How do you join a company and lead from the day one? And how do you do that when you come from a completely different work experience than your startup? Trevor Thompson of Terraclear had a 14 year career in the Navy, including a decade as a Navy Seal, and is now president of AgTech company, TerraClear. In this episode of Founded & Funded, he talks to investor Elisa LaCava about the opportunity for companies to hire experienced veterans and how the company is executing on it’s mission to make a farmer’s life a little bit easier with their rock picker robot.
Trevor also talks about the DOD SkillBridge program – https://skillbridge.osd.mil/ which companies can use as a way to access talented veterans.
This transcript was automatically generated and edited for clarity.
Erika Shaffer: Welcome to Founded and Funded. I’m Erika Shaffer with Madrona Venture Group. And today I’m super excited to bring Trevor Thompson, who is the president of TerraClear here together with Elisa LaCava one of our investors. TerraClear is an agtech that is automating one of the worst jobs in farming, rock picking. Rocks rise to the surface each year and farmers most often have to pick them up by hand. And these are not small pebble size rocks. TerraClear’s end to end solution uses artificial intelligence combined with robotics to precisely map where rocks are in the field by size, and then remove them with the precision robotic implement. Today there is a farmer in the cab and tomorrow it is a fully autonomous solution to this age old problem. I’m just going to turn it over to you, Elisa, take it away.
Elisa LaCava : Trevor, thank you so much for joining us today. I’m really excited to have you here.
Trevor Thompson: Well, thank you for having me. Always exciting to talk to anybody with Madrona and talk about TerraClear.
Elisa: I was realizing today, we’ve worked together now for almost two years exactly. You’ve been at TerraClear for a few years at this point, and I’ve been able to join in part of the TerraClear story now for the past two. One thing, I would love to share with the rest of the world is how you got to TerraClear and your amazing background.
For those of you who don’t know Trevor, and you should, he has an incredible history, spending, I think was it 13 or 14 years in the Navy seals? 14 years as a Navy seal and, moved over to civilian life and joined TerraClear, directly after your time of service.
There’s so much in there, how did you think about the transition into startups after your service? What were you looking for? And then, critically for other veterans or soon to be veterans who are listening to this, what are some things that worked well in your kind of learning journey when you were thinking about your next steps?
Trevor: Where to start? I guess, I grew up here in the Pacific Northwest and was really focused on a career of service from a young age, just instilled in me from my family and my parents who had either served in the military or served in medical professions. So, I ended up attending the naval academy with that intent to serve in the Navy.
I was fortunate enough to have a couple of years at graduate school at Oxford, which was kind of a 180 in terms of cultural experience, and then went right back to basic seal training. That’s where I spent the next, more than a dozen years.
In that experience, it was exciting and challenging and what I think the highlights for almost anybody in that kind of environment, is the people and the team. You have this combination of an incredible peer group and talented people, that I got to work with from all different backgrounds, combined with hard problems.
When you can galvanize a group towards these hard problems, that’s really, I mean, it’s addicting, it’s fun and exciting. So as circumstances change in my life and kids started getting born and it was time for us to come back home and leave that exciting, fun world that is not super conducive to having multiple children.
Once we made that transition, that’s really what I was looking for again, that pattern of, I want an incredible team and I want a hard problem. You get the most personal growth from that and the most satisfaction. If you had asked me five years ago, if I would be operating farm equipment in central Idaho picking up rocks, the answer would obviously have been no. but I think—
Elisa: It’s more than that, but we’ll get into it!
Trevor: Yeah, exactly. It’s incredible. So, what I saw in TerraClear as I met the early team was just such a passionate team. A problem that is massive and has been completely underinvested in, and this recurrence of rocks that arise each year in farm fields.
Talk to any farmer and they will immediately smile and make a reference to how bad this job is, but that is such an opportunity to solve one of these problems that most farmers have honestly given up on. There’s a wide variety of solutions, none of which have really answered the call.
