39. 2020 review: No Silver Bullets
Experiments, learnings, and a look ahead
Hi, if you are new here, I am Rhishi Pethe and you are receiving this because you became a member of the “Software is feeding the world” community. You will receive this free weekly newsletter (every Wednesday) at the intersection of technology and agriculture/food systems. I work as a product manager on Project Mineral at Alphabet X, focused on sustainable agriculture. The views expressed in this newsletter are my personal opinions.
Programming note: The newsletter will take a week off for the 30th of December, and will be back to regular programming from January 6th, 2020.
In today’s newsletter (last one for 2020), I will do a review of 2020 for “Software is feeding the world” and look ahead to 2021.
I will be doing an edition in early 2021 about some of the key trends I expect to see in 2021.
2020: Looking back
2020 has been a year unlike any other in our lives. The strangest part of the pandemic for me till a few months back was the lack of any major impact on me in negative ways. Yes, there was a restriction on movement, I still have not been to my new workplace even though I started a new job in April, kids are not able to go and play with their friends etc. All of them are minor issues, compared to the social, health and economic issues the world has been facing for the last few months. I do feel extremely blessed for it.
The last few months hit much closer as cases have surged in California. Family members in India, ended up in the hospital for days, or had to quarantine as they tested positive for COVID-19. Fortunately, they have recovered (or are on a path to full recovery).
The positive side of COVID is more time to spend with the family, to write, and to experiment. People’s willingness to get on a video call to talk is amazing. The video call provides safety, privacy and convenience, which is not always available in other formats.
When I started writing “Software is feeding the world” in early 2020, I did not have any specific goals in mind. I wanted to write to learn and to explore interesting ideas at the intersection of agriculture/food systems and technology. I didn’t have a process, any specific targets, a big social media presence (true even today), or a lot of experience writing online.
It very much felt like jumping in the deep end of the pool. So what does the year end report look like?
As I said earlier, I had started with a goal to learn.
It is still day one
Before starting writing online seriously, I was under the impression that I knew a decent amount about the application of technology to solve problems related to food and agriculture systems. I realized how much I had to learn and explore (true even today.) It is like being on day one of school, with a lifetime of learning ahead of you. It is Day 1 Jeff Bezos style as well, as the potential of some of the emerging tech is still massive and there is a long way to go. It is both humbling and exhilarating at the same time.
Food and agriculture systems are complicated: no silver bullets
I didn’t (and still don’t) know much about a lot of topics. I have embraced the “Strong opinions, weakly held” paradigm and the use of epistemic status. It gives the freedom to explore ideas and opinions online, even when (and especially) you are not sure about your opinions.
One of the long-time members recently sent me the following note, followed by a discussion. I am truly thankful for this type of feedback.
I think you missed the point on the first one.
In hindsight, I should have chosen “No Silver Bullets” as the title for the blog and newsletter, and it would have been a better fit. I approached my writing with a belief that tech can solve a huge number of problems in the food and agriculture space. The food value chain is long, complicated, and intertwined. Tech does have a big role to play, but tech is one aspect along with economic, social, cultural, regulatory issues.
Distribution is necessary to scale innovation (in most cases)
Given the concentration in different parts of ag (OEM, inputs, offtake etc.), distribution is very important. Innovation cannot scale, due to the high costs and control points for distribution. Syngenta Ventures Managing Partner Shubhang Shankar wrote an interesting article, and made the point that insurgents are replicating incumbents in their go to market approaches.
The insurgents end up replicating the incumbents, subject to the same long commercialization cycles with heavy upfront investments – and limited value prospects at the end of it all.
My friend Venky Ramachandran, who writes the entertaining AND thoughtful newsletter “Agribusiness Matters”, explains the distribution problem in a slightly different fashion. His thesis is that with other tech products, the marginal costs go down as you scale and in a lot of cases become practically zero. In the case of agriculture, (especially for farmer products in smallholder space) the marginal costs do not go down. Marginal costs are related to sales, marketing and distribution costs of getting your product in the hands of farmers.
Treating smallholders as a monolith is wrong and lazy
Having grown up in India, I started to spend more time learning about the agriculture sector in India. For a lot of the folks in the developed world, it is easy to group farmers in the developing or underdeveloped world as “smallholder farmers” or just “smallholders.” This could not be further from the truth. There is a large variety of farmers in India, with different needs and problems. If you want to learn more about the space, you can start from this report from Omnivore’s 2030 vision, subscribe to Venky’s newsletter or this blog post I wrote about the AgTech opportunity in India.
