The COVID-19 pandemic hit at the worst time of year for Toronto-based agricultural technology startup Ukko Agro Inc.
Winter and early spring are when farmers make key decisions about what resources they need to plant, grow and harvest their crops in the coming months. It’s also an essential time for Ukko Agro to sell its digital tools that help farmers optimize pesticide, water and fertilizer usage to operate more sustainably.
“Agriculture is a high touch-point industry. A lot of farmers expect you to come to their fields, spend some time, explain what you do and then sign up,” says Ketan Kaushish, co-founder and chief executive officer of Ukko Agro, which has clients across North America and parts of Europe, specifically Belgium and Sweden.
With international travel complicated by the coronavirus and many farmers unwilling to take in-person meetings amid the pandemic, Ukko Agro – alongside many businesses – has been forced to shift its sales strategy online.
While online selling often isn’t the same as being there in person, businesses like Ukko Agro benefit from providing software that can be easily exported to new and existing customers around the world.
“The advantage is you don’t have to deal with export issues of physical product delays at borders, or stopped shipments,” says Stuart Browne, an instructor in the MBA and Master of Finance programs at York University’s Schulich School of Business.
Although many companies are spending less due to the economic uncertainty caused by the pandemic, Mr. Browne says there are more opportunities for Canadian software businesses at home and abroad given the global shift toward doing business online.
“They don’t have any borders, which means anyone can access them for the most part,” says Mr. Browne, who is also CEO of Pycap Venture Partners, a Toronto-based venture capital and corporate finance firm. “What good entrepreneurs should be doing is going into the market and finding problems and creating solutions,” both now during the pandemic and in general economic times.
Toronto-based Act Analytics Corp., which offers an environmental, social and governance (ESG) portfolio analytics platform for registered investment advisers in North America, the United Kingdom and Australia, has seen its sales strategy interrupted by the inability to pitch its product in person at conferences and other events.
However, the company is taking advantage of more businesses operating online during the pandemic, as well as the growing interest in sustainable investing.
“People have used the recent market volatility as an acid test for ESG investing – and sustainability has never been more discussed in light of COVID and the Black Lives Matter movement,” says Act Analytics co-founder and managing partner Mike Unwin. “On the marketing and sales side of things, a new virtual world and a new focus on IT infrastructure have played into the hands of many SaaS [software as a service] and e-commerce companies like ours.”
Not having to cross borders with a physical product “is a huge advantage for us being exporters of cloud-based software,” Mr. Unwin says. “There’s no limit to the places we’re getting interest from. It’s truly global.” He says the interest is coming from places such as the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, Switzerland, France, Hong Kong and mainland China.
Mr. Unwin has also noticed increased interest from existing and potential clients around the online customer experience, including the ease of use of the company’s analytics tools. Act Analytics is working on expanding its digital presence, including marketing, distribution networks and partnership opportunities.
“We’ve seen a lot of people coming into our environment, purchasing and trying the product,” he says. “People are having to rely more on their technology …. I think, generally, people are more comfortable interacting and doing commerce over the internet, which is favourable to us.”
Still, Mr. Unwin is looking forward to the day when his team can meet clients in person again as part of their operations.
“We’d like to meet the people we do business with,” he says. “Once the world opens up again we can do more of that … I think there’s little substitute for meeting someone in person and generating a genuine relationship. I think that’s still something that people crave. It helps them become comfortable with a new business partner.”
When the pandemic is over and business returns to relative normal, Ukko Agro’s Mr. Kaushish expects to find a balance between selling his software in-person and online.
“We have to figure out [the right mix] between using digital tools and meeting farmers in-person,” he says. “It might take some time for farmers to use digital tools to get acquainted with and purchase new products, but it will eventually happen.”
In the meantime, Ukko Agro is hoping to capitalize on the growing interest companies have in using online products to run their business. The company is building up its online sales tools and both improving and expanding its products to help reach new international markets.
“[The pandemic environment] has shown us that we don’t need to be on the ground to enter new markets,” Mr. Kaushish says, adding that his company is having discussions with companies in Brazil and Argentina. It also has its sights on potential customers in other parts of Europe.
“The mindset is changing [around using technology], and hopefully we see the positive effect in the long term,” he adds. “If everything goes online, nothing stops us from working in South America and [elsewhere in] Europe … I believe companies that build simple and reliable technology-based products will be the ones that win in this new world.”