11 things a Startup can learn from Clarkson’s Farm

Some say he’s one of the most successful TV personalities and that he is a farmer now. All we know is that he’s called Jeremy Clarkson.

Many people would recognise the name from Top Gear, the enormous international hit TV show. Apart from being known for Top Gear, he is also a journalist, author, host of ‘Who wants to be a Millionaire’ and many more things; with the newest being a farmer. After Leaving Top Gear, Jeremy and the core crew signed up to create the Grand Tour on Amazon Prime, a very similar show to Top Gear. Amazon Prime allowed Jeremy to be a bit more experimental and released Clarkson’s Farm in June 2021, documenting Jeremy’s efforts to become a farmer of 1000 acres that he owns. In typical Jeremy Clarkson fashion, he named his farm Didley Squat which is a bit tongue-in-cheek as he thought it was producing nothing.

I recently finished Season 1; an entirely entertaining 8 episodes. I couldn’t miss an episode as each had the perfect mixture of entertainment, facts, beautiful cinematography and visuals. His sharp commentary and sarcasm made me laugh many times, and I was very entertained. I also learned so much about farming which I never imagined I would find interesting. It’s the perfect kind of documentary— highly entertaining and educational.

After the show finished, I started searching for news on Season 2, but nothing sadly, nothing announced yet. After that disappointing search, I began to think about the other message or parable that I could take from the show. I could see Jeremy’s headfirst dive into farming as his own start-up journey. Through those eight episodes, we can learn how to apply what we see to a start-up building something new. We can see that Jeremy has the mindset of a start-up; he is confident and believes in his goals; he is not scared to dive into new challenges, he is willing to try and take learnings along the way; all of which are often highlighted by his frequent use of “I did a thing.”

After the previous farmer retired, Jeremy thought to himself, “I can do that” and decided that he would farm the land. This is the same mentality that some founders have when starting. They get their idea and dive headfirst into their idea without doing their research, understanding the market, and making calculated moves. For this reason, 10% of start-ups fail in their first year, and a staggering 90% fail overall (StartupStatistics). In Jeremy’s example, he dove in headfirst but was lucky to have the significant financial backing of his own as well as Amazon behind him, which he makes clear in the last episode. Unfortunately, not all start-ups are in this position, and there is a lot at risk when starting on your own, especially if you dive in headfirst without looking into properly.

“In my mind, then, farming would mostly involve leaning on a gate while munching pensively on a delicious Dagwood Bumstead sandwich, or enjoying a late-summer sundowner from behind the wheel of an air-conditioned tractor. It’d all be a festival of crusty bread, lemonade, fresh air and cider with Rosie. Followed by a cheery harvest festival and a big fat cheque from the EU.

I’ve learnt, however, that all of it is back-breaking and difficult, that there’s never time for a ploughman’s in the sunshine, that there’s no cupholder in my tractor for sundowners or anything else and that to be a farmer you must be an agronomist, a meteorologist, a mechanic, a vet, an entrepreneur, a gambler, a workaholic, a politician, a marksman, a midwife, a tractor driver, a tree surgeon and an insomniac.”

Another mistake that we can learn from Jeremy is what we have personally seen in some of the 35 guests we have interviewed in the DevReady podcast: having success in your career does not automatically translate to success as a founder of a start-up. Jeremy was very successful in his TV career with Top Gear and The Grand Tour but that knowledge of cars did not translate to purchasing a tractor for the farm. He opted for a large Lamborghini Tractor imported from Germany. However, he knew about cars and not farming and did not realise that it was potentially too large, contained the wrong hitch (equipment that connects other machinery) and had no English manual. With some more research and time devoted to this task, Jeremy could have made a better decision that would have cost him less money and time.

While we have his mistakes to learn from, we can also learn from his wit and successes. Jeremy did a great thing early in his farming journey, which serves as a lesson to other start-up founders: surround yourself with great advisors. Jeremey hired Charlie, the agricultural consultant, an expert in the field and used him as a sounding board, a source of reason and expertise throughout the series. Sarcastically he was called Cheerful Charlie, by Jeremy, as he would always tell him as it was rather than what he wanted to hear. This is the job of a great advisor. As a founder, you do not want an advisor who will nod and agree with what you say but will challenge and question your motives and plans. They have the expertise and know which questions to ask, and you should be aiming to leverage them as much as possible.

Another common failure point with start-ups is assembling the right team. When you are first starting, you cannot afford to have anyone and must do things yourself, or if you are lucky, you will have some people working for sweat equity. If you are even luckier, you will have some of your own funds that you can use to keep yourself and a small group of employees operating. Jeremy also attempted to farm his land himself but quickly realised he was out of his depth and started hiring. Please take note of this point as hiring someone who has had experience in a start-up or technical expertise in a similar field is okay but not ideal. It would be best to find someone in the centre of that Venn diagram of start-up experience and similar technical experience. These employees bring more to the table and can help leapfrog some early issues. On Clarkson’s Farm, Caleb was not only entertaining through their back-and-forth banter with Jeremy, but he was also an experienced farmer and had a deep knowledge of the farm itself. He was able to name all the Farms fields while Jeremy had no clue. He looked for people who had previously worked on the farm, allowing him to leverage the knowledge of his farm, putting him one step ahead.

