Authority Magazine
Published in

Authority Magazine

Robin Saluoks Of eAgronom: Five Things I Learned As A Twenty-Something Founder

Realizing the importance of focus: we have taken over one niche and do it well. We have so far only focused on grain farm management since there is huge potential in that area alone and adding livestock, for example, would have added too much complexity to our limited resources and our resulting products and services would not have been to the same exacting standards.

As a part of our series called “My Life as a TwentySomething Founder”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Robin Saluoks, CEO and Co-founder eAgronom.

As co-founder and CEO of eAgronom, Robin drives strategy across the entire business, turning his vision of transforming agriculture into a key weapon to fight climate change into reality. Growing up on a farm into a family of farmers means Robin has a lifetime of knowledge and insight into the unique challenges and opportunities the sector faces. Having developed the first version of eAgronom’s farm management software specifically for his father’s farm, the start-up now has over 1,500 agri business customers. With a strong focus on sustainable agriculture, eAgronom is working with farmers to get high quality carbon sequestration projects off the ground to take advantage of the exploding carbon offsetting market.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! What is your “backstory”?

Well, my story is very much related to my family. I come from a farming family going back at least five generations. My father has a 1,400 hectares organic grain farm in South Estonia and my grandfather has a similar sized, but conventional farm, also in South Estonia.

The interesting thing about my father is that he didn’t immediately follow in his forefather’s footsteps. Instead, he studied law and worked in business before going back to his roots in farming with the aim of feeding the world profitably and sustainably through organic food. While he has had to fend off a lot of criticism and many farmers see his vision as an impossible task, he is a hundred percent committed to achieving his goal and for that I admire him greatly.

My upbringing has undoubtedly influenced me greatly in the kinds of decisions I have been making. However, my personal story of self-drive and entrepreneurial spirit probably started back in high school. I wanted to become a professional football player for as long as I can remember, putting all my efforts into training. However, maybe it was my father’s inspirational move to ditch the suit for wellington boots, or something else entirely, but I ended up starting my first company aged 17 when I was still at school.

The company, OÜ Kolm Põrsakest, still successfully operates today and offers science shows to thousands of children every week with the aim of sparking a hunger for learning from a young age. Once I had the first taste of what it felt like to be an entrepreneur, and more importantly, one that wanted to change the world for the better, I realised that building your own business was the most fulfilling path to pursue. While I still loved football, I realised something had to give, and so I decided to read computer science at university. It was never my aim to become a programmer, but technological innovation is the backbone of anything we do today, so it was the obvious choice.

The beginnings of eAgronom were quite accidental and came about when my father broke his computer. You must understand that today’s farmers rely heavily on computers for the running of their businesses, including billing and invoicing, accounts, data entry, regulatory compliance and much more. Unfortunately, the software he was using to manage his farm was connected to his physical computer and it was a costly mission to transfer the data to a new machine. At that point I came into the story and thought there must be a better way. Since I was still studying computer science at university I programmed the first version of a SaaS-based farm management software for my father’s exclusive use. However, other farmers got wind of it and wanted to start using it too. The problem was, while I knew the academic principles of software programming and knew a lot about the business of farming — which I picked up from helping on my father’s farm — I had no knowledge and insight into building a scalable software product.

This is when I knew I needed help. I met Stenver Jerkku by chance through common friends and we hit it off instantly, united by a common vision of working to make the world a better place and doing our bit to help avoid climate catastrophe. Stenver quit his full-time job, ripped apart my amateur attempt at building a farm management software, and started coding the product that is still the backbone of our offering today. The rest is history!

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you started your company? What lessons or takeaways idd you take out of that story?

I was in Costa Rica on a family vacation when Stenver called me with the news that eAgronom had made it through to YCombinator’s final interview stage. I asked him what date and time I should be at my computer to do the interview via video call, but he said it was going to be a physical meeting in San Francisco on the 2nd of January. So I ended up on an early morning flight from Costa Rica to San Francisco on the 1st January and held meetings with potential investors the very next day. It was a brilliant experience and we were amazed and surprised when we got accepted. Stenver and I are both big admirer’s of YC, but eAgronom was already quite late-stage by that time, so we weren’t clear on whether it was the right path for us. A last-minute shareholder meeting was called. Luckily many of our investors — including my father — were in Costa-Rica at that point, so we flew back there the next day and we held the meeting in the hotel we were staying at. In the end we decided not to join YCombinator, but holding a shareholder meeting on a beautiful beach is something I will always remember.

