“Create Something You Would Use.” With Mitch Russo & Rob Reiner

We need to start supporting our local economies so that our own cities can flourish, and shopping local foods is a start. The amount of dependence we have on corporate farms and chains should be something we get past, and now we can with Cropswap. Our local growers are obsessed with making sure you get […]

Thrive invites voices from many spheres to share their perspectives on our Community platform. Community stories are not commissioned by our editorial team, and opinions expressed by Community contributors do not reflect the opinions of Thrive or its employees. More information on our Community guidelines is available here.

We need to start supporting our local economies so that our own cities can flourish, and shopping local foods is a start. The amount of dependence we have on corporate farms and chains should be something we get past, and now we can with Cropswap. Our local growers are obsessed with making sure you get the best food. We’re here already, the technology exists, and we can do better as a society in supporting our local food economies.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Roberto (“Rob”) Reiner the Founder and CEO of CropSwap.

CropSwap a farm-to-phone app that connects consumers with the best farmers and growers in their communities to purchase fresh produce.

With extensive experience in the app development space, Rob has been at the forefront of launching and designing mobile and web app startups for the past 10 years. While in school at the University of Houston, he began working on the mobile development team at PROS Pricing and quickly moved up to become Product Manager for the company’s SalesForce application, which he helped launch at DreamForce in 2012. Later that year, Rob transferred to PACE University in New York City and soon after decided to move to Los Angeles in pursuit of a career in the startup world.

After arriving in Los Angeles, Rob met and became friends with CropSwap co-founder Daniel (“Dan”) McCollister. They saw a need to make locally-grown food readily available to consumers after noticing a trend in neighbors and friends growing produce of their own. In 2017, the pair set out to create an app to cater to this market, and launched CropSwap by successfully fundraising $28,000 through friends and family. The app has since grown to 25,000 users across 29 different countries.

Thank you for joining us Rob. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

Igot involved with start-ups while I was a computer science major at the University of Houston when mobile app development was on everyone’s mind. Being a first generation, American, I was lucky enough to also speak Spanish fluently and found an internship at a software company where I got to manage an out-sourced development team based out of Bolivia. I became friends with many of the engineers and decided to self-fund a small mobile app development company to manage myself. I then received a scholarship from Pace University in Manhattan where I pursued a degree in entrepreneurship while also securing a few internships at other software factories in Silicon Valley. The booming app market in California brought me to Los Angeles in 2014, and my Bolivia-based software factory continued to grow as we started designing apps for a range of clients from small start-ups to established organizations. As my team expanded, we began working on concepts in the health, wellness and eco-conscious spaces that we thought had potential to better the world. This led me to gardener Daniel McCollister in 2017. Dan was an encyclopedia of “growing your own food” who sold produce from his own urban garden in Woodland Hills, CA. Together, we combined our expertise and set out to build an app that encompassed the entire economy of local produce and sought to change the industrial food system as we know it.

What was the “Aha Moment” that led you to think of the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?

Seeing that no solutions existed in the market other than Craigslist, we first thought that we were the only ones who wanted a one-stop platform tailored to local users where people can buy and sell local produce. The more we spoke with our neighbors and growers in the community, the more we believed that our concept had serious potential. At first, we didn’t have a revenue model because we didn’t even know if this would work, so we decided to test our idea on Kickstarter and see if the public would give us a chance. We successfully raised $28,000, which was just enough to put out the first version of Cropswap that was tailored to farmers and the growing community. Through this process, we gained the confidence to push forward because we saw so much interest in local, clean, more nutritious, better for our earth food.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

Dan and I still held other jobs on the side while Cropswap was in its early stages. We burned through the Kickstarter capital and we were still receiving requests from users who wanted new features. We decided to put our own money behind the improvements that were being asked of us. Convinced we would find a revenue model, we kept growing the community and continued to self-fund the development, which helped grow the app to 25,000 users in 29 different countries. We still weren’t reaching the general public and didn’t get the explosive feedback we expected. In the meantime, it was hard not to focus on other higher-paying projects. While the hours spent on Cropswap decreased, we kept going because when you’re working on something that you’re really passionate about, giving up isn’t an option. Dan and I launched our last version together in 2018 and we both decided to take a step back in early 2019 — Dan chose to travel, and I was working full-time on other app start-ups.

After giving it some more thought, I realized that the biggest gap between local growers and consumers is that consumers don’t think local growers can meet their demands, and local growers don’t think consumers are interested in their produce. I discovered that this could be solved with a subscription model holding growers to specific deliveries on a monthly or weekly basis so consumers could see reliability in the local market.

I called Dan to talk through my idea, however he made the decision to pivot into a political career and stepped down as CEO in October 2019. What fueled my desire to continue developing Cropswap was that I wanted to create the capability to easily access my local kale guy, herbal specialist and other local growers. I believed in this new model, so I took over as the CEO and majority holder of Cropswap in November 2019 and self-funded a new team that rebuilt Cropswap from scratch. We launched the latest version and started fresh in March of this year.

So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?

Today, Cropswap couldn’t be more needed. We’ve seen grocery stores with empty shelves, and farmers losing their entire markets due to government mandated closures. Dan and I always believed in making local produce accessible to consumers worldwide and providing farmers and growers of all sizes with the tools necessary to be in control of their own sales. The conversations we are having today with our grower community is to make sure something like COVID-19 never impacts their sales again.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

A rookie mistake we made in the beginning was branding ourselves to be a hippy, farmer, “eat like your grandma did”-type company. It didn’t sit well with people outside of our community and led people to view us like we were going back in time, instead of being forward-thinking.

