Joe runs the hugely successful US company Crowd Cow, but farming played no part in his original background. Here is the story of his success.
Joe’s road to success:
When Joe was young, his dad used to go to Japan regularly on business, and always came home with cool gadgets for Joe. He would also be full of praise of how the Japanese education system was far better at that time and how in advance they were of the US.
When Joe signed up to study for a BS in Computer science at Washington University, he discovered a foreign language was obligatory. After completing the undergrad courses and an immersive stint in Japan living on a farm, he found his way into a graduate-level program, Technical Japanese.
After college, he worked as a software engineer, and eventually joined a startup in the mobile space with customers in Japan and the UK. They turned out to be Vodafone in the UK and J-Phone in Japan. Joe immediately spoke out, saying, “I speak Japanese” and found himself on his first morning at work, being inducted into the company information during a flight to Japan.
In his early days of employment, Joe made friends with Ethan Lowry. All the team there were “techies” of some sort, but Joe already knew he wanted to learn about the business side and not be constricted purely to the technical and was accepted to do an MBA at the Sloan School of Management.
By 2005 Joe had launched Snapvine, which was acquired by White Pages in 2008. He stayed with WhitePages for another two years as the CTO. At the end, Joe wanted to dive into a new venture of his own again, so Media Piston was born. He grew it organically until UpWork (then oDesk) acquired it in 2012 and then IPO in 2018.
Next, Joe launched and became President of Madrona Venture Labs in Seattle, a startup incubator funded by the Madrona Venture Group. They produced high tech startups, including ReplyYes and Mighty AI. (acquired by Uber in 2019)
Ethan and Joe had stayed in touch. By 2013, they decided that they wanted to work together and collaborated on a few projects, including a Kickstarter campaign for an iPhone camera accessory for 3D video. Ethan, who had studied at Stanford, had been enjoying his own illustrious career. He had helped start Drugstore.com and co-founded the award-winning restaurant guide Urbanspoon, later swallowed by Zomato. Joe and Ethan would go on to start Crowd Cow together.
In 2019, Joe was the recipient of the Allen School Alumni Impact Award (UW Department of Computer Science).
Joe and Ethan had also stayed friends with some of the other guys from that first company, and it was one of these, holding forth about how he was expecting his cow to be delivered and how fantastic the beef tasted, that gave Ethan his lightbulb moment.
The friend had a direct connection to the farmer and was able to enjoy better meat. Joe and Ethan wanted to make it more accessible and easier to buy a small portion rather than an entire cow — “just tap your phone and it shows up” instead of all the trouble of having to buy a meat freezer, drive to a farm.
Ethan suggested crowdfunding a cow so that a group of 50 people could split it into reasonable amounts. They visited a few ranches, built a website, and Crowd Cow, based in Seattle, came into being, and the cow sold within 24 hours.
Joe and Ethan realized the idea was solid. If chefs go to local suppliers to buy at source, it was undoubtedly a better way to eat. Consumers could take the same approach to food as they do to wine, choosing their cows according to breed, soil, and area.
The pair tried out their elevator pitch on customers at Starbucks. Starbucks, local heroes in Seattle, changed the coffee market, and Joe and Ethan felt the customers would understand that they were trying to do the same with cows and beef. Sure enough, the customers loved the idea.
There were substantial early challenges, but Joe says that it was all a new adventure, a vast learning experience with crazy moments, and that is what made it fun. For both of them, it was not just a new enterprise but a new sector. They came to discover more about cows and farming. They had no idea at first even how to find farms, and when they started phoning them, they did not expect anyone to answer or for farms to have voicemails.
The pair had to find answers to questions such as how big the opportunity really was and how they could forecast orders or design a system for the idea. A lot of it, Joe says, was the back-end stuff. But everything was new and fast-moving. They outgrew, as he puts it, their first butcher onwards. But primary always was customer satisfaction. They had generation $1m in sales before even expanding nationwide, which they did in 2017.
Crowd Cow provides an alternative way to buy food, sourced from farms and ranches around the world. They have expanded now into other meats, poultry, and fish. Much of their time is spent finding the farms and getting to know their stories.
