How This Agriculture Consulting Firm is Reinventing Itself for a (Post)-COVID World
By: Ricky Stephens | Director of Digital Strategy, Agritecture
- Agritecture, a 6-year old urban agriculture planning firm, is reinventing itself in the wake of COVID-19 and offering insights from its learnings to other small businesses and advisory firms that are struggling to find new business
- The firm has launched several new online initiatives in the past two months to better connect with its audience and seen a nearly 3x increase in inbound consulting requests
- The strongest solutions, according to Director of Digital Strategy Ricky Stephens, have been those that build upon existing assets, take into account new customer profiles, and can be implemented and tested the quickest
A year ago, AgTech X, the incubator I’d co-founded in 2017 as New York’s first space exclusively focused on agriculture technology, was acquired by a consulting firm called Agritecture. I was excited to join a small but growing team that had worked with a wide variety of organizations around the world to plan nearly 100 urban farming projects. After bootstrapping my business for two years, I was relieved at the prospect of a larger team and some semblance of security. With local food systems and urban agriculture on the rise globally, Agritecture was well-positioned to continue its growth.
Then came COVID-19. In an instant, our reliance on travel, farm visits, and speaking engagements as a proven way to source and land new deals was upended. With the economy thrown into uncertainty, our steady flow of new leads seemed to be drying up. A planned site visit to kick off work with a new client was delayed indefinitely — and with it, a sizable retainer payment was put on hold. With borders closing and flights cancelled, our founder and CEO found himself stuck in the Middle East. Debates about how we should handle these sudden disruptions to our business — assured to be intense already — took on the added communication burden of navigating an 11-hour time zone spread.
What follows is my tale of the 90 days that have played out since — how our firm has tried to rapidly test our way into new revenue streams, my advice through the insights we’ve gained from this process, and hopefully, the beginning of a dialogue with other small businesses and advisory firms that are looking for creative, cost-effective solutions to survive this period of rapid change and uncertainty.
BUYING IN TO A NEW NORMAL
Without the ability to travel, we needed new ways of connecting with potential clients. We tried checking in with old contacts and following familiar steps. But the responses were similar — “all new contracts are currently on hold”… “we’re not committing any new funds for non-essential services right now”. Our standard approach to selling our advisory services was no longer cutting it. As soon as we were able to accept that this new normal was very likely here to stay, we were able to move on to brainstorming solutions.
TAKING STOCK OF OUR ASSETS
Let me start with an analogy for our forced shift in thinking. Imagine you own a restaurant supply company. For years, you had a steady stream of requests coming in and no reason to expect these to stop; new restaurants are always opening. Now that simple assumption is blown up, and you likely have tangible assets you can’t sell. Is your business ruined? Not necessarily.
Take a wider view of the “assets” in your possession. You likely have a deep understanding of the various products in your inventory and experience advising restaurant owners on which products will fit their specific needs. You may have worked with architects to source specific appliances that will best fit their client’s space requirements. As states release new stipulations for restaurants to be eligible for reopening; as architects rethink how they will design the restaurants of the future; and as manufacturers begin to consider product enhancements for a post-COVID world — you have a unique lens and level of expertise that can potentially save these parties time and money.
Luckily for Agritecture, we didn’t have many hard assets, and we knew the value we could provide to urban farms was still applicable. We started sensing that it was the format in which this value was presented that needed a makeover. So our first step was to go through this same exercise — taking stock of the key assets we possess. Two things stood out to us when we did this.
First, Agritecture has an expansive dataset of urban farming approaches, which comes from our constant monitoring of the industry, previous experience operating farms amongst our team, and other past work we’ve completed. This made us consider how we could sell access to this knowledge and data in more digestible ways.
Second, we have a sizable digital audience through our blog, newsletter, and social media of more than 100,000 followers. This meant that upon building any new tools or online services, we could easily test and gauge the reception to them.
PRIORITIZING POSSIBLE SOLUTIONS
Back to the restaurant supply example — having identified that spatial planning and new product development are two unique services you can assist with, you need to come up with the strategies by which you can reach potential new clients as quickly as possible to get a sense for the reception to your new services.
