52. Mark Young: Farmboy to Farmville to FieldView

Ex-CTO and Vice President, Product at The Climate Corporation

Hi, if you are new here, I am Rhishi Pethe and I am excited that you have elected to join the “Software is feeding the world” community. You will receive this free weekly newsletter at the intersection of technology and agriculture/food systems on Sundays. I am a product manager at Mineral at Alphabet X, focused on sustainable agriculture. The views expressed in this newsletter are my personal opinions.

Programming note: The newsletter will be off next week (April 11th) for spring break and will return on April 18th.

This week’s newsletter is a conversation with Mark Young. Mark was the Chief Technology Officer and Vice President of Product Management at The Climate Corporation till the middle of last year. He was my manager* and has been at the forefront of the digital agriculture revolution. He is now the COO of LandTrust Inc in Bozeman, Montana.

Mark is never afraid to offer his opinions, loves to engage in a dialogue, and will always reconsider his opinions when presented with new and convincing information and rationale.

*I worked at The Climate Corporation from April 2017 to April 2020.

Photo provided by Mark Young

Summary of the conversation

A. Silicon Valley Meets Corn Belt: Mark narrates his journey from his family’s farm to the Silicon Valley. He built games like Farmville at Zynga and was the CTO at The Climate Corporation. Mark talks about some of his disillusionment with Silicon Valley and intense desire to solve meaningful problems. We talk about product management, customer empathy, clash of cultures etc..

B. VC Model, Telcos, and AgTech: Mark compares the existing agriculture industry structure with the telecom sector. He uses this comparison to make a point about innovation opportunities (or lack thereof) and potential areas of disruption in agriculture. Mark challenges the current notion of de-commodification in row crops. He provides his views on whether it is de-commodification or plain old marketing. 

C. Product market fit or zero sum games? People talk about a product-market fit problem for tech in agriculture. Mark thinks the problem lies somewhere else, due to how value is created in farming.

D. Looking to the future: Mark provides his views on macro and tech trends over the next 10-15 years. He points to autonomy and vertical integration as two big changes.

A. Silicon Valley meets Corn Belt

Rhishi: Mark, thank you very much for taking the time to talk with me. How did you go from Zynga to Climate? Farmville is (not) farming.

Mark: I grew up on a farm. Farming was brutal in the eighties and many farmers went under. And so my dad was clear about me not being a farmer. He encouraged me to go to school for something different. I ended up going to school for computer science. My rural agriculture/outdoors background is a little different than other computer scientists.

Screenshot: FarmVille/Zynga

After roughly 20 years in Silicon Valley, I was getting disenchanted with it. I will call it the Silicon Valley bubble, or an echo chamber. Everyone is trying to build a startup and become a millionaire and they don't care what the startup does. They're not trying to solve problems necessarily for the betterment of people and people's lives. Social media connects people. And even at Zynga, our mission was connecting the world through play, which I think is, was a good mission.

But when you look at the execution, something gets lost between the mission and the execution. And we end up charging people money for “polka dot” cows. After nearly 20 years in Silicon Valley, I was like, “what is the point of all this?”

For example, why does the world need another social media platform? Why does the world need TikTok? I know it's a lot of users and kids like it. The tech companies are farming them for dollars. There is no real benefit. I liked “The Social Dilemma” which does a great job of characterizing the state of Silicon Valley.

It was a question of “do I want to be a part of that environment?” The Climate Corporation presented itself as a weird Silicon Valley startup that got acquired by an ag company and neither side knew anything about the other.

And here I am with a unique background of having grown up on a farm and having spent 20 years in Silicon Valley. So I had the perfect background to step into that role at Climate. It came along at the perfect time for me in terms of a meaningful mission and a meaningful application of technology, to feeding the next 2 billion people on the planet.

Rhishi: You have talked about how the tech guys didn't know what the ag guys wanted and vice versa. So what can the two sides learn from each other and what are their blind spots?

Image source from Imgur: Brothers?

Mark: I don't think this is unique to agriculture. The lesson I learned at Climate was a good one: we as technologists tend to be in a pretty narrowly defined window, what are the languages, what are the new techniques? What we need is technologists who are cross-trained in other domains. 