Joe is fascinated by their heritages, the stories they tell that have been passed through generations of farmers, and the different challenges they face, from the snow in Montana to Texas’s lack of it. He talks of their diversity, a far cry from the clichés that surround farmers. The ranchers are part of the experience from the moment you log onto the website.
Four huge companies monopolize the US’s beef market, one of those not even American, all using industrial processes. The sources of their meat are unknown, but they label it as produced in the US purely because it is packaged there. Much of it has been pumped full of growth hormones and antibiotics.
Joe and Ethan have combined tech with everyday products to benefit the consumer, and it has proved hugely successful. By 2018, they had successfully closed an $8 million Series A funding led by Madrona Venture Capital. Early investors included Joe Montana of Liquid 2 Ventures, Guy Oseary (manager of Madonna and U2), and the actor and businessman Ashton Kutcher, both of Sound Ventures. This year the company will surpass $50M in sales.
Another big motivator for Joe was the timing of the idea for Crowd Cow. He had decided a long time before that he wanted to build a meaningful business, something that lasts after you do. Much of Joe’s life has been to do with creating, and it was this aspect he finds so satisfying.
Joe had put off having children during his early career. He believes that real success is defined by how your kids turn out. “If they end up screwed up, you have to ask, what am I?” he says. But that made a problem in his mind. Any startup takes every bit of your attention, and so do kids. What Joe instantly liked about the Crowd Cow idea was that it was something his son, aged five at the time, would be able to relate to. Joe saw that he would be able to show his son their mission, set an example of hard work.
Joe says that when his son has to bear the brunt of sacrifices and trade-offs, he will be able to understand more. Already, aged nearly 10, he has packed orders, met farmers, and given Joe suggestions for Crowd Cow’s website.
Joe feels that this makes a perfect meeting of entrepreneurship and parenthood. SAAS or Bitcoin businesses are ok, he says, but they don’t have that heart and purpose. All kids now have phones, and the only question is how young. They are exposed to social media and opportunities to cheat with homework. Joe wonders if, as we now look back in horror at pictures showing young people smoking, we will be looking back at kids and phones in the future.
Connection is a big part of the Crowd Cow experience. It is all about sharing food, nourishing the body, and nourishing the soul with companionship. In the same way, Crowd Cow is about connecting us with the people who raised the chickens and the cows.
Joe’s Top 3 Pieces of Advice:
For ten years now, Joe has been a mentor for Techstars, perhaps the most famous breeding ground of tech entrepreneurs. He has mentored startups through TechStars and angel invested in others, such as Algorithmia, Skilljar, and Mystery. In the last couple of years he has had no time to be involved. It was a fantastic opportunity to ask him for his three best advice for early-stage entrepreneurs.
His first piece of advice is to start with one or more co-founders, partly because, on your own, one and one can often add up to three. With more of you, you can develop better ideations. Between you, there will also be better problem-solving abilities, with all of you working together.
As a founder, your life can be challenging and incredibly lonely, so it can make all the difference to have others alongside to celebrate the highs and fight through the lows.
Joe’s second piece of advice is to concentrate on validating demand. Early on in a startup ideation phase, business people tend to get enamored with the forecasts and planning, and engineers who start companies typically become caught up in prototyping; Instead they should be spending all of their time talking to customers and figuring out ways to assess and capture demand. Joe says he has seen plenty of people build prototypes or develop ideas and who can pitch well, but they forget this business number one essential.
None of these things are important compared to defining if people really want your product, if they care about it and where you can find more people who do both these things. Joe says that you should stay hyper-focused on this always but for the first few months especially.
Joe’s third piece of advice is about the business model. Every great company will have some innovations that make it competitive, but innovating on the business model — how you’ll get paid — shouldn’t be a point of innovation. There are plenty of counter-examples to this, but in my experience, it’s far better to rely on a tried and true business model, and pick a service or product area for which there are customers already transaction — and then innovate on other aspects in order to attract and retain customers.
If you have enjoyed this, you may enjoy this piece on Keiron Sparrowhawk, another hugely successful entrepreneur who has used tech in a whole new area.