Even after narrowing in on just two primary assets within Agritecture though, we still came up with a list of 17 proposed solutions — too many to chase for our staff. We had to prioritize the ideas that we could get live, test, and learn from fast (following the proven lean startup methodology). But we also had to focus on solutions that met our audience in the new world they now find themselves. That meant recognizing, for instance, that in a world where supply chain disruptions could be the new status quo, we may see interest in urban farming as a necessary solution from individuals who didn’t know the phrase “urban farming” existed only two months ago.
YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE A TECH COMPANY TO DEVELOP DIGITAL SOLUTIONS
Agritecture was fortunate in a couple of ways. Primarily, we’d already begun exploring more scalable, digital solutions when I came on board a year ago, so we had a head start and a scrappy team that I’d already begun working with. While we sped this process up drastically in February and March to release our new digital platform for urban farm planning, Agritecture Designer, to the public in April, I should note that we could never have put out as design-friendly of a product if we hadn’t started working on it months prior.
Yet there are accessible strategies to reinvent your business for a post-COVID world, even if you’re just getting started today with little tech expertise on staff. Here are a few, with specific examples we took to illustrate:
1. Generate valuable content. I don’t mean viral content — I mean content that is valuable to your core audience. An easy way we did this was by creating a Digital Conference Series. Team members found 30-minute openings a few times a week to interview entrepreneurs in the local food and farming space via Zoom, allowing them to share their challenges and takeaways from this time. None of our interviews went viral, but some have collected 1,000+ views despite our modest YouTube following. Due to the solutions-oriented nature of the conference, industry media outlets were quite willing to share. The conference webpage has been one of our most popular since launch, driving a few thousand new visits. Finally, the content bought us goodwill with many of the participants who were able to generate leads for their own products and services.
2. Consider new customer profiles. We had hypothesized that increasing media attention on disruptions and a lack of worker protections in the conventional food supply chain might lead new profiles of people to find Agritecture — and we were noticing an increase in website traffic. But we weren’t seeing a similar increase in requests for our standard consulting services from this customer profile. So to test our hypothesis more directly, we storyboarded this new segment and launched Digital Workshops as a more educational resource that can be fully customizable to accommodate any level of urban farming knowledge the interested party has. Within a week of launching, we had over a dozen requests and six proposals sent out.
3. Make yourself accessible, but funnel out petty requests. As a consulting business, you have to be protective of your hours, and it’s always a dance trying to strike a healthy balance between relationship building and getting fairly compensated for your time and expertise. As we reevaluated where our unproductive hours were being spent, two common scenarios emerged:
(A) Educating newbies on some of the key insights and best practices of urban farming, in the hopes that they would turn into a client down the road; and
(B) Responding to very specific but generally one-off questions that often did not require additional follow-ups.
For Segment “A”, we had some pre-recorded educational modules we were able to integrate into a separate feature hosted on Agritecture Designer: our Commercial Urban Farming Course. Upon completing the course, users can then book us for a webinar to ask any remaining questions and discuss next steps. At $99, it’s a fraction of what participants used to pay for similar content we taught in-person, but it gives us more assurance that these customers have some skin in the game when we are dedicating time to speak with them. For Segment “B”, we released a simple online booking service through Squarespace for those seeking quick and accurate information on a specific research topic. We call it Ask Agritecture. Users can now book us starting at just $49.
4. Be resourceful with talent. Unfortunately, the pandemic has led to a lot of hardship for current students, with a number of internships from major employers cancelled and full-time offers pushed back as far as January. Agritecture saw a flood of cold internship requests, and we’ve been able to bring on some exceptional talent this summer to help us manage these new initiatives. But not everyone can rely on inbound requests. I reached out to two colleagues at top MBA programs about a potential internship spot with limited budget for compensation, and I was pretty surprised to have more than a dozen resumes back within 48 hours. Many schools are being proactive about trying to link students with employers in more creative formats, too. My alma mater, Davidson College, launched a Gig Hub where startups can engage affordable talent for short-term, design- and tech-centric projects.
RESULTS TO DATE
Being 90 days in, there’s still plenty of uncertainty about how these new strategies will play out long-term. But the early signs are extremely encouraging. Our website traffic is up 45% in April/May vs. Q1, and our inbound consulting requests are up nearly 3x over that same time. In the first three days of launching our digital workshops, we had requests coming in from around the world — all from groups who would have been unlikely to find relevance in our consulting services.
Want to learn more? Watch the recording of our recent webinar where we demo several new initiatives.