A young woman leaning on a farm gate

How to choose early customers for your agricultural innovation

We often discuss approaches to building customer empathy and validating product design, for example when we are helping our own customers or in events such as Ag Innovations Bootcamp.

One of the recurring questions is “are we working or testing with the right customers?” Often the answer is a clear “yes”, but not always. The cost to a business of developing an innovation based on feedback from the wrong customer can be enormous.

If you develop products or services for the agricultural sector, it is worth revisiting how you identify and choose your early customers.

Why early customers are important

At first glance, early customers are only those who first discover and adopt your service. But it’s often not that simple. They may arrive through your network. They may be hard-won with shoe leather, or by “growth hacking” your value proposition.

Early customers will influence your product in important ways:

  • Great product design comes from customer empathy. You build a deep understanding of your customer’s context, goals and needs. You must understand the real problem you are trying to solve for the customer, and its value to them.
  • You test your product or service prototypes with your early customers. These may be deliberate prototypes or your first MVP (Minimum Viable Product) release.
  • Early customers show traction. Your investors or your organisation look to adoption as proof of a viable business model.

Who are my early adopters?

Everett Rogers coined the term in his book The Diffusion of Innovations (1962). His theory about adoption of innovation used the results of 508 sociology studies. Much of the early work on diffusion focused on agricultural technology in the 1920s and ’30s. This was a time of widespread innovation in genetics and mechanisation.

Rogers defined five categories of adopters for an innovation:

  1. Innovators: willing to take a risk on innovation for its own sake.
  2. Early adopters: adopt technology that solves problems and provides status.
  3. Early majority: influenced by early adopters, they wait to adopt useful and valuable innovation.
  4. Late adopters: with some scepticism adopt after the majority.
  5. Laggards: see no value in change.

These are often seen in the diagram made popular in Geoffrey Moore’s Crossing the Chasm (1991).

Diffusion of innovations graph

Image attribution: Andre Ivanchuk

The percentages shown may not quite match your market, but studies show the shape of the curve and overall proportions generally apply.

Early adopters must be the initial target. Innovators love innovation for its own sake. They don’t represent the problems and needs of your larger market. You will end up solving the wrong problems. The early majority await evidence of success from early adopters.

How you can identify an early adopter

We like the way that Justin Wilcox defines early adopters in the light of the problem you are trying to solve (Focus Framework, 2016). It’s a practical way to think about what makes your early adopters distinctive.

Laggards Don’t have the problem you are trying to solve.
Late majority Have the problem, but don’t know it yet.
Early majority Have the problem, and know they have the problem, but are not yet paying to solve the problem.
Early adopters Have the problem, know they have the problem, and are already paying to solve the problem.

“Paying” to solve the problem doesn’t mean they are buying another product or service. They may be investing time or effort. They may be hiring staff or using a consultant. They may be “making do” or “using number 8 wire” (as we say in New Zealand).

What techniques might your early adopters be using to solve the problem? Those very techniques might be the indicators that help you identify the customers.

As early adopters know they have the problem and are trying to solve it, they may respond to an appropriate call to action. You might test if you can position your solution in a way that early adopters will recognise and respond.

Finding early adopter farmers and rural professionals

One you’ve worked out how to recognise or filter an early adopter, where do you look? These suggestions come from our team and Ag Innovations Bootcamp attendees:

Listen online: Tune into farming-oriented groups in Facebook or hashtags on Twitter. The best Facebook farming groups are often closed – you need to be a farmer or show you won’t spam the group to join. Use these groups to understand interests, events, and to ask good questions.

  1. Build your network: Create a diverse network of rural professionals, influencers, and others. Make sure you help others and give as well as take. Members of your network will help you meet potential early adopters.
  2. Hit the road: Attend the events that your early adopters are also likely to attend. There are many farming-focused events, conferences, and field days. Going along to listen and learn at farm open days is a great way to meet others.
  3. Learn the language: Agriculturalists I know are willing to speak with anyone trying to improve farming’s lot. Listen to them to build the language and questions that will help you influence customers.

 

Learn how our experienced team can assist with your customer needs discovery.
Contact us for a free initial discussion


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Person in field stares at the sky

Three steps to your agritech product vision

You’re creating the future: a product or service that does not yet exist. How do you ensure your team is on the same page? Do you tell them how they will build it? How it will work? Or do you paint the picture of how it will make people’s lives better?

Your investors and partners are the same. Your product vision is the core of your business vision, so you want key people to understand and love it. Still, formalising your product vision seems like another chore in your busy schedule. You might even fear your idea will lose some of its magic in the harsh light of the day.

A clear representation of your vision:

  • Helps you communicate the vision to your team, your partners, and potential investors. You can be confident that you’ve passed on the key elements and not missed anything out.
  • Inspires others! People who believe and buy-in to your vision will go above and beyond the call of duty to make it a reality.

Here are three keys to get you started on composing your agricultural product vision.

Start with the users

Identify who your intended users are and are not. What problems will you solve for them? How much do those problems matter to your intended users? Are you tackling their problems or forcing your own solution?

The Einstellung Effect is a psychological term. It describes how we can fall in to the trap of applying a familiar approach or solution to problems. When all we have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. This is a great reminder to us to fall in love with problems, not our solutions. Your agritech product vision should describe the problems you want to solve.

Think big

The eventual picture is larger than your first release. Think about what your vision looks like over the next three, five, or even ten years.

At the same time, your first product release (or releases) don’t need to fulfil the entire vision. Break the plan into bite-size chunks that you can achieve and learn from them on the way.

Trace weak signals and trends

Take a view about the way we will solve problems in two to five years. You’re creating the future, so yesterday’s rules may not apply.