Now we’re at a point where some of the breakthroughs in robotics and machine learning technologies allow us to solve this problem in an elegant way. We can be the solution in a giant market. You combine that opportunity with a team that’s done it before and has, immense experience and talent focused on this problem. It’s really fun.
Elisa: I love hearing you talk about the parallels between your life in the military and your life now, and what you love the most, strong teams working on tough problems. How do I replicate that kind of an environment, but just pointed in a different direction? I would love to hear; how did you find TerraClear?
I’m talking to other veterans and soon to be veterans who are listening, what resources did you use, how did you use your network or what was most successful for you in finding what you wanted to do next?
Originally, I had lunch with Mark Mader, who’s the CEO of Smartsheet. I was really excited about the culture that I’d heard about at Smartsheet and him [Mark] as an inspirational leader. As I continued to talk about other folks, somebody said, ‘oh, you got to meet Brent Frei, who was one of the founders of Smartsheet’. So, I talked to Brent, and he said, in a very Brent way, ‘Smartsheet’s really cool, but you’ve got to come see what we’re doing now it’s even cooler’. That was TerraClear, and they were in those early days. So, I met with them early in TerraClear’s period, and got to know the team and grow with them as I was transitioning.
That was the experience there, I’d say, in terms of advice to veterans, there’s almost nobody that is going to be more of an advocate, for you when you come out. Because I think veterans who have been successful in different sectors, they really understand the upside there clearly. Right? So, they’re willing to invest in folks that they see that enthusiasm and humility and talent and say, I know that this, gal or guy can, can do something great, we just got to put them around the right kind of people and get them started on the right foot.
Spending time with those real advocates was incredibly valuable. Some of those came, into new networks that in Seattle were really valuable, like the Dartmouth network or the Harvard business school network, or the Madrona network. Where you meet one of these people, who’s an advocate and then they kind of spin you into a wide variety of different folks.
If I could just add one point to that, there’s two sorts of people. I think that you meet when, you’re transitioning from the military into, some other sector, and that is the ones who kind of shrug and say, “boy, this is really interesting. I’m not really sure what to do with you”. Then there’s the different, group that sort of says, “my God, you could have an incredible impact here. Like we could use somebody that has these skills”.
I think generally you get the people that have more experience and have seen the importance of team dynamics and energy and problem solving and operating within ambiguity. All of these, kind of cliche traits that you hear about. I think they really see those. They’ve seen them manifested and so they see the opportunity and the upside there. So, finding those people is important.
Elisa: It sounds like Brent was one of those people and you two immediately connected. One of the amazing things about your TerraClear journey, Trevor is you’ve like had this meteoric rise. You’re on the senior leadership team of the company in the span of a few years. One thing I would love to learn kind of in that first year of working at TerraClear, just a bit more about that transition.
How did you stretch your leadership capabilities or how did you really lean into the leadership capabilities you had already developed at the military? What served you well, versus what other areas were you trying to grow in most?
Trevor: That’s a good question. I think oftentimes one of the things you learn, or at least I learned in seal training. Is just how we ended up limiting ourselves more than almost any other external factor. That has a lot to do with, self doubt and negative talk and all these other psychological elements, but the ability to overcome those is actually really empowering and have the ability to say I don’t know everything.
I had come from a world where I was often. I was often, theoretically, in charge and responsible, but was not an expert in any piece of the equation. So, when we’re solving hard problems, there was somebody that knew the intelligence much better. There was somebody that knew the tactics much better, et cetera. So, I was pretty comfortable being honest with what I knew and didn’t know, which I think is really the first step in that quick growth period. Being around a team that was awesome, to put it in the simplest terms, that allowed me to grow really quickly in that area and allowed me to ask some pretty stupid questions that was really empowering.
It allowed me to take these really well-developed skills, like team organization, and goal setting and prioritization and all those things and account for some of the gaps, that you might encounter that you would expect and things like finance. Right? Areas that I did need to grow quickly. Having advocates on the team that understood my role was valuable and helpful.