I learnt a few things about the writing process and about me over the last 12 months.
Consistency and quality are the most important factors for writing online.
I love to geek out on research papers. I must have read about 150-200 academic papers in the last year and had a lot of fun doing it.
Doing deep dives is much more fun than skimming the surface.
I like to work using big screen monitors.
I spent too much time on writing and too little on re-writing.
Commuting to work is the only time when I listen to podcasts. Due to remote work, my podcast listening has taken a nosedive.
To be a good technologist, innovator and/or a product manager willingness to experiment is a key attitude to have. I tried a series of experiments, to learn and adapt.
Started with bi-weekly but settled with weekly. It accelerates your learning, compared to a bi-weekly process. The trade-off is between learning and quality initially, but as the learning process becomes easier, the quality of your product improves.
I copied the format used by other folks (e.g. Benedict Evans with blog entries, some commentary, agri and non-agri links.) This format did not work for me as I found it difficult to do a couple of blog entries, a newsletter every week, and a full time job at the same time.
Imposed a limit of 2500 words per newsletter, and started doing tl;dr and key takeaways with every section to help members decide if they want to read a particular section or skip over to the next one. Keeping a word limit has forced me to be succinct, and to prioritize.
I am experimenting with sticking a feedback form in every email and it is working great so far.
I am experimenting with sending the newsletter on Wednesday instead of Sunday, so that I can spend more quality time with the family on the weekend.
I wrote the most about sustainable agriculture, ML/AI, distribution, platforms, carbon markets, smallholders, innovation, service based models etc. The following editions of the newsletter had the most engagement and/or I had the most fun writing them.
36. Carbon Markets: Substack of Ag?
This was a bit of a tongue-in-cheek commentary on the (ir)rational exuberance around carbon markets, challenges on the business model and tech, incentive design, and the suitability of an open system like agriculture for carbon credits. My friend, provocative thinker and journalist Sarah Mock, quoted this article in her excellent piece and drove a lot of new members to “Software is feeding the world.” I concluded the piece by being bullish on the overall exuberance, rather than on one particular initiative.
Carbon market exuberance is good for the long term, as it has the potential to address multiple issues like farmer profitability, soil health, and climate change and food production systems have a role to play.
31. Dipping into Indigenous Knowledge
I had the most fun writing this edition, as I was able to thread topics that interest me - water issues, finding climate resistant crops, looking into old crops for traits that can help with climate change, and challenges with scaling non-staple crops with an example from Africa. I am fascinated with the idea of looking at genetics hidden in seed banks, genetics from non-staple but climate resistant crops, and how they can be applied to develop crops of the future. It is like Jurassic Park, but with much better outcomes! The key takeaway was that,
Effective and affordable innovations can come from anywhere
I had to issue a correction to the newsletter on the web, and in the next edition as I did not capitalize the “I” in “Indigenous Peoples” and had failed to acknowledge their contribution in developing some of the old crops. It was a great lesson for me.
16. Who let the data out
When I worked at The Climate Corporation, I was very much in the middle of the kerfuffle related to The Climate Corporation and Tillable. I was in charge of the team building APIs for the FieldView platform. I wanted to do a deep dive on issues related to data privacy, data stewardship, regulatory frameworks, agtech challenges etc. This piece was very well received, and it highlighted the technical, marketing, messaging and user experience challenges related to data privacy. The issues of data privacy will continue to grow in importance, and Agtech companies will have to cater to their customers needs. I had summarized the essay, with some simple principles:
Follow the "golden DATA rule": Treat your customers' data the way you treat your data.
Keep it simple: Don't confuse your users with legal minutiae and a complicated user experience
Be honest and transparent: Say what you will do and do what you say.
Communicate and educate, educate, and communicate.
7. The Alchemy of Air
I am immensely interested in the nature of innovation. What conditions help to foster innovation? Do big innovations come from crazy scientists, with teams relegated to incrementalism due to the need to drive consensus? Is innovation the original idea or does it also include the scaling of the innovation to increase its value? Carl Bosch’s 80th death anniversary provided a perfect excuse to explore some of these issues. The research for doing this piece was very interesting and I would highly recommend a couple of books from this edition. (The Alchemy of Air by Hager, Enriching the earth by Smil, Wizard and the Prophet by Mann etc.)
