We’re interviewing startups across the country to discover the inspiration for their business, how they conducted user research and what advice they would give others in their startup journey.
I sat down with Matt Rooda and Abraham Espinoza with Swineguard to understand their product , how they do user research and what makes them tick.
Hi guys! Thanks for sitting down with me. For the record, can you guys state your name and the positions you have with the company?
Matt: Matthew Rooda, President and CEO
Abraham: Abraham Espinoza, Vice President and COO
What was the inspiration for Swineguard?
Matt: I was working on a farm in Waterloo as a farrowing manager and assistant farm manager…. and really, it got to a certain point in production where I couldn’t improve it at all and was really trying to achieve the highest in the state and in order to do that I was going to have to solve the problem of lay-ons and I couldn’t do that.
So, when I was there I started thinking of strategies and idea s and then once I left there to come to the University of Iowa it faded in the back and and my dad brought it back to my attention around Christmas break. we got back to U of I and they sent an email saying venture will pay you to work on your projects. So we applied to that and got accepted and it went from there.
Did you grow upon a farm?
Matt: I was surrounded, but never really grew up on a farm. Because of insurance I could never actually step foot on a farm until I was 16…which was awful. But my grandparents had a real small farm outside..wasn’t confined, just a typical thing for family farm.
What got you into being a farrowing manager?
Matt: When I was 16 I did finishing and it paid better than any other job I could do. So I did that for a summer. The next summer I did stuff with nurseries; which is just after they get done with farrowing. And then I got a job filling in for an employee that was on maternity leave; farrowing assistant. After that I went to Hawkeye community college, and my freshman year I worked at fareway. I kinda missed the money that went along with farming, so I went back and started looking for jobs and couldn’t find any in my area so I went home talked to a guy to see if there were any opportunities in Waterloo, he’s like I’ll talk to some people and see if I can get you some interviews. I had 12 people call me, went to all their interviews and it was really kinda cool to experience that. I choose Schneider Pork Farms and kinda worked my way in the company.
A Sow and her piglets in a Farrowing Pen
I grew up on a hog farm…so, I’m assuming you’ve had to cut teeth, cut tails, all of that
Matt: I’ve been through everything except the actual the actual butchering.
So, from the birth..to not quite to the dinner table huh?
Matt: Yeah, exactly!
How did you guys get together?
Matt: I knew Abraham from Hawkeye Community College. I met him first through the guys that played each other in ping pong and lifted together. We became friends and decided we wanted to live together at Iowa so he’s a roommate of mine. And so we decided to attack this together.
Who else is on your team?
Matt: Paul Fothergill and Mike Brown. They were both students at Iowa and they needed internships and we needed a couple more people to fulfill the program at Venture School. So we brought them on to fulfill other roles in the business aspects of it.
So were they a part of the pool that was at Venture School?
Wow…so, just kinda random right?
Matt: Random, but we knew who they were…They lived in the same apartment complex. We all live in the exact same apartment complex right now which makes communication easy but difficult at the same time.
Tell me a little about the processes and methodologies you are using for your startup
Matt: We are using….
Matt: Scrum and a Scrumboard. So everyone everybody puts up what their jobs are and what they are working on, moves it around so you see where everyone is at. In the mornings you are supposed to do a daily stand-up so everybody communicates where they are in the process so it keeps the whole team on board. We haven’t been very good about doing it in the morning, but we usually try to get it done in the day somewhere to make sure it gets done.
What do you think would make it easier to keep everyone on the same page?
Matt & Abraham: More meetings
Abraham: And if someone has a problem…just say it.
That seems to be a common problem for a lot of teams. Someone saying hey I’m stuck or I need help…
Matt: Or…this is too much for me to handle. We find if there is problem with communication it’s communicating downward, or down towards my…but there’s not enough communication coming back up all the time, or I’m throwing too much at them. We’re moving quick but we don’t want to create stress in the process, so need to make sure it’s a stress free environment. In startups it’s going to be stressful, but reduce that if possible. Make sure everyone is working as effective as possible.
How do you guys try to reduce stress?
Matt & Abraham: Ping Pong!
Matt: Actually that’s a really good stress reducer for us. We used to do that all the time after class. It’s nice they have a ping pong table here. You can really forget about all the stuff you are dealing with…
Abraham: For a little bit…
Matt: We are very competitive. Sometimes seven games in a row..we’ll be sweaty by the time we get back up!
So how did the user research process kick off for you guys?
Matt: Well, I started with where my dad farms at and the connections they knew. Talked to the owners, managers, employees and kinda got a sense from them. And then pretty much broke off to what ever anyone referred to us. Veterinarians in the area and went from there. Called them and pretty much said “This is a University of Iowa student trying to do some research”. It really helped us having Venture School during the World Pork Expo. SO we went to that and we talked to hundreds of farmers there. Not all of them wanted to talk with us, but we got a lot of really good feedback.