Elisa: That’s amazing. So fast forward to TerraClear, you jumped into a company that has a really dynamic strategy. On the one hand we’re building, rock pickers, this is like metal and steel and, a real physical implement that you attach to, skid steers and different pieces of equipment on a farm. And then also there’s this amazing data and mapping component AI strategy would love to hear a little bit about the evolution of the company and what you think about, this world and ag tech and smart ag tech moving forward.
Trevor: The evolution of the company really started as a problem. Oftentimes in agriculture, what you’ve seen over the past decade is some of the lag on adoption has been the result of solutions looking for a problem. Fortunately, we really started with the hard problem.
I mean, physically in the field, picking rocks by hand, Brent had an epiphany that said, ‘good Lord, like there’s all this stuff that’s been automated. These huge elements of agriculture, harvesting and spraying and seeding and tillage, they’ve been really heavily automated. And then there’s these things that have been left behind that we all have to do as farmers’.
Solving those problems is really exciting. That’s where it started, and the solution really initially came in two areas. One is we’ve got to be able to identify this problem over large acreage. Farms are increasingly bigger and bigger with a smaller or equal labor pool. So, we need to identify the problem and then we have to solve it with a high degree of precision, which allows for really modernized farming, where you’re not digging through the ground each time, you’re just removing the rock. So that’s really where it started, and we had these kind of two parallel efforts to figure out what is the right solution for this, and we continue to iterate on those.
Elisa: I’ll give a fun plug. Earlier this year, at one of the board meetings, so TerraClear has offices in Bellevue, Washington, and out in Grangeville, Idaho. We had a board meeting out in Grangeville and a field trip day, and I had the distinct honor of driving a skid-steer that had the picker attachment on it.
As someone who didn’t grow up on a farm, never driven a skid steer in my life, I was able to get in by myself and I picked up what was it, Trevor? Like 15 or 20 large rocks in the span of two minutes. It was like driving this, Go-kart basically, which the skid steers are fun, but the beauty in what you and the team have created is this incredibly intuitive, very easy to use heavy duty system that is super fast and quite honestly like really fun.
Trevor: I think the important detail that you’re omitting is that you picked about twice as effectively as somebody had farmed for 40 years, right after you, so that was the really exciting part.
We’re really proud of the fact that it can be used by anybody on the farm.
So, a nine-year-old or an 85 year old can use this thing and really contribute effectively not to diminish your performance that day, but that’s really important for us is can we get this to be fun and easy because you take a job that was really the worst job on the farm, or certainly up there and make it the first job that somebody wants to do on the farm.
That’s a big transition.
Elisa: Right! I mean, because you think about some of these eight-inch rocks or 10-inch rocks, they are heavy. You can’t just manually pick those.
Trevor: It’s so fun obviously to get this in front of customers and, at different farm shows and all, but the face of farmers, when they see it just suck in a 300-pound rock, in an instant is pretty extraordinary. I mean, that’s, that’s a rock that is going to take a lot of time to figure out how to get out of there and potentially a lot of back pain as well. So, it is really, every single time we show this to somebody there’s this incredible reaction. That’s really fun.
We just sold this to a farmer, and he said, ‘unequivocally, the best thing that I’ve seen created in agriculture in my lifetime, just the most exciting kind of new thing’.
That is one of these, the ability to create something that didn’t exist that people didn’t think really was possible it’s not even a tweak on an existing product, it’s actually a fundamentally new approach to this problem. That’s something that we feed off of quite a bit.
Elisa: I also think, one of the unique aspects of building in ag tech is, your customers, farmers have these natural, really tight windows when they can be productive and do work on their fields in between all of the things that they do from prepping the field to seeding, across all of these stages over growing season.
I would love to hear a bit more from you on, what are you hearing from farmers in terms of top pain points that kind of surround their natural farming cycles and how does TerraClear fit into that?
