Roark Thompson was a farmer with a talent for technology, but he didn't see himself as an entrepreneur.
That changed not long before Thompson won the inaugural Springfield Hustles business plan competition in November with his platform to help streamline and optimize farming operations.
Thompson bested dozens of other applicants, including nine others who presented their plans to a panel of judges. Based on the television show “Shark Tank,” Springfield Hustles was designed to connect entrepreneurs with the advice and local connections to help their ideas succeed.
Thompson is the chief executive officer of PIPE Ag, a software platform that farmers can use to connect their fleet and improve their operation with the use of iPads and satellite images.
“It's bringing the entire farm and the entire operation online where they can see every facet of the harvest,” he says.
PIPE Ag was the culmination of years of farming experience. Thompson, 34, moved to Springfield when he was 10 years old, growing up on a farm south of the city and participating in 4-H and FFA.
“I loved farming and loved equipment, but I always had this interest in technology,” says Thompson, who now lives in Springfield Township with his wife, Courtney, and two sons. He fixed a cell phone for the first time when he was 15 – before he even owned a cell phone.
By the time that he was 30, the family farm was about 10,000 acres. Through his work on the farm and helping to manage technology on two other farms, he had an up-close view of farmers' frustrations. He originally envisioned PIPE Ag in 2017 as a hobby that could help his farm and perhaps some neighboring farms. But when he had three beta customers who were willing to pay, Thompson knew he was on to something.
In early 2018 Thompson quit farming to focus on PIPE Ag. Springfield Hustles followed the next year.
During the first part of the Springfield Hustles application process, 133 concepts were submitted, says Rob Alexander, executive director of Springfield's Small Business Development Center (SBDC).
SBDC was one of the organizers of the event.
Applicants then had two months to work with SBDC, write and submit a business plan, and 33 of those applicants did so, Alexander says. Then each plan was reviewed by three judges to whittle the applicants to the top 10, who later appeared on stage to pitch to judges.
Before that final stage, the 10 applicants worked with SBDC, doing mock pitches and gathering feedback. Alexander says that included advice on how to be succinct and avoid jargon. For example, Thompson says he received a tip to use “wagon” instead of “grain cart.”
Every company had its strengths, Alexander says. A key was to find and focus on it.
“Just like every business, you have to talk about what makes you different and better than everyone else,” Alexander says.
Thompson's PIPE Ag stood out in a few ways, Alexander says. It had the potential for a lot of growth, and he could expand his market beyond local customers.
“He was doing something that no one else was really doing,” Alexander says.
Plus, Thompson had already proven the concept, Alexander says. Springfield Hustles was open to businesses that were less than two years old, and many applicants, like Thompson, had already started. Alexander says winning the competition gave Thompson the clout to ask for investments.
As the winner, Thompson was awarded more than $75,000 in both startup capital and prizes, including website development, accounting and legal services, printing and more. He says the win also opened “all kinds of doors.”
“The money is definitely great, but I didn't realize how impactful it was to get the exposure,” Thompson says.
Two months after the contest, Thompson signed his first round of investment for PIPE Ag, for more than $175,000. Before Springfield Hustles, he had about 10 customers running 137 iPads. This year he expects to add about 250 more users, including one customer in Oklahoma who will have 58 iPads alone. Customers range from Ohio to Texas to Canada.
Because of that exposure, Thompson says he will be contributing $5,000 in prize money to the next winner of Springfield Hustles.
Alexander says it looks like the competition will continue in 2020 with an even bigger prize package. Keep an eye on the Springfield Hustles Facebook page or website for details.
The last few years have been exciting for Thompson, and he still loves helping farmers. It brings him joy when, say, farmers in their 70s don't use a smartphone but still say his iPad app is easy to use.
Springfield Hustles is a competition, he says, but everyone is rooting for everyone else. Winning gave his idea some validation.
“Other people also believed in my dream,” he says.