Dhaka-based agritech startup iFarmer originally started as an Uber for urban farming. After launching the service, iFarmer founders quickly realized that it wouldn’t work. The idea didn’t take long to fail. Six months in, iFarmer pivoted to launching a financial solution for farmers that would set the company on a different trajectory. This has been the case with a long list of today's most successful companies.
Every idea goes through a life cycle and evolves that we often overlook when we are starting. The world of entrepreneurship is littered with examples where the founders originally started with one idea, found out that it wouldn’t work, and evolved into something entirely different. When you take an idea to the market, it must evolve and change.
When we try to start a business or come up with an idea, we usually want to start with a complete/fully formed idea. We want to think through an idea, see ahead, and understand how it will unfold over the years. We make five-year, ten-year plans. We design long-term strategies and plan expansion moves. We try to explain in great detail what will happen after what.
Coming up with something supposedly half-baked or not thought through is often viewed negatively. Investors want to know our thoughts about the long term. Our partners want to know what we exactly want to achieve five years from now.
This need to have a fully formed idea before we can start something makes it difficult to begin and discourages starting anything new. Consequently, we forego plans and give up on ideas, and we remain stuck because nothing happens when we don’t begin. We assume if we start without knowing what will happen down the line, we will be in great uncertainty and danger.
As Poet and writer John O'Donohue writes in his inimitable voice: “Beginnings often frighten us because they seem like lonely voyages into the unknown. Yet, in truth, no beginning is empty or isolated. We seem to think that beginning is setting out from a lonely point along some line of direction into the unknown. This is not the case. Shelter and energy come alive when a beginning is embraced. Goethe says that once the commitment is made, destiny conspires with us to support and realize it. We are never as alone in our beginnings as it might seem at the time. A beginning is ultimately an invitation to open toward the gifts and growth that are stored up for us. To refuse to begin can be an act of great self-neglect.”
We struggle to begin because we demand completeness from us even before beginning so that we don’t feel the weight of uncertainty. The thing we overlook is that no idea begins in completeness. More importantly, no idea survives a first confrontation with reality. Thus, every idea requires evolution. We learn the way as we take the path. We figure out the journey as we go through it. The point is, if you have an idea and if you think your idea needs to mature before you really go and do something with it, you are wrong. Start with whatever you have and wherever you are.
Since this blog is about entrepreneurship, I will offer some examples of how ideas change when you finally take them to the world and execute them.
Pathao, one of the most prominent startups in Bangladesh, originally started as a logistics startup to provide on-demand logistics services to small f-commerce companies as well as B2C customers. In September 2015, we published a report on the launch of Pathao: “A new delivery service platform called Pathao has been launched recently in Dhaka. The service, available via an app, promises same-day delivery of your packages within Dhaka city and also offers tracking options, and ensures verified delivery people for security.” However, the idea didn’t get much traction initially, although Pathao later built an excellent logistics business under its Pathao Courier vertical. Eventually, Pathao pivoted to a new idea — ride-sharing—resulting in one of the first major successes in Bangladesh’s startup scene.
When Patho founders started working on the idea of logistics, it allowed them to see the real market condition and learn from the market feedback. They could see the limitations and opportunities in the market and with the insights from the market, they could evolve and pursue more promising ideas. From How Pathao was created:
“Pathao started as a concept, as a small initiative. We had a secret Facebook group where we asked all our friends if they wanted anything delivered; they could use our service. For us, it was an experiment. It soon evolved from there. While we were doing deliveries with our motorbikes, we thought, can we utilize our bikes in a more efficient way? Would people in Bangladesh like to use a motorcycle as a transportation service or as a ride-sharing option?
This question led to us building another MVP around the idea. Unlike many other countries around the world, such as Vietnam or Indonesia, Bangladesh did not have a motorcycle as a transportation culture. With Pathao, we have helped create that culture. We realized that there was a pent-up demand for a service that would save people time and energy.
At first, we started small. We had only 5 bikes, and everyone would call my personal number, and I would schedule the rides in an Excel sheet. It was a completely manual operation. It was tedious. Everything changed when we launched our app in December 2016. That’s when things kind of blew up, and we ended up changing our entire business model around our app."
The second company I want to talk about is iFarmer. Today, iFarmer is a celebrated agri-tech startup that has successfully built a full-stack agritech business starting from finance to input to access to market to advisory. It is one of the highest-funded agritech players in Bangladesh.
However, iFarmer originally started as an Uber for urban farming. Soon after the initial launch, the founders figured out that Uber for urban farming is unlikely to work for various reasons. So they pivoted to a new model to build a business at the intersection of agriculture, finance, and agriculture supply chain. The company started by connecting farmers with retail investors and after the initial traction in financing, it expanded into agricultural products supply and then input supply chain business. The key point is that the company didn’t start as we see it today. No business does. The iFarmer today is an outcome of years of evolution of an idea that didn’t work in the first place.
“We started iFarmer as a side project in 2018,” says Fahad Ifaz, Founder and CEO of iFarmer. “The first business model was to create an Uber for Urban Farming. We created a platform where people could lease their houses or factory rooftops for farming. We ran the platform for a few months. Tried a few things. After about 6 months of trying, we realized that it is not scalable. There are challenges with getting rooftops in Dhaka city, where more and more people are moving to apartments and it’s difficult to get consensus on how to manage those apartment rooftops.
Then in August 2018, we pivoted to our current model. This was largely motivated by my 10 years of experience working at the Bottom of the Pyramid, particularly with the farmers and other agriculture value chain actors.”
The world of entrepreneurship and every creative field is littered with similar stories where the founders originally started with one idea, found out that it wouldn’t work, and evolved into something entirely different. Companies such as ShopUp started as a completely different thing than what it is today.
Even the ideas that succeed never remain the same. When you take an idea to the market, it must evolve and change. You start with an MVP, get feedback from users, and improve on it. Sometimes customers can ask for an entirely different product and you do that. That is the trajectory of every successful idea.
The takeaways: What are the takeaways from these stories?
1. Don’t wait for a perfect and fully formed idea. Start wherever you are. One important takeaway is that waiting for your idea to mature before launching it to the market is almost always a mistake. In most instances, no idea will survive contact with reality, it will change and evolve. If that is the case, isn't it the best idea to start immediately so that you can learn from the market and evolve instead of waiting for the right time and the right idea because there is none?
2. Be flexible and open to learn. When we come up with an idea, we naturally feel attached to it. Consequently, we sometimes tend to ignore the signals and feedback from the market and operate with the pollyannaish idea that we’ll eventually make it. The tendency to ignore market feedback and doggedly keep moving ahead causes more startup failures than any other reason. You can pursue an idea that has little chance of finding product-market-fit to a certain scale but it will eventually break if you try to build a sustainable business at scale. That’s why people like Paul Graham put such a high importance on traits like flexibility where founders are willing to listen to feedback and evolve when necessary. When the market says your idea is not working, your job is to listen.
3. The idea that people are waiting to copy your idea is bogus. Many startup founders show an unfounded conservatism when it comes to sharing their ideas. Others tend to openly suggest that they fear that if they share their ideas other people will copy/steal their ideas. If you understand the trajectory of an idea, you should never worry about other people stealing your ideas.
Start early, start unprepared. The main focus of every founder should be to go to market as early as possible, collect and learn from the feedback as much as possible, and evolve their business accordingly. Whether your idea is of high quality or not should never bother you. At the end of the day, every idea follows its own trajectory, and what makes all the difference is your ability to learn and evolve using the market feedback.