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For more than 60 years, my family has owned and operated a mid-sized dairy farm in Junction City, Wisconsin. I spent many of my formative years at the barn working alongside my grandparents, parents, uncles, aunts and cousins milking, “sweeping in” and making hay. And while I’m sure I caused them more work and stress from having to fix my daily mistakes, the experience working on that farm influenced how I’ve approached entrepreneurship and made me a better technology company founder.
It’s well known that farm life is insanely hard work, both physically and mentally (which is why I got a marketing degree). However, beyond grit and determination, there were several less obvious lessons I learned from my family during my childhood about what it takes to own and operate a successful venture.
These are a few of the lessons I learned and how working on a dairy farm made me a better tech entrepreneur.
Related: The 8 Lessons Entrepreneurs Could Learn From Farmers
Make hay while the sun shines
There is no way (yet) to control the weather. Meteorologists can predict it, and we can plan for it, but we can’t dictate when and how much it rains. Farmers never receive “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 crops throughout the summer months, without any real control over what the weather will bring them. The expression, “You need to make hay when the sun shines,” still holds true to this day and is equally relevant to building a software company.
As a tech entrepreneur, I’ve come to accept that you’ll never own or control all of the market conditions. Oftentimes, you’ll need to adapt or adjust to the macro-environment to make your business work. The benefit of doing this with software, of course, is that you don’t have the machinery or livestock that you need to pivot with (although aligning teams around a new strategic direction, particularly the larger you are, can feel like herding cattle).
At my last company, Disco, we had a great product that solved a problem for customers; However, for almost three years, the market viewed it as a “nice-to-have.” The dynamics of the market needed to change and mature in order for the narrative around Disco to become necessary for business operations.
There were two “hay-making” windows for Disco. First, when platforms like Slack and Microsoft Teams began building out their ecosystems, we were able to launch our app alongside that momentum to accelerate our initial growth, signal market interest and raise capital. Second, when Covid and remote work became mandatory, our value proposition around building culture across a distributed workforce was table stakes. We were able to double our revenues in a 6-month stretch, secure a Series A term sheet and have a great outcome in selling the company to Culture Amp.
Although the conditions might not always be ideal for your venture, if you have a good product that solves a customer problem, a committed team and the revenues to sustain your business and support, be patient and know that the weather can change at any point. And when it does, make hay.
Related: What the American Farm Can Teach Business Leaders About ‘Sowing’ Success
Operate on the horizons
AI and automation are improving efficiencies across every industry, farming included. We’ve seen the evolution of automated milking machines, and more recently, the introduction of autonomous farming equipment and IoT devices to monitor crop and animal health to optimize yield with data. These innovations are exciting, but the reality is that farmers need to be selective with these investments to ensure they can sustain their daily operations and keep the cream flowing.
What I observed was how our family tested new concepts, all while minimizing capital outlay and disrupting daily operations. They approached innovation through creative and strategic financing to pilot hardware and new workflows, and they isolated tests to smaller portions of the farming operation before investing more capital. Additionally, they’d occasionally hire less expensive help (like a pudgy kid with a bad bowl cut, ahem, yours truly) to do the jobs that could be put on auto-pilot. This was my first exposure to the practice of Horizon Planning, where projects were resourced and staged according to experience and skill and during times that would minimize disruption to our cash cows.
While building my last company, we were faced with similar opportunities and questions around how, where and when to innovate. We were often forced to evaluate the tradeoffs of paying down technical debt or building a boring but crucial HR systems integration versus developing a feature like rewards that we knew would delight our customers.
By splitting our team and product priorities into horizons, as well as separating a smaller group to focus on “delighter features,” we could keep our operation going, pay down our technical debt and more cost-effectively deploy resources and capital on tasks that required less mindshare from our more senior engineers.
Related: I’ve Been a Tech Entrepreneur for Over 20 Years — Here Are 5 Key Lessons I’ve Learned Along the Way
Math and margins matter
Imagine Leonardo DiCaprio from The Wolf of Wall Street walking into his office with Dickies pants and boots. Farmers are basically day traders with less cocaine and hair gel. The financial models involved in understanding agricultural derivatives are no joke. Not only do farmers need to endure the physical aspects of their job, but in most cases, they’re playing the role of part-time stockbroker.
I observed my family actively monitor the market rates for milk to understand their margin and calculate COGS based on the inputs from feed prices, as well as improved operational efficiencies from investments in technologies that could help the farm scale. It taught me to look at a balance sheet and the importance of cash burn. I also learned how critical it was to stay informed of market conditions and how they impacted commodities, and more specifically, how to use tax, subsidies and legislation to help your company survive.
At Disco, these observations and lessons helped us run an incredibly lean operation while making the company profitable. This is rare for a young, growing software business, and it’s ultimately the reason it was able to survive dry periods when growth stalled.
There are many other reasons I’m grateful for the farming experience — dealing with ambiguity (animals are predictably unpredictable), overcoming a fear of heights and the joy of working toward creating a product that does a body good.
While these baby-soft hands have softened over time, I’m grateful for how much dairy farming prepared me to be a technology entrepreneur. But more than anything, it taught me how fortunate I was to have that time and those lessons with my family. And for the record, I’m confident the cows are happier in California than in Wisconsin. Just ask them in January.
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