Christine Su and George Lee left corporate jobs to pursue a shared vision of helping farmers build a better food system. They launched PastureMap in 2016 to help ranchers make profits building carbon-friendly meat supply chains.
Christine, CEO of PastureMap, sat down with Melissa, Elemental Excelerator Chief of Staff, to tell us her story.
Melissa: You have a great story about finding your first customer.
Christine: One of our first customers, Brian Alexander, actually found us on Facebook. He called us from the middle of Kansas to make sure that we were a real company, and then drove four hours to town to buy an iPad that day so that he could use PastureMap. Later that summer he experienced a wildfire that burned all of his pastures. You lose your grass, you lose everything for one season at least, so that was devastating for him and other fellow ranchers. We gave free PastureMap software to all of the ranchers affected by the fire to help them map out fence and get reimbursed from the USDA for disaster relief. And at a town meeting in southern Kansas he said PastureMap was “gonna save our asses this year because it’s gonna help me keep track of how much grass I have and when I can bring cattle back and that’s more important now than ever.” Knowing that we’re actually making a difference like that is really meaningful.
Melissa: Where did the idea for PastureMap come from?
Christine: About eight years ago I started working on farms and ranches to give back to the people who feed me and my loved ones. At every farm that I worked on, I saw these giant piles of paper and maps on the barn walls and realized that they were running their whole operations on paper. I realized that I could contribute to the scaling of sustainable practices in the industry.
We made lots of prototypes in the iteration process and I knew we were onto something when I would show demos at ranching tradeshows and people’s eyes would light up and they’d say, “I’ve been telling people that someone should build this for about 20 years.”
Melissa: What were you up to before you founded PastureMap?
Christine: I was an operations executive at a private equity firm, where I led teams of engineers to build software for supply chain and production efficiency. But I had no background in agriculture, so I knew I had to brush up on understanding ranchers’ daily operations. I worked on farms on four different continents, went to dozens of trade shows, met with thousands of ranchers, and then eventually got a degree in agriculture as well.
Given how specialized the industry is, it’s really important to build empathy and avoid judgments about how data should be managed or how decisions should be made when you’re building technology that might be outside someone’s comfort zone. The real pain points for a rancher are worrying about time, managing across large distances, and not being able pass their knowledge down to the next generation. I think where we’ve been most successful is in tapping into those emotional needs.
Melissa: It takes a ridiculous amount of passion and drive to be an entrepreneur. What are you passionate about and how does your work bring you closer to that?
Christine: It does, but at the same time it’s been a humbling experience to realize that the real solution, the real innovation already lies embedded within the community. The more I learn about how difficult it is to produce food and manage an ecosystem, the more respect I have for our customers. For example, even though the industry currently doesn’t reward things like regenerative grazing, it’s been practiced by thousands of ranchers over the past few decades with really promising results. The bottleneck is that capturing data so they can get rewarded for it is not their forte, because they’re busy moving cows and fixing fence. We’re committed to making sure they can make a viable living and are rewarded for their practices, and think of PastureMap as an enabling platform to help surface those things to consumers.
Melissa: Hindsight is always 20-20. What advice would the Christine of 2019 give the Christine who was just starting her entrepreneurial journey?
Christine: I’d just tell myself not to worry so much. As a founder, the scariest parts are in the early days where you just have no idea if you’re pouring your heart and soul into something that just is not going to go anywhere. But it doesn’t help to stress out. If you’re building something that solves a problem and you know it, then people are going to buy it or they’re going to tell you what’s wrong with it. You just have to wait to see.
The mountains you have to scale as an entrepreneur don’t get smaller, they get bigger. But your ability to summit them grows, and your ability to stay calm and just push on evolves.
Melissa: I love that!
Christine: Elemental Excelerator has been a part of my entrepreneurial journey. Meeting other entrepreneurs who are building for-profit sustainability-driven companies and learning from the ones that are six or twelve months — or even three years and an exit — ahead of us. Hearing how other CEOs went through the same issues, and finding solutions and getting advice from them, has been valuable. For example, two founders who have raised money very effectively gave me some solid tactical advice. In our seed round, we ended up raising a significant amount more than we otherwise would have because of their advice.
When you’re a founder, you’re always alone and always making decisions and having to trust your gut. It’s one thing to read blogs and listen to podcasts but having a community of founders that you respect who are also building mission-driven companies that are different from regular Silicon Valley startups is invaluable.