We need technologists to apply their innovative thinking, and their experience to other sectors. Let's apply it to food production. Let's apply it to healthcare, finance, and education.

I think we go back up into the universities and take a hard look at computer science and technology programs. Do we need to pump out another coder that knows nothing about the world? We need technologists that are cross-trained in these different sectors. We need to deploy them into these sectors and bring in technology to start bridging that gap. Otherwise we're not making the kind of progress that we need to.

Rhishi: Between when you joined and when you left Climate, what kind of people came to the company? How did their understanding change or evolve?

Mark: It was a trial by fire. We had a Silicon Valley vibe. You had product managers and technologists updating a crop model every month or two months and shipping updates. And that's a Silicon Valley centric way, because we constantly think of iterating the product to make it better. It might be better or more accurate but you are not understanding the impact of how your customers are using your product.

And if I'm using our crop model, I'm using it on a season long cycle. I can't have the answer to that crop model change in the middle of the season. I don't trust it anymore because you've literally pulled the rug out from under me. It doesn't matter if it's better or worse.

It's the fact that the answer is different which is the problem for me. If you're going to iterate, iterate it on a seasonal basis, not on a monthly basis. The customer may learn to trust you because the model gets better every season. The other big shift was that people were thinking about farmers as if they were consumers for their software.

Only certain technology companies like Salesforce and AWS have an enterprise mindset to software development. Farmers are not consumers when it comes to their operation, they're running a million dollar operation. The software impacts the financial well-being of their family and their generational legacy.

But the biggest problem in agriculture is that the people working on the technology have no connection to agriculture. We're down to one plus percent of the population with any real connection to agriculture. 99 out of a 100 technologists will not have any connection whatsoever, maybe even less than that.

So their ability to understand and empathize with the customer is almost non-existent. So that is probably one of the biggest hurdles.

Rhishi: And what changes did you see in the people who had been selling seed or chemicals for thirty years, when suddenly all these software engineers showed up?

Mark: There’s a natural distribution to the group. There's folks that are on one end of the distribution who don't want to change. There are early adopters looking for new technology, looking for edges and they will grab it. And the big middle is a little skeptical, waiting for proof points, before they start to believe it.

The transition could have been made faster if the technology side knew what it was doing from an ag customer perspective. The fact that the product team was shipping monthly and didn't understand the seasonality of its customers did not serve well to gain trust with the ag professional service side of the house. It stems largely from the fact that people are so disconnected from agriculture today.

Rhishi: You ran the product group at The Climate Corporation for some time. If you reflect on that experience, what would you tell a new product manager who comes into this space?

By Digi-ark - Own work, CC0: Design and product thinking using the double diamond process.

Mark: It's not intrinsically different from the advice I would give any product manager coming into any new space. And that is to understand your customer. And the reason ag is so much harder is that what we may intuit or infer without having the connection to ag is often wrong. I worked at a gaming company, even though I'm not a big gamer, but I can understand people playing games.

So take the time, understand your customer, spend time in their shoes, understand their pressures. Their pressures manifest in interesting ways. An ag operation is an enterprise. In the US, the multi-generational legacy is strong. So there's not an option to go out of business. You have to keep it going and find creative ways to make a living. And if your only options are whatever beef or corn or soy commodity prices are, the pressure is incredible. And you have to understand all that in order to make good software because the dynamics are much more severe than in other sectors.

B. VC model, Telcos & AgTech

Rhishi: Does the traditional VC model work well for AgTech?

Mark:  It doesn't work well. It’s hamstrung. There's room for a lot of startup tech to be used in ag.

I'll use the telco space as an example. In this country, we have T-mobile & Sprint, Verizon, and AT&T. And yes they do have to spend money to upgrade their infrastructure. Are there any startups in that space? The infrastructure providers are basically iterating from 3g to 4g to 5g etc. 10 to 20 years from now, maybe there’s nothing that is going to change.

And now you look at agriculture on the input side. It is not much different. You have Bayer, Corteva etc. And I expect to have those 3 big players, 10-20 years from now. They have soaked up all the customers.

Image from Civil Eats

So there is no room to build a customer base, which is the same problem as the telco space. You have different bundling e.g. internet spectrum. I will switch my cell phone from one to the other and under the covers it is the same.

