Editor’s Note: Maximillian Cunha is an executive recruiter for agricultural technology at Real Staffing an agency in San Francisco active in agtech recruitment. He previously cofounded a cricket farm in Van Nuys, California. Here he discusses misconceptions around hiring for agtech startups.
Growing season is underway, and the pace of work on US farms is about to reach a fever pitch. This is the time when trials for new technologies take place, and proven technologies have the chance to show their worth to growers. This is no time to be in a hiring pinch.
Even though agtech startup investment grew 29% in 2017, agtech is still a relatively new phenomenon both in the tech world and on the farm, which raises an interesting question: how do you build a team with the experience you need for a space that is so relatively nascent?
The agtech industry has a unique patchwork of problems with recruiting: the talent pool is small and competitive; there is a lack of definitive agtech startup experience; the field is growing faster than the talent immediately available to fill those roles.
I hear these concerns echoed across almost every vertical in the space. The general mindset is “we’re an agtech company, so we need a team with ag experience.”
The problem with this thinking is that it becomes severely limiting, and potentially detrimental to the growth of the company.
Planting the Tech Seed
Often hiring managers overlook the importance of the tech side of this space because the application is in agriculture. Change in agriculture tends to meet resistance, and there remains much work to be done on bridging the gap between growers and the influx of new technology. But if a company is looking to disrupt industry paradigms that have been in place for generations, it must consider bolstering its team with individuals who have had success doing just that in an overlapping space.
The wealth of intersecting technologies presents a unique opportunity to the agtech space. Ranging from software to biotech, many of these industries are considerably developed and often saturated with exceptionally talented individuals looking to make their mark.
Many startups in the space are struggling to build effective teams as a result of an under-utilization of talent with backgrounds outside of agriculture. The leading companies are figuring this out and stacking their teams with intersecting industry leaders. Some notable examples are Plenty recruiting from Tesla, and Benson Hill Biosystems from machine learning startup Gamalon.
Of course, a solid understanding of growers and the agriculture industry is paramount. However, a lack of agriculture experience is an oversimplification of a candidate profile, and often these candidates can bring significant value to a team if you know what qualities to look for.
From Bales to Sales
For the purpose of this article, let’s focus on sales.
Consider farm management software. While the application is farming and agriculture, the solution that is being offered is a business tool, not a seed or fertilizer. Does it make sense to build a team with experience selling traditional ag products or experience selling business tools? Understanding the market and customers is important, but knowing how to identify the pain points of a business and sell a new technology is in many ways radically different from a traditional ag product.
A major hurdle for companies targeting growers is adoption. Farmers are a notoriously conservative customer base, and new technologies will inevitably meet some resistance.
A SaaS (Software as a Service) sales professional in this domain is generally trained to ask the right questions to effectively understand a customer’s business. Their objective is to provide a solution to a business challenge or inefficiency to add value and increase profitability, whether the business is a farm or not.
Another important distinction to determine in a sales recruit is, is this person a “hunter” or a “gatherer”? Is your business focusing on managing relationships or building new ones? Startups will most likely want hunters, not gatherers. Identifying the traits of a hunter mentality in a salesperson is key, so here are some scenarios to consider.
A successful sales executive at a mid-sized to large company (Syngenta, Bayer, etc.) may not necessarily perform well or meet objectives at a startup because of the nature of their work. In larger companies, the business and brand are established, and there are resources (and people) that they can leverage for support that simply won’t be available at an early stage company. In a well-developed business segment, there is often more of a focus on maintaining relationships rather than creating new ones.
One could also argue that a candidate with a successful startup background outside of ag could add more value to a team than a person coming from a traditional ag background from a mid-to-large size company. Embracing the culture and work dynamic of a startup can sometimes be overwhelming to candidates who have spent their careers in clearly-defined roles within large organizations. Knowing how to take on new responsibilities and work well outside your job description is a prerequisite for success with an early stage company.
Of course, there may be exceptions to this, so consider their experience at their previous company. Have they developed new business segments within the company? Have they developed a joint venture? Opened a new territory or launched a new product? These are all things to consider but rarely do they carry the same experience as being in the trenches with a startup.
Equally significant is that this person has experience selling a new product or technology. Yes, a network is important and so are previous relationships with growers, but ultimately you are looking for people who have demonstrated success in selling new technologies and building new relationships.
It goes without saying that an understanding of the grower and the ag business is key to an agtech startup’s success. However, what makes a great salesperson is whether he/she can truly understand how the product improves the life of the grower. If they don’t understand fundamentally how the technology adds value to the farmer, then one could argue that previous agriculture experience becomes irrelevant. The most successful people in sales will have an acutely developed sense of empathy, know how to solve a problem, and then communicate a solution effectively. Product knowledge can be learned, but these skills are what fundamentally dictate success.
Though this example is specifically for sales, these principles should be applied to any team equally. Understanding what makes someone successful in an intersecting industry and how that can be applied to agriculture will offer a competitive edge both strategically and in terms of team development.