While economic upheaval has caused many businesses to fail, Ode has interviewed several entrepreneurs who have found ways to thrive and remain focused on positive social change. We interviewed them about their companies, how they view the current economic situation, how they define success, and how they came to combine their business skills with their passion for change.
To read more about how social entrepreneurs are going mainstream, click here.
Ode Editors | March 2009 issue
Tell us a little bit about you and your company.
FarmsReach is a web platform to bring simple local food logistics to the rest of North America by connecting food producers, buyers, and supporting organizations and assisting them with their own internal operations more efficiently and cost-effectively.
Local, sustainable food is a big issue—everyone knows it’s good, but the logistics are messed up. Local means helping with regional economies, a smaller carbon footprint and knowing the provenance of what’s on the table. But it’s still very hard to reliably order and deliver local food.
The cool thing is that—just as travel agents, or housing or used cars have been streamlined by travel sites, Craigslist and eBay—the local food space is ripe for repair, particularly as tech is within the reach of farmers and restauranteurs. While we’re not there yet, it’s easy to see a day when a farmer uses an iPhone to track picklists, get driving directions, accept orders and so on. Ten years ago, this was proprietary technology for companies like Fedex—now, with a website and a phone, it’s in the hands of a local farmer.
We’re hoping that the convergence of a focus on sustainable food, energy costs and approachable tech can change the US food industry.
How do you feel about the current economic situation? Does it represent a challenge or an opportunity for you and your business?
I think the current economic situation is a result of living unsustainably in a lot of ways. Buying more than we can afford, not understanding the real costs of things like pollution or energy inefficiency and so on. The economy makes us care more about how much things like gas and food cost.
What’s weird is that local, healthy food is perceived as “expensive” or “discerning.” In fact, it’s a lot more affordable—and more of the money makes it to the farmer, because there are fewer middlemen and less miles for it to travel. Also, as America starts to try and buy locally rather than shipping in food from overseas, it’s going to become a bigger concern.
From the point of view of tech, there’s a lot of disenchanted talent walking around the valley right now. We have a number of people at the company who are absolute rockstars, and who are psyched to be working on something that’s not only an interesting technical challenge, but also has the potential to change the lives of millions of farmers.
I think the economy is making everyone reconsider their priorities. That’s good for the market we’re after—local food—and for the resources a company needs to acquire, from financing to employees.
What types of metrics do you use to demonstrate your success both financially and in terms of social change?
We thought a lot about this early on. We initially wanted to define elaborate mission statements that would constrain what we could do and how we behaved. But the reality is, the only way to make a company adhere to a social agenda is to design the business so that the business only succeeds if the social agenda is achieved. In our case, we thrive if more people buy more food from local sources. Our business model is set up that way.
We’re also trying to be very transparent about how we work. While it’s still early days for us, we’re going to show buyers how much of a carbon footprint they’ve reduced by buying locally. We know, for example, exactly how much food, weighing how much, has traveled how far, for every buyer and seller in our system. We can compare that to “typical” food footprints, and then help restaurants to promote themselves by telling their customers how much they’ve reduced their impact on the planet. That’s a great promotional tool for them—and a great reason for them to use us.
So, I think the best way to measure social change is to run your organization like a business. Maybe not for profit and loss, per se, but based on reports and numbers. Just because you’re well-intentioned doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be accountable.
Have you always been a businessperson or did your idea stem from a passion to create change – or both?
I worked in the tech industry for over ten years before starting the nonprofit organization, OmOrganics.org. I had left the corporate world hoping to follow more of my passion, but it turns out what the food and farm industry really needs is technology, so now with FarmsReach I’m in the lucky position of applying my corporate knowledge to the area of my passion. The best of both worlds!
It has also been interesting working in the for-profit and nonprofit sectors. Nonprofit organizations are clearly more collaborative and willing to share knowledge and rewards, yet many lack business skills to make their visions a financially sustainable operation. Corporations on the other hand are often driven by profit at all costs, no matter who is crushed in the process. At FarmsReach, we hope to be a hybrid of the two—collaborating within the industry for shared benefit while also running a smooth, conscientious, profitable operation.