Tech Career Insights: Interview with Benji Meltzer, Aerobotics: How Niche Focus Helped Us Win in Agritech

Interview with Benji Meltzer, Aerobotics: How Niche Focus Helped Us Win in Agritech

By Jomiro Eming

The agriculture sector is hard to break into as a tech startup, especially when you’re working with data that’s incredibly hard to access. Aerobotics CTO & Co-Founder, Benji Meltzer, shares his lessons on creating a ‘new market’. He talks us through the importance of maintaining a ‘niche’ focus early on, solving one person’s problem first, and how this feeds into building credibility and trust with early adopters.

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Aerobotics is an agritech software development startup founded in 2014. They use drones and AI to help farmers optimise their crop management and detect pests and diseases. Their focus on this sector stems from Co-founder, James, background of growing up on a citrus farm: “He comes from a farming background, so has first-hand experience with the challenges that farmers have”.

James realised that farmers were rarely making data-driven decisions. Although typically analytical and tech savvy, farmers don’t often rely on actual data - not because they don’t want to, but because reliable information about pests, fruit sizes, and yield prospects is hard to access, complex, and difficult to use. “The traditional way to do this,” he explains, “is either to just guess, or - best case - walk through the orchard, count the fruit on the tree and write down what you see. There’s a big opportunity to completely disrupt this space through this type of technology.”

Although they knew what they wanted to use their tech to disrupt the agritech sector, this proved to be hard. The team realised he would have to think differently about entering this market:

“Our initial drive for building this business,” Benji explains, “was very much that this hasn’t been done before, so let’s invent something new. But we quickly learned about ‘first-mover disadvantage’: If you’re the first mover, the market doesn’t really exist so you have to create it yourself, and that’s expensive and time consuming. Justifying why people in this industry, who know what they’re doing, should use this technology, was super difficult.”

Benji and his team succeeded thanks to two key things:

  • Developing laser focus early on: Right from the start, they decided to narrow down rather than trying to focus on all the challenges farmers faced at once. This also helped them protect their limited resources.
  • Building credibility and trust with early adopters: Building relationships with farmers on the ground gave them a good idea of the kinds of problems that their tech could actually solve. It also helped them understand how to make this kind of data accessible for farmers in a simplified and useful way.

Laser focus at the start helps you do more later

Initially, Aerobotics wanted to use their tech to solve all of the problems faced by farmers - “it’s hard,” he says, “to not feel like you’re closing yourself off to potential opportunities”. This lack of focus, however, meant that he was trying to solve a little bit of everyone’s problem, and problems that he imagined were most important, as opposed to problems that farmers actually needed to be solved.

However, adopting laser focus on specific problems helped the team spend more time on the problems themselves, and actually being able to relate more to the people- whose lives they were trying to impact. “And I know it sounds obvious,” Benji says, “but there’s so much value in just focusing on the actual problem itself, and doing your research in terms of whether or not someone would pay to have this problem solved. In order to do this, they had to pick one specific problem and then solve it for just one farmer.

Start with only one niche problem

Instead of working across different kinds of farms, Aerobotics focused on only one: citrus. Zooming in on this niche allowed the team to test what worked and what didn’t work for, say, measuring the size of oranges. “What started happening,” Benji says, “was that we quickly developed the ability to assess the quality and performance of a single tree, or estimate the yield of trees in a harvest. We wouldn’t have gotten there if we looked at the ‘big picture’ the entire time”.

Although that kind of data is incredibly specific, there are a number of clear use-cases throughout the growing season where it proves really useful. Where farmers have a better idea of what yield they can expect at the end of the season, for example, they become more predictive in planning for labour, packing, marketing costs, and a range of other areas.

Try to solve one person’s problem first

This approach to finding a niche focus, however, was still solution driven. Without actual farming experience, Aerobotics developed solutions they thought would work, rather than shifting his focus to the problem itself.

To do that, they focused on one individual farmer, and worked with user research and real-time trials to figure out what specific problems they wanted solved. Benji says:

“Rather than trying to build a product that satisfies everyone, and as a result doesn’t solve anyone’s problem, there’s value in just focusing on one person, and one use-case.”

One such example is that of a farmer who managed to save his entire orchard by preventatively identifying, and removing, infected trees. Aerobotics’ tech made the necessary data easily accessible and useful, where before it would’ve required walking through the orchard and risking human error.

This focused approach helped Aerobotics grow as a business by saving money and time in the long-run. The team could build an MVP, test it with a farmer, and know if it worked _before _spending more money and time on developing it further.

By focusing on farmers on the ground, and having high-touch relationships with them, the team could build relationships that would later help spread the word on the product itself: “The lifetime value of a customer in this space and with that approach is really high,” explains Benji.

Credibility and trust with early adopters is key

The agriculture sector is full of tech savvy people who know what they’re doing already, so getting early adopters to buy into Aerobotics’ mission, change what is already working for them, and have developers solve their problems wasn’t easy.

In Benji’s experience, this conversation was less about the tech itself, and more about building trust with farmers. Since farmers are analytical people, Benji knew credibility and trust needed to be built up using case studies, trials and research that showed that the product was going to improve the farm’s distribution, market access, and scalability:

“We’ll come in and say, ‘This is what our technology costs, this is the accuracy and quality of data we can achieve, and this is what’s worth it to you’. From a simple math perspective, it’s either a go or no-go. Case studies and value propositions are really what’s made the difference between this ‘cool technology’ that people know in theory might help, and a clear business case that farmers can adopt”.

Benji and his team have worked really hard to build solid communication channels with farmers on the ground. This gives them real-life, concrete case studies of farmers who have benefitted from their service, and not just their product:

“There was a stage when we imagined that we could build a product that farmers can just sign up for online, purchase, and use as if it were an e-commerce website. But there’s huge importance in building these face-to-face relationships. In the agriculture space, if someone’s trialing the product, they’re not just trialing the product - they’re trialing the service too.”

“In the agriculture space, if someone’s trialing the product, they’re not just trialing the product - they’re trialing the service too.”

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