Superstar Snippets | Tristan Shannon’s tips for building great agtech products

At GrowLab we pick the superstars in agrifood tech to mentor and support our portfolio companies. So here’s the first of our ‘Superstar snippets’ from one of these mentors to get you on your way to building great products. Over the coming months we are going to bring you more and more of these, so stay tuned!

So, if you’re an agtech founder or aspiring to be one, it’s pretty much a given that you will have asked yourself the question “how do I build a great agtech product?” at some point in your career. Let’s find out!

Speaking to Tristan Shannon on this topic was a no-brainer: now Head of Product at AgriDigital (and GrowLab mentor), Tristan joined the company as one of its first employees and has been involved in every step of the product journey: from an MVP hastily built in a matter of weeks to a pioneering global agtech platform. AgriDigital is one of the shining stars of the Australian agtech scene, having raised $5.5m earlier in 2018 to build a platform to better manage agricultural commodity supply chains.

SNIPPET #1: Identify the ‘right’ pilot customers

If you’re thinking about building a product, you will need to have a sense of who your customers are. Building strong relationships with customers early in your product journey is essential because it is their early feedback that will eventually refine and shape your offering. But what makes a great pilot customer?

  1. Know thyself!: According to Tristan, the first step is knowing the exact criteria you’re looking for in a pilot customer. Getting great engagement from customers is super exciting, especially when you’re just starting out, but it’s important not to let that excitement sway you from what you’re looking for and prevent you from being selective about who you choose to work with. If you’re building a product for the grain producers knowing exaclty the types of growers you want is paramount. Do you want irrigated or dryland? Already using tech or not?
  2. Pain is gain: Find a customer who is really experiencing the problem you are solving. “A good pilot customer experiences a lot of pain with how they are doing things and is more motivated to find a solution”, says Tristan.
  3. …but it isn’t enough: The ideal pilot customer should be going through a growth phase and finding that this problem or pain-point is proving a real barrier to scaling. AgriDigital’s first customer was planning to seriously grow the size of their operation, but found their paper-based transaction system was unsustainable: “What they were doing just wouldn’t scale, so they needed a better way”, remembers Tristan, adding that this motivation on the client’s side manifested in them committing time to working with AgriDigital to build a product that would solve their problem.
  4. Beware the technophiles!: A common trap in agtech are farmers passionate about tech. While this is great for driving the agtech ecosystem forward, they may prove counterproductive in some circumstances. “They can just care about the tech itself… interested in suggesting technical improvements rather than solving a real problem they have” warns Tristan. So, as a founder or early stage product manager, be crystal clear on what you want from early customers and be willing to say the hard ‘no’ to those that don’t meet your criteria.

SNIPPET #2: Gain the trust of your first customers

As a startup without a track record, how do you win the trust of customers? It’s a conundrum that stumps a lot of early stage companies. Tristan’s suggestion is to go in warm by enlisting the help of a trusted partner of your target customer: “if you can approach with a trusted partner — a bank, agronomist or livestock contractor — it gives you way more credibility.” Approaching these connectors with a really valuable problem you want to solve for their customers and a clear ask of how they can help you is the best way to engage these groups.

Another ‘must’ when it comes to working with your first customers and gaining their confidence and trust is the speed of product iteration. Customers want to know that their time and assistance early in your journey is leading somewhere — the last thing you want or need is to put off early adopters by taking up their time developing a new product feature that isn’t launched for months or ever. “Customers want to see their engagement turn into features quickly, especially in the early days.” Tristan uses AgriDigital as an example, recalling that one of their team was in contact with the pilot customers, either face to face or over the phone, for several months while the MVP was being built, getting their input and buy-in throughout and keeping them engaged and involved in the process.

SNIPPET #3: Build HYPE!

It’s never too early to build hype around a big vision, communicating the big problems you are trying to solve,” says Tristan, but also warns against building hype and creating expectations around specific features which may take longer to deliver on than you initially thought.

Having Emma [AgriDigital CEO] who is amazing at communicating and engaging about the problems of the supply chain and our big picture vision has been exceptional to generate the right kind of hype.” So as a founder, think about how can you talk about the big problems you are trying to solve and the nirvana you will create once you are up and running.

On the other end of the spectrum, as a founder or early team member at a startup it’s easy to get excited about specific features, but hyping up a specific feature, especially before it has been built is a recipe for unhappy customers. “Any unforeseen technical hurdles or changes in priority for building that particular feature will leave that customer disappointed”. By contrast, maintaining hype on the big vision gives you the flexibility to change the specific features you release without upsetting your customers.

SNIPPET #4: Avoid product fatigue

Tristan defines “product fatigue” as an experience early customers can suffer from when repeated requests for product feedback ends up providing more to you as a startup than it does to them in product outcomes. You don’t want to turn off future champions of your product by wearing out their goodwill. As your product matures and your team grows, be more judicious about what you put in front of your customers, only approaching them for features that really need user testing.

Speaking of which… another trap to avoid digging yourself into is having too big a lead time between user testing of prototypes and feature development. “Getting feedback from customers on a new feature sets the expectation that the feature is coming” says Tristan and advises product teams to be sure that they can deliver on those features reasonably quickly before approaching customers to help test, refine and give feedback.

At the risk of sounding contradictory, it is also important to strike a balance between speed and the quality of the product or features you’re rushing to get out to customers. In the early days, taking shortcuts to work faster is a given and the features you create may not be as ‘shiny’ as you’d like. But even with this being the case, try to think ahead about problems those shortcuts may cause you in the long run. What you want to avoid is having to work on challenging projects like refactoring your codebase or major design revisions in the future which may have saved you time in the short term but caused you major delays in the medium-long term, leaving clients with long periods between new feature releases.

We hope this sets you off on the right track, we’ll be doing plenty more Superstar Snippets, so if there’s a topic in agrifood tech you’d like us to cover leave a comment and we’ll get onto it!