Each week, staff writer Paul Wood talks with a different high-tech difference maker. This week, meet MITCH MINARICK, founder and CEO of FarmAfield, which lets users buy crops and livestock with the click of a button. After graduate work at the University of Illinois, he worked as a research professor at University of Nebraska. He opened the company there but now also has employees working in the UI Research Park.
Did you start this company in Nebraska?
Yes, I started it in Nebraska, which is where I grew up and attended undergrad (and currently live), and the state of Nebraska has very attractive incentives for startup companies through their Department of Economic Development, which has really helped us early on via funding for research, grant writing and internship support.
Why open a Champaign office?
We wanted to re-engage with the startup community in Champaign-Urbana because we really believe that the university and startup community there have taken impressive steps to attract young companies like ours that are in the ag-tech sector. I was involved with several startup programs there during grad school, specifically through the Research Park and the Technology and Entrepreneurship Center, which were extremely helpful and informative for me.
What's new there?
When we added a COO to our team (John Elliott) who is from there and also familiar with the Research Park and university (and a diehard Illini fan), we reconnected with them and have been impressed with the growth in ag-tech companies that they have recently attracted, so we wanted to be a part of that story, and they've been extremely supportive and welcoming to us.
Are you more loyal to the Huskers or the Illini?
I had season tickets to Illini basketball games during grad school and really think the football tailgating setup there, with the large grass fields and families playing football and grilling on game day, is one of the purest college football experiences in the country. But I grew up listening to Husker football on the radio during harvest time with my dad and grandpa when the Huskers were the winningest football program in the country, so I bleed pretty red, especially now that Scott Frost has come home to bring us back to the promised land. I think your readers from farms can relate to at least some parts of that narrative and appreciate my conflicted ties. Regarding this year's Illini, AJ Bush was a well-liked and promising young QB for the Huskers before leaving during the last coaching change, so I am hopeful that he can lead the Illini to a good season.
How did you arrive at your service? When did you start it?
Simply put, we have many connections to farmers and agriculture but still found it surprisingly hard to invest directly in real farms, so we wanted to make that process easier. I started learning more about agricultural economics and risk management after an ag-development trip to Africa during grad school, and that really planted some seeds for me related to the potential for new technology to improve upon previous methods of ag development and financing. We officially opened our marketplace this spring.
You pay farmers and ranchers you trust to raise and care for crops and livestock. I'm interested in how you were able to select them.
We have many personal connections to outstanding farmers and ranchers, which gave us a good starting base, and then we have hired consultants in the industry to help us identify new partners.
Then how do they receive the proceeds from their sale? Is there a virtual marketplace?
Currently, the farmers and ranchers are responsible for selling the crops and livestock and delivering the proceeds to the owner, unless instructed otherwise.
What's your best advice for someone who's starting up?
Work on problems you are passionate about solving with team members who share that passion and are good team players. Early on, there is so much uncertainty about how your business will evolve that it can be hard to prioritize decisions, but there are a few things that you know will be important during the entire life of the company, so focus on getting those decisions right.
TECH TIDBITS ... from Mitch Minarick
What's your favorite app? LastPass.
Book or Kindle? Kindle.
Do you have any wearable electronics? Just wireless headphones.
Do you have an entrepreneurial hero? Actually, my wife just gave me a great book about an unlikely one that I'm reading right now: Rita Rizzo (aka Mother Angelica), who had a terrible childhood, barely finished high school, suffered from multiple physical ailments and lived as a cloistered nun. She started a television network in a monastery garage in 1981 with $200 and no television experience, and her network, EWTN, now reaches 268 million households in 145 countries. Along the way, she started a fishing-lure business, a peanut-roasting business, a religious community and a worldwide radio network, WEWN. It's an impressive story.