As it happens that trip was quite significant for the future of eAgronom for more than one reason. It was during the same trip I first met our Chief Commercial Officer Kristjan Luha. At the time, he had spent 20 years with Nike — leading their Russian business, Greece business, and Football Marketplace. We played volleyball on the beach and became awesome friends. A year later he decided to join the team and became a late co-founder. Just goes to show the importance of chance meetings!

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

We might be a tech start-up, but we are really a people company working with people, in this case farmers. Agriculture has traditionally been a very difficult industry to market to as farmers are distrustful from the outset and suspicious of technology. However, having grown up amongst farmers, I know the culture, I know the problems they face day in and day out, so it was clear to us from the outset we had to take a very personal, human-centered approach to customer service. And the proof of that is in the pudding. When we were looking for our first bit of funding we raised €500k from 50 customers. We were really humbled by the fact that these farmers had so much trust in a bunch of 20-somethings to part with their hard earned cash and invest it in our venture. However, it also gave us reassurance that we were doing the right thing and pushed us to go further and become even more ambitious.

And we have boundless ambitions, especially when it comes to doing our bit to fight climate change. As young entrepreneurs we feel we have a huge responsibility to work towards making the world a better place. Working within the agricultural sector, there is immense potential for not just cleaning up the industry, but turning it into something that actively helps the environment. That’s why our entire business model is focused on supporting farmers in moving to sustainable practices by providing them with access to knowledge, finance and the right tools. Take our approach to the carbon offsetting market, for example.

Being part of a carbon offsetting programme has the potential to provide an extra income to farmers by assisting the process of soil sequestration. However, for farmers to become more sustainable requires a substantial upfront investment and access to finance as the process of carbon credit certification takes an average five years. This involves huge risks and uncertainty over future payout, making involvement in carbon projects unappealing in its current state.

This is the conundrum we are trying to solve. We are in the process of launching the blockchain-based carbon protocol Solid World DAO, which will focus on selling pre-certified carbon credits that will in turn help finance new carbon sequestration projects on farms. With the help of eAgronom’s farm management software, AI and remote sensing technologies, farmers are able to provide accurate, transparent and real-time progress of their carbon projects to ensure they are on track to become certified. This process ensures there are only winners: investors can be confident their investments are of high-quality, farmers will become wealthier, the food they produce will be healthier and the environment will benefit by agriculture becoming a positive contributor to soil health and conservation.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

Well, that one’s easy, my father, 100 percent. He has been a huge inspiration to me all my life. He has shown me that through hard work, determination and a good dose of single-mindedness, you can achieve anything. My dad is my mentor and the person that has taught me the most valuable things in my life. Growing up on a farm means everyone in the family is hyper alert to successes and failures of the business at all times. I could see the hard work my dad put in day and night, sense the worry if things went wrong and him being overwhelmed by paperwork and regulation. Coding the first version of eAgronom’s farm management software was a way to say thank you to him and free up some of his time so he could relax for once and spend quality time with his family.

I am also incredibly grateful to Stenver and the whole team who believed in me and saw the business potential from the outset. Without teamwork we would not be where we are today and we still have a long journey ahead!

Are you working on any exciting projects now?

We have just finalized our latest funding round so it’s all hands on deck across all of our business units. On the business development side we are planning on expanding to new markets, including outside of the European Union. On the technology side we are working on further innovations for our carbon sequestration tracking technologies. On top of that we are gearing up to the launch of our blockchain-based carbon protocol Solid World DAO, which we hope will provide a boost to the carbon economy and make investors realise prioritizing sustainability goals above all else is a must, and cannot be an afterthought anymore. So yes, we try and keep busy with exciting projects to change the world.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

As touched on at various points above, our entire business is built on the foundation of helping farmers transform agriculture into a force for good, a weapon to fight climate change, and stop it being an active part in our world’s destruction. This might sound evangelical, outlandish and unachievable, but agriculture is an area with huge potential for positive change.

The urgency of the climate crisis demands a drastic lowering of atmospheric concentration of GHG emissions without delay. According to FAO, soils are the largest carbon sink outside oceans and sequestering carbon into agricultural soil via photosynthesis is a key natural means to fight climate change. While agriculture is one of the major sources of global emissions today, it also represents a big opportunity for removing CO2 from the atmosphere. A large-scale adoption of sustainable farming practices is required. However, financial constraints and complex regulation remain a key barrier for many farmers to make the move. Private investments, in addition to public subsidies, will be key in the coming years.