Trevor: Those cycles are tight, and risk is really another way to think about that, and we think about it in terms of risks. Just to take a snapshot of, Brent’s family that, when he was a child, was farming under a thousand acres with the same number of people in the family fast forward to today and it’s almost five times that with the same group. So, they just don’t have the luxury of spending time on a field solving problems like this any more. Everybody is feeling that pressure. I mean, there it’s every sector of agriculture, similar to every sector, really across the economy. Really acute in agriculture is how do we then solve these problems with a higher degree of efficiency?
For us the answer is we can solve this problem in a way that reduces your risk during those critical periods. So, whether it’s planting or harvest, these are tight windows where missing a single day can cost you a percent in your overall revenue for the year and that’s considerable. Removing the rocks ahead of time, in a way that’s comprehensive, reduces that risk dramatically. It’s a relatively straightforward ROI for a farmer.
In terms of our actual solution, we’re accounting for that tight window by creating an autonomous tool that allows you to pick in a much wider window. Historically you turn over the soil, you go pick as many rocks as you can, and then you seed and you just kind of deal with them and you pick them by hand, if you can, after you seed. Well, having a tool that’s smart and has low ground pressure and low ground disturbance and meets the needs of the actual problem, widens that window, where we can solve it and transforms the way that, takes this from a problem that’s barely solvable to a problem that is no longer really a thing.
Elisa: Let’s talk about some of the challenges the company has faced. It’s been this wild world over the past year, especially I know as it relates to supply chain and some other issues when it comes to manufacturing a real physical product. What are some of the challenges that you’re seeing in your sector and for TerraClear specifically?
Trevor: In the sector in general, I think there’s so much promise with digital solutions in agriculture but in many cases, they’ve really met their match with the conditions in farming. I mean, you’re talking about low bandwidth areas, relatively, generally very remote areas, very large areas and so often these digital solutions provide that, they’re challenging. How do you transfer high amounts of data to be effective with machine learning tools and computer vision tools? So that’s one of them is how do we figure out how to operate in these remote environments very effectively? I think we’re making the right steps there.
On the supply chain and being optimistic here, but really look at COVID and the supply chains, two big challenges for every company that deals with any hardware over the past year, and we’re just, I think in both cases we’re better for them as a company.
COVID was challenging at first, but farmers are naturally socially distanced and so it allowed us to figure out other ways to reach them and be more effective and really get closer as a company. On the supply chain side, it’s interesting how it’s affected our engineering.
We wanted to build, twice as many units in this fall, as we were able to because of some supply chain constraints. Well, that forces us to look at, okay, what are the items that are holding us back and maybe make some engineering adjustments to get those to be items that are more mass produced, which oh, by the way, reduces your costs. On the supply chain stuff, I think the silver lining is that it has made us more conscious of some of these engineering decisions and frankly, a little bit more flexible as a company.
Elisa: I know you have a really neat program that you’re working with at TerraClear to help with employing veterans who are looking to move into civilian life and work in tech and startups. You’ve been an incredible resource to your network. We’ve talked about potential candidates who are looking into joining VC or joining an early-stage tech company, or even you’ve talked with your friends who are founding companies and being a part of that broader discussion when you’re thinking about hiring, I think TerraClear is hiring veterans too. Is that right?
Trevor: Yes, and just a quick plug and a thanks, from you who have also been a part of a lot of those conversations and Matt McIlwain, who’s on our board, both really active in that world of, helping folks find the right situation.
There’s no shortage of programs out there that help with transition. We had an incredible army captain that came out of Fort Lewis and spent a few months with us and was able to really make a big impact in just three or four months. There’s no shortage of things to do at a startup as everybody knows.
The program that I think is maybe worth highlighting is one called SkillBridge which we’re entering into now, which is an up to six months internship for a transitioning veteran. Their salary is actually paid by the department of defense. The company is not allowed to pay their salary in any way. As long as there is a path to a potential opportunity on the backend, and there’s a good faith effort there, you essentially get this incredibly talented, often times, veteran who can come in and work for free for six months and they get exposure to, figuring out what they want to do and being able to contribute to a company in an exciting way. We’ve got a rockstar coming in in January to do that program. That’s one that I think is available for anybody that wants to look into it. Again, it’s called SkillBridge.
