Wired In: Madelyn Walters

Wired In: Madelyn Walters

Each week, staff writer Paul Wood talks with a high-tech difference-maker. This week, meet MADELYN WALTERS, who was one of Granular's first employees at the University of Illinois Research Park in Champaign and is now a product manager. She also knows her steers.

You grew up on a farm in northern Illinois, caring for animals and helping with record keeping. What did you love about that, so it made you go on to study agricultural economics at the UI?

I loved learning about different parts of running a farm business and being able to see hard work pay off with both the animals I cared for and the work my family did on the farm. I was more interested in the business side of things than operating farm equipment and I knew I could go on to study that and have a career in business in an industry I love.

Just a fun question: did you have a favorite animal?

Of course! My favorite was a Shorthorn steer named Drake. He did really well at all the shows I took him to, behaved really well and has a beautiful red and white coat that made him stick out.

You also worked two years as a business analyst for an agribusiness management consulting firm in Indianapolis. What did you learn from that?

I learned a lot about project management, time management, qualitative research and the importance of clear communication. I also got a lot of exposure to animal health businesses, and various agricultural industry associations that we did projects for.

You joined Granular as a customer success manager in 2015 and were the second person in Granular's Champaign office. Now you're on the product development team as the first product manager (in Champaign). It sounds like Granular offers room to move up as it expands.

Definitely. Even though we were acquired, we still have a lot of our start-upesque traits. There isn't always a well-defined path for moving up, but the managers are great at recognizing when employees are ready for something more challenging

What kinds of service for farmers are in the software you're working on?

Granular's farm management software provides a centralized place for farmers to store and access information about what happens on their farm, it helps them analyze that information so they can make better decisions about what they're doing, and gives them a means to share farm information with outside stakeholders like bankers, landowners, agronomists, etc.

Tell us about operational efficiency in the long-term success of a farm business.

Operational efficiency to me includes making sure you're optimizing your use of equipment and people to complete work, and you're spending money in places that make sense. It's critical because margins for most Midwest farms are very tight right now, so the financial impact of an extra shot of fertilizer or another tillage pass can be the difference between being in the red or the black for the year. Farms that are focusing on operational efficiency can manage those tight margins and position themselves to be around for the long haul.

Based on your experience working with farms, what are the three or four best practices that any farmer should keep in mind to make sure they're being operationally efficient?

Know your numbers. Understand your costs and where you're at financially as the season progresses so you have the right information you need to evaluate activities that could make or break you financially. Be organized. This one probably sounds too simple, but the best farms I've worked with have an organized system in place for record-keeping and tracking things like equipment maintenance, input purchases, loads hauled in and out, and they make it a priority that everyone on the farm is in tune with that the system is.Set and communicate expectations. When I was in my role as customer success manager, one of the biggest challenges we'd run into with farms trying to use software to run their business was that there weren't clear expectations set about what each person's role in using the software was supposed to be

What's your best advice for someone who's starting up?

I think that growing up in a family where the farm was our livelihood prepared me for working in an entrepreneurial environment. In farming, there are some things you can't control and it's up to the farmer to do what he or she can to manage the things that are in their control. The same goes for startups — you're not guaranteed to be around two years from now, and things change quickly so you have to manage what you can, and not waste time worrying about the things you can't.

Did you ever make any mistakes that you learned from in your early years?

Totally, although I think I'm still in my early years and still making mistakes. I've gotten myself into trouble before by making assumptions and am learning to dial that back and ask questions more often. I have also screwed up in negotiation situations, and am working on how to better manage those, although they don't come up as often in my new role.

TECH TIDBITS ... from MADELYN WALTERS

Favorite app: For work: Slack; for personal use: Punkpost.

On Facebook I follow: Our customers — a lot of them have pages for their farms; farming memes; and local restaurants and businesses that I like to frequent.

Book or Kindle? What are you reading right now? Both. I want to get hooked on my Kindle, but there's a feeling of accomplishment when you turn the last page of a real book. I'm reading "Devil in the White City" by Erik Larson, and "INSPIRED: How To Create Tech Products Customers Love" by Marty Cagan.

Do you have any wearable electronics? Apple Watch. I've tried a few other activity-tracking bands, but like the extra features and sleeker look of the Apple Watch best.

Do you have an entrepreneur hero? Sounds cliched, but it'd have to be my parents. They are running a successful farm business and have always had the "do what it takes" attitude necessary for being an entrepreneur.