My only writing goal for 2020 was to do it on a weekly basis. Here are some numbers,
39 newsletters, 10 essays, including one on precisionag.com.
120,000 words (estimate), including quotes.
Hundreds of members for the newsletter, with an open rate between 50-55%.
New friends across VCs, entrepreneurs, academics, students, growers, industry leaders, researchers, journalists, nonprofit and government employees etc. have joined the conversation.
A net promoter score of 90, with the shape of the curve shown below.
2021: Looking ahead
So what will 2021 look like for “Software is feeding the world” members?
Writing and Content
I will write two types of weekly content. The first will be a summary of current happenings, research and my thoughts on them. You will receive it once every two weeks. Given that it will cover a wide variety of topics, it will be called “Canopy.”
During non-Canopy weeks, I will do a deep dive on certain topics. The deep dives will include occasional conversations with interesting folks (it will be a text only edited version, not a podcast or video chat), guest writers and deep dives into specific topics. If you would like to guest write or would love to have a conversation with me on related topics, please reply to this email or send me a DM on Twitter. This version of the newsletter, will be called “Roots.” (Not the book or the band).
I am really bad at illustrations and drawing (in spite of having two architects in the family). I am going to challenge myself to experiment with drawings, illustrations, and schematic diagrams.
I will continue to follow the tl;dr and key takeaways format, till it stops working or needs a refresh and will be more open with my opinions, while stating my epistemic status. Feedback from one of the members:
I like the new intro up-front, which makes you seem more accessible. Also appreciate the TLDR/takeaway for each section. But there is still a lack of coherence across your snippets, and occasionally the TLDR; leaves me hanging (I wish you'd interpret a bit more - go out on a limb, it's ok to speculate).
Re-writing improves the quality of your writing. I plan to change the allocation of time I spent researching, writing and re-writing accordingly.
I plan to write about the following topics in 2021.
Platforms and ecosystems: I have spent many years working on tech platforms. I am a big proponent of a platform approach. You can review my article on scaling platforms from 2017 on Mind the Product.
Product strategy and management: I have been a product manager in tech for many years. Principles of product strategy and product management apply to agtech and we will cover it.
Nature of innovation: I am fascinated by the nature of innovation. I hope to take a historical look, current innovation challenges, and how it might evolve in the future.
Business models: There is a lot of evolution happening in business models within the industry, and a lot more is yet to come.
Sustainable and regenerative agriculture, soil health, water issues, climate change.
Smallholder farming: I grew up in India, and in the long run, Asia and Africa will continue to have a huge impact on agriculture and food systems. Feedback from one of the members:
Please keep including content from developing countries!
Go deep on Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence. They are positioned as the panacea for many problems. I will dig into different techniques, when and how they work, and challenges.
And a host of other topics related to input products, sensors, IoT, value chain tensions etc.
Membership and Conversations
Publish 48 newsletters next year, with four breaks in the year (Spring break - first week of April, US Independence day week - first week of July, Thanksgiving holiday in the US - fourth week of November, Christmas break - last week of December)
Continue to hit an open rate of 50-55% or higher (might get harder to measure due to the introduction of the Substack reader), and a net promoter score in the 80s and 90s.
Engage with members across all continents to increase the chances of serendipity. David Perell says, writing is a vehicle of serendipity.
By making it easy for people to find you online, you’ll create a vehicle for serendipity.
Write about the entire food/agriculture value chain, and have conversations with people in different parts of the value chain.
Writing “Software is feeding the world” has turned out to be much more than what I had ever imagined it to be. My thought process that SFTW will not be monetized directly, is still my current view. The primary goal of the writing will be to continue to learn, connect with/create a community of people interested in the problems we face and potential solutions, and act as a provider of activation energy to spur action.
Any of this would not have been possible without the support and feedback of family, friends and members of the SFTW community. I want to thank you all!
I want to highly recommend the following for similar topics: written word (Shane Thomas with Upstream Ag Insights), spoken word (Tim Hammerich with the Future of Agriculture podcast), Twitter goodness (Carl Lippert and Steve Sprieser), fun topics on video by a sister-brother team (Tara Schrock-Clint Chaffer with “You, me and a fence post”), and developing world (Venky Ramachandran).
If you have enjoyed being part of “Software is feeding the world” in 2020, then I would greatly appreciate it, if you could share it with your friends, family and colleagues.
Wish you all a merry Christmas, and a very happy new year.
Happy Holidays! See you in 2021.
So, what do you think?
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