Howard Dahl of FarmQA

An exclusive Tech Tribune Q&A with Howard Dahl (founder and CEO) of FarmQA, which was honored in our:
Tell us the origin story of FarmQA – what problem were you trying to solve and why?

The origins for the idea of FarmQA really go back to 1984 when my previous company, Concord, Inc., purchased a soil sampler business. That launched my decades-long passion for precision agriculture. We developed the first air seeder that did variable rate placement of fertilizer based on a map. This was in 1993.

Fast forward to 2011 when I had lunch with Barry Batcheller, the founder of Appareo, and he talked to me about his black box for helicopter flight path monitoring. The program was called FoQA or flight operations quality assurance. At that lunch, I said that what we need is FarmQA or farm quality assurance. The idea was to develop a company that would help manage non-conformances for farmers in real time.

Out of that conversation developed the business of intelligent agricultural solutions that has led to the finest blockage system for air seeders in the world, and a number of other products being developed by Appareo.

What was the biggest hurdle you encountered in your journey?

FarmQA worked in the early years on a technology to measure nutrient levels in the soil using X-ray and near-infrared technology, as opposed to the traditional wet chemistry labs that are standard for soil analysis. As in many entrepreneurial activities, some things are very hard to do and take more time and money than originally planned. This program that we had been working on with a Dutch company had to be put on the shelf, but many lessons were learned.

FarmQA shifted to a focus of providing the best software for the independent agronomist. This pathway has proven to be the right course, as there are more than 100 users of FarmQA that give rave reviews of the product. The business model remains to listen to our agronomy customers and respond to their requests.

One of the great challenges of any startup is to make sure that you have the right idea or product that is worth doing. The sooner one can determine that real customers delight in what you are doing, the better. The art of a new venture always lies in whether there is value add to the customer, and whether it can be priced so as to support the necessary ongoing development of a sustainable business.

What does the future hold for FarmQA?

FarmQA is still in the early stages, with a great deal of our growth coming from word of mouth referrals from happy users. The challenge in a software company likes ours is to determine the many things we should say no to, and to determine what we can be world class at.

What we have done right is to build our software on world-class architecture that will be robust and have the capacity to ingest unlimited amounts of data and accommodate most any new features that our customers request.

What are your thoughts on the local tech startup scene in Fargo?

We host people from all over the world and they are amazed at the innovation and diversity of technologies that have come out of Fargo. There are many reasons for this, but more than anything, success breeds success. When you develop a culture with a “can do” attitude, it is contagious.

Out of Bobcat and Great Plains/Microsoft, you can trace the origin of many successful startups. I don’t know how many businesses have started because of these two companies, but it is clearly a very large number.

Through the work of Michael Chambers and Aldevron, we are seeing a significant footprint in biotechnology that in turn will spawn other related businesses in this space.

One cannot underestimate the work of Greg Tehven and team at Emerging Prairie for providing a hub for “wannabe” entrepreneurs to congregate and learn from each other. Finally, there is a reason that Plug and Play chose Fargo for their center AgTech investment.

What’s your best advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?

Patience and perseverance are so necessary for any startup, and one of the hazards for many entrepreneurs is being very impatient. I think one of the defining ingredients for the entrepreneur to be successful is to be able to quantify the risk in the many important decisions that need to be made.

I learned a very important teaching from Jeff Timmons, who was one of the founders of the discipline of entrepreneurship. At a week-long seminar at the University of California, Berkeley, Jeff Timmons made one thing very clear: “The most important duty of the entrepreneur is to think every day ‘out of cash.’” It is essential to match resources with the pace of development. When a company runs out of cash, it is analogous to a body running out of blood.

 

For more exclusive interviews, see our full Profile of a Founder series

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