COO Jacob Foss takes us through the success of a very transparent food brand.
How did you get started with your business?
Our founder Josh Shefner was a freshman in college on a development trip to Jamaica. The engineering team created a dehydrator, gave it to the community thinking they knew what was best and left feeling good about themselves. Josh, unsatisfied and aware that this accomplished not much besides dependence took it upon himself to follow up and see the project through.
This was 3 years ago now and he has transformed that lone project with one machine into a global development company operating in 7 countries with expansion into many more in the near future. Agricycle has now been established as a holding company acting as the umbrella over multiple brands including Blue Mangoes, Tropical Grilling, Fruit Flour and more to come.
What has helped you succeed in your industry and on your business path?
Flexibility and the notion of going around dead ends instead of turning back from them. Instead of letting that be the end of the road, create your new path, take the small undeveloped path to your right that presents itself. There is almost always another lead or opportunity that arises from a previous one, or a seemingly dead end. The path to success in international development and international business is anything but straight and easy. Take this convoluted route and maximize every contact, every lead, and pursue every path you can think of. Eventually one (or hopefully many) will lead to where you want to go, or even where you should go without knowing it.
This path will lead to some of the most incredible people who can make life infinitely easier (or harder :)) for you. It is giving these people a chance and seeing if a partnership can be established that can make the difference and open up countless avenues. People and ideas make companies and the more people and ideas you expose yourself to, the more lessons and knowledge you can gain to help inform and mold your company.
What was a mistake you made in business and what did you learn from that mistake?
I’ll bring us on a story of trust through the back roads of West Africa for this one. While developing a supply chain, my team was promised a capacity of our target product that surpassed our demand. Essentially exactly what we wanted to hear, without them even knowing that. We waited months on this supply to process for the harvest season to come as it was an agricultural product. We travel 3 full days worth of driving to cross multiple countries to meet with the supplier. 2 days in our car breaks down. The engine is shot and we have to push our car for miles.
During a push brake, a motorcycle comes by who is essentially our only option of reaching a mechanic. I hop on the back of his motorcycle to save the day. 5 Miles into our ride he demands money and shortly after careens into the bush to take me on a side path to who knows where. I yell stop to no avail and attempt to jump off the motorcycle which causes him to slow down for me to jump and run back to the main road, where a cyclist picks me up on his motorcycle after seeing the situation and takes me to a mechanic. Fast forward from that side story through hundreds of miles and tow trucks, we arrive at this supplier, who had essentially zero supply compared to what she promised.
What I learned from this example and hundreds more like it is that trust and opportunity have to be treaded lightly and scrutinized carefully at times. Backing away from the wrong one can lead to a missed opportunity, and taking the wrong one can lead to a missing person.
What surprises have you had along the way? What have you learned from those surprises?
One circumstance that I have encountered time and time again, that continues to surprise me somehow is the yes man attitude. Being told yes so genuinely when there is no chance it can actually manifest. I have had this lesson ingrained into me time and time again, yet it still arises in ways that catch me off guard. I have learned to quintuple check. Ask your initial question, followed by 4 more alternatives hitting the same question from different angles. Back up plans must always be made available. Pursue plan C with the same intensity as plan A. If A works out then that’s what you wanted anyway so you are happy, and if plan A and B fall through, there’s good ol plan C ready to go. There are countless surprises regardless of how well-thought-out a business may be, but rolling and adapting with these surprises is a huge trait to develop and employ.
What advice do you have for those just starting out in your industry or for other entrepreneurs?
This is more-so for those venturing into international development, but can certainly be applied to entrepreneurs determining target demographic. I would stress listening. Listen. Listen to those you want to help. Listen to what they need to get to where they want to be. Don’t force an idea you think will work, your prerogative is not necessarily their prerogative. People’s situations are not one-size-fits-all. No one knows their culture, their history, their people, their situation better than those living it every day.
If you have an idea, by all means, run with it! But be willing to change and adapt along the way, flexibility is key. As you learn, as you get to know the people you are trying to impact, stay flexible and eliminate ego. You might set out to make a difference in others, but be prepared to receive just as much of an impact upon yourself. Good luck and get after it!
What helps you stay passionate about your goals? What are your upcoming goals?
The people in deserving need around the globe are our inspiration. They are what stimulate our passion. Every time we travel to another continent, engage with another country, encounter another city and train another community our inspiration and passion heighten. It is these partnering communities that give us such inspiration and dedication to help them improve their conditions and expand to as many populations as we can. It is the looks on their faces of realizing they have found an opportunity and the only thing preventing them from cashing in on that opportunity is their effort. Not some innate environmental situation, but something within their control. It is the numerous children, who run around their community during our training, whose futures can greatly benefit if we run our business success that is our inspiration. It is the relationships you build with the farmers and community members partnered with and seeing first-hand the difference that’s made and the empowerment that is created. The well-being of the individuals we want to impact is our inspiration.
