Intelligent farm management service Smart Barn has been named as one of 12 winners in Verizon’s third annual Powerful Answers Award (PAA) tech competition. Smart Barn was selected from over 1,400 candidates, representing 70 different countries.
For 2015, the competition was divided into three categories—Emergency Response, Internet of Things, and Transportation—with a top prize of $1 million in each. The first runner-up in each category will receive $500,000, and the joint third place companies will receive $250,000 each. That brings Verizon’s total cash award in each category to $6 million.
Smart Barn, which entered the IoT category, will have to wait until the awards ceremony on December 9, 2015, in San Francisco, to find out where it placed.
The Ohio-based company is a software platform that helps livestock farmers keep tabs on a wide variety of barn systems, including temperature gauges, cooling and drying systems, fans, and other critical operations. The sensors track whether livestock have enough food, water, and fresh air, while also monitoring the temperature and ensuring that they’re safe and secure.
Using strategically placed wireless sensors, the software collects data points through a gateway and stores the information on the cloud. The data is then analyzed and alerts or alarms are sent to the farmer based on the results. Beyond the data analytics, Smart Barn helps farmers cut down the amount of time typically required to check the animals or keep an eye on other farm chores, especially when a farmers’ land is spread out over a large area.
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“It has been a whirlwind,” Smart Barn CEO Andrew Klein tells AgFunderNews. The Ohio native feels perfectly at home in the agriculture industry and cites his connection to the culture as a major asset to Smart Barn’s steady growth. “So much of the selling process is just getting to know the person. When you can speak the same language it’s a huge credibility point and it creates a lot of trust,” he says. “It’s especially important in farming. If they know who you are and know your family — because it’s a small community, it can help.”
According to Klein, Silicon Valley struggles when it comes to communicating with the farming community. “It’s always important to speak the same language as the customer, but it’s critical in farming. One of the things we get teased about by farmers is whether we are afraid to get in the barn and get dirty, but I have no problem with that. I grew up doing it.”
While the hometown connection and common roots help the company attract customers, it isn’t always a piece of cake. Klein and the Smart Barn team have relied on a “brute force, sweat, blood, and tears” selling ethos to get their product off the ground. “Some farmers don’t have a smartphone or a tablet so you have to teach them how to use that. It’s not as simple as, ‘Here’s a great product that everyone will buy’. You have to educate the farmer in a lot of cases,” he says.
Heading into the awards ceremony, Smart Barn has some stiff competition. The other three winners for the IoT category represent some cutting-edge technologies. French company CityTaps provides a smart water metering service that enables urban poor to micro-pay for water at their local utility or with a mobile phone. Utah-based Owlet is the only baby monitor on the market to use hospital pulse oximetry technology to alert parents if their baby stops breathing. And Palo Alto native Zizmos Technology provides earthquake early warning and high-resolution earthquake hazard maps for urban areas.
Regardless of where the company places at the awards ceremony, Smart Barn is already reaping major benefits as a result of its win. “We are building more contacts. We have had a lot of people on the hardware side interested, a lot of software services companies, and some contacts in the VC circle,” explains Klein. “Our web traffic has spiked up nicely, too.”
According to Klein, Verizon’s concerted PR push around the competition has been a big help in putting the company on the national map. At the awards ceremony, each winner will display a tradeshow booth for media, potential customers, and interested investors.
Perhaps the biggest asset Klein picked up during the competition was the intensive coaching he and the rest of the Smart Barn received before the final pitch. “They assigned us coaches and we had weekly practices. They critiqued us and gave us tips on everything.”
He also participated in a tech competition at his alma mater, University of Dayton, earlier this year, winning a cash prize for Smart Barn. The experience helped the young entrepreneur take on the international main stage at PAA.
Klein’s favorite tip ties back to the importance of speaking your customer’s language. “Coming from an ag background, the most valuable lesson was learning how to pitch to Silicon Valley, which is a different culture. We are Midwest and it is important to know how to put the extra polish on things.” The coaches encouraged Klein and the team to videotape their practice pitches, which were then reviewed in excruciating detail.
Thanks to the dedicated preparation, Klein was surprised to find himself more excited than nervous when it came time to make the final pitch. “It was a great feeling to get to that point. I hadn’t expected to feel that way.”
Heading into the awards ceremony, Klein and the rest of his team are already fast at work developing the next generation of Smart Barn. “Right now, we take care of livestock and make sure they are safe, but now we want to manage the whole operation from beginning to end. We want to focus on the economics of the operation and show in real time what is contributing to the bottom line,” says Klein.
As far as a future capital raise, it’s definitely on Klein’s radar. “When you have personal relationships withy our customer base, it makes you consider more carefully how you will operate and what you will do,” explains Klein. “We want to build the business, but we also want to treat our friendships with our customers carefully because those people have put a lot of trust in what we are doing.”
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