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Beyond the Pitch

A High-Tech Product that Helps Farmers Conserve the Soil and Increase Yields

244435Bruce Caldwell, CEO and founder of 3Bar Biologics, Inc., figures that he’s been to more than 65 farms since spring. His goal is to meet 100 farmers before winter sets in.

3Bar Biologics, a SpringBox Labs company, provides natural, beneficial microorganisms (the product name is VIAH A1) that promote crop health, enhance quality, and improve yields. So Caldwell has a lot to talk about with the farmers he meets.

“It’s been really good. I’m working with Landmark Distributions Group. About half the farms that we’ve driven up to, the distributor had a relationship. The other half were cold calls,” said Caldwell.

“We drive up and meet the dogs and the family. Everyone has been happy to talk with us. I haven’t had a single farmer do what I feared, which was telling us to get off the property,” Caldwell says.

Committed to helping farmers meet their goals and solve their problems through innovation

“I want to do something that is new, innovative, and disruptive to the market place,” Caldwell said. “That’s the power of being a startup.”

A unique advantage with 3Bar is that the company’s first microorganisms came out of soil in the north central growing region of Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan, the region where Caldwell is building the company’s early customer base.

Caldwell has developed an effective approach to bring his new ideas to his agribusiness customers. It’s an approach that could be applicable in business-to-business (B2B) sales in other industries from telecommunications to aerospace.

  • Imagine the “ideal” customer and pick prospects that match. The “ideal” customer for 3Bar is the full-time farmer with a growing operation, and a son or daughter who will be eventually taking over the family owned farm. The son (it almost always is) will be in his mid-forties, knows that the practices of modern agriculture are forcing the land, and is willing to try new things to enhance the long-term sustainability of the farm. “It’s like any other population,” Caldwell said. “We need those lead adopters who want to give new things a try.”
  • Like and respect the customer. “Farming isn’t a simple life,” Caldwell said. “The number of variables a farmer has to deal with is incredible. Weather, equipment, complicated telemetry, biology, chemistry; the breadth of inputs they need to be really successful is quite complex.” 
  • Build rapport. Caldwell’s conversations with farmers usually start with the weather; it’s such an important aspect of growing crops. “We might talk about the new gas pipeline down the road or how another farmer is using our product,” he said. “We make it clear that we aren’t parachuting in here from Chicago and that we are from the area and are here to help farmers improve their operation and yield.”
  • Establish credibility. “As a startup, people want to see that we’re real, not fly-by-night,” Caldwell said. “Do we have staying power?” 3Bar Biologics is commercializing discoveries from the last fifteen years out of the College of Agriculture at The Ohio State University. That carries a lot of weight.
  • Relate the features of the product to benefits for the farmer. In farming the fixed cost component is bigger than in most other businesses. “Farmers have to keep driving yield and change the variable cost side of the equation,” Caldwell said. “They are open and interested when we explain that our solution fits into their existing practices, is applied the same time the seed is planted, and is a more sustainable option for boosting yields.”
  • Ask for the order. “We don’t leave the farm without asking them to apply our product on 40 acres. It’s not a big cash outlay; it’s not a big risk. Some farmers say yes immediately. Then there are the fast followers; if they hear that Farmer Jones down the road has put our product on his field or if they see some field signs, they’ll also give us a try.” Then there are the wait-and see types. At this point, 3Bar doesn’t spend of lot of time with them.

Teaming up with the right distributors for reach and relationships

“I’ve talked openly with a number of distributors,” Caldwell said. “Some were clearly not interested and others clearly were. The two things that have really made it work with Landmark are a shared philosophy and a common geographic focus.”

Caldwell also pays attention to which distributors are competitors. “We want to grow in a way which is a win-win with our strategic distributors – that means being selective in any given geography.

When it comes to engaging with distributors, Caldwell says that for a startup, the right partners likely won’t be number one or two in the industry.

“The biggest players already have very successful businesses,” he said. “They want to de-risk and protect what they have. They aren’t as interested in cutting edge.”

The best partners for a startup may well be number four or five in an industry—companies that are hungry and want to grow. “An entrepreneur needs distributors who will consider something disruptive and new. Often that comes about because a smaller distributor is trying to unseat the leaders,” Caldwell said.

Even in tough years like this one when margins are slim, farsighted farmers are interested in talking about investing in next year’s crop. Farm family by farm family, the word about 3Bar Biologics is spreading.

“Soil here is different from the soil west of us,” Caldwell said. “The climate and weather patterns are different. The local organisms are different, but our patent pending delivery system is the common element. Our long-term vision is global, but we need to have happy customers here first before we try to expand.”

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