The first job on the farm and Jeremy’s first objective was to plough the farm and then seed planting. As he did not know what he was doing, he used the common-sense approach and asked his advisors and team members who have experience, how it should be done. He listened to their advice, was shown by them how to do it, and then was left to do it on his own. This is the exact process a founder should follow when attempting a task that has been done before. There is the odd case when you are innovating so much that you are at the frontier, and no one knows how to move forward but these start-ups and few and far between.

But just when you thought Jeremy had everything going for him, he made a common start-up mistake: not having patience. He felt that the process he was demonstrated was too slow, and he could do it better. He tried to take shortcuts to get to a result. Although the effects of those shortcuts were not immediately noticeable; further down the line, he would face consequences. When it came time to harvest, the density of his seeds was not as high as it should be. He should have been harvesting two tonnes per acre but was only getting 1.5. The other effect of those shortcuts was a little more noticeable and made tending to the crops a lengthier process, and he did not follow the instructions correctly. He made it more difficult to get machines through the crops to spray and maintain them. He stuffed up his ‘tramlines’ and made it more complicated than it needed to tend to the crops throughout the season.

Just like any other founder, Jeremy tried to capitalise on opportunities by trying to get more revenue. This opportunity arose after he told the audience that the government pays him to keep some of his fields as wild grass. Still, he would have to mow it throughout the year. His idea was to purchase sheep that would keep the grass in check and then sell the sheep. The idea is solid in theory, but he did not run the calculations and did not do a risk assessment. That ended up costing him time and made little money.

He thought on his feet and went with it, which is a trait of a good founder. Whether it’s good or bad, a decision is made and allows you to move forward. Jeremey did not dwell on the decision he made and complain about the effort needed for the reward. He moved on and used it as another learning opportunity. He had to bring on a Shepard to help look after the flock. When it came time for lambing season, he used the shepherd’s expertise to help deliver the babies. He was observing and learning. Then one night, he was left on his own, and a baby was being born. Did he shy away from the challenge? No, he went in and assisted with the birth. He might have made a mistake and put his hand in the wrong hole but figured that out pretty quickly and adapted. He did another thing.

The parallel that we can map from Jeremy’s sheep experience to a start-up journey would be to understand when to stop continuing down a path after the decision is made and focus your efforts on a task that will help drive your objectives forward. Every situation can be a learning experience, but you need to weigh the effort involved in progressing and get beyond the sunken cost fallacy of the decision branch you are currently on.

Another thing Jeremy did was to try and create some revenue during his farming season, which is something start-up founders try to do. How can you make some money on your journey until your main product is ready?

Jeremy set up the Didley Squat Farm Shop selling produce from his store. Now a huge advantage he has compared to any other start-up fonder is that he is a celebrity who people would come to see, leading to substantial traffic queues of people coming down to see him. The lesson we can learn from this endeavour is to potentially consult, utilise our expertise or create some partnerships that, in the long run, would ultimately assist in moving forward. It is not always the best decision to do this as it can take efforts from the final objective and delay your outcome, but it can also help you get there if done the right way.

If you follow Jeremy’s model and decide to direct some efforts in a side project that can provide a revenue stream, plan it out and think it through properly. Jeremy had made mistakes in this venture, e.g., not checking planning permits and building permits correctly. Still, he also made some very calculated decisions about the positioning and placement of his store to ensure he would have foot traffic. He chose a corner of his farm bordering a campground, ensuring that he would have a constant flow of customers. Even though he had identified the shortcomings of those ideas and was ultimately delayed because of the mistakes he had made, he persevered and kept moving forward with the planning and eventual opening of the store. Jeremy did another thing.

Jeremy, while being confident, like a start-up founder, was not afraid to admit when he made a mistake or underestimated how difficult a task may be. He always tried to correct his problems as he moved forward, as shown when he harvested his crops. He did not have undercover storage for his wheat crop, and it had to stay outside in a temporary location. To sell the crops, he had to call a grain merchant to come and collect his harvest, but he only ordered one truck, which was enough to pick up one load from the harvester instead of the 20 he needed for the whole crop. He had to stop harvesting, and then when they were able to resume when it was good weather, he organised the correct number of trucks to collect it all. This is a classic example of underestimating a task and moving forward with a decision.

Jeremy also faced outside pressures, as all start-ups do. Whether these pressures are from competitors, environmental, time-based, Jeremy met these issues. But the weather was the biggest problem and it was out of his control. It was raining too much when he started, and he could not prepare the fields and plant his seeds. During summer, it was too hot and not enough rain was falling on his crops. He complained about the problems he was facing, as everyone would. However, he did not just sit there and do anything about them. Jeremy tried to create temporary solutions to help irrigate areas of the farms using solar panel pumps and sprinklers and a water tank to take water around from the rivers around his farm and keep things growing. He showed the trait of a successful founder. When faced with obstacles Jeremy created solutions to keep pushing forward. He did not stop and complain about everything out of his control.

So, what can we take from the article besides a summary of some of the key activities and plot points of the show? At the end of the show, he had completed one year of his farm start-up and just like any other start-up, he learnt a lot of new skills, made mistakes, kept moving forward and barely made any money. However, he enjoyed the process and said it was the happiest he had ever been. This is what a start-up should be like. You should love what you do; otherwise, you will not have the drive and determination to keep pushing for something that you have no love or passion for.

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