TULSA, Okla. — Founded in 2015 by a farmer and an environmental scientist turned food publisher, Agruity is an online marketplace that connects northeastern Oklahoma farmers with public and private consumers.
After logging in, a buyer can pre-order and pre-pay for produce, meat, eggs or firewood for pickup at one of a dozen farmers’ markets in the Tulsa area.
“It’s almost eBay and PayPal in the same respect for local food,” co-founder Barry Jarvis said.
“I personally love the idea of doing business very quickly on the internet … to do whatever I can to avoid going to into Target or Wal-Mart and get stuff I don’t need. For the farmer, buyer, and the system of developing local food, we just feel like it’s going to be a win-win for all parties.”
Bringing that potential “win-win” to fruition has forced Jarvis and his business partner, Bootstrap Farm owner Don Drury, to expand their skill sets more than initially expected.
For example, when a now-former partner dropped the ball and third-party web designers turned out to be too expensive, Drury pulled out copies of “HTML for Dummies” and “CS5 for Dummies.” Building off of the code remnants left behind, Drury learned how to build and maintain the site himself in order to allow Agruity to focus its limited capital on other areas.
“It wasn’t necessarily hard, just tedious,” Drury said. “The major challenges were when we’d pivot to accommodate demand from buyers. When you start changing the fundamental data structures, that was definitely the hardest.
“That and security. It’ll make you pull your hair out, trying to figure out how people could potentially attack our site, then figure out how to prevent it from happening.”
The pair also had to make some adjustments to get more buy-in from both consumers and farmers. Instead of solely targeting chefs as was originally planned, the site now accommodates individual shoppers who might not necessarily be able to get to the farmers’ market right when it opens to snag boneless, skinless chicken breasts or other popular items.
“We could have saved about $30,000 had we really, really interrogated our producers and buyers at the beginning about their needs and wants,” Drury said. “We weren’t prepared to really listen then, but we are now. If we ask a producer or a seller now whether something would work and they answer with ‘Yes, but…,’ we stop right there.”
With Oklahoma’s agricultural sector aging faster than the national average, the initial pitch had to be tweaked for farmers by emphasizing the convenience factor and the opportunity to better plan ahead when heading to market. After a walk-through on the site and its potential planning benefits, more farmers have overlooked their hesitations about further incorporating the new technology and come on board.
“The younger farmers are all about it, but the average age is in the late 50s and early 60s, so it’s harder,” Jarvis said. “What we’ve found is the easiest way is asking them how much they like taking paper checks to the bank. When we say that, they say there’s definitely something here that can help. It has been a challenge to get the older farmers and has taken some training to get them on board, but as we move into additional markets, we’re seeing more buy-in.”
Though currently only in northeastern Oklahoma, the company hopes to expand its footprint into farmers markets in Arkansas, Texas and Kansas in the coming months, thanks in part to Jarvis’ connections as publisher of a Tulsa-area food magazine.
Drawing from Drury’s experiences with community-supported agriculture subscription services and consumer feedback, the start-up is also eyeing another potential pivot: home delivery from its already established pick-up points.
“If I can simplify all of this…and say Agruity’s a farmers’ market delivery service, if that’s all I have to say, it makes sense,” Drury said. “There’s some magic behind the scenes, but the public doesn’t need to necessarily see that. We’re confident that if we can solve that problem, we’re on top of the world. We know there’s a demand.”
Agruity finished second at Tulsa’s most recent Demo Day. The live pitch competition is part of the Tulsa StartUp Series and provides an opportunity for entrepreneurs to innovate and accelerate their businesses with an emphasis on delivering resources and mentoring opportunities to entrepreneurs.
Along with a $4,000 cash prize and additional investment inquiries, Jarvis said the business received an additional intangible boost.
“The feedback we’ve received will help us polish up our pitch and presentation,” Jarvis said. “Anytime you’re in a competition and don’t win, it’s tough, but it’s been such a good learning experience. The publicity is something that’s hard to achieve otherwise.”