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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 many of my formative years in the barn, working alongside my grandparents, parents, uncles, aunts, and cousins, milking, sweeping, and making hay. And while I’m sure I made them work harder and work harder to fix their day-to-day mistakes, the experience on this farm influenced my approach to entrepreneurship and made me a better tech company founder.
It’s well known that life on a farm is insanely hard work, both physically and mentally (which is why I got my degree in marketing). However, in addition to perseverance and determination, I learned a few less obvious lessons from my family as a child about what it takes to own and run a successful business.
Here are a few lessons I’ve learned and how working on a dairy farm has made me a better tech entrepreneur.
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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 cannot dictate when and how much it will rain. Farmers never have “perfect circumstances,” especially in the unpredictable weather conditions of the Midwest. Farmers often have a very narrow window in which they can plant and harvest during the summer months without having any real control over what the weather brings them. The expression “You need to make hay when the sun is shining” remains true to this day and applies equally to starting a software company.
As a tech entrepreneur, I have come to the conclusion that you will never own or control all market conditions. Often you need to adapt or adjust to the macro environment in order for your business to work. The advantage of doing this with software, of course, is that you don’t have machinery or livestock to turn around with (although rallying teams around a new strategic direction, especially if you’re bigger, can feel like a herd of cattle) . .
At my last company, Disco, we had a great product that solved a customer problem; However, for nearly three years, the market viewed it as a “good to have”. Market dynamics had to change and mature for the Disco storytelling to become essential to business operations.
There were two “hay” windows for Disco. First, when platforms like Slack and Microsoft Teams started to build their ecosystems, we were able to launch our application at the same time as that momentum to accelerate our initial growth, signal market interest, and raise capital. Second, as Covid and remote work became mandatory, our value proposition of building a culture in a distributed workforce was at stake. We were able to double our revenue in 6 months, get a Serie A listing, and achieve great results by selling Culture Amp.
While conditions may not always be ideal for your business, if you have a good product that solves a customer’s problem, a dedicated team, and revenue to keep your business running and supported, be patient and know that the weather can change at any moment. And when it does, make hay.
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Work on horizons
AI and automation are driving efficiency in all industries, including agriculture. We are seeing the evolution of automated milking machines, and more recently, the introduction of autonomous farming equipment and IoT devices to monitor crops and animal health to optimize yields with data. These innovations are impressive, but the reality is that farmers need to be selective about these investments so that they can maintain their day-to-day operations and keep the cream flowing.
I watched as our family tested new concepts while minimizing capital costs and interrupting day-to-day operations. They approached innovation through creative and strategic funding for pilot equipment and new workflows, and they isolated tests from small parts of farming before investing more capital. Also, they sometimes hired less expensive help (like a plump kid with a bad haircut, ahem, yours truly) to do work that could have been put on autopilot. This was my first exposure to the practice of Horizon Planning, where projects were allocated resources and organized according to experience and skills, and at a time that would minimize disruption to our dairy cows.
Building my last company, we faced similar opportunities and questions about how, where, and when to innovate. We often had to compromise between paying off technical debt or creating a boring but essential HR system integration and developing a feature like rewards that we knew our customers would be happy with.
By dividing our team and product priorities into horizons, and dedicating a smaller group to focus on “nice features”, we could continue our work, pay off our technical debt, and use resources and capital more economically for the tasks that required. less attention from our more senior engineers.
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Math and fields matter
Imagine Leonardo DiCaprio The wolf of Wall Street enters his office wearing Dickies pants and boots. Farmers are mostly day traders with less cocaine and hair gel. The financial models used to understand agricultural derivatives are no joke. Not only do farmers have to endure the physical aspects of their job, but in most cases they play the role of a part-time stockbroker.
I have watched my family actively monitor milk market prices to understand their margins and calculate cost based on inputs from feed prices, and improve efficiency by investing in technology that can help scale the farm. It taught me to look at balance and the importance of burning cash. I also learned the importance of being aware of market conditions and how they affect products, and in particular how to use taxes, subsidies and legislation to help your company survive.
At Disco, these observations and lessons have helped us achieve incredibly lean manufacturing and make the company profitable. This is a rarity in a young, growing software business, and is ultimately why it was able to survive dry periods when growth stalled.
There are many other reasons why I am grateful for the farming experience: overcoming ambiguity (animals are predictably unpredictable), overcoming fear of heights, and the joy of working to create a product that benefits the body.
While those tender baby hands have softened over time, I am grateful that dairy farming has prepared me to be a tech entrepreneur. But most of all it taught me how lucky I was to have the time and those lessons with my family. And for the record, I’m sure the cows are happier in California than they are in Wisconsin. Just ask them in January.