I’m not suggesting divorce from reality. Ensure you have time and space to read, research, and test. Seek to understand how people might work in the future, and how your product might contribute. If your product is a service (to some extent all are), how might it fit with the ways your users want to communicate?

Your product vision is not a product specification. It’s not an elevator pitch either. Whether it is a story or bullets in a slide deck, it’s the way you bring your team and partners with you on the journey. It should help them pull together and solve the problems that count.

As your Agritech product vision evolves, there is one more thing to do: communicate relentlessly. Share your vision with your team and your partners. Evolve it based on what you learn.


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Product team (source: iStockPhoto)

5 tactics of an effective agritech product manager

Why are relatively few agritech products achieving adoption at scale when billions of dollars are being invested internationally every year? New start-ups appear almost weekly. And established companies are shifting from small innovations around the edges to major projects that sit at the heart of business plans.

Yet for all this activity, few product ideas seemingly “make it”.

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We work with many agricultural companies – start-ups and established organisations – to help them develop smart digital products and services. In our experience, there’s a strong correlation between a business’s approach to product management, and their success in developing meaningful products or services that get used. The choice of product manager, the scope and objectives of their role, and their level of skill and authority, drives the success (or otherwise) of the product or service development.

The CEO or a Project Sponsor may define the overall business outcomes and vision, and project managers may be concerned with product budget and timeline, but the product manager is at once the “voice of the product” to the business, and simultaneously translates the “voice of the customer” to the development team (this part of the role is also called product owner). They decide the detailed problems the team will try to solve, the relative priority of those problems, and when the solution is complete enough to be put into the hands of customers.

Here are five tactics an agritech product manager can use to be more effective in their role:

1.      Allocate your attention

A product manager juggles many tasks. They must understand scope, be able to prioritise effectively, understand how the team is delivering and what is planned. It’s incredibly hard to do this if the product only gets a small time-slice of your attention.

You won’t be able to effectively manage your product by turning up for a fortnightly sprint planning session. Product managers need to be able to spend time with both stakeholders and the development team. They participate in customer interviews, review the product in showcases put on by the development team, and are deeply involved in product planning workshops.

2.      Build stakeholder relationships

New products and services are built at the intersection of customer or user desirability, business viability, and technical feasibility:

  • Does this product solve a real problem for its users, and can they readily get the benefits?
  • Are customers willing to pay for a solution, and is this solution sufficiently “better” that they will switch?
  • Does this product or service meet the objectives and fit the strategic direction of the company?
  • Is there a business model that makes sense for the company and which could be profitable?
  • Can it be built to operate as envisioned, at a cost the company can justify?

Effective product managers really understand the needs of their users and customers – their behaviours and the problems the product is trying to solve. They use observation and interviews to inform their opinions and seek data from the existing tools or products that customers use.

Product managers must also build trust with the business, effectively communicating how the direction and priorities chosen for the product meet the objectives of the business.

3.      Discover, don’t assume

It’s very tempting to build technology products and services the way corporate computer systems were developed in the past: envisage a solution, document it as a set of requirements, and set the development team to work. When the developers and testers are done, roll out the solution (or pass it through to sales and marketing).

Effective product managers know that detailed customer needs are emergent, and so too must be the solution to those needs. They make use of product discovery activities: carrying out interviews, running experiments, and building prototypes. They know that testing an idea by building a prototype and validating that thinking with real users may not only be an order of magnitude quicker and less expensive than building software, it avoids the huge waste of developing robust, performant, tested software that does not address the real problem.

Software and hardware will still need to be built, but continuously using discovery activities to understand and address customer problems reduces the risk of building a great solution to the wrong problems.

4.      Prioritise value

If customer and user problems and the solutions are emergent, how can you effectively manage the work of a development team (or teams)? How do you decide what gets released to customers, and when?

Effective product managers decide what discovery and development tasks are the highest priority to work on at any point in time. They pay great attention to the “product backlog” – the set of problems waiting to be worked on, ideas waiting to be tested, and validated ideas waiting to be turned into production software. They may visualise these using story maps, or as items on a Kanban board.

This is not “project management”, seeking to most efficiently have all the tasks completed on time and within budget. Rather, the product manager is making value-based decisions about which tasks or stories (feature sets) are the most valuable to do now, and which can be deferred (and might never be done if sufficient value can be delivered to customers and the business without them).

Product managers consider value on multiple scales:

  • Which stories deliver the most value to customers and end users?
  • Which stories help the company achieve its objectives (revenue, customer acquisition, or other outcomes)?
  • Which activities must be prioritised for the product development process to be successful (for instance, prioritising a discovery or validation activity that may change the overall shape of the product)?
  • Which essential dependencies must be built for more valuable stories to work?

5.      Release early and often

This may be an agile mantra, but it remains valid. It’s tempting to hold off putting your product into customers hands until it is “complete”. This is especially the case for established companies who worry about reputational risk.

Delaying until the product or service is largely “complete” misses the opportunity to learn how customers choose to use your product or service. They may pay no attention to that wonderful feature you slaved over and be thrilled by other functions. You may discover that the value you expected just isn’t there, and that you need to “pivot” to a different approach. Far better to do this early than wait until the entire budget is spent.

For organisations worried about reputational risk, limited pilots are a useful tool, whether with a subset of staff or a small group of customers. Early adopters may not fully represent your entire eventual market, but carefully chosen they can provide learning and become advocates to your broader market.

Learn More

We use a variety of tools and techniques to support Product Managers in their role, including discovery techniques and activities, dual-track agile (a team working on discovery and a team developing prioritised stories), and flexible scope contracts that focus on value delivery in a time frame rather than a fixed set of requirements. Talk to us to learn more.

If you’re a product manager in agriculture or agritech, consider attending the Ag Innovations Bootcamp – get inspiration and hands on “how-to” experience for product development best practices.

 

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