Learning from Zero to Beta to Commercialization at the nexus of Water, Ag and Finance.
I wanted to share some thoughts and learning's about our journey of going from ZERO to BETA to COMMERCIALIZATION with a kick-ass team and customers who trust and love us over the past 24-months. While the AQUAOSO team is still at the beginning of our amazing journey, I hope the lessons we have learned to date can be helpful to you and your team on your journey as well.
AQUAOSO started as a company at the end of 2016 with an idea to build a water resilient future through advanced technologies. Our starting point was originally enabling smarter water markets. We spent a year building a business model around water markets. We put together an amazing advisory team (who remain committed to our mission), built and launched some technology in mid 2017, found a few customers, was selected as a top 10 idea from an openIDEO challenge, and even completed a couple of accelerator programs in Sacramento and Fresno.
But the reality was (and still remains) that water markets are tricky, fragmented and hard to monetize. We still believe in the power of market based economics and the ability for water markets to help us better manage our most precious resource. It's a key mitigation tool for a number of our current customers.
Being a bootstrapped company, however, the revenue models did not make sense for us at the time. And luckily for us, we found another path to build a water resilient future.
"Luck is when opportunity meets preparation." - my dad always said
At the beginning of 2018, a bank asked us if we could help identify water risks in their loan portfolio, and the AQUAOSO team fell in love with the idea of solving the complex challenge of helping people understand water risk in the agricultural economy. We realized this was a real opportunity for us after spending six months interviewing a few hundred stakeholders, building prototypes, and validating that there was actually a market.
Last May (2018) the AQUAOSO team gained the trust of a dozen beta users to help us test a new product. These users represented some of the largest agricultural lenders, agricultural land brokers, growers, and agricultural investors in California (and a few nationally). Over a three month period, we asked a lot of questions, got a ton of feedback, and traveled extensively across the Central Valley of California. Our core team continued to iterate, learn and engage with our beta users.
I've said it before, and I'll say it a thousand time over - YOU MUST SHOW UP. Our early success (which continues to be a core value of AQUAOSO) is directly attributed to building trust with our customers, partners and stakeholders. And showing up for in-depth discussions remains one of the best ways to build that trust.
In August 2018 we sold our first commercial license and finalized a partnership with a large California association . In September, we moved two of our beta users into a commercial contract. In October we moved three more users to a commercial contract. And then our growth really started to pick up.
Today, we have more than 20 enterprise customers, and more than 400 individual users that use our maps and research tools on a regular basis. We have a long way to go, and are excited about the future. But we have also remained focused on our core values and remind ourselves of the lessons we have learned along the way.
Values: As a Public Benefit Company, we are in business to make money, and we know there is a social ethos associated with water that we wanted to embed in our DNA. This is core to who we are: People, Place and Community matter. We believe in transparent communications, hard discussions, and ethical technology. We also have a no assholes policy - life is just too short. We also give back, whether its through our free map or our Programmatic Assistance with Water Data program for small disadvantaged communities, it's important for us to add value beyond share price.
Lesson 1: Whatever your values, let them be your guiding light when making tough decisions.
Finance: It is easy to get caught up in the excitement of a great investment pitch, potential market size, big name VC's and paper wealth. We've certainly cycled through those discussions a few times. At the end of the day, we decided to focus our time on building a strong business with early profitability to give us optionality. It does not mean we won't go big. In fact, we will raise capital on occasion - but that is not what we celebrate. We prefer to celebrate our ability to spend money wisely, at the right place at the right time and for the right reasons. We know we've been successful when our customers buy our products and give us awesome reviews.
Lesson 2: Don't chase the investment. Chase the customers and the business model. Then find investors who can help you succeed.
Team: This is the most important. The right team will build trust at scale. The right team will build the right technology. The right team will tell you when you are wrong and point everyone in the right direction. Usually. And if your headed in the wrong direction, the right team will help you make the right (or left) turns quickly. The right team will be a close knit community that you build lasting relationships with (remember, you're spending a lot of time together). The right team you can trust.
Lesson 3: Be unwavering in your commitment to build the right team!
Marketing: This is always a tough one for me. I love marketing. But like most things in startup life, you need to pick the right things to work on at the right times. We built our early customer base in stealth mode. It was organic. And we didn't get sidetracked with outbound marketing. We focused - obsessed - with user feedback instead. This has given us deep insight into the problems we are solving, the messaging we now use and incredible customer testimonials. Now that we are scaling, marketing is more important than ever. We've always been working on our brand and messaging, but not marketing.
Lesson 4: Don't spend too much time marketing early on - spend your time understanding the problem you are solving.
Direction: We are committed to building a water resilient future. We always have been and will continue to focus on this commitment. The path to our ultimate vision, however, will certainly continue to adjust and mature over time. Today we are focused on doing for the agricultural economy what the fico score did for consumer lending. And we have the customer base to meet that challenge. Our experience has helped us learn that identifying risk is not enough. So we are helping our customers Identify, Understand, Monitor and ultimately Mitigate those risks. Today in agriculture. In the future across multiple industries. The lesson here is simple to understand, and hard to execute without the right team.
Lesson 5: The path to reach your vision may change over time. Don't fall in love with your original plan - fall in love with the end goal and adjust plans as necessary.
Grit: This is a real, not optional, required trait. Regardless of whether you are in the trenches, with dirty finger nails, and stubbed toes, or all alone and out of cash, have broken technology and team members leaving, or a multitude of other hard things, the only way out is through. Hold onto your vision. Hold onto your values. Hold onto your faith in yourself and your team. Building something from Zero to Something is not for the faint of heart. It's hard. It takes luck, good planning, and a few leaps of faith (a real market helps here as well!) It's risky. It's scary. It's intimidating. And most of it is a head game.
The most important lesson I continue to learn, and work through daily is keeping myself mentally, physically and spiritually healthy. Maintaining relationships with loved ones. Maintaining a relationship with myself. It's challenging. It's lonely, and I don't always get it right. But the lesson is this:
Lesson 6: Find your grit. Give yourself just a moment to feel sorry for yourself. Then get over it - do what it takes to get your head straight and fight your way through the current challenge and learn from it.
For AQUAOSO, the future is big and bright. We are only past the first few miles of an Indiana Jones Marathon with more boulders, snake pits, and jungles to navigate. We have much more to learn and give back to our community. We are always looking for the next right team member, the next awesome customer, and the next aligned partner.
If there is something in here that resonates with you, shoot me a note or comment. I hope you can learn from a few of our hard earned lessons. And if you'r a founder who can share some lessons with us, please do so. The last lesson I have learned is this:
No matter how lonely it may seem, we can always help each other find solutions and accelerate learning.
To your continued success, Chris