Starting-up during COVID-19: An Interview with Andrew Mack
Parker Richardson: “What is it like to run a start-up in the midst of a global pandemic?”
Andrew Mack: “Agromovil has been a virtual team for most of its existence...In some ways, we were better prepared than others to deal with the new home office reality. We have team members on the west coast, on the east coast, the New York area, San Francisco, Washington, Bogota, and Bucaramanga, amongst other places. We also have a pretty big community of supporters that stretches from Europe and Oman and West Africa all the way through to India...We are a start-up of our era. We have never really had an office that we went to, whether that office was an old-style office or a WeWork.
I think the biggest challenge in some ways has been for me as the founder and for Constanza, our Lead Advisor, not to be able to go to Colombia and sit face-to-face with users as we’ve rolled out different versions of the platform this year. Luckily, we have built a very strong network of partners on the ground like the credit union Comultrasan, and we have amazing team members in Colombia, which has enabled us to keep really connected to what’s happening for our users.”
PR: “How has COVID changed how you lead the company?"
AM: “It’s forced us to be even more collaborative, I suppose. Now we have new team members, on our visibility team for example, in Massachusetts, Ohio, and Wisconsin, and I’ve never actually met them face-to-face. It’s required that we’re more efficient, and that we find ways to create trust and teamwork over Zoom. In one way it helps us go faster, as we can zip through projects. But we are all working hard to create the human connection that makes good teams strong.”
PR: “What have you learned from being a start-up in COVID?”
AM: “In some ways, being a start-up in COVID is the worst of all possible worlds. What is a start-up supposed to do? A start-up is supposed to be in the field, connecting with their users and potential users, and you’re supposed to be raising money and visibility. COVID has made these tasks doubly difficult.
However, I think that Agromovil has really flourished during COVID. Just before the world largely shut down in March, we were expecting to go to Bentonville, Arkansas to speak with the Walton Family Foundation and other potential investors as a result of winning the SCALE Challenge. Literally two days after I got the okay to buy the plane tickets, the state of Arkansas closed and that meeting never happened.
In the intervening months, we have launched the MATCH version of our platform, we have explored the US market with the team from Ernst & Young, we built our additional functionality which we did not have, we further deepened our partnership with Comultrasan, our go-to-market partner the credit union in Colombia. We've received all kinds of press in the US, Colombia, West Africa, and other places. We’ve added to the size of our team on the ground and now have some 600 people up on the platform, using Agromovil. In a sense, every start-up journey is a story of doing the best you can and as fast as you can. The COVID-freeze has been a really great opportunity for Agromovil to learn faster and get stronger. Today our story is strong, our platform is better, and we are a better investment.”
PR: “How do you think COVID will change the food system going forward and what is Agromovil’s role in that?”
AM: “COVID has shown two things to the agriculture world. First of all, it has shown us just how vulnerable our global food logistics system is, especially the system that touches on small-scale agriculture, which is most of the world, right? COVID gave us the need to look even more closely at where the system is inefficient, why it’s inefficient. In the past there may have been some sense that we might be able to simply produce enough to get around the inefficiencies of our production and distribution. But the crisis has put into even sharper relief the fact that small-scale ag is not a very good business for farmers. COVID has shown us just how vulnerable we are, and just how many points of our agricultural system are at risk: from the farmers’ perspective, how close they are to the edge, from the transporter’s perspective, how hard it is to get out safely and efficiently to the far flung places where goods are produced around the world, and from the consumer’s perspective, how many people are touching the goods between the time they are produced and the time they are able to buy them.
And these are not just problems we’re facing in the developing world. They are front and center problems in the United States. Some parts of the US have problems very similar to the challenges faced in countries like Colombia or Tanzania. And we have seen how much of US goods roll up into a very, very small number of distribution points and large companies. We’ve also seen as a result of COVID how much US food doesn’t make it to market - at all. It’s hard for small sellers to make it into the market, and that makes the entire system much more vulnerable.”