Elisa: Great! The process for startups to reach out, to SkillBridge, it sounds like it’s fairly direct and easy to post a job description and get referrals that way.
Trevor: Nothing’s too easy with the government, but it is relatively easy if you go to the website and that is an area that there’s a little bit of a backlog right now, but it’s all there. It’s all spelled out clearly and it actually is a fairly seamless process.
Elisa: Trevor, as a leader at TerraClear, you have some incredible background and lessons you’re bringing from your experience as a Navy seal over into the startup. What are some things that you’ve directly taken from that experience and applied to the TerraClear team to help with team building, cohesion, getting people on the same page, and things like that?
Trevor: One of the things that is a hallmark of special operations is how close the teams are. That allows you to be resilient and flexible and deal with missteps much more effectively. The why behind that, I think, has a lot to do with how you’re just presented with challenging situations.
Training is artificial challenge and controlled environment that makes things very difficult and what you see time and time again, it’s very evident that when you go through hard things with people, you get much closer with them and you learn about much more.
Figuring out ways, without doing morning PT every day at TerraClear, figuring out ways that we can push through some of these challenging periods and spend a lot of time and really immerse ourselves in this environment amidst some, significant business challenges has really, I think, brought our team closer and that’s nothing that I’ve done. That’s something that was already part of the team, was finding people who are willing to be really pushed and challenged. If folks are looking at a relatively easy, nice little lifestyle job, it’s not the right company because we’re always pushing ourselves. We’re always challenging and asking hard questions to see ways that we can grow.
In training, I guess early on, I learned the value of leadership, which sounds extraordinarily cliche, so let me unpack it a little bit. Everybody kind of believes in this, but everybody has a different definition of what it is. It really materialized for me in a way when we were in basic seal training, you just do a lot of races and challenging group things with the same sized groups.
One example is you’re physically racing with boats on your head. It’s this a perfect team game, because if you pull your head down, the weight increases for everybody else on their team, whereas everybody, stands up tall, then it actually evens out the weight and reduces it. That one weak link affects the other five people on the boat. You just do these for hours and hours and days and days, and things like that, that are really challenging a group.
They do this thing where they’ll take the groups, maybe one group is getting first place every time and another is getting fifth place every time. The only thing they’ll do is they’ll swap the two leaders. So, the boats stay exactly the same with leader swapped. Shockingly time and time again, is that the poor performing boat, all of a sudden is winning races or coming close to it and the other boat drops off. So what is that, right? What are those traits that define that?
I spent a long time thinking through it, and boy, I have evidence that, that exists now, what are those things and how do you then replicate them moving forward? I think there are a couple of things, it’s a leader who is trying to celebrate and identify the strengths of the group as opposed to elevate herself or himself.
The ability to actually just think hard about what does this person want and how can I help them be more successful? That framework I think is what really has, I think, unlocked the good leaders that I’ve seen in the past. It’s a little bit liberating because you don’t have to have all the answers.
You don’t have to tell everybody exactly what they need to do. You just need to identify the things that they’re great at and really help celebrate those things and put them in the right positions to succeed.
An example is when I came in, I think Brent chose to see the upside of what I could bring to a company rather than the downside of what I didn’t know. It’s a great example of that as somebody who’s an enabler and an empower and I think that’s an important lesson.
Elisa: Wow. That’s incredible and then you do the same thing with your teams. That’s an incredible way to think about how do you succeed together? How do you recognize other’s strengths and set them up to be in a position of success to leverage those strengths, knowing that the rest of your team is thinking of you that way?