We want to be fully operational across the entire equator of Central America, the Caribbean and East and West Africa, and Asia. We want to have our cooperatives be completely self-sustainable and in charge of their operation. We want to build partnerships with thousands of communities and reach millions of farmers. There are 2.8 trillion pounds of food waste annually, we want to reduce as much of that as possible. We want to eliminate the entirety of food waste of products we deal with in communities we are involved in. We will do this through conversion into a usable product to feed people, generate income, enrich soil, provide animal feed and Eco-friendly charcoal. We want trained communities to train neighboring communities, who can then train their neighbors. We want schools to be able to fund their operations, parents to be able to feed their families without worry, individuals to not let an $8 dollar medical bill prevent them from receiving life-saving treatment. We want to highlight entrepreneurs who have tremendous ideas but lack the capital to make that happen. We want the next generation to have it better than the last.
What key factors help you position your brand? What makes your brand unique?
Our transparency, our story, our tangible results, and authentic approach. Our customers will see the exact community they are supporting and where their fruit originated from through our “Find your farm” feature on the packaging. The QR code can be scanned to take you to an information page about the community and their involvement and your impact being made on them.
No other business has the model we have, it is first to be unrolled in an international stage. All of our products and brands are centered on reducing waste and creating opportunity. From the natural fruit abundance and waste prevention creating dried fruits, flours, and chicken feed, to revolutionary charcoal turning food waste into a lower carbon footprint fuel with models of many more to come.
For customers who want organic ethically sourced nutritional products that provide fair wages to individuals in under-served communities to empower themselves and lift them out of poverty all while benefiting the environment, then Agricycle is for you.
Agricycle stands for opportunity. We stand for equality and empowerment. Far too many women in this world live their entire lives facing oppression. We stand for helping the oppressed become empowered. There are 2.8 trillion pounds of food waste across the globe. We stand for reducing this waste and increasing nutrition and income. There are 1.5 billion smallholder farmers around the world, many of whom live below the poverty line. We stand for improving their economic situation and having them lift themselves far above that line. We stand for leaving the world better than we found it.
What marketing advice do you have for others in your industry?
Stay true to your brand and who you are. It is great to venture out of your comfort zone, strive for new approaches and innovation, but don’t lose sight of your brand in the process. Do all of these things through the motivation of your passion. If you truly believe in your vision, your product/company then your passion and what you have built will speak loudly. That being said, you have to put the time and effort to create a strong marketing team and customer-facing brand. Push this out to the world. People have to hear about what you have created and the impact it is having. Share what inspires you to inspire them. Do not be afraid to ask for help. Marketing is a numbers game, the more voices, and eyes on your product the better. Ask for help and take help, talk to people and listen to people. You never know where one opportunity will lead!
How do you build relationships with your customers or clients?
We are very relationship-focused. From our core team to the clients and partners we collaborate and do business with, we care and invest. We take time to build true relationships that will last and will extend beyond the business. One of my favorite things is to look down at my phone and see a message from a community member we have trained saying hello, asking how my family and I are doing, or exclaiming excitement about the progress made given our training. We make true relationships with the communities we partner with, and that to me is one of my favorite aspects of this business.
We take this approach and apply it to everyone. Having email updates, phone calls, and regular communication with already established partners, clients and customers as well as listening and asking questions leading to acquiring additional ones. We have very large people to people approach and enjoy that outlet and what it leads to.
Specific outlets include social media, website, and retail. Additional clients stem from NGO’s or organizations in countries around the world who want to bring us in and train communities throughout their country and introduce our technology and teachings.
Any tips or insights on leadership, communication or growth?
One of the largest factors of leadership in my mind is relatability. I believe relating to, investing in, and caring for those around you develops the strongest trust and bond a leader could ask for. Genuine treatment of others will be reciprocated and the trust that follows is crucial to being the leader of a strong team. I believe the days of leading through intimidation are fading, and being replaced by respect and gaining authority through appreciation. Countless teams and groups, I have led or been a part of responding to their leaders best when the group admires, cares for, and trusts the one in charge and gives their best for that individual and the team at hand. It may sound ideological, but I believe in it and I have seen it work time and time again in countless settings.
This sets the foundation for communication to occur naturally. Instead of it being a chore to schedule the 2 pm weekly performance update, it turns into an opportunity to catch up and see the work ad progress your team members are accomplishing. This natural occurring communication flows into growth and expansion by means of all parts working together and efficiently instead of disjointedly.
Tell us more about you. What motivates you? What relaxes you? How do you find balance?
I derive motivation from within and from others. I motivate myself in all facets of life, primarily fitness and nutrition, but also career-related aspects. I am extremely competitive and hate losing. I can be a horrible loser depending on the situation haha. This drive motivates me to compete all out in almost every form from a huge career opportunity to cards with grandma Betty. My motivation in a more professional manner derived from others relates to why I do the work I do and I can speak for the Agricycle staff on this one. We are motivated by those we serve, we train, we develop relationships with. We want to do our absolute best to give them the absolute best opportunity.
I find relaxation from the same thing that I compete so heavily in. Sports, competitions, or exercise puts me in a zone, a zen that takes my mind off of whatever is going on and lets me release and de-stress. In addition, I need social outlets, I love hanging out with friends and doing whatever. Going to a restaurant, a bar, playing games, chilling at a bonfire, going on a walk through a park, hiking or camping, it all boosts my mood and eases stress. Nature has that calming effect on me maybe more so than anything. Leaves blowing, birds chirping, silence of everything save nature’s natural calls is where I love to be.
My balance comes from a combination of all the aforementioned aspects, diving into as many relaxation techniques as I can while doing the same for career-driven, work-oriented tasks to keep me from being complacent or restless.
Where can people find you?