There are 50 seed brands in the US, but the actual germ plasm driving those 50 seed brands is probably  two or three companies. There's definitely innovation needed, but it is at the mercy of these large companies that have all of the customers. That’s not to say those companies don’t invest in their own innovation and R&D - they invest billions and rightly so, but any innovation by small companies, particularly in a venture capital model will likely need to be elsewhere.

If you look at ag manufacturing, what needs to happen is vertical integration to further optimize it. I am big on autonomous equipment as that will provide a new step change in the economics of ag because you'll get out of this ridiculous big hardware. Your accuracy and precision will go up. You'll start to reduce costs and control quality, like you would in manufacturing. So I think there's still room for integration, but it is hard. Your only exit as a small company has been to get absorbed into one of these big companies. Indigo Ag will probably end up being a great example of this and a big venture backed ag flameout.

The only reason Climate became a success was because of being acquired by a big company. All of a sudden you get to the customer base.

The revenue pie comes from what is grown out of the ground. So you try to grow more. But the problem in a commodity space is that it usually drives the commodity price lower. It's hard to create new value, and that is what startups really need to do. 

If you can’t create new value you look to take cost out, which takes me back to my point about vertically integrating the manufacturing chain. It is going to take bigger changes as it is not set up to be easily integrated today.

Rhishi: People talk about de-commoditization, particularly, grain grown or treated in a certain way. What do you think about that?

Mark: Every time I hear the word de-commoditize, it's an oxymoron. It's a nonsensical word to me. If something is a commodity, it's a commodity. And if it's easy to change the process to de-commoditize for one producer, it's easy for the other producers to do the same. And you're right back where you started.

And so the only thing that we've seen is marketing to convince consumers to pay more. If you want to call that de-commoditization, fine, but I don't think it's an accurate definition.

It's still a commodity because I can still produce it cheaply and there's no barrier to entry. When you talk about organics, you consider the hoops, you have to jump through to convert to organic as a barrier to entry, but it's still not that difficult.

I can still take my farm to be organic and switch to organic practices. It's going to cost more. And maybe I earn more, but if all the producers shifted to organic, the price would come down and you'd be right back where you started. What I'm more interested in now is to think of other ways to use the land.

We can grow a lot more than corn and soybeans. Could we figure out a way to be good at growing something other than corn? Can we use the land in a different way to create new revenue sources?

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C. Product market fit or zero sum games?

Rhishi: You talked about how you have only one or two chances to iterate in agriculture during a year versus if you were at Zynga, you could have 10 versions of the game in a day. Is that one of the main reasons why AgTech companies find it hard to find product market fit?

Mark: I don't know that it is as much a product market fit problem, as it is a revenue problem. If I want to create new technology, I have to get paid for it. Where does that new value come from if I have the same amount coming off the ground and it’s worth the same amount of money?

It means you have to take revenue away from another player or reduce costs in some way. It creates incredible headwinds for a new company. If you can't convince somebody to put more money in the pot, it makes it hard for a startup as you're immediately limited to removing costs. Established players have more marketing budget to apply pressure to a startup. How do you create a great environment for startups to even be in the space, let alone find product market fit?

Rhishi: In the developed world agriculture is hyper optimized. You have machinery, seed, chem, irrigation etc. In the US only 1% of the population is engaged in agriculture. If you go to Africa, Southeast Asia, those numbers are 50 to 70%. Productivity is at 20-50% of the US, EU on a per acre basis. Do you think there are more opportunities for AgTech companies in the developing world? If you're going to advise an entrepreneur who has an idea, what will you tell them?

Mark: The innovation that needs to happen in broad acre row crop ag is vertical manufacturing integration. That's the last piece of the puzzle on the commercial side.

I am far more motivated by the opportunity in the smallholder space than I am in commercial ag in the US. There's still a tremendous amount of innovation left to happen. Everything from intelligent systems, getting them the knowledge of how to grow, when to grow and when to plant is an opportunity. There are many interesting topics around the financial system for small holder farmers.

Your livelihood is tied to the agronomic cycle. It presents a problem, but also room for innovation and companies can partner with a smallholder, not only on the agronomic side, but also on the financial side.

