<Announcement>Launching my Agritech Executive Sparring Practice
Today, I am launching a new offering in my agritech consulting practice: Executive Sparring.
When I used to work in consulting, I used to often hear this phrase: "getting hands dirty". I don't know about you. When I first heard it from a partner in a Big 4 firm, it felt like a divine whisper.
It didn't take long to realize that only when I worked in agriculture will I ever get my hands dirty. After spending 6-7 years in consulting, I joined an agritech startup where I led a team that built solutions that addressed the vexing political distribution game of traceability in the smallholder agri-input value chain.
Those three years were a powerful immersion into the complexity of smallholding agriculture with lots of bruises and dirt on my fingernails to arrive at an epiphany that still serves as an anchor in my map of understanding: Even if people stop farming tomorrow, the last person to go out of business will be an agri-input player.
Those three years were also valuable in figuring out what happens when you wear the mask of a founder...with a sufficient distance. Who would want the mask to eat your face? After all, I had unlearned several things from the consulting world, including a rookie product manager's mistake of assuming himself or herself to be the CEO of your product.
When I quit my full-time job as an agritech product manager in 2019, I figured out that my strengths were naturally predisposed to become an entrepreneur (and not a founder) whose job entailed helping agritech founders and executives build better solutions to address wicked problems in agriculture.
But how could I discern what was better if I didn't do agenda-free sensemaking in the first place?
Agribusiness Matters officially began in 2020 as an experiment to observe and track the ongoing developments of the agritech universe across the world, outside the reality distortion field created by investors and agritech founders and hopefully discover leverage points to transform the food and agriculture system.
Back then, I didn't have a clear model of what my consulting model was going to look like.
As I started working with several agritech founders, while meeting hundreds of founders in my working life as an agritech analyst, I discovered that I was offering “Co-Founder As A Service” to a few early-stage agritech startups, delivering ecosystem services that were as much under-appreciated in the startup world as they are in the natural world.
In due course of time, I had become an investor with a small portfolio of agritech bets, investing money +/ life energies into agritech startups which were tackling hard problems across different value chains in agriculture.
My working style with each of these founders (including those outside my portfolio) involved regular/irregular weekly calls where they bounced off what they were working on, and oftentimes, there was an implicit equation between us that my responsibility was to play the devil's advocate.
Thankfully, most of them had earned their stripes and bruises of being a founder in an industry that was the last action hero to survive the onslaught of software eating the world, and more often, happily bounced back every time I shot down their holy cows and R&D prototypes.
Roughly speaking, the process went something like this.
As they explained the different contours of what they were working on, my agritech analyst hat tossed back sufficiently challenging models that were attacking similar problems. In other words, I was stress-testing their thinking in an uncanny Socratic R&D process to discover what was truly valuable and what wasn't.
It took me a while to realize that because I was detached from the everyday ups and downs of an agritech founder, because of the privilege of not being directly affected by the problems they are solving, I could challenge their assumptions from hitherto known places.
Much to my merriment, I discovered that this working style had already been in vogue, neatly encapsulated by what Venkatesh Rao calls “executive sparring”:
You might talk for hours, but in the end, it’s one casual phrase or thought that ends up unlocking the critical idea. My very first client said as much to me — that after twenty hours of chatting, the value I delivered all came out of one phrase I happened to drop casually in thinking through a problem: “penny auction.” Two seconds in twenty hours...
Insights like this cannot be found in textbooks, cranked out of fully-formed theories, or by “solving” cartoon case studies in a classroom setting (the equivalent of a punching bag or boxing dummy). They can only emerge through the process of preparing mindfully for specific live-fire challenges with a live sparring partner who can keep up with you.
Keeping with live-fire challenges faced by agritech founders comes easily to me because I write Agribusiness Matters precisely for founders and investors.
Every time I write about a new topic in Agribusiness Matters, that is the benchmark I aim for. Is my writing output sufficiently deep enough to get into the live-fire stream of consciousness of an agritech founder who is working day-in, and day-out in that particular subdomain of agritech?
Many agritech founders have found this executive sparring process valuable for the things they are building on, and I feel this could be valuable for not just founders, but also agritech executives working on smallholding contexts across the world.
⚠️ Today, I’m officially launching my new offering: Executive Sparring 🚀 If you’re a C-suite executive in a large agribusiness/agri-input/agritech firm or an investor who would benefit from the same sparring process I engage with agritech founders, feel free to reach out.