Success Story: Missouri
With timely advice and guidance from the Missouri SBTDC and other University of Missouri Extension Business Development Program (BDP) services and personnel, mother and daughter Kim Harrison and Olivia Vann invented an online service linking food buyers and sellers, called 2BuyAg. 2BuyAg is free for producers, with buyers paying a nominal percentage-based convenience fee.
2BuyAg firmly believes they are in the right spot at the right time to offer an online marketplace for food buyers to connect with local farmers. 2BuyAg, like many revolutionary ideas, was born of necessity. Harrison and her husband operate Harrison Valley Farms near Fulton, which has been producing and marketing pasture-raised and grass-fed beef and lamb since 2007. They sold to farmers’ markets, restaurants, food hubs, even individual buyers, endlessly driving across the state to make deliveries.
“The wear and tear on our family was just too much,” says the energetic Harrison. “We met ourselves coming and going. And it’s hard to do all the marketing and maintain the sheep and cattle, too.”
She began to think about how the farm could streamline marketing. She also realized her problems were by no means unique; all producers face the same issues.
That Harrison has a background in distribution helped. She’s helped manage a print and direct mail business for more than 30 years, Direct Impaqt. She envisioned a mid-Missouri food hub. She hired a grant writer and a former farm market manager to secure a USDA food hub grant.
She also brought in daughter Vann, then in the MU Crosby MBA program. “With a focus on ag,” Vann adds. “Biochemistry and ag economics.”
The analytical Vann began looking into the mechanics of food hubs. The more she looked, the less she and her mom liked it. Food hubs make it possible for producers to gain entry into new markets, boost their income and scale up production. So they began wondering if there was a way to digitize it.
The answer came after a Columbia Chamber of Commerce session on social media taught by Collin Bunch, then a business specialist with the University of Missouri Small Business & Technology Development Centers (MO SBTDC) in Columbia and now with Regional Economic Development, Inc. (REDI). The MO SBTDC is a statewide network of consultants providing professional analysis, access to technology resources and training on a wide variety of business topics. They began brainstorming, and Bunch introduced them to Sandra Marin, BDP business, technology and international business specialist.
“The BDP has been an amazing amount of help. They have taken very, very good care of us. We wouldn’t be where we are today without them. He (Bunch) was incredibly approachable,” Harrison says. “He understood our pain points, began to help us formulate what it all meant.”
REDI introduced them to Tin Can Technologies, a Columbia development firm, to build the app.
They then plunged into an immersive eight-week boot camp taught by Marin. She and others helped them whip their business and financing plans into shape. The women’s presentation coach at the bootcamp was Amos Angelovici of the Missouri Innovation Center, the University of Missouri’s incubator.
“And he just tore us apart,” says Harrison. “He burst our bubble! He asked very good questions. He made us stop and think.”
Presentation night found Bill Turpin, Missouri Innovation Center director, and Greg Tucker, co-director of the Mizzou Venture Mentoring Service and director of the BDP, in attendance. The mentoring service connects Mizzou graduates, which both women are, to experienced Mizzou alumni-entrepreneurs.
Turpin liked what he heard so much he invited the women to be non-residential clients. So did Tucker, who suggested they apply to the mentoring service; they did and were accepted. Tucker is now a member of their mentoring team, which has met every month or so now for a year.
Meanwhile, the Tin Can developers forged ahead on the app and the women took an additional four-week National Science Foundation I-Corps course. I-Corps helps scientists and engineers accelerate their basic research to commercialization.
Tucker also introduced them to Larry Dill and Jackie Rasmussen of MU’s International Trade Center (ITC). The ITC is a partnership of the University of Missouri Extension Business Development Program, Missouri Small Business Development Centers and the University of Missouri Trulaske College of Business, to help firms begin or boost their exports. One program recruits the best and brightest international business students for semester-long research projects that identify a firm’s best overseas potential markets with hundreds of hours of student research, expert center staff guidance, specialized databases and a laser focus on results.
“What the students did was amazing,” Harrison says. They thoroughly investigated 185 different countries, narrowing it down to 15. The students then performed extensive market analysis on just five: Uruguay, Chile, Vietnam and New Zealand, all major food producers; and Japan, the third largest economy in the world and a major food importer.
But that’s in the near future.
“Right now we are focusing on the narrow and deep,” says Harrison. “Our narrow is Missouri, our deep is drilling into cities we have MO SBTDC counselors in, to see what farmers and buyers really want, work with them and ask them how to make 2BuyAg better.”
The 2ByAg founders also work with or are signed up for:
• Speaking to the “Selling Local Foods” class July 20 in Blue Springs, organized by Jeff Samborski, Jackson County Extension business development specialist, who also introduced them to key food buyers, sellers and influencers and general opportunities in western Missouri
• Karen Leatherman, BDP business development specialist, Missouri University of Science and Technology SBTDC in Rolla, looking into food pantries and grants for women-run technology companies
• Luis Ortiz and Kevin Wilson, St. Louis SBTDC, pursuing similar opportunities in eastern Missouri
• Bronwen Madden, coordinator, Missouri State University – West Plains SBTDC, who introduced them to a coast to coast shipper (2BuyAg now relies on buyers and sellers to make their own shipping arrangements) and secured an interview with a local NPR affiliate; introduced them to the Ozark Farmers Agriculture Cooperative, which encourages clients to use 2BuyAg; and in general advises them on the southern Missouri food scene
• Jana Weitkemper, procurement specialist, Missouri Procurement Technical Assistance Centers (MO PTAC), to explore federal contracting opportunities. MO PTAC helps businesses, including small and women owned firms, discover, bid, win and then implement government contracts
• The Missouri Women’s Business Center and its director, Jaime Freidrichs, providing resources, support and networking for entrepreneurial women like Harrison and Vann in eight central Missouri counties
Exhaustive? Sure. Extraordinary? Not at all. The BDP is always poised to help clients and link them to key individuals who can take businesses to the next level.
“The BDP has been an amazing amount of help,” says Harrison. “They have taken very, very good care of us. We couldn’t possibly pay for all the services we’ve received. And what’s good about them (the counselors, mentors and others) is that they don’t do it for you. They give you suggestions and expect you to grow professionally.
“We wouldn’t be where we are today without them. It’s been delightful.”