When you couple the two together, they are interesting. And when you look at the sheer numbers, 500 million smallholder farms or 2 billion people on the planet live or work on them. The opportunity is to effect change on the planet and improve the human race and the human condition. It is a phenomenal opportunity, but a difficult one as it is so incredibly fractured geographically. It makes it a hard problem, but sometimes the hardest problems have the most impactful solution.

D. Looking into the future

Rhishi: Do you feel 1%, 2% is the lowest that this society can go in terms of people involved in ag? In the US a hundred years back, maybe 20% or 25% of the population was involved with agriculture.

Mark: The trend is going the way it's going. We do innovate in ag on the input side. So we get more efficient at growing food. Weather is the only confounding factor we have not figured out yet.

And so there are fewer people being farmers or ranchers. We see farmland and ranch land being sold all the time, to be converted into other uses. I don't think that trend is reversible.

The notion of ag could change. When we get towards vertical farming, indoor farming and decentralize the food chain and shift the nature of vegetable production, for example, to be closer to urban centers.

Alternative proteins like Beyond Meat are also great options. We need all options on the table to feed everyone at a proper price point. The notion of what it means to be in ag will change over time. You could be a “farmer” and work in a warehouse. Even in broad acre production it'll change because as autonomous equipment and automation takes over, what it means to be a farmer will change.

From Forbes with Mark Young: “The future farm will work differently, and it might look a lot different too.”

What won't change is the 1% of people who have a strong desire to stay and live a life and a lifestyle of the farmer beyond the land, be out in nature. I myself have gone through the whole gamut and, and I would rather spend my time, on farms and ranches than being in a boardroom somewhere.

So that group of people won't go away. But the way we build a living off the land and leave a legacy for our children and grandchildren will change for sure.

Rhishi: You mentioned autonomy a couple of times. What are some other trends you see coming?

Mark: The big companies aren't going to go anywhere. The biggest macro change (and I can't tell exactly how fast it's going to happen), is going to happen all of a sudden in the big hardware space.

I'll draw a parallel to computing. I used to work for Sun Microsystems. We sold big, expensive computing hardware. If you looked at our business plan out into the future, it was to sell bigger, more expensive computing hardware.

And if you look at John Deere or Case, they're in the same boat. Tractors get bigger, more expensive and more complicated. So customers keep upgrading. They're trying to dance around that and say, we're going to become service companies and it's going to come with a service package.

This is what we missed in computing. Our customers don’t want big computers. Our customers want computing. (Jobs to be done framework - see conversation notes) I haven't purchased a computer for a tech company in 10 plus years. Why? Because first it was Linux and Intel, Red Hat and it evolved into a service model from Amazon, Google and Microsoft. It's far cheaper for my business.

And so apply this to ag. Why do we have millions of dollars of equipment sitting in sheds for 10 months of the year? It is almost ludicrous. I understand how it all came to be that way. But it is ripe for innovation. Autonomous equipment can do what we do today with big hardware, for one quarter of the cost. A lot of times when you have these big technology shifts, they cost a little bit more than the status quo because they don't have economies of scale yet.

You have some early movers that are willing to spend a little bit more to embrace the change, but it takes time. Imagine having one quarter of the cost in your equipment. You don't have to carry any of that equipment debt. And so the opportunity is there for agriculture to shift quickly. If you couple that with the input companies, figuring out how to do outcome based pricing is such a natural fit for a landowner.

And that partnership will require some equipment to perform the planting and the harvest. And you want that to be as error-free as possible and as precise as possible. And so autonomous equipment dovetails into that. You take all the big hardware out of the equation, and you start to actually get to that vertical integration that I talked about earlier.

Rhishi: Thank you for taking the time for a great conversation.

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Conversation Notes

Artificial Intelligence in Agriculture Mark Young interviewed Innovation City with Venture Cafe, St. Louis.

Flyover Labs interview with Mark Young.

“Conversation with Rhishi”: Pathway to prosperity in East Africa with Eli Pollak, US ag needs a new narrative with Sarak K Mock.

Jobs to be done framework: “People don’t simply buy products or services, they ‘hire’ them to make progress in specific circumstances.”

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