What Lewis & Clark teach us about Expeditions & Startups

To find “the most direct and practicable water communication across this continent, for the purposes of commerce.” That was the mission of the grand expedition taken by Captains Meriwether Lewis & Wiliam Clark to explore the newly acquired land in the Louisiana Purchase in 1804. The expedition travelled two years and eight thousand miles through a land largely uncharted by citizens of the newly formed United States. They interacted with previously unknown Indian tribes, identified new plant and animal species, and can you even imagine the wonder of seeing the Rockies but then having to describe the majestic view with words only? 

I’ve recently been on a road trip through Idaho, Wyoming & Montana. All areas with rugged mountains, roaring rivers, and truly breathtaking views. I’m not doing the exact route of Lewis & Clark but trust me, I’m paying my respects to their expedition and the Native Americans who enabled them to make a successful journey. But let’s face it, “exploring” from the safety of my Ford Escape on a paved road with A/C and Spotify is hardly the same as getting in a canoe and pushing off the bank hoping that you’ll find enough bison to get the expedition through the winter or that the river runs where you hope it runs. But still, its exploration of its own kind.

Similarly, all startups are – by definition – an exploration, an exploration for the right product, the right business model, the right pricing model, the right market. In my mind there are two types of startups:

  1. The Navigating-the-Rockies-for-the-first-time kind
  2. The Off-the-beaten-path-but-navigating-with-Google-maps kind

In the first version you are creating the map as you go in every sense, while the second one has well defined routes but requires a navigator with the appetite to explore and good judgement to navigate the unexpected.

Let me be clear, both are valid. Not all innovation has to be groundbreaking. Not every startup has to have a mission to change the world. Farm management software, for example, is a very useful tool for producers to help them manage their business. Yet 20 years ago Salesforce created the pay-as-you-go business model, what we call SaaS, so farm management software providers have a business model playbook to run. It’s “simply” a matter of identifying the right use cases, workflows, etc. (Caveat: that wasn’t true several years ago, like when the Millers were developing CattleSoft. They were pioneering.)

A manager of a large feed yard recently told me that the worst consumer apps still represent better technology than software being marketed to feed yards. Meaning, there’s still room in this market. Or, launching a digital marketplace – might be needed in a market, but its a known technology and there’s a relatively known playbook to do so. 

Meanwhile startups like GoTerra (waste management via flies) or P&P Optica (sophisticated imaging for meat plants) are bringing breakthroughs to market. 

We’ll soon start looking at specific categories within animal protein value chains, and the innovation happening within those categories. I’ve been thinking about how to break down the big problems and below is my first attempt, but any framework has to establish producer profitability and consumer satisfaction as two equally important pillars. 

Value chain Profitability 

  • Live performance. Animal health, nutrition, genetics. Alternatives to antibiotics.
  • Precision health / Precision nutrition. Managing health & nutrition at granular levels. Improved feedback loops.
  • Labor / automation. Access to reliable labor sources. Access to automation alternatives where appropriate.
  • Channel diversification. If COVID has taught us anything it’s that diversification matters for producers & processors.
  • Market transparency. Price discovery. Improved workflows for transactions.

Customer satisfaction

  • Environmental footprint. Reducing GHG & the carbon footprint of livestock production. Waste management.
  • Quality. Product innovation – cuts, packaging, etc. Animal health, nutrition, genetics.
  • Food safety 
  • Channel diversification. If COVID has taught us anything its that diversification matters for consumers, e.g. consumers want options to buy how and when they want.
  • Price – speed – quality. The Harvard Business School model said that you could differentiate on up to 2 factors among price, speed, quality. Today’s consumers want all 3.

There are a lot of problems in search of solutions, and a lot of technology in search of problems. Some are version 1 startups, some are version 2. I’m excited to dig in and identify startups of each type that are creating value in animal protein. 

What are some interesting startups working throughout animal agriculture in any of these areas, or related? Send the names my way!

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