Trevor: Another exercise that we used to do that I think is a hallmark of a good company and you see it a lot is, the ability to be really harshly, honest with yourself, both at a personal level and at a company level. And so, we used to do, you had a training mission, or you do a real world mission. If something good happened or bad happened, the first thing generally after everybody got a glass of water, was to come back and do what’s called an after-action review. This is a breakdown of every part of it with an eye towards what you can improve. So shockingly little is celebratory, ‘how cool was it when we did this’? Like, there’s not much of that. It’s more ‘hey, it took us 10 extra minutes to get in. Why did that happen? Why did we judge that incorrectly’? What it does is it just kind of breaks down the ego pretty quickly when you’re just used to always talking about what you could have done better.
That’s something that I came into this company and really was looking for was a company that was honest with its own shortcomings and honest with its own degree of performance. I think that creates a culture where you can really get to rapid growth, both personal growth, and also, company growth is we’re just constantly asking how can we be better and trying to look at ourselves as honestly as possible.
It’s hard, right? I mean, we all have ego and it’s sometimes hard to address those things, but at least talking about them regularly and finding people that want to, aspire to that value has really been important for us.
Elisa: Right, and people who want to join that environment and learn how to do that from you and then contribute. That’s exciting.
Team TerraClear is this incredibly dynamic group of people. You have software engineers who have a background in coding and computer development and AI. You have folks with farming backgrounds, yourself as a veteran, all coming together in this world of ag tech and selling to farmers.
What is it like selling to the farmer customer and how do you galvanize the rest of your team to understand the problem sets of the farmer and, and work with them?
Trevor: The best solutions at TerraClear come when you combine, we think about it in three areas, business leaders, farmers, people in farming and agriculture and incredible engineers. The ability to blend those worlds is probably our best attribute as a company, as we’ve got people that have never even been on a farm who just want to solve a problem that affects a lot of people. Then other folks that have never don’t even know what deep learning is. We’ve actually got two glossaries that we have in our onboarding process. There’s the Grangeville, Idaho glossary, and there’s the Seattle Bellevue glossary. Oftentimes people have never heard of a combine or a header or, tillage. That’s totally fine, because as long as there’s enthusiasm and passion for the problem we’re solving that’s great.
On the other side, these are people who have been dealing with dirt and rocks and seed and crops for their entire lives, and don’t have a familiarization with the technologies and so constantly putting people in different environments. It’s the thing that I just love about the company, I mean, even culturally, there’s not a lot of companies out there that have that type of diversity, where you’ve got people from central Idaho and people from Seattle who are constantly interacting and we’re going back and forth all the time. So that’s really fun and it allows us to, I think really have an edge against a lot of other agriculture companies, because we can recruit such incredible engineers out of this region.
On the farmer side, working with farmers, farmers are really multifaceted and what they’re asked to do. They’re managing, budgets and then they’re fixing equipment and then they’re designing new solutions, with steel and welding. Then they’re really CEOs of a larger organization with a lot of employees sometimes. You’re asking so much of them that they can’t really live in the theoretical world. It’s very practical and often very physical.
This is why I said earlier, digital solutions often meet their match in agriculture is because, the idea of an insight for a farmer isn’t that helpful because they just don’t have time. You’ve got to give them an answer. A real practical solution that’s going to affect their bottom line this year. Sometimes, there are things that lag in agriculture because they’re not able to forecast out 10 years because the risk is too high. They need to focus on the immediacy.
The way that’s manifested for us is getting into fields and really understanding the problem firsthand but also understanding that we’ve got to provide real value from day one. That’s how we’re going to really grow as a company.
The rocks as a problem and as an entry point into ag automation, it just think is right on because it’s something that’s acute and visceral and nobody wants to do it and it’s the first thing they would love to outsource. If we can solve this problem for the vast majority of acreage globally, there’s just so much more that we can do in terms of bringing automation that’s practical to farmers.
Elisa: Thank you, Trevor. Thank you so much for joining us. It’s amazing to have this chat and to have you on the Founded and Funded podcast. Thanks again.
Trevor: Really a pleasure. Thanks for being interested in taking the time and for everything that you guys do at Madrona, you’re incredible and a great partner. So, thanks.