Meanwhile, the carbon offset market is set to explode by a magnitude of 100 within the next eight years with pressure building for private sector organizations to slash their carbon emissions. Whilst companies must put an emphasis on reducing as much carbon as possible, offsetting plays an important role in addressing the types of emissions that are very difficult to diminish in the short-to-medium term. By financing carbon credit projects focused on soil sequestration, organizations are not only offsetting their emissions, they are also helping farmers become more sustainable and thus promoting a healthy natural ecosystem. This is done by changes in farming practices, such as crop rotation, reduced fuel usage, till and fertilization, amongst others.

For the first time in history sustainable farming has the potential to become profitable in the short term whilst being a crucial actor in the fight against climate change. We at eAgronom are here to connect the dots and facilitate this change. We are definitely battle ready!

Do you have a favorite book that made a deep impact on your life? Can you share a story?

I’m reading tens of books every year, so it’s very hard to pick. Still, there is one book that had a profound impact on me in several ways — “The Leader who had no title” by Robin Sharma. It was introduced to me by one of my father’s business partners. I read it through, made a summary of it, and we went through the summary with every employee from my first company. At the time we had around 30 employees. Our common goal was to build an organization where every person felt the same pride and responsibility towards their place of work as the CEO.

That very same book also influenced me to start waking up at 5AM during my university years. It was such a great feeling to work out in the morning knowing your competitors were still fast asleep. I got so into it, I decided to set my alarm for 4am, which had many benefits, but also one big concern: as a young adult you still want to go out and party a fair bit. Going to a bar is probably not the smartest thing to do when you want to rise before dawn. The ingenious solution was to wake up slightly earlier on Saturday morning, let’s say 2AM, and arrive at the bar before 3AM. I am not following this lifestyle anymore, but I look back fondly on that period of my life.

Can you share 5 of the most difficult and most rewarding parts of being a “TwentySomething founder”. Please share an example or story for each.

  1. Finding the right business partners: we are young entrepreneurs and naturally equipped with a healthy dose of self-belief. However, it is important to realise that in order to have business success, it’s not possible to go it alone. I was lucky enough to meet my business soulmates at the very beginning of eAgronom’s journey. Think about it: eAgronom officially started with three people on board in August 2016. By January 2017 — only six months after launch — our farmers were using eAgronom to manage a combined 200,000ha of grain fields. That meant we had captured 70% of the Estonian market share! That kind of achievement is only possible through amazing teamwork.
  2. Realizing the importance of focus: we have taken over one niche and do it well. We have so far only focused on grain farm management since there is huge potential in that area alone and adding livestock, for example, would have added too much complexity to our limited resources and our resulting products and services would not have been to the same exacting standards.
  3. At one point we expanded too quickly: after our initial overnight success in the home market we decided to expand to five foreign markets at the same time. We soon realized that we had taken on far too much and had to take a loss. Having understood what went wrong, we narrowed our focus, which allowed us to refine the market-entry model and scale faster at a later stage.
  4. Receiving investment from our customers: as mentioned above, 50 of our earliest customers invested €500k in eAgronom when we needed funds to scale. The fact that they believed so much in us young guns was possibly one of the best experiences of my life!
  5. Putting climate first: as young founders we are very aware we are living on borrowed time and that we have to be the generation to fight tooth and nail to avoid climate catastrophe. We might only be a small company, however, we see potential to make a key difference in how the major economic actors behave and enable a pivot to making sustainability goals the number one business priority for the world economy.

What are the main takeaways that you would advise a twenty year old who is looking to found a business?

Believe in yourself, believe in your vision, take worthwhile advice and know when to seek help. Also, don’t follow an idea just because you think it’s going to make you a lot of money. You will be working around the clock, living and dreaming about your business, so it needs to be in an area that you are passionate about.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. :-)

Whenever I travel around I try to have breakfast, lunch, or dinner with local farmers. The US is full of smart farmers, but if I have to pick one name then it has to be Howard Buffet, son of legendary investor Warren Buffet. I have read about his thoughts on farming — I like many of them, but also disagree with some. It would be awesome to have the opportunity to discuss and even argue on farming, climate, and soil related topics that are important to both of us.

If I could go back in time, then I would love to sit down with John Deere. His legendary company has a special place in the hearts of many farmers. Nothing runs like a Deere!

What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?

Follow me on LinkedIn.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store