So, you leveraged your network and then leveraged each of the individuals personal network in order to get referrals. And then you went to a “hot spot” where there was a lot of that particular group?
From a recruiting standpoint, or finding people to talk to…what do you think was the good and bad about that process?
Matt: The bad part about it, was pretty much needing a referral in order to get somebody convinced to take the time to talk. And I wish the World Pork Expo was now again.
Matt: We’ve learned so much, we could get a lot more out of it than what we did last time. It would have made things a lot easier for us now.
When is the next one?
Matt: Next year. June.
Is it in the same place?
Matt: Yeah, luckily. In Des Moines.
Wow…the World Pork Expo is in Des Moines? That makes it convenient.
Reflecting back on it, what do you think would have made that recruitment process easier?
Matt: Just having a company concept further along than what we did then. We were such a simple concept then that even the questions we asked were very vague to make sure we got good feedback. And maybe take it a little more seriously.
And looking back at some of the companies that were at the expo, we should have compared ourselves to them a little more maybe talk to them, try to establish a relationship with there and ask “How did this work for you?”. They were all in one place…that would have been really helpful.
Well good news is you’ll have an opportunity next summer to do that!
How did you do user research at the World Pork Expo?
Matt: We usually went in pairs of two for interviewing, that way one person could take notes while the other talked. Me and Abraham went together and had a lot of people from South America, so Abraham being a fluent Spanish speaker…worked out really well! I’d walk up to people and they would be like “ehh, not interested”, he’d go up and talk to them and they’d have a 30 minute conversation.
Matt: They were way more open to speaking Spanish.
You said you were taking notes, did you guys use any equipment? Audio/Video recording for example?
Matt: We used Handrail to input a lot of the data after we got back. That made things easy when it came to analyzing research…who it was, where they were from and then compiling all that data together.
Are you guys still doing user research or customer discovery now during ISA?
Matt: We are doing a little customer discovery, but where we’re at now we found pretty much what the customer wanted so we’re good there. Now we are communicating with the Iowa State research departments figure out if the regulators and the people way up in the industry…do they support this now. We have the farmer support, but do we have their support.
So at the beginning it was more the user of the product and now you are going up the next level.
What do you see as the next level for your user research process?
Matt: Besides the research dept at Iowa State for animal health and welfare…there are some doctors up there we will be communicating with as well as the pork board to see if they can promote or back us in any way. We want to make sure there is nothing we are leaving behind.
Do you have any plans for usability testing?
Matt: Yeah. We have beta tests scheduled with a few farms in January to make sure we can get feedback on like was this thing a pain to use (Satisfaction), or how can it be simpler (Ease of Use) and did it work (Task Success).
Those are really great metrics! How are you guys planning on capturing that feedback?
Matt: We’ll go to the farm and actually interview the employees…talk to them about what there experience was like; good/bad. Also, all the farms keep track of real detailed data. We can go into their computers, type in specific point and ranges and get us graphs and give analytics back to us.
Analytics on the product itself?
Matt: Yeah. What pens it was in, if their lay-ons were reduce or what the production was…if it went up or down.
If you were to go back in time and give yourself advice at the start of the venture school program…what would you say?
Matt: Oh man. That’s a hard question. It’s easy to say now because we know this thing is more successful then what we thought it was the…but find a really techy guy early on. That would have been nice.
Do you think that because it’s a tech based product?
Abraham: Yeah, because we knew we were going to need it. We were too focused on venture school business and never really the product.
Matt: Yeah, it would have been beneficial in a lot of ways. We could have looked more to cost and had a little bit better idea of time table and financial stuff.
Abraham: Do you remember we were going to have an electrical engineer but that guy went with the other team?
Matt: Yeah! And we were kinda like “ok, maybe Abe’s going to figure this out”. Yeah, that’s kinda what we were going to do there; learn it ourselves!
That sounds like kind of a tall mountain to climb
Matt and Abraham: Uh, yeah.
So what advice would you give to other people going into venture school, into ISA or just getting into a startup in general?
Matt: Customer discovery! And be dutch with money…be cheap.
Abraham: Be open minded. Always look for a different opinion from mentors or who ever it is. You never know what you are going to find. Maybe you find another idea, maybe you change it and maybe it’s better…maybe it’s not. I
always look at all perspectives.
Matt: I feel as though like we go into things and can have our mind set, but we never discount what someone else says. We write it down or we go over it, and then we dive into it to really assess it. Ask is this valid and then make our decision versus just “thanks for the info, but I think we are going to stick with what we are doing here” and not really give it true thought.
And try to stay on the same page with the team all the time if possible.
Good thoughts! What is the most valuable thing you’ve learned so far?
Matt: Never make decisions without asking somebody else first. Even if you don’t want to use their decision…you don’t have to us it…but there has been a lot of instances where we almost made a decision but then we said wait, we should ask…
Abraham: Like advice…
Matt: We did that and so many things changed… because we almost screwed up in so many ways even though they seemed liked good ideas at the time.
Thanks guys! I appreciate the time.