Vital Fields as a company has been through the toughest of evolutions. They claim to be the, “simplest farm management system in the world,” and provide an app that enables farmers to manage their fieldwork, crop production and stocks, whilst creating a community that can share essential and relevant information with each other. It is a sound and popular system, received well by farmers and investors alike. But it hasn't always been this way.
Formed at a hackathon at Tallinn’s Garage48 in 2011, Vital Fields started its life as an app predicting the optimum conditions for surfers, called WeatherMe. Martin Rand, CEO, a keen surfer and CTO Vahur Meusone who has a farming background, are the only two remaining original cofounders, Martin Rand tells Hybe about the journey so far, a journey that almost killed him.
“WeatherMe was a very good service,” he begins, “unfortunately, only I used it.” Four months into the development of the app, one of the four founding members left, this prompted the remaining three to invest in some serious Googling: they found a competitor, doing the same thing, and for free.
Feeling like the last four months had been a complete waste of time, they began to reflect, but kept positive:
“Then we thought, well hold on, we still have this weather forecasting thing. We were forecasting weather using US university servers (WRF open source) and downscaling it to a kilometre by kilometre grid; that was really good. So we just drove to meet farmers, because we thought there is a huge segment in the economy depending on the weather, and this is farming; let’s see if we can do something useful for them.”
Armed with open minds and a weather forecasting app idea, they decided to learn as much as they could in order to make the vital decisions about the future of the company, if there was even to be one.
Rand explains: “We went to meet these farmers and wrote down everything they said, we just listened. Then we started building a new system for farmers - weather forecasting. We started with plant diseases, because we learned that fungal diseases have a correlation with weather, so if you have the disease model, you can actually forecast them. So we started building these models into our system.” The identity of the company as it is today was slowly starting to form, even if they can only see it now with hindsight.
They started working with accelerator Startup Wise Guys in Tallinn, finding that they were at a 'make or break' point; a commitment was required, so Rand left his job at Estonian telecommunications company Elion.
“We didn't have any money! Usually the excuse of not starting a business on your own is that you don't have a good idea, or you don't have money: we had neither. I took a 6 month vacation from my house mortgage, sold my car and registered as unemployed to get the unemployment money.”
The 15,000 they received from the accelerator gave them a bit of breathing space, they rode the wave and reached out to farmers in Brazil, South America, California and their home country, Estonia (from whom they received a token upfront amount of money as a vote of confidence).
This led to them meeting top investors in London, and they thought the worst was over; the fifteen minutes of fame giving them a new wave of confidence:
“Now we’ve done it, now it’s going to go only up from here,” they thought, and I asked if it did, “No, unfortunately not,” said Rand with a accepting smile.
The accelerator ended, and the money with it. The unemployment money ended too with cruel timing. They had no paying customers and were completely out of cash, with no real investment outlook and internal differences to boot - disagreements that resulted in the loss of their second cofounder, the weather specialist.
“We were doing a weather thing, and the weather cofounder left,” Rand told me, as he remembered how they felt at this point.
But it was about to get worse, a lot worse. As not long after, Rand was involved in a near fatal car accident resulting in torn and seriously damaged internal organs. He was rushed into emergency surgery.
Having lived to tell the tale, he called his remaining cofounder from the hospital, “I said to him, I don’t know what I’m gonna do - if we will ever get out of this one. This point was really the lowest of the low.”
Their fortunes however, took a turn. The following November they closed an investment round of 250,000 Euros and now have operations in Germany, Poland, Ukraine and Estonia.
As a story of tenacity in business, one finds it hard to top this. Whether it is inspirational or not, is a matter of personal limits. Vital Fields is both gaining reputation and onboarding new clients every month. Martin Rand and his 13 strong team are not averse to hard times, and with the winter coming - a notoriously quite time in the farming industry - they are going to have a hard enough job keeping current clients engaged, let alone thinking of new ones:
"We are onboarding several hundred new farms and have become one of the leaders in the race for hectares across the AgTech scene." An admirably optimistic Rand finally says.