of his leap of faith was AgriSync, a mobile customer service application offering farmers and their trusted advisors more fruitful and direct communication during peak agriculture production times via smartphone. The proliferation of technology into the agricultural market has brought the farmer the same challenges non-agricultural business people face occasionally misbehaving hardware and software. “We wanted to take the helpdesk attributes of a Zendesk and marry that with the video support experience of Skype and then give the network of support similar to LinkedIn,” Nieman explained.
To farmers the value proposition is found in reduced downtime, to front line service advisors such as coops, precision agriculture firms, and implement dealers, the value is found in reduced costs.
Fresh off a successful harvest season of beta-testing and now moving live into the Spring planting season Nieman sat down with Mike Colwell, Director of Entrepreneurial Initiatives for the Greater Des Moines Partnership, and a room full of interested and diverse parties to share some insights and answer some questions. Among the topics discussed:
Why entrepreneurship and why now. Older than Colwell’s average guest, and certainly older than the average first-time entrepreneur to address this monthly session, Nieman brought a special perspective. “I had a great experience at Microsoft and so I wasn’t running away from something, instead I wanted to run to something,” he shared. Arguing that it is very important to understand your own motivations, Nieman explained that for him it was both a desire to solve a problem he saw along with the need to know if he could start and run his own business. With the stars aligning, and perhaps most importantly with the support of his wife, family and friends, he made the leap. Nieman admitted to a level of envy for those youthful entrepreneurs in the room for whom the opportunity costs were lower than they would be when their life included the responsibilities of a spouse, children, mortgage payments and the like.
Look for honesty amidst the Iowa Nice. “We Iowans are all so nice to each other that it is hard to find people who will actually say, “Hey, your idea stinks,” acknowledged Nieman while insisting that it was critical to get honest feedback at the idea stage and that he had benefited greatly from a friend who had expertise in the market and was willing to offer candid advice steering him away from probable pitfalls.
Know who your customer is not. While reaching out for beta testers Nieman and company had approached a service provider that functioned largely as a call center. The potential client could not see the value in the software as a service Nieman offered, and Nieman saw that front line in field service providers would be their sweet spot customer, not call centers. “Them telling us no was probably more valuable that the others telling us yes,” he remembered.
Cloud computing opened the floodgates for start-ups. “At Microsoft I saw the trend of cloud computing was leveling the playing field for entrepreneurs, essentially providing access to a tier of technology that was previously reserved for the big companies,” recalled Nieman noting that this was a factor in his own decision to move forward. “The cloud allows someone else to be world class at infrastructure while we are world class at our own applications,” he said of the freedom the availability of cloud access affords. “It opens the door for a ton of innovation to happen in places other than big companies.”
Know your blind spots. “I used to have a short list of things that I didn’t have figured out. Now I have a long list of things I don’t have figured out,” he said with the self-effacing humor that belies years of presentation experience. Still he was serious in the importance of finding team members whose skills fill your voids and encouraged the taking of partners when the meshing of skill-sets favored such a move.
Design before Develop. In hard-earned hindsight Nieman offered that he would have spent more time in design, making that his first hire, before moving on to development. Taking a designer’s mock-up out for customer review would have better served him than beginning development to confirm feasibility. “I would argue there is enough technology on the planet right now, that most things can be built, but every day there is a ton of technology built that nobody is going to use,” he said of his belief that were he to do it over he would hire a designer before a developer.
Fundraising. Sharing insights given to him by Colwell, Nieman encouraged founders to start early and warned that when you think you are ready to pitch, you probably are not. If the opportunity presents itself, as it did for AgriSync, practice with local angels and seek their feedback. Additionally, know the type of investment you are looking for, asking only for the time of those funders who make that type and scale of investment you are seeking.
Exit Strategy. Asked of their exit strategy Nieman smiled and paused. “I think people who say they have a defined exit strategy are either a lot smarter than we are, or are making up an answer.” While he can see his model applying to multiple vertical markets and won’t deny he would like to see options arise down the road, no specific visions of buy-out now dance in his head. Instead AgriSync is like every other farmer this time of the year, waiting to get some seeds in the dirt and watch them grow.