In episode 68 of Amplify Your Business, Lance speaks with Mark Olson, Founder and CEO of Flokk, about how his company wants to revolutionize livestock herd management and traceability. Mark shares how he developed an affordable, more effective alternative to expensive herd tracing equipment, and talks about some of the lesson's he's learned along the way.
(0:51) Mark, tell me about Flokk. What is this business about?
We started 3 years ago when a neighbour and a colleague was having difficulty finding some tools to modernize the management of their herd, but everything they found was prohibitively expensive and didn't match their needs. I realized I had the skills to build it, so I did! Here we are today.
(1:50) Can you tell us about the problem that Flokk is solving?
We're solving a two-fold problem. These operations are like any other business in that they need to manage their inputs and outputs. Where they differ is that their businesses are out-doors, so there is little in the way of effective digital tools available. The other aspect that's different is that livestock is food, so everything must be highly traceable. All livestock have RFID tags on them to make them traceable through our food system. Flokk is a tool that makes it easier for producers to trace their livestock at affordable cost.
(3:03) So what does Flokk do, exactly?
Ever been in a home depot, with the guy at the front who's scanning products with a little machine? We do that for livestock. What makes us different is that recognition software is in the device, enabling farmers to track animal information easily and view animal records in the field. There are many regulations around animal traceability, so this information is very important.
It also helps with sustainability. In order to receive and maintain sustainability certifications, producers must follow extensive and rigorous record keeping standards. Flokk is helping to make that process simpler.
(6:15) What is it that sets your equipment apart from the competition?
The core end result is the same, but our advantage is utility. Most of what you'll find right now are based on a standalone RFID reader that communicates with a phone, and they cost around $3000. When you're in the field, it's not ideal to be carrying around thousands of dollars worth of equipment. Flokk does not need to work with a phone, and is much more affordable.
Our device handles everything. We have the RFID tag and application software in one product, which helps to greatly simplify the production processes and is more convenient for farmers.
(7:02) How is it that you're able to compete on price with this technology?
There's a couple aspects to that. We've made clever use of leveraging commodity components. The device runs on Raspberry-pi, which is widely and cheaply available. The other aspect is we take a different approach to our business model. The existing readers are about hardware, but ours is about providing a compelling offer at a competitive price, because we want to be the industry standard for livestock traceability and tracking. We like to sell Flokk on a subscription model, because this provides us the cash for growth in the short term. In the long term, we want to be partners of industry modernization
We also like to sell the device outright to those who ask for it, as many farmers don't like being tied to a subscription. However, I believe that they come back to us once they realize how tedious it is to enter all that data yourself.
(10:43) How did you get from the idea stage to where you are now? Walk me through that.
Well, we started from an actual need. We were also lucky to work with some business students that backed up our hunch about this opportunity. On the technology side, we are very iterative based.
We try to be cognizant of being available and engaging people, looking for outside input whenever possible. We talk to regulators, institutions, visit trade shows, and gather insights to test our assumptions and get a sense of what consumers want. At the bottom line, our strategy is to just do it.
I'm also fortunate that my background gives me the skills to deal with many technical issues myself. Almost all hardware and software design has been done by myself.
(13:00) What is the largest challenge you've faced along the way?
As an entrepreneur, the biggest challenge is to convince yourself that what you're doing is valuable and find ways to make progress. Don't lose sight of your vision. For me personally, it's been difficult to do the hands-on, technical work, and the business side of things, whether that's finding investors, getting partners, or anything else. It's like working two full time jobs. You have to be ruthless with time management.
(14:55) What lessons have you learned on this road?
You need to take the time and do your work, and work with those who understand your background and what you're trying to do. There's lots of generic help out there that is well intentioned, but doesn't add lots of value. I'm fortunate that I get to work with lots of groups that are focused on what I want to do. Make sure you understand how the help fits into your business and what you want to do. It's like finding the right dance partner.
I also think there's lots of opportunity in rural Alberta and the farming industry. We're farmers ourselves, which I think will help us engage customers. We've stood in their shoes, and that authenticity will help us a lot with our marketing.
(17:37) As you reflect on the last three years, is there anything you wish you had known or that you might do differently?
Absolutely time management. Be better about looking after myself in terms of working with people and organizations, and be willing to pull the plug on relationships earlier. I've had many situations where I didn't listen to my gut and didn't end it early enough, and it cost me big time.
There are definitely situations where I should have "fired faster", so to speak, but it's a double edged sword. On the other hand, patience is important in these relationships. Just like dating or finding a job, when you're looking for an investor, you can't let 99 no's stop you from getting one yes.
(20:20) What's helped you learn that skill with time management and relationships?
For me, it's my own life experience and work in a range of different industries. This has given me the confidence to do what needs to be done. Entrepreneurship is a balancing act, and you can't go into it expecting to please everyone. You need to make hard decisions and know that sometime, that is going to upset people.
(21:23) So right now you're pre-revenue. When are you hoping to have something you can start to market?
Our focus is to get a number of devices in place for the calving season (february-april/may). Once we get some confidence in the product, we'll move to an early adopter program and start bringing in revenue. Of course, a large part of getting there is securing investment. I'm in a fortunate situation where Flokk can get to market if I have to do it myself, but that would take a long time, so I want to bring on more investors.
We currently have some friends and family in place, which is fortunate. For investors, I'm more interested in their network and abilities to help us and our company than their money. I like to look at investors as a resource beyond the money they can provide.
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