Whenever we ask successful startuppers to share their pro-tips with early-stage founders, they repeat like a mantra, “always keep your users in mind.” Even if you’re getting tired of this advice, it makes much sense because you simply can’t stress enough the importance of user-centricity in software development. Don’t take our word for it – Alex Sloth, the Head of After Sales Services at FarmDroid, also supports this claim. In an interview, he told us how user feedback helps FarmDroid grow and what to expect when you bring radical innovation to the table.
How did your journey towards smart farming begin?
The story of FarmDroid dates back to 2011 when Jens, one of our founders, was tasked with working on a family farm. His job was to take care of weed-infested beet crops, to be more specific. In ecological farming, we use manual equipment to remove weeds, so Jens started picking it right away. Soon he realized it was a daunting task that could be much easier to do.
Weeding turned out to be the seed of a business idea?
Yes, Jens basically started from the problem and proceeded to ideate various solutions. The development went on for around seven years. During that time, he tried out different things like using windshield wipers as motors and bicycle wheels for enabling the robot to move around. A few years later, Jens' brother, Kristian, joined, and in 2018 so did the investors. That was when the first real prototype and the company were born.
So it’s safe to say that it all started by the startup book: the founder having a problem and trying to solve it.
Definitely. Jens was one of the people doing the hard manual labor, so he suffered from the problem that we're trying to solve with the product.
Speaking of the product, could you shed more light on your solution? I’m curious how FarmDroids actually work and solve the problems you mentioned.
Our core product is an autonomous robot that uses a GPS signal to map the field and generate a path around it. The robot follows this path and singles out individuals seeds in specific locations. As it tracks the position of every seed, when we return with the weeding equipment, we know exactly when, where, and how to operate it so as not to damage the crops. So the FarmDroid robot basically takes care of the whole process that would otherwise require a lot of manual labor.
Seeding is one thing, but the real value in our product comes from the weeding process. On an average eco-friendly farm, when it's time to weed crops, you'd typically hire some foreign workers and spend a lot of time removing the weeds manually. It's quite a hassle, to be honest, in terms of both time and effort. At the end of the day, automation makes the weeding process much easier.
It sounds like a significant improvement indeed. But bearing in mind how innovative FarmDroid was at its inception, I'm curious how it was initially perceived.
A lot of people were and still are really excited about our product. But obviously, there is also skepticism in the market. There always is when you deal with a radical change from how things would normally be done. Introducing something new, a way of doing things that's so different from how people used to do them, naturally brings in some skepticism. But the word spreads. As farmers talk to their friends and see the results of using FarmDroid, the robot speaks for itself. And honestly, our customers are most often immensely pleased with the effects.
So the social proof is there.
Definitely. Social proof matters in many industries, including agriculture. Knowing someone who uses a certain tool, having a network, it all really means a lot.
You mentioned the initial reluctance towards droids on the part of some farmers. Given that the pandemic made it harder to find the manual laborers and your robots automate seeding and weeding, do you think the Covid-19 outbreak made these agriculturists more likely to try FarmDroids?
It didn't necessarily decrease skepticism because it'll always be there, but we certainly saw an increased interest in FarmDroid during the pandemic. Bringing in foreign workers can be troublesome and when travel restrictions and social isolation are in place during the pandemic, it becomes almost impossible. That's why we, and the producers of other autonomous systems, have witnessed more demand for our products lately.
FarmDroid was established in 2018, but Jens started working on the very early prototypes already in 2011. How exactly did the robots evolve over time?
From the very beginning, most of the development derived from a single problem that a single person had experienced. But as soon as Jens started building the product, he realized that many more people were dealing with this issue. Between 2011 and 2018, the development involved loads of interactions with other farmers. Nowadays, we have certain conclusions coming from our own experience, but we still try to incorporate as much user feedback as possible.
That sounds great! And it’s actually a recurring theme because when I talk to other founders, they also emphasize the importance of adopting a user-centric approach. How do you gather user feedback?
Mostly we just try to listen. Almost everyone has an opinion, and if you simply just pay attention, you can't avoid getting it. Focus groups and interviews are useful, but most of the time, it's simply about paying attention. Of course, you can always try to build a product on your own and bring value with your own ideas deriving from your own difficulties. But to create something truly unique and valuable, you need to have a close relationship with your target audience and ask them for feedback.
