Bringing Farm-To-Table To The iPhone

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Nait-Jones-18Photographed by Molly DeCoudreaux
AgLocal founder Naithan Jones can stick out like a whole hand of sore thumbs. In Iowa, he's a black man, partially raised in England, working in agriculture. When he's making the rounds with developers and funders in Silicon Valley, he's — again — a rare black face and a tech professional without a college degree. Perhaps odder than all that, though, is the fact that his startup and app won't improve your dating life, stream music to your phone, or help you book a vacation. No, the purpose of Naithan Jones' app is to, as he says, "completely change the food system." Yeah, he thinks big.

"I want to provide a third option," Jones told us. Specifically, he wants to create a direct link between sustainable, organic-meat farmers and retailers, restaurants, and, yes eventually, you. The result would be more fresh, high-quality options for consumers at competitive prices and lower overheads and a simplified process for producers. That you could do it all from the palm of your hand is just gravy, particularly for farmers who spend most of their time on the move. To hear Jones tell it, AgLocal is one of those big, simple, hard-to-execute ideas that really, truly could change everything. "I believe that in the future we’ll be the most valuable Internet company there is related to food, because we’ll provide some democracy around what reaches our tables."

Lucky for us, we were able to snag Jones between client meetings to talk about what inspired AgLocal, that scary moment when he chucked everything (and we mean everything), and his perspective on being black in the mostly white startup world.

Back on the Farm
“In the States, the farmers' market is a bit of a recent phenomenon, but where I was born, in England, it’s just a way of life. When my mom was single, my brother, who's now a chef, took over cooking, and he used to take me to the market quite a bit. It was cool, building a relationship with different farmers who produce your ingredients. Eventually, my mom married a military man, and we moved to the States, and I lost that connection. Over the last 10 years, American culture has gone back to the farmers' stuff, and I realized how important that connection was for me.”

Out of the Incubator
“I had this great job at The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, an amazing entrepreneurial incubator. After a year and a half of being exposed to entrepreneurs, I realized I truly identified with them, and that I also needed to do something important. I also realized it was never going to happen inside a big organization. I walked into my job, and I quit, and it was the best feeling I’ve ever had, but it was also the scariest feeling. You know, you’re a lot freer than you think you are. You have a lot more control over your life than you think you have. A lot of people really underestimate their abilities.”

Betting the House
“It’s a crazy thing to come home and tell your wife and two little girls that you want to quit this great job, with a great wage, and with great benefits, and go start this thing that has none of the above. But she saw the fire in me, she thought the idea was good, and she said, ‘let’s go.’ Her family actually was our first investor, and we paid our web developers out of our savings. I went to work one day and came home, and my wife had sold everything we owned on Craigslist in the course of 48 hours. It was a really, really scary time. I mean absolutely frightening. She went to stay with her folks, and I jumped in the only car we hadn’t sold and drove to California. I got to Silicon Valley and started pitching to investors, and in two or three months, we were able to land a significant amount of investors and bring in some serious power as far as engineers and business people for the company. It’s been quite a ride.”

Eyes on the Prize
“You don’t see faces like mine in Silicon Valley very much, but people don’t act differently toward me out there, and that’s been refreshing. But there isn’t enough mainstream pressure on the fact that there is a new class of wealth being created. And, once again, blacks and Latinos aren’t part of it, except on the consumption side. They’re creating it without participating in the it. African-Americans are 13 or 14 percent of the population, but on Twitter and Instagram, they represent 30 percent of the users. All that consumption of that technology is creating billions of dollars. So, I try to tell people that you can’t just be a consumer, and if you’re going to be a creator, you at least need to build a company that has an online presence. You need to know how a venture capitalist works. You need to know how a tech product works (even if you’re not going to write the code for it). Most of all, you need to understand that the new wealth is going to be created online.”

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