Looking west at downtown Omaha, Credit: Matt Bills

Why I decided to join GrainBridge as CEO

I’ve moved to Omaha. And no, I’m not working for the Oracle.

As of April 6, I became the new CEO of GrainBridge.

Neither COVID-19 nor my sabbatical could keep me out of the ring for long. Let me tell you a little bit about the company and what got me so excited that I moved in the midst of a pandemic.

Sometimes when I choose a new adventure it might look incongruent. I went from Zite, building an intelligent news recommendation system to Descartes Labs, where we were building a digital twin of the planet. In both cases, the underlying thread is building products based on large amounts of data.

With GrainBridge, I’m diving into the deep end of agriculture, building software to help farmers “market” (the industry term for “sell”) their grain more effectively to maximize their profit.

At Descartes Labs, I became fascinated by agriculture. When you walk in a store to pick up the ingredients for cake, maybe the flour is from wheat in Kansas, the sugar from sugar beets in Minnesota, the eggs and milk from a dairy near you. You don’t need to think about where the ingredients come from.

Until the supply chain begins to break down, like it has with COVID-19.

Corn grows even within the city limits of Omaha.

The reason the US can get a variety of food so cheaply — and feed the world — is because of a complex and efficient supply chain. Normal supply chain disruptions go largely unnoticed by consumers. Normally, beef is more or less expensive, but overall it’s always available; until COVID-19 shuts down a chunk of the US meat processing capacity.

To feed the hungry 7.5 billion people on the planet today and the billions more being added in the next few decades, farmers need to be profitable. Running a farm is an enormously complex operation. At the highest level, there are costs (seed, fertilizer, equipment, rent, etc.) and then there’s revenue from selling that grain on the market. Of course, then there’s the challenge of managing your fields through whatever Mother Nature throws at you during the growing season. When the season is over, (hopefully) the farmer recoups her costs and has a bit of profit. Then the next year, the cycle starts all over again, with the farmer literally “betting the farm” on another crop.

Farmers are the ultimate entrepreneurs because they take massive risk every year.

A big challenge for farmers is “marketing” or selling their grain. Unlike a retail product, which you typically build and then sell to someone at standard wholesale prices, commodities prices are in constant flux and the difference between selling today or next week could be the difference between a profit and a loss. GrainBridge’s mission is to help farmers gain confidence they are making the right decisions.

Data refineries sense their environments and allow for predictions about the world. Model courtesy of DDO.

Another reason I joined GrainBridge is that data will be at the center of delivering value to farmers. At Descartes Labs, I started looking for new metaphors to describe data+AI businesses like ours. My favorite was a “data refinery,” which pulls in data from multiple sources and builds models on top of them. GrainBridge is a kind of corporate data refinery, where two companies came together and pooled their data resources to create new products. Data analytics is the key that will unlock profit for farmers. While GrainBridge will respect the data privacy on all sides — for the buyers on our system and for our farmer customers — we will have access to a unique dataset, which hopefully will yield unique insights.

A final thought about GrainBridge is its unique structure and history.

Instead of being funded by venture capitalists, GrainBridge is a joint venture between ADM and Cargill, two of the largest agricultural companies in the world and the two largest grain buyers in the United States, representing about 25% of the market. Having the backing of major players in agriculture gives GrainBridge a huge advantage.

Also, GrainBridge isn’t a new startup. GrainBridge was founded over a decade ago and has had a very successful product, focused on grain marketing consultants — think of them like a stock broker for farmers — advising them on when to sell their grain and for how much. As only the second CEO of the company after the founding CEO, I hope both to honor the legacy of GrainBridge and give it new life.

I’m really enjoying my new life in Omaha. If you should find yourself here for the College World Series, the Berkshire-Hathaway Annual Meeting, or just because you want some of the finest steaks in America, drop me a line. For a socially-distant view of Omaha, follow me on Instagram.

(Ina Fried’s Axios Story here and official GrainBridge blog post here.)

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Mark Johnson

Mark Johnson

2.5K Followers

CTO of Stand Together. Former CEO of GrainBridge, Co-founder of Descartes Labs, CEO of Zite. Love product, philosophy, data refineries, and models.