1/ The upside of good ideas are endless. However, good ideas are often rare and hard to come by. A lack of effective manual makes the task even more harder. There is no shortcut to finding good ideas. Neither is there a standard process. We all land on our own version of good ideas through trial and errors. However, there are certain characteristics that allow for good ideas. Good ideas are often raw and authentic. You don’t manufacture good ideas, they dawn on you. Most good ideas don’t sound like good ideas in the beginning. You often get them through a not so conscious process.
2/ One shortcut many entrepreneurs and experts in venture building offer when it comes to finding ideas is looking for problems in your own life. Humans are not known for compassion and empathy. We are bad at understanding others. Hence when we are trying to address problems other people have, we miss important details. Compared to that, we are relatively better at understanding our own challenges. Hence it is a far superior strategy to identify our own problems and try to find a solution for them.
3/ The expectation is that there are a lot of people who are like us and have the same challenges. Hence if we can sufficiently empathize we can identify a problem and thus a solution that a lot of people will find relevant.
4/ This is where the story of Neofarmers, an online safe food retailer, comes in. The company was originally founded to address a personal challenge the founder was facing - accessing safe food in Dhaka. The idea triggered a collaboration between a few friends and eventually gave birth to a venture that has found relevance with a large number of like-minded people.
In an interview with Future Startup, Neofarmers co-founder and managing director Tamzid Siddiq Spondon shares how the idea of Neofarmers came -
“The origin of Neofarmers lies in an intimate personal experience and need. We all eat food – we can’t survive without food. While complaints regarding the state of food safety in Bangladesh have always been there, I never took them seriously until I had kids. When my two kids came along, I started paying greater attention to what they’re eating – quality, safety standard, and other aspects of food. It became a constant concern. That concern, you may say, was the first inspiration to start Neofarmers. I wanted to ensure safe and healthy food for my kids. But when I started to explore the options, I came to see that the options for safe food remain limited in the market. That’s when I first came across the idea of creating a safe food brand.”
Mr. Spondon then shared the idea with a few of his friends and business partners who immediately identified with the problem. In a way, that was the first sign of a greater market need and validation that there is demand for safe food in the market.
Once you have an idea, the natural next step is sharing the idea with your potential team and partners. If you partners, not being influenced by you but by the virtue of the idea, identify with the same challenge you have, it means you have initial validation of your idea.
“I shared the idea with my friends and they immediately identified with the challenge. Everyone felt the need and wanted to be a part of it. We discussed the idea, how we may address the challenge and eventually agreed to do something in the sector. We did not think of a business venture per se. We wanted to make it happen for our kids and loved ones. We had land where we used to do small scale farming purely for our household consumption. We thought that we might use it for the purpose of the project.
But then we realized that if we only do it on our land, it would not be scalable, which means, we are thinking only about our kids and our families and not about people around us such as our colleagues – we have some 200 people in 5 of our offices who will be left out if we only do it for ourselves.
That’s when we thought let’s do it in a more formal and scalable way. We probably will need a small team, a little bit of investment and will probably have to run it as a business, but it would be far more meaningful an endeavor.”
Even before launching Neofarmers, Mr. Spondon and his team made some important strategic decisions that dictate the strategic direction of the company even these days. For example, Neofarmers did not want to be a mass market brand from the day one. Neofarmers is a brand for people who care about food safety. As a result, for now at least, Neofarmers does not cater to everyone in the market rather to a niche group who identify with the challenge that Mr. Sponsodon and his team originally wanted to solve.
1/ “As a strategy, to begin with, we decided to run it as a business but not a pure mass-market consumer product where you aim to sell it to as many people as possible. We rather decided to do it in a boutique kind of way at first and then gradually scale without compromising on the vision we have started with. We also decided to work with producers and growers across the country instead of doing it all ourselves.
We realized that there is a mismatch in the market. While farmers and growers produce high-quality crops and food products, often they don’t get a good price for their extra investments. Which means often they don’t try to produce high-quality safe products because they have zero incentives to do so. If they could get a good price, they are likely to produce more of the same products. If we could bring and sell these products as premium products, it means they get a good price and hence become more encouraged to produce more of the good products.
