We hosted FS Talk February on the 25th of last month. The event featured a fascinating talk by the Co-founder and CEO of iFarmer Fahad Ifaz that covers some of the most important aspects of building companies across verticals — focus on the basics, do things that don’t scale, start with some domain knowledge, focus on one thing at a time, and prioritize building an excellent team.
Fahad has an excellent entrepreneurial track record. He started his first company—a printing services company when he was an undergraduate student at North South University. The business did well but didn’t survive past graduation owing to social, family, and peer pressures.
After graduation, Fahad worked in economic development with organizations like the World Bank, CARE International, Swisscontact, and Palladium in a number of countries. The ten years he spent working in a number of development organizations mostly focused on agriculture and agriculture market development.
This experience and his passion for building something eventually culminated in iFarmer,
Speaking at the 4th FS Talk held virtually on 25th February 2023, Fahad shared his journey, the journey of iFarmer, how the company has evolved over the years, the challenges the company faced in the early days, and mistakes he and his team made in the early days and reflected on the lessons from his journey so far.
The invite-only talk was attended by a small group of founders and business and tech professionals.
Here are four key takeaways from the talk:
I. Work hard to build a great team: Throughout the talk, Fahad extensively talked about the importance of building a great team and how to do it effectively.
Building a good team is the most important task of a founder. Companies are about people. Without gathering a great team, it is almost impossible to build a great company.
Fahad said it is useful to look for people who complement your skill set but it is also important to hire people who fit well in your culture.
II. Domain knowledge is critical: Founders should start companies in industries where they have good enough domain knowledge. Fahad acknowledged the fact that one might not have expert-level domain knowledge in a vertical where he wants to start but it is useful to spend some time learning about the industry and the business.
He said domain knowledge of founders is one of the few things that could make a difference in the life of a venture. But it doesn’t mean that you need to be an expert in order to start a company.
Expertise will certainly be useful but the point is it is useful to start in an industry about which you have some understanding. You understand how the industry functions. You know who the major players are. You understand the challenges and the opportunities in the industry and so on.
Now, this doesn’t mean you must not start in an industry you have little knowledge about. You can start in an industry where you might don’t have expertise. But you should actively work hard to overcome your lackings. You should study the industry and develop an understanding of it. You can find co-founders and early hires who understand the sector and so on.
Fahad shared a story of his co-founder Jamil Akbar, who comes from an engineering background and had little understanding of how the agriculture value chain works when they started iFarmer. To develop an understanding of how the agriculture value chain works, Jamil spent many nights in Kawaran Bazar (a commercial hub for agriculture products in Dhaka), observing and speaking with traders and farmers and taking notes.
The takeaway, if you don’t have enough knowledge about your vertical, you should go to great lengths to understand it.
III. Focus on one thing at a time: Early-stage companies are hard. When we face something difficult, we have a tendency to escape the scene/feeling/situation. This is no different for organizations. Because organizations are also run by humans.
Many early-stage companies tend to go all different directions after a while of starting out. They find out that the problem they are trying to solve is hard and it will take time to build it.
Unfortunately, the grass on the other side of the river is always greener. So when you find one product hard to grow, you assume probably something else will be easier to do. This leads to multiple pursuits in early-stage companies, which can be detrimental.
Fahad argued that early-stage founders should focus on one thing, build it out, and then move on to the next thing.
I can’t agree more. While there are nuances to this idea, distractions kill startups like nothing. Doing more than one thing is often a distraction. It is useful to be judicious when it comes to making decisions that involve expansion or diversification in the early days of a company.
IV. Build as you go — do things that don’t scale: Referring to the famous essay of Paul Graham, Fahad said founders should start small and be relatively unprepared.
He shared about the early days of iFarmer when the company did almost everything manually. The first investments iFarmer made into a number of farmers came from friends and family. The entire process was managed manually. Once the experiment went well, iFarmer went on to build out its agriculture financing business. It initially worked with retail/individual investors and now works with both institutions/banks and individual investors. This has been the case for iFarmer across its all business verticals.
Start small, start scrappy, test the market, and build out as you go.
The talk was full of actionable insights and inspiration for founders and professionals alike. We plan to release a video version of the discussion in the coming weeks. Keep an eye on the FS website.
iFarmer started its operations in 2019 with one product — agriculture financing. Over the past years, the company has evolved into a full-stack agriculture platform that provides services to farmers, agri-input retailers, and buyers of agri-produce.
The company facilitates retail and institutional funders to finance the farmers, enables access to high-quality agriculture inputs through partnerships with agriculture input companies and retailers, and creates market access for the farmers by aggregating products from the farmers and selling them to institutional buyers, retailers, and wholesale markets.
We have covered iFarmer extensively, you can read our iFarmer collection here.
FS Talk, a monthly event series from Future Startup, is a small, friendly gathering of entrepreneurs, change-makers, doers, and artists from a wide range of backgrounds. People come together to talk about all things entrepreneurship, building things, trials, and tribulations of entrepreneurial journeys, and meet each other and share ideas and opportunities. Future Startup relaunched the talk series in 2022 with an ambition to build a community to promote and enable entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial thinking.
The talk takes place virtually on the last Saturday of every month. FS Talk January was the 3rd event of the series. To stay updated on our upcoming events, join our email list here.