The Croatian startup Farmeron grabbed my attention a while ago, and it turns out I wasn’t the only one. This web-based farm management and analytics tool shined at various Seedcamp events this year, and caught the famed Dave McClure‘s eye. The founder, Matija Kopić (@matijakopic), and his team, are currently in the 500 Startups accelerator in Mountain View, CA, and I caught up with him to share his experiences with you. From a farm in eastern Croatia to an office with a view of the Google campus, it’s definitely not boring.
Matija grew up aware of farm data management problems since he was a little boy. He comes from Osijek, a city in the eastern Croatian region of Slavonia, from a family with a long tradition in agriculture. Already during his computer science studies at The University of Zagreb, he sought ideas that would use information technology to help small and medium farmers.
By the time Matija graduated from university in September 2010, his student work was spotted by a manager from a large agricultural company in Croatia. A week after graduation, Matija and Marko Dukmenić, his co-founder, landed a contract to develop a dairy farm management analytics solution (tracking cows and their output). However, as they finished the software a few months later and started expanding sales, they realized they were headed at a momentous pace in a direction they weren’t sure about. The university taught them how to develop software, but nobody told them how to sell it or what to do after that.
At this point, Farmeron was selling desktop software and it was becoming increasingly clear that it would be very difficult to scale and grow this type of a business. Matija and Marko realized they would have to work full time just to satisfy their existing customers and would need additional capital to hire sales and support staff that would physically deal with each individual farm. This is where a painful decision had to happen. Realizing that they had to switch to web-based software in order to expand faster and offer the service on international markets, the team had to stop supporting new feature requests from their existing desktop customers. This was a risky decision, since a lot of Croatian farms don’t have access to Internet; this was a painful decision, since they were abandoning their early customers; and this was a hard decision, since they didn’t know if it was the right thing to do. However, it was necessary for the direction they wanted to head in.
A few months later, the working prototype of the web app was finished, but Farmeron needed funding in order to expand internationally. They connected with the Croatian startup community, also affectionately known as #croatianmafia on Twitter, which wasn’t hard since “everyone knows everyone.” They got advice on how to go about raising funding, and they applied to Seedcamp.
Farmeron was selected to participate in Mini Seedcamp Ljubljana, but did not get an investment offer from Seedcamp after the event. Next, in a bit of an unusual development, they got invited to come to Mini Seedcamp London a month later. This time they got the Seedcamp investment. Soon after that, they participated in Seedcamp Week in London, where they got an additional investment by Robin Klein (@robinklein) from The Accelerator Group. This is also where they met Dave McClure, who then invested in Farmeron through his 500 Startups fund, and invited them to participate in the accelerator program. But this was not the first encounter between McClure and Farmeron.
Farmeron actually got contacted by Dave McClure himself early in the year, before any of their Seedcamp participation. The story that follows must sound like a paid endorsement of AngelList, but it really happened. When Farmeron set out to look for funding, they were advised to create a profile on AngelList, which is an online community where angel investors and representatives of VC firms rub shoulders with startups and startup advisors. Matija summarized his experience with AngelList as follows:
“That was the single best thing I did when it comes to fundraising. Every single startup in Europe should make an AngelList profile as soon as possible. The founders gave me some great advice on how to model the Farmeron profile, and just a few days after that Dave McClure reached out to me.”
That encounter ended with “let’s talk in a few months,” but you get the idea. I’m going to let you take a break here and go set up your profile…
Fast forward to right now. The three Croatiam team members from Farmeron have been in Mountain View, CA for the past 7 weeks, and another one is on his way from Zagreb soon. They are having a great time accelerating their business. “Dave [McClure] knows like a million people,” said Matija, and he already connected Farmeron with some of the largest US farms. “I don’t think there is a large number of investors in the US that could do that,” he glowed.
In addition to working on customer acquisition, the guys also have a busy mentorship schedule. On top of several weekly internal meetings among the batch companies and the 500 staff, various mentors come to hold workshops 4-5 times per week, teaching about every aspect of running a startup. Besides these workshops, there is also a long list of mentors that are part of 500 Startups, who the startups can get access to in no time.
And then there is social life. There are about 30 startups in the current accelerator batch. They share the workspace, inevitably collaborating and helping each other on a daily basis. They also spend time together outside of the office, exploring the little bit of nightlife there is in Mountain View. One popular hangout is St. Stephen’s pub on Castro street, thanks to its affordable beer and relaxed European atmosphere. Matija’s craziest “only-in-the-valley” story comes from a party at this pub, where he started chatting with “some guy.” This guy turned out to not only be an angel investor, but an angel investor that also owns a farm. And this farm-owning angel then turned out to have Croatian origins. Next thing you know we’ll be hearing about unicorns with seed funds. Only in Silicon Valley indeed.
The benefit of going to Silicon Valley is immensely clear: it’s business acceleration on steroids. Farmeron has been building their network, getting great advice, and increasing their access to funding. Matija says that it has been an irreplaceable experience, but he doesn’t think they need to stay there forever in order to be successful. And he thinks this applies to other international startups as well, while the valley-based startups are more likely to believe they have to stay there. Although he has been having a great time, sometimes he misses the European diversity. “You can call a founder from a different country and meet the next day.”
The European diversity might be the secret ingredient that will help Europe catch up with Silicon Valley. But, according to Matija, “Europe needs closer human contact in the entrepreneurial community… There should be great events happening all the time.” He is very enthusiastic about organizing more events in the Croatian startup community when he returns from California at the end of January, and he’s already working on convincing some guys from Silicon Valley to visit Croatia.
And lastly, Matija’s advice to aspiring entrepreneurs? Start with your friends and peers, with your local community. Try to conquer that and then move forward, proving that you can build something that has value to others. And also, reach out to him, he’d be happy to help.