Expanding Customer Interviews with Master of Business and Science Students at KGI
The insight we gained from conducting 130 interviews in the agriculture ecosystem for the National NSF I-corps team program and the NSF Beat-the-Odds boot camp was priceless. We learned about our customers’ needs and were able to develop a strategy to focus our product development efforts on specific customers, market segments, and pests. We learned how to address the farmer’s needs, and identify key partners, resources, and more. Despite our 130 interviews, only 55 of them were growers. That is because August and September are the peak harvest time. The farmers were not available to take our calls because they were out in the fields. We wanted to continue our customer discovery and interview more farmers when they were less busy. Luckily, we had the opportunity to sponsor a class project at the Keck Graduate Institute (KGI) Master of Business and Science (MBS) program in Fall 2020. We thought since the harvest is over, farmers would have time to talk to us and with the students’ help, we could interview more farmers.
The students we partnered with, Alec Frias, Daniel Saucedo, Daron Afaryan, and Nathan Vega, wanted to learn how to do primary market research and were willing to do cold calls to gather data. We warned them that getting good interviews is very hard work. We provided them 17 questions we developed for the NSF I-corps, a list of 100 specialty crop growers, and a list of 75 greenhouse growers. We held weekly meetings so the students could keep us up to date on their progress and we could work out any problems they encountered. After a couple of weeks of calling, Alec, Daniel, Daron, and Nathan realized that they would not be able to reach their goal of 20 interviews using just the leads we provided to them. They were very creative and used google to find additional leads. They called 199 farmers (127 specialty and row crop farmers, and 72 greenhouses) over the course of 6 weeks from November to December 16, 2020. Even though we thought the harvest season was over and farmers would have more time to talk, we were wrong. Alec, Daniel, Daron, and Nathan told us that farmers were very busy people and had very little time to talk. As you can imagine, getting interviews from cold calls is not easy. Anyway, Alec, Daniel, Daron, and Nathan were very determined and developed a strategy (Figure 1) to talk to farmers. Out of 199 farmer calls, they interviewed 20 farmers (11 from farms and nine from greenhouses). Among the 20, four were row crop farmers (corn, soybean) and 16 were specialty crop growers (ornamentals, vegetables).
Concurrently, Dr. Fatma Kaplan, and Karl Schiller conducted interviews with people in the agriculture ecosystem (2 out of 14 were specialty crop growers). We had better luck because we got warm introductions during the NSF I-corps teams. Some people also reached out to us because they heard us at the pitch presentations or learned about us on the internet. Together, the KGI students and Pheronym founders completed 34 interviews from October to December 16, 2020.
The big take-home message was “Current pest management tools have not solved all the pest issues farmers are having despite many pest control products”. The KGI students’ findings from their 20 farmer interviews were consistent with our 130 interviews at the NSF I-corps and the additional 14 that Pheronym’s founders completed.
What about the pests? The KGI students found that insect pests included but were not limited to rootworms, wireworms, cutworms, armyworms, cucumber beetles, Asian flea beetles, plant-parasitic nematodes, fruit worms, leaf miners, stink bugs, borers, spider mites, aphids, whiteflies, fruit flies, and thrips. The insect pest problem was similar to our findings at the NSF I-corps programs. However, one particular insect stood out; thrips was mentioned by 7 of 20 farmers the KGI students interviewed.
“Thrips are one of the most difficult pests to control that we have. The greatest challenge is controlling them when plants have flowered since there is a limited number of chemical treatments that are safe on open flowers.” — A farmer from NJ.
“#1 in dollars damages thrips, then aphids” — A grower from Colorado.
We had very similar sentiments about thrips from our previous interviews. The only pest that rivaled farmers’ passion for thrips was plant-parasitic nematodes. Consistent with our finding, the Minor Use Foundation identified western flower thrips on ornamentals among its Top Ten Global Priority Crop Protection Needs of Growers following virtual workshops in greenhouses.
Many of the students’ findings with respect to decision-making, adoption of a new product and where they heard about a new product were consistent with our findings in the NSF I-Corps Teams program. How much farmers spend on pest control is difficult data to get, but the KGI students were able to get some information and it was consistent with our interviews at NSF I-Corps.
In summary, from May through December 2020, we have interviewed 164 customers in the agriculture ecosystem. Now we have a total of 77 grower interviews including 28 greenhouse growers and 49 is specialty crop and row crop farmers.
We want to thank everyone in the agriculture ecosystem for taking the time to tell us what you need. We also want to thank our KGI MBS students Alec Frias, Daniel Saucedo, Daron Afaryan, Nathan Vega, and their instructor, Steve Casper. Customer discovery calls, particularly cold calls, are very difficult and they called 199 growers calls to get 20 really good interviews.
About the authors
Alec Frias, Daniel Saucedo, Daron Afaryan, Nathan Vega are KGI MBS graduate students.
Mr. Karl Cameron Schiller is the co-founder and COO of Pheronym. He is an experienced entrepreneur with a BA in economics and an M.Sc. in pharmaceutical economics. Prior to Pheronym, he co-founded Kaplan Schiller Research LLC., and volunteered as president of a not for profit organization. In addition, he was a consultant in pharmaceutical product development, cost-effectiveness analysis, modeling, and statistical analysis. His clients include the University of Florida, the University of Alabama, Florida Medicaid, and Pfizer.
Dr. Fatma Kaplan is the co-founder and CEO/CSO of Pheronym, an entrepreneur, and an accomplished scientist with experience in both biology and chemistry. She has a Ph.D. in Plant Molecular and Cellular Biology and postdoctoral training in Natural Product Chemistry with a focus on isolating biologically active compounds. Dr. Kaplan discovered the first sex pheromone of the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans and published in Nature. Then she discovered that pheromones regulate other behaviors in both parasitic and beneficial nematodes. Recently, Dr. Kaplan conducted the first agricultural biocontrol experiment in Space at the International Space Station in 2020. She has very high impact publications and her dissertation (beta-amylase’s role during cold and heat shock) was cited in textbooks within five years of publication. Dr. Kaplan worked as a scientist at NASA, the National Magnetic Field Laboratory and the US Department of Agriculture — Agricultural Research Service. Dr. Kaplan and Mr. Schiller co-founded Pheronym to bring nematode pheromone technology to the market and to provide effective, non-toxic, sustainable pest control for farmers and gardeners. Pheronym for Healthy soil, Healthy farmers, Healthy food.