Latest in our spotlight series: Urban Tiller, a farm-to-home Agtech company transforming how you buy fresh veggies! We talk to the founders Arjun Ayyagari and Sandeep Reddy about their journey and how they are delivering Fresh, Safe and Sustainable vegetables to consumers in India, one zip code at a time!
Let's start by talking a bit about what your backgrounds are and how you ended up at Urban Tiller.
Arjun: I completed my MBA in 2012 from Singapore, and I always had an entrepreneurial edge. I had a brief experience of running a restaurant — around 10-15 years ago — but I definitely wanted to do something after my post-grad which could become a full-time path for my future. I came across the idea of soilless cultivation a few years ago and since then, I've been putting a lot of time into it. That's how I ended up at Urban Tiller.
Sandeep: My family background was in Agriculture — we used to sell fruits. I used to see my dad trading food products and I was inspired by that. I have always been inclined towards agriculture. After completing my graduation in Engineering in 2013, I did a post-grad in Construction Management in 2015. That's when I started my own company for renovation and interiors. After a couple of years, I realized that this was not what I wanted and that it was better to go back and start afresh in agriculture. After meeting with Arjun and Shiva, we started conversing and it took us to 2018, when we started to establish Urban Tiller.
Sandeep, how was it like transitioning from engineering to agriculture and hydroponics?
Sandeep: In civil engineering, when I was doing construction work — it was quite different. What I like about Agriculture is that every day you get to see something new and since you're working with different plants, every plant is a different experience that you'll be able to learn from. We try to do lots of R&D in agriculture. Engineering is more process-driven while agriculture is more focused on research and learning new things.
Arjun, how have your personal experiences been working with UT and setting up the team?
Arjun: A couple of years ago when I was exploring the idea of soilless cultivation, the first thing I was looking for was people. People who can really join hands with me and run this company. That was really the biggest challenge because it was, and still is, a pretty new industry in India. I wanted people who would work towards the vision which was to deliver fresh produce for everyone because we truly believe that everyone has the right to consume the fresh food and what they are consuming. The next challenge ended up being drawing out the vision of the company: what do we really want to achieve? Then we had to, accordingly, refine the business plan in terms of what we want to do. The biggest questions we had were how can we define freshness and how can we define safe produce? We wanted to solve these questions quantitatively so that we are able to deliver a product that is liked by everyone.
Eventually, we ended up having some space in Hyderabad, and we learned how to grow the produce. Sandeep has been instrumental in coming in with the know-how on growing through soil-less cultivation while I'm playing the part of ensuring that the produce is delivered to a wider market across Hyderabad.
I'm always told that running a start-up is kind of like running a restaurant where you have to know how to do everything from washing the dishes to cooking. Do you think this is true?
Arjun: It is! And I will give you an example. The idea of delivering fresh produce was possible only if we could harvest and deliver the produce in less than 12 to 15 hours. When we started, Sandeep was managing the whole harvesting process and the produce had to be delivered in the wee hours. Since we had no other option, I ended up delivering the produce every morning. I was working a full-time job from 9 AM in the morning but I had to finish the deliveries before that. So I was working as a delivery executive for the first year of the business. Now, we have people who can do it for us but it's a clear example of how one needs to roll up their sleeves before they can scale up.
Let's talk about the business itself. What is Urban Tiller and what are your core values?
Arjun: The core values of UT are three words: fresh, safe, and sustainable.
We define freshness as the duration from the time the produce is harvested to when it is at the consumers' door. Today, we can do it in less than 12 hours but our aim is to do that in less than 8 hours. We know about soil cultivation over the past century — we have abused the soil. We know that resources like water are going to be scarce in the future.
Soil-less cultivation, scientifically, uses less than 1/10th of the water that soil-based cultivation uses, and we truly believe that sustainability is going to be a key component in the future.
The safety component comes in with us not using any chemicals whatsoever as our produce is grown inside a controlled space, in a poly house.
Sandeep: Adding to what Arjun said, we are also adding R&D for organic produce as we haven't touched the organic market yet. We also want to add it to our existing portfolio. We are working hard on it and we will potentially get there in 6 months or so.
It seems that there is a big emphasis on freshness and sustainability — do you guys think that that is the differing factor for the produce from Urban Tiller versus other companies in this space?
Sandeep: Our model is focused on how we aggregate our produce: we do strict quality control so that farmers deliver the right produce to us and if there is even a small point in which the quality is not met, we reject that order and work with the farmer to help them understand why it happened. We give the farmers a respectable value for the produce they are growing so that they'll understand even when there's a problem & they will stick with us. We are trying to encourage different farmers to start using hydroponic farming so we can increase our inventory of produce. We also train our staff on quality-control procedures and this allows us to be more hands-on.
How has the process been to convince farmers to get into hydroponic farming?
Sandeep: It is mostly the older farmers who are not very driven towards hydroponics. There are new progressive farmers who have changed their fields and they are the ones who we focus on more because they understand better what we need. In addition, we see that their produce quality also matches our requirements and so, we prefer to work with them.
Moving on the other side of the equation — let's talk about your consumers. There is still a stigma around e-commerce in India: people are still not quite convinced about the product quality & delivery isn't always perfect. What has been the biggest challenge in building a reliable customer base and educating customers about the value of the product?
Arjun: I think things are changing, slowly. There are people available who are claiming to supply fresh produce to consumers but the conventional idea of purchasing greens or veggies is largely intact: people still prefer to go out and buy it from a mandi or a supermarket. However, what we've realised is that as long as we're able to deliver fresh produce: give them the produce right after harvesting and avoid minimal human contact to the produce, customers seem to like it and we've received some really positive and appreciative feedback from the market.
