I originally joined YC's Startup School in 2019 with a project in Agtech, named Kulti.
The original verbatim goal was "Affordable automation Agtech for sm-mid farmers in the developing world".
In practice, the idea was to produce a Philips Hue-like ecosystem of low-cost sensors to drive an automation-based revolution, eventually powered by cognitive services, and concretely, the first product was a water sensor connected to a cloud service with a custom alert system.
In the beginning, one of my largest motivators for the project was a strong belief that I had the following unique advantages:
- The ability to work on the entire stack from the electronics and the microcontroller of the hardware, all the way to the cloud infra and the frontend and the services in between.
- Privileged access to a large and connected user base of farmers, who did emit a strong interest signal in such a solution
- A pragmatic target market, who believes in investment and ROI, and used to middle to long term dynamics
- Experience in Product Design, and specifically in Human / Automation interactions
And beyond all of this, I was extremely motivated by the small but eventually dramatic impact of better water management for the climate, and for the economics of developing world.
I got a hardware + software prototype working, and iterated on it twice after a few pilots, with relative success, but ultimately I had to put the project on a hiatus.
Why is that? Some of the challenges were exciting and can be overcome, but others are just a complete hindrance.
- The supply chain for hardware components is a nightmare of complexity and slowness. Once you stray away from your off-the-shelf ESP8266, you have to rely on suppliers from China and the delivery times (1-2 months) mean your iteration cycle is measured in quarters instead of weeks (when you don't receive a faulty component lot and have to order it again).
- The logistics to ship prototypes, go on site to evaluate the conditions and hangout with the users too complex for an urbanite, especially when my ideal users live in other countries.
- I discovered many subtleties to the problem, and the specialist knowledge required (in soil engineering and botanics specifically) slowed down my progress significantly (but it was amazing to learn how plants actually work).
- The amount of moving parts and technologies needed for a solution covering custom-designed hardware and a cloud solution with a mobile clients is just mind blowing, and very complex operationally
I parked this project for the time being and moved on, but the learnings were immensely valuable. Many of these learnings might be duh moments, or already known in the industry, but sometimes you have to fail to learn first-hand :-)
If I could summarize for the benefit of others, basically:
- For hardware projects, live near your suppliers or in an industrial hub (I considered briefly relocating to Shenzhen)
- In the same vein, make sure your customers are within a couple of hours at worst. This is not a problem if you don't need to iterate on the hardware solution (but who doesn't ?)
- Software engineering and design skills are necessary but very far from sufficient, and while you might not get away without it, nowadays it's not a decisive success factor
- There is only so much you can do on your own, and if the initial problem is not "easy" enough, your throughput is an incredible limiting factor that impacts your motivation first before everything else
- If you must ship a complex solution, try to isolate a slice where you can shine and deliver maximal value, and find partners for everything else.
So what am I doing now?
I've launched https://monitoro.xyz since a few weeks, and it's growing steadily. Stay tuned for a follow up post to talk about the transition in more details.