This Co-Founder Plants Roots at Colleges, Inspiring Students to Become Farmers

Freight Farms has learned that it has to give its customers the knowledge to succeed without too much individual handholding.
This Co-Founder Plants Roots at Colleges, Inspiring Students to Become Farmers
Image credit: Freight Farms

Jon Friedman and Brad McNamara decided to co-found a company in 2010 with the goal of making locally grown food a commercially viable and environmentally sustainable option year-round.

While rooftop gardens and greenhouses aren’t immune to high levels of snow and wind, shipping containers are designed to withstand all manner of elements. Friedman and McNamara named their company Freight Farms and started recycling old freight units into hydroponic “Leafy Green Machines” and selling them to wannabe farmers.

They built a standardized system to lower barriers to entry -- time, money, know-how -- for anyone interested in producing food. Friedman admits he didn’t have a “preexisting greenthumb condition” before launching Freight Farms, and he doesn’t expect his hires or customers to, either.

Related: How This Online Secondhand Store Facilitates Charitable Donations

Yet, education is a major focus for the company. In 2015, New York’s Stony Brook University became the first college campus to use the Leafy Green Machine to supply its dining operations. The company has partnered with five additional higher-ed institutions since.

“The schools that we work with have greatest opportunity to make a long-term impact, in our mind,” says Friedman, who is also the president of Freight Farms. “People who are about to go out into the world are having a high-touch experience with fresh food and potentially seeing agriculture as an opportunity, rather than something that they never encounter in their lives.”

The tough part is when those students leave campus for the summer. Initially, Freight Farms would take over, but the company has since realized that when partnering with universities, it has to make sure someone will take charge when school’s out.

Friedman told Entrepreneur why it’s important not to channel a disproportionate amount of effort into any one customer’s specific needs in order to scale sustainably.

This conversation has been edited.

What have you learned about growth while doing good?
In the university space, you have facilities, you have the students, you have the dining services, you have the university itself. With a customer like that, you want to make sure that you’ve identified, ‘Who’s going to be the champion here?’ ‘Who’s going to keep it going over the summer?’ When you’re trying to do good, you need your customers to help you in that effort. It’s not just all on you.

Early on, I think we took for granted how much the customer was the end-all, be-all of what we were trying to do. We thought we were the thing that was going to help the food system, but it’s really our customers who are the pioneers in this space.

What have you learned about culture while doing good?
When we started, it was a little bit more manageable to be in the field, because we were bringing on maybe one customer a month. Now, we’re pushing about 20 new customers a month. We’ve started to form accelerator-like classes called “Farm Camp” where you’re going to be with four other farmers from around the world -- and they stick together afterwards. In our community, we see them feel like they were a class that onboarded this new part of their lives together. It’s like when you introduce your two friends to each other, and they end up being better friends than either of them were with you. We’re trying to find new ways to celebrate that as we scale and trying to not to lose that camaraderie that we’ve built with our farmers.

Related: How a Failed Experiment in the Name of Eco-Friendliness Taught This Company About Its Most Important Asset

What advice do you have for other businesses looking to do good?
You can get distracted very easily by your initial customers. You can focus on a problem that’s not really a problem, it’s a unique instance, because you don’t have a lot of reference points. As we mature in our product and our company, we realize that different segment channels have different uses for our product and different needs. So when you’re starting off, I would say it’s not all about the customers, it’s about getting it right about what you can bring to the table. Focus on building a product and a service where multiple stakeholders succeed if you succeed.

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