"We didn’t simply want to farm; we intended to create a small farm business – a self-sustaining enterprise that, like any other business, would have to turn a profit to survive."
The jacket liner for The Farm on the Roof describes the book as “a one-of-a-kind entrepreneurship story, about building a business (the world’s largest green rooftop farm) that makes a profit while also making a difference.” It’s not the type of book that I would normally pick up – I don’t even have a backyard vegetable garden, although I do support the vendors at our local farmers market. Even so, I decided to push myself out of my normal sphere of business reading and give this book a chance. And in short order I was drawn into the world of Brooklyn Grange and the eclectic group of twenty-something New Yorkers who worked to make their dream of a commercial rooftop farm a reality.
Plakias not only weaves a compelling start-up story, she shares a bushel full of practical advice that any business owner or manager would be wise to adopt if they are serious about growing their business. Things like:
- finding and working with the right partners,
- the importance of continuous data collection and analysis to support decision-making, and
- regular debriefing sessions so you avoid repeating costly mistakes and better optimize your processes.
Yes, I was pleasantly surprised to discover there were numerous takeaways I could pull from the experiences of these rooftop farmers and apply to my own business. In this summary, I focus on the power of business analytics.
Profitable Businesses Crunch the Numbers
"It is one thing to plan a hypothetical business and another thing entirely to operate it. The former is based on projections, best guesses, and aspirations. The latter is about analysis, hard data, and coming to terms with reality."
This lesson is one that all business owners and organizational leaders need to come to grips with fast. All the planning, dreaming, projecting and hypothesizing you do is for naught unless you regularly gather and analyze your key performance data. Only then will you know with any certainty where your weak points are and whether you should invest resources to repair them or cut your losses and abandon them altogether.
I’m confident we can all recall situations where a plan for something or other ‘looked good on paper’ and then failed miserably during implementation. Plakias shares a number of farm-related examples that caused more headaches than good for the farm team, from too wide crop beds to the idealism of utilizing the HVAC system to heat a greenhouse. She also describes the detailed information Ben (their lead farmer) inputted painstakingly into numerous Excel spreadsheets and how this information guided future decisions about how much of which crops to plant, the optimal order dates for seeds to maximize their growing season, and the right soil amendments necessary for healthy produce.
Reading the numerous examples in the book inspired me to consider the data I currently collect (not much to be honest) and what additional data I should be collecting and analyzing routinely to better guide my business development activities. While I derive more satisfaction working on client deliverables, it is clear I need to crunch a few more numbers to get a better handle on what’s working well and where I’m short-changing myself.
Plant the Right Seeds!
"Strategic product selection isn’t unique to our line of work…every business must make decisions about what to offer based on ROI."
Being strategic about what products or services your business offers is one of those common sense decisions that many entrepreneurs ignore. Perhaps it is the fear of missing out on a potential sale or the misguided assumption that variety is crucial to success. Too often businesses (including mine) fall into the trap of offering a little bit of everything rather than a modest range of high quality, in demand products and services.
In the case of Brooklyn Grange, Ben’s analytics helped the team determine the optimal percentage of space to allocate to crops that yielded large quantities of high-value produce (salad greens, kale, tomatoes and herbs) while still providing some space for popular but loss leader items like slow-growing carrots and space-hogging squashes. When time and resources are finite, wise entrepreneurs and leaders invest more heavily in products and services with a high ROI (return on investment) and sparingly into ones that may attract customers but results in minimal profit.
Do you have the analytics you need to guide decision-making about the right product mix for your business or organization? Are you planting the right seeds to ensure your business yields a profit? If not, maybe you need to create an enterprise budget.
Include Absolutely Everything!
"It doesn’t matter if you’re growing squash or building bicycles, if you don’t have an enterprise budget for each product you sell, you don’t have a grip on your business."
I don’t know about you, but I don’t have an enterprise budget for my consulting practice. Which according to Plakias means I don’t have a good grip on my business. An enterprise budget is a book-keeping practice that assesses “the profit and loss for each crop or project individually rather than the farm (aka your business) as a whole.” For our entrepreneurial farmers, this included not just the price per square foot for each crop, but costs for seed, fertilizer, labour to plant and cultivate the crop, packaging materials (bins, elastics), etc. After reading about how Brooklyn Grange benefited from this planning tool I am convinced even a service-based business like mine needs to create one.
In my situation, I need to look beyond the exchange of my time for money and ensure I factor in costs for items that support my work but are not easily itemized and passed along to my clients. Expenses that are easy to overlook when you work from a home office – like the costs incurred to outfit and maintain that office (e.g. computer, desk, chair, lighting, pens, paper…), utilities, computer software, administration time, etc. It will take a bit of work to think this enterprise budget through, however the effort should let me to know where my break-even point is and how much margin I need to add to get a reasonable ROI on each service I provide. Right now I’m absorbing more than I should which undermines my profitability. How about your business? Are you all in?
While I was initially skeptical that a book about a rooftop farm would be a value-added read for me, I harvested a ton of wisdom from the Brooklyn Grange gang. Early on in the book, Plakias wrote, “an urban farm has value beyond the produce it bears.” I can certainly vouch for that. Beyond the analytics covered in this summary, there are numerous other GEMs that will help you see and grow your business from new (ad)vantage points! Invest a few hours of your time and reap the benefits for seasons to come.