PR: “How has Agromovil changed its platform to adapt to COVID?”
AM: “We are MATCH, BATCH, and PAY functionality. The idea is to make the match between buyer and seller, group the different deals so they can be picked up in an optimized fashion, and enable everyone to pay for their services on the platform. We launched a version of that included Match and Pay in January and early February with a small number of people in eastern Colombia, just to make sure it worked as we wanted to and to get the reaction of the farmers there. What we heard was that they loved the idea - the matching platform and the ability to pay on the platform, but that farmers were more comfortable adopting new technology in pieces - first Match, then Match and Pay.
When the COVID crisis hit in a big way in March, it put tremendous pressure on already
strained global ag supply chains, especially those that touch small farmers. Small farmers are at great risk partly because fewer and fewer people are coming to pick up their goods. We heard from the field that the transporters serving smaller farmers are coming less often and offering lower prices for the goods that are picked up. We knew Agromovil could play a role to keep the supply chain safe, offering the ability to make the match and to keep goods flowing, so we launched a no-cost version of the platform based just on the Matching function. After all, the last thing we would want is farmers – who can’t get their goods to market – putting themselves at risk by going to the cities to sell their goods because they feel like they have no other option.
The response has been phenomenal. We have 600+ people up on the platform at this point in time, and 49 different products being offered. We started off in three target municipalities, and with Comultrasan, we are expanding nationwide in Colombia. We have just won approval to participate in a Government of Colombia program to support the use of technology helping farmers get crops to market during the COVID crisis.
Over the course of time, we’ll build out an additional functionality, including the transport and the pay functionalities and much more. The pay is now ready and hopefully will be launched in the early fall, and the transportation hopefully by the end of the year, or by the very latest in the beginning of next year.”
PR: “Was Agromovil intending on pivoting towards the United States before COVID-19 or was that spurred on by the pandemic?”
AM: “It’s always been our desire. I am from the United States, I am an Ohio boy, though I’ve lived all over the world, and it’s always been our goal to make an impact in the United States. We know there’s a lot of food insecurity in the US, and that small-farming is struggling as the country has moved to larger and more industrial production. I know from your experience how little farmers are making in Maine when they’re trying to produce their own crops and get them to market. The same dynamics that exist for small farmers in the United States exist for small farmers all around the world. Small farmers have too many jobs, they have to produce the goods and market the goods and transport the goods. This is more jobs than any one person should have. Our goal is to simplify this ecosystem and make it easier for small farmers to get into the supply chain and make money sustainably.
And in the US we think there may be tremendous opportunities, for example, connected to the healthcare sector where nutrition is a very big issue. Many farming communities have poor nutritional indicators. Many urban areas have real food desert challenges. Because our system is easy to use and easy to understand, we are eager to get it out there, to give people the chance to experiment with the platform and tell us how they like to use it. We’ll build our next level of functionality around them.”
PR: “Agromovil seems to be bursting at the seams. How are you going to manage all these different projects simultaneously?”
AM: “We’re going to manage it by doing exactly what we’re doing - by getting the word out, raising the number of people who know about us and who are joining the team. We’re going to learn as quickly as we can from these diverse markets and diverse use-cases. But we always maintain our focus on two key principles that we’e held onto since we tarted working years ago: First, we want Agromovil to be user-driven and pro-farmer. We want to make sure that the people who are putting in time to grow our food are extracting more value from their work. It needs to make economic sense for everyone in the equation. And second, the platform, no matter how much we add in terms of functionality needs to remain simple to use and understand. Most people are not technologists. I certainly didn’t start out as a technologist myself. Simple ideas have the change to go big, and we want to have a big impact. If a small farmer that doesn’t have a lot of experience with technology - a farmer anywhere who maybe doesn't own a computer and may never own own - can understand Agromovil, what’s in it for them, and how to use it quickly and easily, we’re on the right track.”