As time passes, users’ expectations are bound to change. Do you feel that these changes affect FarmDroid and the tech behind the product?
Of course. Whenever you develop a good solution or try to impress users somehow, their expectations usually go higher. Once you reach a certain level of satisfaction, users will expect you to bring in more value in the years to come. The meaning of “good enough” constantly changes, but it's a good thing because it drives innovation.
How challenging was it for you to live up to these rising expectations? After all, innovation typically calls for implementing more advanced tech solutions.
Well, in FarmDroid, we are really good at designing mechanical products and the software that’s in them. The implementation of technology in the form of web apps or pages, on the other hand, lies outside our core business, which is why we'd rather outsource software development to someone who already has the relevant experience and has proved to be good at it.
So your philosophy is to know your strengths and weaknesses and know which tasks to delegate?
Yes, don’t have to do everything by yourself if you lack the relevant expertise. There’s no shame in looking for a helping hand – and realizing that saves a lot of time and resources.
Apart from experience in crafting digital products, what did you look for in a tech partner?
We wanted the tech partner to be inquisitive and perceptive. As I mentioned before, app development is not our specialization at FramDroid, so we can't and shouldn’t tell the tech team “do this” or “do that”. That's why we were looking for a proactive partner that would pay attention not only to what we're asking for, but also to why we're asking for it.
To be honest, we found these qualities in your team. You were eager and able to understand our needs and our processes. If you only did what we said without digging deeper, we wouldn't have gotten as good a product as we eventually did.
And if you were to pick only one thing that makes the cooperation between the startup and the tech partner successful, what would that be?
I’d say the most valuable thing is the partner remembering that everybody involved in this collaboration needs to win. Otherwise, we're not dealing with a genuine partnership. And for everybody to win, you need to make compromises. We reached them last year, for example. We made compromises regarding what we wanted to achieve and how we thought of the result. You at Merixstudio also made some compromises for us to reach the set goal.
I think that's a key feature of a successful collaboration. If you're looking to sustain a valuable and profitable relationship, both parties need to get something out of the process that they can be proud of in the end. It's a matter of aligning expectations and capabilities.
Sort of taking a step back and running a reality check on what you can and can't compromise on?
Exactly. People are used to saying, “I need this and that to succeed.” But instead of looking at what I need, to get a win, it's more of looking at what we need as a team.
We first worked together at the turn of 2020 and 2021. Almost a year later, we meet again to improve your product further. What made you come back to Merixstudio?
A few different things, to be honest. First of all, Merixstudio developed our product before, and sticking with a partner who already knows how things work seems only reasonable – in terms of both resource efficiency and budget.
But beyond that, we had mostly positive experiences working with you, so we didn't feel the need even to consider other partners. And as I said before, we want our tech partner to understand us. You do, so why not join forces again?
Where do you think this collaboration will take you and your product?
The result of our first collaboration with Merixstudio made a radical change to how farmers used our robots. Before, we relied on a text message system, through which you could message a robot and say “start” or “stop.” Going from that to a hugely intuitive and visual interface, where you can monitor and manage the robots, was a significant innovation.
From now on, the changes will be more incremental. Setting the foundations was a huge change, but we've reached the point where it's solid. Now's the time to make small but precious improvements.
Speaking of the future, how do you envisage the future of farming and technology? Is automation going to be the next big thing?
At some point, it's a necessity. Of course, some people and some industries will find it more challenging to transition into this age of automation, but I think it's inevitable. The value the automation brings, especially compared to how seeding and weeding were done in the old days, is just too big ever to ignore.
Your product's been on the market for some time, and it's doing great. If a fellow startup founder approached you and asked how to achieve similar success, what would be your advice?
I'll focus on the agricultural sector because that's what I'm most experienced in. My advice would be to keep your customers in mind, always. End users are the most important, but somehow, their expectations are neglected way too often. When designing our products and services, we need to think about their pain points and expectations because we're creating these solutions for them, not for ourselves.
And we can't just focus on what people say they want. We need to grasp the idea behind it, just like Merixstudio does for us. Especially when dealing with radical innovation, like autonomous robots, you need to understand the jobs that people are trying to get done and how your product can help them achieve those.
View our startup-themed content collection to learn more about what it takes to launch your digital business successfully.