Recently, I attended the AgTech Innovation Summit in San Francisco. That sentence alone would not be very exceptional by itself, but when you consider that if you would have told me this a mere five months previously, I would have said that would be preposterous. Laughable. I'm a city boy, making logos for hip, cool companies, what would I know about agriculture technology? A big ol' LOL right there. Throw in an eyeroll emoji for good measure.
It would help to share that as a newly minted, former-freelancer-now-Ima-small-business owner, I followed the common paradigm of taking on all clients from all industries, being a disingenuous, short-term "expert" with whatever identity project that landed in my lap. A CEO's gotta have this thing called revenue right?
A little background
Many creative contemporaries, who have left corporate worlds to make side hustles business realities, had been introducing me to the idea of "niching down" and specializing. Just pick a previous client or project I enjoyed and do that. Forever. How do I pick just one? I enjoyed every unique project I did. That's what was appealing, I could work with so many different industries, without the dull redundancy. I was a 'generalist'. Besides, if I choose just one area, I'd be leaving money on the proverbial table. I'd have to say no to projects outside of my area of specialty.
Rewind five months. I met a guy named Pedro at a volunteering event and when he heard what I did, he said his small company could use a creative someone like me. Just another project, a new industry, I'll figure it out, why not? Can't turn down work, bring it on! Then he said something about farming. While my body language was performing a polite "aw, that's interesting" line dance, my brain was howling, "agriculture and farming? Ha, no way!" Hit the road, buddy. Nice knowin' ya.
Being a non-expert made me a superficial jack-of-all-trades. My business would be competing against every other designer doing everything for everybody. But, they said, it could not be sustainable, and definitely would not give me authority in any one area. Being an expert in just one area naturally cut down my competition exponentially. All things being equal, who would a passionate Thingamajigs client feel more comfortable working with: a designer who designed for just anybody, or a designer who was an expert in Thingamajigs?
Crops and cows are cool!
Time, the right people and unsatisfying projects made me take another listen, and I finally understood, that the best thing for me and my business was to, indeed, specialize. Microbreweries? Educational? Interior decorators? Healthcare providers? Attorneys? Lo and behold, the unexpected answer was literally next door to me for 20 years. My neighbor and friend Ben is a fourth-generation Kansan farmer, who has embraced the optimism of technology as an ag consultant. Also, there couldn't be THAT many designers focused in AgTech and this space is booming and literally the single most important industry in the world. Food safety. Reducing costs. Robotics and drones. Carbon sequestration. Inputs. Soil and water monitoring, fertilizer and poop (oh my!). Things we all take for granted when we go to the grocery store. There's a lot that happens on the farm before it gets to your fork. I've always cared about what foods I give my family and myself, but did I really know what goes on behind the curtain?
Ben enlightened me with some great insight, and it turns out there are silos full of things to care about. And after a few coffees with Ben, I had a new outlook on what is important to me, how I can use my God-given talents to help steward this home of ours and focus on helping the innovative companies who help the farmers and ranchers reduce costs, and address agricultural pain points. I now have a brand shiny new niche I can legitimately call my own.
Five months earlier, I cringed when I heard "agriculture" because I cynically profiled that industry and my ignorance scared me. Now, I'm an all-in advocate for the heroic technologies that help the environment and a desire to bring awareness (and aesthetics) to AgTech. Greens and browns are my new favorite colors. Crops and cows are cool. I needed guidance and some industry training wheels, and Ben has become a mentor or sorts.
Throwing myself into the fire
Once I made my new niche public in my social media posts, (that's a commitment, nothing dies on social media) updated my business's branding, printed new business cards, (and created digital cards with an app) and overhauled my website to begin the makeover of my new specialized journey, doors started opening. People knew people in farming. Heck, even I knew farmers. I had a purpose, focus and direction for my outreach. I began to study the terminology of AgTech, learning about venture capital funding, and subscribed to many email newsletters. Ben gave me a folder full of articles and tear sheets from the last 10 years and I learned how everything has progressed and grown with a historical lens. And he suggested I go big time and attend an AgTech Innovation Summit in San Francisco. I jumped at the chance and leapt into the deep end, and didn't just stick my toe in. I now invested in my business, put some money where my mouth was and became an official playa participant in the industry. I'd be taking my talents to the farmland.
I signed up to attend, bought airline tickets and reserved a hotel room. I even made some ballsy t-shirts to blast my presence to the world. HERE I AM. I have arrived. I joined several online networking communities as part of the summit. Through this early networking, I had 3 meetings set up before it even started! This was crazy! I studied the speakers, the sponsors and finally it was time. I became a part of something.
And since honesty is the best policy, I needed my new tribe to understand that I while I had an authority with design and branding and strategy, I was new to this whole ag and farming and animal thing. I was going to soak up the knowledge, and meet people and interact and immerse. Get baptised so to speak, while drinking from a fire hose. All these real experts were so nice. They welcomed me in to their barn and answered my questions at roundtables and one on ones and networking breaks. And got lots of eyeballs on my shirts.
I had a real focus now, and did not feel like an imposter. In fact, after one of the roundtable discussions, the leader of our table (from Denmark) came up to me later and appreciated my candor by asking some hard questions as a consumer, that she and others really didn't take into consideration because they are so close to it. I became memorable on a different level because I allowed myself to be vulnerable and transparent. Many conversations led to connections.
Remember Pedro, whom I met while volunteering months before? I saw him at this summit, and boy, did we have a lot of catching up to do. I humbly pleaded my mea culpa and I really got to know him and listened with new ears.
Networking and outreaching with a new focus gives you authority. I genuinely know about farming Thingamajigs for real now and not a multi-enterprise, short-term know-it-all pretender. I can now be the go-to authority for AgTech storytelling.
It's my nature to love and keep learning all the time. My eyes have been opened to a once-personally-obscure industry I can devote some practical time to. To say I was stretching my comfort zone is a gross understatement. Now, I can concentrate my outreach to a concentrated industry and not bounce all over the place, while getting to know the real movers and shakers in AgTech. My desire to spread awareness about conservation and smartly using the earth's resources and be passionate about the work I do, as well as the life I live, is a tremendous life-changer.
I also learned that, not once, has stepping outside my comfort zone caused me harm or embarrassment or regret. In fact, by doing so, I've pushed these uncomfortable boundaries out even more, giving me more room to explore even more zones. The more I nurture these new connections, the more I begin to own my authority in a space that was once so foreign and unlikely.