There are plenty of inspirational founder soundbites out there, but “you’ve got this” will only take you so far. So if you want to get the nitty-gritty behind growing a startup or nurturing the seed of an idea, heed the hard-won lessons from SproutX.
Founders get a 10 out of 10 for passion, optimism and drive. It’s the ‘how the hell do I do this?’ part that leaves many unstuck.
That’s why SproutX, the leading agtech accelerator program in Australia, hopes to rip off the bandaid and give founders, innovators and ‘agcurious’ minds the inside knowledge they need to make a real impact.
“We’re not afraid to have the hard conversations,” says Maxie Juang, Program Director at SproutX. “Sometimes programs forget the whole idea of a startup is to not be married to your idea, but rather the market itself. This is an incredibly trust-filled journey in that no one – including us – knows what the founder is going to end up with, but we want you to be a courageously self-aware founder steering a functional startup beyond the SproutX program.”
Over the past six years, SproutX has helped more than 82 startups and 123 ag and foodtech entrepreneurs launch and grow their innovations to help solve problems in climate change and sustainable agriculture. Applications are currently open for their 16-week free Pre-Accelerator Business of Agriculture Program, which gives future founders the opportunity to stress-test their ideas and solutions with industry leaders, mentors, investors, farmers and producers. There’s field tours and even scholarship money on the table, too.
Startup Daily asked Juang and Pre-Accelerator Program alumni the home truths founders can take away from programs like this.
Home truth #1: Don’t let slow cycles stall your relationships
The world around you won’t always move at your pace. That’s especially true in agriculture, where relationship building means rolling up your sleeves, getting deep in the mud and driving those long distances.
“Relationship building with stakeholders before business … this should be a standard practice across any sector, but agriculture is hard. You can only predict and wrangle nature to a certain extent,” Juang says.
Unpredictable harvests and storms that wipe out full seasons of hard work can pose challenges. As can earning the trust of weary farmers who already have all the salespeople of the country claiming to have a silver bullet.
“If you push through with authenticity, empathy and respect, you’d be surprised how quickly their guards drop,” Juang advises.
It’s a revelation that helped brothers Matthew and Stephen McDonald, who both participated in the program to figure out how they could close the inequality gap for smallholder farmers struggling with limited resources. Making connections in the agtech industry through the program’s networking and mentoring opportunities and producer tours helped the most.
“It hits home when you see what they have to deal with every day, and brings home the need to make things easy and make the value obvious,” Stephen says.
Home truth #2: Fail now so you don’t have to later
Have you got a ‘fail-first’ mentality? SproutX encourages its cohort to fail now, in a safe environment, so you don’t have to later.
“Build a hypothesis of the market, work out what the problem is and relentlessly test it,” Juang advises. “Two of the biggest reasons startups fail is that there’s no market for it, it doesn’t solve the problem or there isn’t demand, and running out of money because you developed the wrong product.
“At the very early stages you’ve got to not fall in love with your idea that much, rather you need to fall in love with the market and its problems. That’s what should really be driving you. Break your hypothesis until it can’t be broken down any more.”
SproutX Pre-Accelerator alum Elisa Raulings found this process illuminating. Raulings left a senior position at a conservation organisation to start her own business, Woop Woop for Nature, to bring scientifically driven, high-impact solutions to biodiversity loss and restoration across Australian land.
“One of the mentors challenged me on a very basic assumption and asked, ‘Is that true? Where is the evidence?’ And I thought, ‘That’s true. Where is the evidence?’ Being challenged was a big ‘aha’ moment for me,” Raulings recalls.
Home truth #3: Go niche, then scale
When you’re in the discovery phase, you’ll have to consider the different needs and practices of diverse markets. This will help prep you for eventually scaling to global markets where you can make an even bigger impact.
“The ag industry is incredibly fragmented,” Juang explains. “You can have a few north of state farmer networks that don’t really talk to the eastern farmer networks due to differences in environment, soil types, weather and rainfall. This all leads to a requirement for a different solution that is not shareable between groups.”
But don’t let infrastructure gaps or the desire to create a perfect solution for every single part of the problem hold you back.
Adam Chrimes, a recent SproutX Pre-Accelerator student, is developing new tech for laser branding for fruit labelling. He learned some parts of the industry won’t be ready for change.
“[I learned that] there will be a lot of resistance to change, and whether the business can bring that change to an entire industry is yet to be understood,” he says.
“What SproutX has helped me with is being able to see that as a potential problem. Before SproutX, I would have blindly walked right into that problem and been very much unprepared. Now I can see the barriers and I have started to understand how to model the business to handle this.”
Home truth #4: Your blind spots could become your strengths
You don’t know what you don’t know. Having a curious mindset and challenging preconceived assumptions will open doors, says Juang.
“When it comes to self-awareness, it’s clarity of goals and understanding yourself,” she says. “We aspire to have founders graduate and take a stake on something. It’s like picking a hill to die on.
“Understanding your strengths and having the courage to discover your blind spots takes time. We do this through the way the team shows up, the mentors we have, the dialogues and conversations among peers.
“We even have a segment in our first month of discovering ways we may be sabotaging our potential and happiness. Just like a good workout, it’s not comfortable, but for the ‘wildheart’ founders – it could literally change the way you show up for yourself and your work.”
It comes back to being obsessed with the problem you’re trying to solve. “You need to believe in the problem and be open to solving it in any way possible,” says Chrimes.
“Chances are that the initial approach is not going to be the one you send to the market. You need to be open to advice, surround yourself with good mentors and give it a go – the problem won’t solve itself.”
Want to join the global effort tackling challenges in sustainability and agriculture? Apply for the SproutX Pre-Accelerator Program now. Applications close February 21, 2024.
The program includes online and in-person learning, farm and producer visits, access to exclusive agtech events and a scholarship to kickstart your founder journey. SproutX is supported by partners LaunchVic, Agriculture Victoria and the Grains Research Development Corporation.
This article is brought to you by Startup Daily in partnership with SproutX.