Tell us about yourself?
My background is business and startups. I’m from Germany and live in London with my wife and 3 incredibly lively little boys. I’ve gotten increasingly interested in agriculture since my in-laws took over a cattle farm in Portugal several years ago. Muddy Machines is my second startup.
What lessons has being an entrepreneur taught you?
It is a marathon, not a sprint. The company you build is a reflection of how you feel about yourself and the business idea. Culture building is incredibly hard but is the thing that makes your company thrive after the initial hype is gone. Time and attention are your most valuable resource.
If you could go back in time to when you first started your business, what piece of advice would you give yourself?
Hire even more slowly, you can only pick your first employee once. This applies more to my first startup rather than Muddy Machines.
A lot of entrepreneurs find it difficult to balance their work and personal lives. How have you found that?
Accept that you cannot get all todos done/solve all of todays problem today. Make appointments with yourself for ‘non business’ time.
Having a family has forced me to do this. There are so many events, especially on the weekend that are non-negotiable. I find that this makes me focus better in the hours I do have available to spend on the business.
Of course there will be times where you need to work long hours. But your business mustn’t be relying on you working around the clock constantly. That is not sustainable.
Give us a bit of an insight into the influences behind the company?
Muddy Machines is an AgTech Robotics company. We build robots that can take over processes in farming (like harvesting and weeding) that are today still done entirely by hand. Chris and I shared the vision that there is lots of new technology that agriculture is not yet adopting.
We also agreed that agriculture is an incredibly exciting sector that has gone largely unnoticed by the startup community. When we spoke to farmers we quickly understood that labour is a massive pain point in the fruit and vegetable sector. Labour is 50 to 60 % of total production cost.
There are simply not enough workers available that are willing to do the strenuous seasonal harvest work. Because Chris is a full-stack robotics engineer with some experience in building robots in outdoor environments, we felt that this is a problem that we had a very good chance to solve.
What do you think is your magic sauce? What sets you apart from the competitors?
I think we can claim to be one of the fastest companies in the world in terms of development speed. It took us less than 6 months to put our first working prototype into the field and we are gearing up for commercial operations in our 3rd year.
This sounds super slow compared to an e-commerce or software business, but is actually lightening fast for robotics. We achieve this by having a very clear focus (our first product is an asparagus harvester mounted on our own robotic platform) and close collaboration with growers.
How have you found sales so far? Do you have any lessons you could pass on to other founders in the same market as you just starting out?
In robotics and agtech, you have to overcome a big initial credibility gap. Farmers will say: “Sure I would use a robot for harvesting my crops instead of people who are expensive and very complex to deal with.
But how do I know that YOU can build such a robot and that it actually works?” Be humble, listen to your customers and build build build.
The reception we got from growers once we were able to show, even very rudimentary, hardware was transformational. In this industry, you need to earn your respect and look after it carefully by not overpromising.
What is the biggest challenge you have faced so far in your business, and how did you overcome it?
Funding. Hardware is a very unappealing business for VCs to invest in. Or at least it has been perceived as such so far. High up front costs, limited scale potential and no ‘expertise’ on the investor side. This is especially true once you add agriculture to the mix.
We’ve overcome this with hard graft and grant applications. We’ve so far won nearly £2.5m in funding from Innovate UK and DEFRA over 4 different grant projects in collaboration with major UK growers.
The progress we were able to make with these funds have reduced the risk profile of Muddy Machines from an investors perspective and we managed to raise our seed round in August of this year.
What do you find are the advantages of operating your business in London?
London gives you access to incredible talent, business infrastructure and investors. You can meet pretty much everyone here and there are always relevant events or conferences that you can access with a short tube ride. Also the international transport links are a big plus.
Are there any issues with having a London based business? Have you experienced these?
All of the advantages come at a price. Everyone wants to be here there are very few bargains you can strike. Also, getting out of London to travel to any of our test farms is a bit time consuming.
But we made a conscious decision at the very beginning that we need to be where the good people are and then figure out how to get them onto the farms.
Locating ourselves in the countryside would have made it much harder for us to attract the right talent.
How has the higher than UK average cost of living impacted your ability to work and live in London and how has this also impacted your ability as an employer?
There is a reason why we are in Hillingdon and not in Soho. We need to be very frugal and know we cannot outspend the hot media or last mile e-commerce startups from Central London for salaries.
We need to make it clear that we offer people a chance to make the world a better, more sustainable place by solving the labour issues in farming, and not just a salary.
So far we have managed to attract some incredible engineers with that approach.
If you had to relocate your business to another city in the UK, which one would it be and why?
Potentially Oxford or Reading to get a little bit out of the immediate hot-zone of London while still being able to dip in for meetings and conferences. But we really don’t plan to make any chances here.
How has BREXIT impacted your business (if at all)?
Brexit has added decisively to labour supply issues in farming. This has supercharged the demand for farm robots.
Farmers are staring into the abyss. The availability of innovation grant funding for UK businesses as a result has improved (no more EU competition) and really helped us progress.
We need to import quite a bit of hardware from outside of the UK and lead times have increased a lot (not only due to Covid in China) and dealing with customs is a lot more complex than it used to be.
So overall I would say that we are benefiting from Brexit or at least we have managed to setup the business that way. BUT, an entire vital national industry (farming) is worse off.
What is your vision for your company in the next 5 years?
We are working hard to scale up our first harvest as a service product (green asparagus) and are looking to expand into other labour intensive crops. In 5 years time we aim to have started our operations abroad and transform the way that vegetables are grown with a firm eye on sustainability.
And finally, if people want to get involved and learn more about your business, how should they do that?
Email [email protected]