We are fairly confident because as we grow from one zip code to another zip code, we are seeing a lot of potential in how people are receiving our produce. We continue to work on making our harvesting-to-door time very minimal: imagine a situation where we are able to deliver in less than 30 minutes from harvest. We strongly believe that is going to be the future and Urban Tiller will work towards making it happen. That is definitely going to be a big challenge and whoever achieves it, will be the leader of this space.
Besides freshness, it is key to cater to the local palate and consumption behaviours. Indian greens, we believe, are crucial. Growing Indian Greens in soil-less cultivation and then balancing the supply-demand gap is going to be very important. We are always looking to grow our assortment from where we are today. Exotic vegetables will be there, but we will try to have as many Indian greens as possible.
Sandeep: I would just like to add that we were initially driven more towards exotics and later, we saw that consumers, in India, are more driven towards Indian produce. We started off with one order, and now, we are at 25-30 orders a day: that shows that customers are liking our produce. I don't see any other delivery partner that is providing the level of freshness in Indian leafy veggies that we are giving.
What areas do you guys currently sell at and what are your plans for expansion within India?
Arjun: We're currently based out of Hyderabad and we've been selling here for more than a year now. We're rapidly expanding in Hyderabad and there's still a huge market available in this city. From 2021 onwards, we'll be looking at expanding beyond Hyderabad, starting from the south: cities like Chennai, Bangalore, Kerala, Mysore, and others. We also want to look at B-level and C-level towns and not just big metropolitan cities. This is because Indian greens are widely consumed, not just in cities but also in the rural and suburban areas.
Sandeep: We are seeking to expand within the city and we are trying to categorize different areas whose needs are going to be Indian leafy veggies or exotics. We are working on our different metrics and hoping for the best!
Since you will be riding on a wave of people trying to get fresher and more sustainable food — do you think the Indian economy is moving towards a more sustainable approach?
Sandeep: Seeing the conditions currently, especially since COVID — people want traceability more and more. We're focused on helping people understand where the produce is coming from. We are also educating people on the nutrients used such that they are able to understand how safe and sustainable what they are consuming is. So, we are focusing on nutrition and immunity as well.
Arjun: From a policy point of view, we truly believe enough is not being done — especially supporting soilless cultivation as a recognised space and building policies around this kind of farming. The government should encourage more start-ups like Urban Tiller who can spread the idea of soilless cultivation across cities. There is still a lot that needs to happen: for example, the government should provide subsidies and support.
How do you think entrepreneurs and startups in the private sector can work with the public sector and nudge the government towards accepting this more sustainable way of farming?
Arjun: I think the value that this idea generates needs to be understood by the government and more start-ups in this space should let the government know that there is serious demand and a serious need for us to start getting into sustainability while catering to the growing food demand. It is really important that we have as many players as possible who are able to grow the produce in pockets and use minimal natural resources while still producing quantities according to the existing demand.
Let's talk about your plans for Urban Tiller. What is your idea of "success" and what are your plans for getting there?
Arjun: UT will successful the day we are able to supply our demand without saying no to our customers. We've noticed that veggie buying is becoming more erratic and spontaneous because of daily changes in demand. So, the success is going to be be being able to provide what the customer wants at any given time along with the variety that the customer wants to buy from us.
Sandeep: We have always been very customer-centric: we try to put ourselves in the customers' shoes and empathise with them. We've been focusing on each and every aspect of service so that the customer is happy; not only in the produce that's being consumed, but also the way the produce is being bagged. We try to show that each and every item is traceable and if someone is not happy with our produce, we ask for feedback. Hopefully, they will love us and encourage us as well!
You guys are both entrepreneurs who have gotten quite far along in the journey. What is some advice you have for budding entrepreneurs reading this?
Arjun: When I started off as an entrepreneur, the million-dollar question that was in my mind was "Do i take the plunge or not?"
If you believe in the idea and see its potential, you should take the plunge and not think twice. The worst that can happen is you go back and do something else in life. But, if it does work — you've made it big.
Sandeep: What I would suggest to each and every entrepreneur is to just be focused on what they want and have a plan of how to achieve every milestone. You have to break the goals into different parts and try to achieve the goals part-by-part. This also helps you recognize which parts still need work. Always have big goals but just try to achieve at least a part of it. Spread happiness and realize that even with a single order, you're doing what others are not doing. You're in a crowd where 3% are: independent & doing something for themselves. Even if it is a failure, just keep learning and working hard.
I will end this with a last question that is a lot lighter: what is one movie / tv show / book that you think anyone who wants to be an entrepreneur should watch or read?
Sandeep: I've been watching Shark tank from Season 1 to Season 10. I've always been looking at Mark was doing and what Barbara was doing and looking at the different products that come in. I always think, why don't we do this in India? I was looking at how people were pitching their ideas and thought that I could learn from them. Many big companies came out of Shark tank and that show definitely inspired me.
I also read this book called The 5 AM Club by Robin Sharma. I really liked this book and it pushed me to read similar books such as Rich Dad, Poor Dad. I would recommend these two books to everyone.
Arjun: I've never really been into reading books — that's one of my key to-dos! If there's one tv show that I recommend, it would be The Big Bang Theory as it acts as a great stress buster. I do recommend that if you've had a difficult time, go back and watch a few episodes of TBBT and it'll all be fine.