All these thoughts culminated in the idea that we would build a brand that will collect all the pure products from across the country and bring them to people who want to buy these products but don’t know where to find them. In short, that is the main idea behind Neofarmers.”
2/ “The second important distinction we wanted to bring to the brand is that we would not sell great products alone, we would sell stories. In fact, we wanted to put no less importance on stories than the products.
In a regular world, foods that we eat elicit little emotion in us. If you look at a product such as rice, oil, peanut butter, there is little to be emotional about these products outside of the fact that they are edible items and taste good or bad. You buy, cook, and eventually eat. If you ask my son, he would say that okay we buy these products and eat them. That’s all.
If you pay closer attention, these foods are more than mere edible items. These foods have stories attached to them. Someone has put in blood and sweat in producing these products. There were struggles and pleasant memories attached to each of these staples. When we don’t know these stories, it does not matter, but when we finally come to know them, it changes everything. When we come to know these stories, our outlook on these products and producers changes. We start to view these products differently. We take them more seriously and intimately. We begin to respect the humans behind them. For example, we bring bini-halud (a variety of local turmeric) from Bandarban. Local indigenous people grow these turmerics in a unique environment in one of the remotest places in Bangladesh. When we bring these products to our factory, we don’t bring the only turmeric, we bring stories and memories as well. When we process them, we process the stories as well. When we tell these stories to people, it becomes interesting. People become intrigued. When consuming these products, they find emotion in them. It elicits a deeper feeling inside ourselves.
From the beginning, we started to focus on this area – stories behind each of our products. Gradually, we begin to put the information and stories of growers on the packet. For example, we tell you that the coconut oil that you are using is produced by Rahima Banu of Khulna and this is her story.”
3/ “We are trying to package the stories. We are not trying to sell the products alone, we are trying to sell the stories. That’s the second important idea. When you are selling a high-quality product, your stories become equally important.”
4/ “After much thought and preparation, we started working with a small number of products between 2017-2018. We officially launched our digital operation in November 2018.”
5/ “We have experienced steady growth. In the last 14 months, we have served over 13,000 customers, which we think is a really good number. It also indicates that there is a huge demand in the market.”
6/ “We have put a lot of thought into packaging and branding and designs. Apart from aesthetics, we have made a conscious effort to keep packaging plastic-free and environment friendly. I would not say we have been able to do it 100% but we have succeeded to a large extent. We mostly use reusable eco-friendly packaging materials for packaging such as paper, glass jar and so on. Reusable packaging has been of particular attention to us. So far we have been able to do reusable packaging for 35% of products. Our goal is to gradually grow this percentage.”
7/ “We currently have about 84 products. We use glass bottles or paper packaging for all the products. We have some plastics packaging where products are of low-cost nature. Since glass bottles are expensive, we can’t use glass bottles for these products. However, we are looking to find options within low-cost packaging for these products that are environmentally friendly. We are considering some biodegradable plastics packaging options such as plastics made out of jute and potato, etc. Our packaging policy is either reusable packaging or biodegradable packaging.”
8/ “We are not calling ourselves organic because there is no certification for organic in Bangladesh. The definition of organic is different. Organic has a lot of conditions that are hard to meet. It is almost impossible to meet these conditions in many areas in Bangladesh. So our focus has not been there.
We are calling ourselves safe food. Our tagline is naturally grown, honestly packed. It is not enough to grow the produce naturally, how your process is important, the packaging is important. For example, you have collected really good quality organic Ghee but you processed and packaged in an unhygienic way, it is not going to do any good. We pay equal attention to all these areas.
We have made it a priority to put enough importance on ensuring a great processing standard. We don’t have a big factory. We don’t have a large setup for manufacturing. We have a small setup. We put a lot of importance on natural processing and everything is handmade.”
Neofarmers, being an online grocery retailer, is one of the few companies that has gained from coronavirus pandemic lockdown induced rise of ecommerce in Dhaka. The company which offers a limited number of high quality grocery items told FS that the company saw significant growth in orders.
Go deeper: The Story of Neofarmers: An Interview With Tamzid Siddiq Spondon, Managing Director, Neofarmers