What startup founders can learn from alpaca farmers

By Jay Reeder March 5, 2020
A beautiful alpaca

When startup founders look for lessons and inspiration for how to succeed in their field, they usually find themselves immersed in the musings of future-thinking industry leaders: Hanging on to every part of entrepreneur success stories that espouse buzzwords like “disruption” and “visionary,” while championing new-age business methodologies like agile or scrum.

However, while these modern styles of running a business certainly have potential to add a lot of value, we shouldn’t forget that fundamental lessons can also be found in more unexpected places, and that we should be ready to learn whenever we can.

Perhaps one of the least likely sources of key lessons about running my startup was our family-owned-and-run alpaca farm. While on the surface, alpaca-based agritourism might seem lightyears away from running a business that’s building cutting-edge solutions, the reality is it’s a lot more than just looking after the animals and giving tours of the farm. Owning an alpaca farm has taught me a lot about building talented teams, “smart work,” becoming a thought leader, and forming those all-important networks. 

Sharing knowledge is vital for community-building

In the world of alpaca farming, continuously learning and sharing your knowledge with others plays a key role in becoming part of the community and building networks. Each year, I attend seminars with my family to learn new things from other key figures in the industry, as well as presenting seminars to pass on the knowledge we’ve gained along our own journey.

In recent years, I even started teaching agritourism marketing seminars at the National Alpaca Show to help other farm-owners turn their farm into a profit-turning tourist destination. This comes alongside our burning desire to learn from our peers too, which drives us to read, study, and attend seminars that help build on our own knowledge of husbandry techniques and maximize our experience of the alpaca lifestyle.

This constant drive to learn and share is a vital part of building a successful tech business, too. I stay up-to-date with trends and new developments in everything from AI to SEO, and make sure to share these across the organization. This is as well as regularly attending telecommunications events and conferences to network and stay ahead of the industry curve. You’ll struggle to survive as a startup without a thirst for new ideas and ways to improve on the systems you already have in place.

And while tech entrepreneurship is a competitive space, there’s no doubt that sharing knowledge and building alliances in this way lays the foundations for becoming an effective leader. Great ideas are rarely born in an echo chamber, and with 23 years in the field I’ve managed to create allies with whom I speak regularly, identifying upcoming trends and bouncing ideas off them.

Gaining thought leadership status will take time and effort

Becoming a thought leader in the world of alpaca farming is not easy, but it’s a journey that has allowed me to gain an in-depth industry understanding and apply this to running our own farm. Building on the opportunities I’ve had to present seminars and share my insights, I have also been able to publish articles in Alpaca Magazine, serve on the boards of state and regional associations with my wife Melissa, as well as become elected as the President of the Southeastern Alpaca Association. 

Gaining the credibility that comes with industry leadership does wonders to power business success. Within the world of telecommunications, my leadership skills and industry contributions earned me a place on Glassdoor’s list of the “20 Highest Rated Telecom CEOs To Work For.” Building on these skills over the years not only develops your own potential as a business leader, but it will also empower your team to strive to grow your startup.

Cast the net wide to get the best talent on board

Finding quality alpacas to build out a top-notch herd is no easy feat. It means sourcing herdsires with the most desirable traits and importing the best genetics from around the country.

The same goes for building out your team. It’s not always easy to find local talent with the specific skill set that you might need. Hiring remotely is a great solution to this, and brings with it numerous benefits for startup teams, not least heightened productivity and job satisfaction levels. In the same way I source new bloodlines from across the U.S. for my alpaca farm, at my tech startup we find talented expertise by hiring remote employees and contractors from all over the world to help us with everything from AI to public relations.

Leverage tools to drive efficiency

As the alpaca business grew into an in-demand agritourism destination for events and visits, we began to struggle to keep up with all of the incoming calls and messages from people looking for information or to make a booking. Traditional methods of keeping track of this contact were no longer feasible, so we deployed tools to help us automate processes and save us time for other more demanding tasks.

With AI-powered phone software, we’re now able to get a clear view of all of the communication we have received over the course of the day and respond quickly and appropriately to each call or message. 

Applying the right time-saving tools to automatable tasks is vital for startup teams to be able to dedicate their time to the real value-adding tasks that require human intelligence. As your business grows, look to incorporate solutions such as project management tools like Trello, collaboration solutions like Slack, virtual phone systems, or CRMs like Hubspot to facilitate smooth growth and a productive team. 

While running an alpaca farm might entail distinctly more wool-shearing than pushing forward technological innovations in a startup, there’s a remarkable number of similarities between leading each entity.

The goals of both businesses are ultimately along the same lines: grow, empower the team, enrich the industry, and lead the way as the best product or service out there. When it’s put that way, it’s unsurprising that the steps to achieving success overlap in their nature. Never underestimate the lessons you can learn from unlikely places and their potential to empower the methods behind business success.

About the author: Founder and CEO, Ninja Number — Jay is the founder of Ninja Number, a virtual phone system that helps entrepreneurs increase revenue with an AI-powered automated telephone lead optimization.

Disclosure: This article includes a client of an Espacio portfolio company.