Companies of all sizes are adjusting to the “new normal” of social distancing and remote working as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Startups and young companies are working to ensure the health and safety of their employees, while still meeting customer demands and communicating with investors, vendors and contractors.
America’s Cultivation Corridor connected with founders and CEOs of Iowa-based startup companies to get their perspective on navigating through the challenges and potential opportunities of the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Casey Niemann, Founder of AgriSync
- Michael Ott, CEO and Co-Founder, Rantizo
- Dan Cosgrove, CEO of Growers Edge
What are the unique challenges you’ve faced during these times?
Dan Cosgrove: Staying engaged during a period where everyone is working from home is a challenge. We are lucky that from the start we built our IT stack to enable remote work. However, just because everyone has a laptop doesn’t mean we are ready to ditch the office. The biggest challenge is the mindset change that you have to be in the same room for the magic to happen. The fact is, today more than ever, you don’t. You can be creative, productive and secure through the use of all the cool tools we now have access to such as Zoom, Teams, email, and the like.
The hardest part remains how to manage remotely. Especially for those that grew up counting people in seats, this has been a tough transition. How do you create a culture remotely? How do you stay engaged without being overly intrusive while people are working from their home office (or in their sweatpants!)? How do you attract and retain talent? How to do a virtual sales call? If there is a silver lining to the crisis, it is that we now realize it can be done. An office is not required to be productive, and that great remote workers are a target to go after. We might never be the same down the road, and that may be OK.
Casey Niemann: We are fortunate to be busy, as it’s the peak season for remote support in agriculture. Customers are trying to maintain operations while dealing a paradigm shift in the way they do business. So we are trying to be empathetic, helpful, and good listeners.
Michael Ott: Fortunately, we have not seen a dramatic impact to our customer interest or sales opportunities. The fact is that agriculture has not only been deemed an ‘essential business’ in response to COVID-19 circumstances, but the need for farmers to get into their fields has become more essential than ever before. Farmers know that planting needs to carry on and the ability for them to get in their fields when they need to is crucial. Because of this, our business model focusing on solving for the labor crisis has been amplified. We have had some supply chain interruptions on our product development side but have been able to adapt. We are communicating with end customers to manage expectations.
The toughest challenge we have seen is strictly related to the need for travel. We have customers and prospective customers all over the country. Traveling to our offices or vice versa is not very feasible right now for a multitude of reasons. Sales meetings, lobbying, and vendor appointments have all been affected in some capacity. We have been able to adapt in several ways to overcome this, however, through video and virtual based communication platforms.
Startups are typically working with limited capital, what are your priorities now and for the next several weeks?
Although we are fortunate to have nearly completed a major fundraising effort and have sufficient capital, we are also putting measures in place to save money where and when we can. This will help us add a few more months of runway in case we need it, as well as the capacity to wrangle any surprises. The new normal of social distancing is also creating an opportunity for us to repurpose some resources identified for tradeshow attendance and travel, and instead develop educational and promotional resources to help position our product remotely.
Casey Niemann: We try to focus on running the core plays we know…ensuring we execute. As a leadership team we need to be mindful that the economy is changing daily, and we may need to adjust budgets, expectations, and then communicate clearly and regularly to our team.
Michael Ott: We are very strategic with the capital we have. Implementing sound financial practices is imperative to a startup’s survival at all times; even more so during a pandemic due to unpredictable chain reactions. We budget conservatively and protect cash on hand for the most important priorities- staff salaries and supplies. We are leveraging previously procured lines of credit to purchase inventory in order to continue to keep up with sales demand for our drone sprayer units. We’ve also signed a strategic deal with a supplier in exchange for company equity and cash which will allow us to move forward with a needed expansion component.
What resources have you found helpful?
Dan Cosgrove: All the tech tools we have are working great, including typical email, Teams, Zoom, Wrike and Calendly. We also received excellent support from the Greater Des Moines Partnership, including a seminar for our internal group on how to manage a company remotely.
Maybe the biggest resources we’ve tapped are our own employees and investor board members. Our board members have been an incredible resource in helping to navigate this new environment based on their past experience and creative approach to problem solving. Growers Edge team members have seemingly easily adapted to this new environment and continue to show up every day to ensure we deliver on our commitment to helping America’s farmers become more profitable.
Casey Niemann: We have leaned on our board and company advisors to ensure we have a sounding board. It’s a good time to ask for a second opinion and do your homework before making knee jerk decisions
Michael Ott: Local banks and existing investors have been good about informing us of government funding options. Some association memberships have been very helpful and valuable, in terms of delivering messages to politicians about what is actually needed.
What have you done to proactively communicate with customers, vendors, investors and others?
Dan Cosgrove: Due to the nature of our business, we’ve taken an individualized approach to communicating with customers, vendors and investors. When the Growers Edge team started operating remotely we committed to making sure our investors, customers and vendors noticed little to no difference. We are always in close contact with our investor board through regularly scheduled calls and quick stand-ups for more urgent matters. We continue to meet regularly on projects with our customers that are in process via Zoom and email. Our sales efforts have probably changed the most, now relying on email marketing and personal contacts via the phone, rather than in-person meetings. Lastly, we keep in touch with our vendors so they continue to be supportive of our efforts. On a side note, the team working remotely has been a convenience to the folks working on our office improvements and expansion by allowing those contractors to work in a socially distanced manner.
Whomever the audience, we’re sensitive to the idea that everyone probably needs just a little TLC since we are all navigating in entirely new waters, so-to-speak.
Casey Niemann: It’s important the customers and investors hear from you during these times. Silence is not a strategy. Also extremely important to communicate regularly with your team and give them assurance that you care and have a plan to get through the turbulent times.
Michael Ott: We have maintained frequent and transparent communication with our customers and investors regarding timeline expectations and our company status relative to the crisis. We’ve found that letting people know what is going on, even if less than ideal, is better than letting them wonder and assume even worse. We successfully implemented a large portion of our training remotely for the first time. We may continue to do that even after the crisis is over because it had some advantages that we didn’t foresee.
For additional insights on managing through challenging times, read the article with insights from Iowa business and entrepreneurial experts.