We have since pivoted our messaging tremendously and are now being branded as a technology company bridging the gap between consumers and growers. We want to show that consumers can purchase a product from likeminded growers who are using clean, modern methods to grow the most nutritious foods.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

A company that stands out is one that is inventing a more efficient future for humanity, and I believe Cropswap fits that pre-requisite. There are very few companies today who share the same ethos we do and are willing to stand by their principles over money. We have declined investment offers from people or groups who also have capital tied-up with corporations that contradict our views.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Pick something you are really passionate about, and make sure it’s extremely challenging. The passion part will get you through most of the downs and the challenging part keeps you interested at all times. If you’re an entrepreneur, you also don’t have to limit yourself to one project. I have used features from launching other projects that we implemented to Cropswap and vice versa to see what other industries can be disrupted — this process assures that your work will never go to waste.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

I am extremely grateful for my co-founder, Dan. Without him, the app would not be where it is today, and I also wouldn’t have seen with my own eyes how much food can come from such a small space. Dan and I sat for hours at a coffee shop in Los Angeles discussing different things gardeners and farmers would want and need, so that I could translate those needs into the app. He really helped me understand the community around local food and pushed Cropswap into existence.

Approximately how many users or subscribers does your app or software currently have? Can you share with our readers three of the main steps you’ve taken to build such a large community?

When we re-launched in March, we had to reset our users. Since then, we have onboarded more than 1,000 farmers and growers and have over 500 different products available in more than 15 countries. We have over 10,000 users globally, and are growing everyday to connect more consumers with their local food economy.

  1. Determined Our Audience
    One of the first steps that Dan and I took when we set out to build Cropswap was that we determined who we were building the app for and why. We wanted to make it easier for the everyday consumer to buy produce from local growers, so we knew exactly who our audience was going to be.
  2. Developed Relationships
    Before we even began the development process, we determined it was necessary to build strong relationships with local growers, farmers, agricultural organizations and farmers markets so that they could be our beta testers. This allowed us to have an open dialogue with them and determine what our app needed to be successful.
  3. Listened to Our Community
    Throughout Cropswap’s development and growth, we were consistently open to our community giving us feedback, and we listended. They saw us pivot the app’s offerings to their needs very quickly, which showed them that we were building an app for them. Because so many people have been attached to the project since the beginning, the community grew with each new update, and to this day we leverage our community for feedback so we can continue growing.

What is your monetization model? How do you monetize your community of users? Have you considered other monetization options? Why did you not use those?

Our monetization model is very similar to UberEats, Instacart, or Postmates in that we charge a service fee for pairing users to our Cropbox subscriptions. We are also very map-centric, so we charge farmers and growers to place multiple delivery or pick-up pins on our maps in new areas they want to service.

Before, we were going to go with a transactional-based revenue model which means we make money per transaction. The problem we realized is that our growers didn’t have the confidence to list more quantities of products and consumers didn’t trust local growers could sustain them.

Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful app or Saas? Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. Build Your Team
    The most important think you should do when starting an app is to have a very good team around you. This means everyone on the team does something significantly better than you, or they’re bringing a quality you don’t have. Any good investor will be able to sniff dead weight.
  2. Create a Brand That Resonates
    Make sure you pick a catchy name for your company with the branding to match. Consumers want to get behind a company that looks good, so pay attention to every detail and be receptive to feedback.
  3. Test Your App With Your Market
    Find a test market or group to launch with. With Cropswap, we had been in contact with hundreds of growers and farmers leading up to our launch who had also been testing the app. When we launched, we already had products and growers set up to sell, so nothing was really a shock.
  4. Offer Value to Monetize
    Build an app that is giving value to your target market so you can make money on it. The world needs more people to solve problems efficiently. Cropswap is doing this by giving people and local businesses the ability to compete with the same tools that big corporations have — just imagine how many other industries need this.
  5. Create Something You Would Use
    Build a product that you would want to use. If you don’t want to use the app and are doing it merely because it’s a good idea, someone with the passion will come along and beat you every time. You will enjoy the process a lot more when you’re passionate about the market you’re contributing to, and you would use your app for your own purposes.

If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

We need to start supporting our local economies so that our own cities can flourish, and shopping local foods is a start. The amount of dependence we have on corporate farms and chains should be something we get past, and now we can with Cropswap. Our local growers are obsessed with making sure you get the best food. We’re here already, the technology exists, and we can do better as a society in supporting our local food economies.

How can our readers follow you on social media?
Instagram: @cropswap

You might also like...


Olivia Chessé On How To Leave a Lasting Legacy With a Successful & Effective Nonprofit Organization

by Karen Mangia

Dr. Kinari Webb On How To Leave a Lasting Legacy With a Successful & Effective Nonprofit Organization

by Karen Mangia

Amanda Storey On How To Leave a Lasting Legacy With a Successful & Effective Nonprofit Organization

by Karen Mangia
We use cookies on our site to give you the best experience possible. By continuing to browse the site, you agree to this use. For more information on how we use cookies, see our Privacy Policy.