A year after learning about export law in his 1L contracts class, Liron Brish ’08 put his new knowledge into practice by starting a guitar case business. “The course taught me the basics of how to work with manufacturers in China, and I was able to close on some large marketing deals,” says Brish. He notes that he was intellectually interested in the law, “but I was most interested in what a legal education could teach me about growing a successful business and being an entrepreneur,” he says.
After NYU Law, Brish continued to launch startups. Not all of his businesses took off—his biggest return from the guitar case business was getting backstage passes to music festivals, he says—but in 2015, he co-founded the agricultural app Farm Dog, which aggregates data important to farming—like information on weather conditions and pest outbreaks—to help farmers make more informed planting and harvesting decisions. In 2020, it was named a top 20 agriculture app by CropLife and as of 2021, it had served 4,000 clients and aggregated data from over 2 million acres. In February 2021, Farm Dog was acquired by Deveron, a publicly traded Canadian agricultural technology company, where Brish now serves as vice president of product and sustainability.
In this Q&A, Brish discusses the importance of trying new ideas, even if they fail, and how lessons learned from earlier startup ideas helped make Farm Dog a success.
How did you first become interested in the agricultural technology space?
Immediately after law school, I took a position with [management consulting firm] McKinsey & Company, in order to get some direct exposure to how businesses run and what their concerns were. I worked there for four years on issues like post-merger management after the 2008 recession and some beginning build-outs for smart phones. My last project there was working with grocery stores around the world who wanted to reduce their food and vegetable waste, and that was really the first time I became interested in the huge importance of agriculture and the many concerns with producing it efficiently.
I left McKinsey to start a financial technology startup that eventually pivoted to being a drone startup. I got to the point where I realized I was spending a lot of time either not earning a salary or earning something that buys you enough to survive, but I was just hitting my head against the wall. I realized that if I was going to make that effort, then I should work on something that’s really important to me, and that’s really what took me into agriculture. There are a variety of things that people can do to make the world better. I chose the agricultural space. I like to get my hands dirty. I enjoy walking around in muddy fields. That’s really how it started.
What lessons have you learned from past startups?
The most important thing that I learned was the importance of working on something with the right team. It’s really important to find a team that is willing to accept the risks to achieve a shared goal.
The second thing is that you have to be comfortable with making mistakes and looking like a fool. Everybody who goes to NYU is smart and is used to being the smartest person in the room. If you’re going to go into the startup world, you have to be perfectly okay with not being the smartest person for a variety of reasons: you may be entering a new industry, you may be working with somebody who’s got 30 more years of experience than you, and you just have to be able to be comfortable with that aspect so you can learn from other people’s expertise in a meaningful way and build out your network.
I actually found some of my initial investors in Farm Dog because they were interested in my drone startup, and they’d invited me to come present some information. I let them know that that company had closed, but described the project I was working on, which was Farm Dog, and that sort of networking led to our first investment.
How does Farm Dog work? What has changed since it was acquired by Deveron?
Farm Dog originally was a completely different company. When we founded it, it was a hardware company for irrigation management, and that version of it was how we raised our initial round of funding. Within about six months, we pivoted to being a software company for pest and disease management because we thought that was a space where we had more power to deliver a more meaningful product. In the most basic sense, Farm Dog acts as a digital journal for farmers to keep track of things like harvest yield and weather data, and we aggregated that data to help farmers make more informed decisions about planting and harvesting, about pest control, and things like that.
From a user perspective, that product led to improved communication and time savings in the field. The data insight stuff was a more challenging. When we were acquired by Deveron, we were able to marry our digital technology with an existing operational platform and team—we now have our own soil laboratory so we can look for specific insights useful to farmers. Together, we provide an accessible labor network to a lot of different stakeholders, including the largest carbon market players out there in the agricultural space.
An important element of my work now is on sustainability. If we want agriculture to play a strong role in countering climate change, which it has the potential to do, the way it works really needs to change.
We are working now to aggregate farm data so that large companies can offset their corporate greenhouse emissions by buying what are called “carbon offsets.” Basically, there are government incentives to reduce or remove greenhouse gases, and farms are places where this can occur, because some kinds of carbon can be buried in the soil.
The issue is that it is expensive to modernize farming practices to produce these offsets and it can be challenging to receive those incentives. Many corporations are also interested in offsetting their emissions by purchasing carbon offsets, but a singular farm produces a carbon offset that is negligible for counterbalancing their large greenhouse emissions. But if we are able to aggregate the offsets of many farms, then it both incentivizes farms to participate in carbon offsetting programs by finding a market for their offsets within these large corporations, and it makes farms a viable offsetting marketplace for large corporations. That’s what I’m working on now.
What advice would you give to students who are interested in the startup space?
I would tell students to start something, no matter what it is. NYU Law teaches you how to think and how to question all aspects of how something functions, and that will serve you well, but it’s also important to try and fail, and try and fail. The only real failure is not learning from a failure. Failing is how you learn, and it’s also how you build the expertise needed to talk to investors convincingly and to meet interesting people who may be investors or partners or help you work out some element of your idea.
When we started Farm Dog, we applied for and received a $900,000 grant in partnership with John Deere, and we were one of the very first startups John Deere had ever worked with. I bring this up because at the time we were a two-person company with an idea, but we were able to, on the merit of that idea, receive almost a million dollars in grant funds.
The point of this is to just try. The worst case scenario is that you fail and can learn something, but in the best case scenario, you succeed.
Posted February 24, 2022.