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What owning an alpaca farm has taught me about running a tech startup

It's actually a lot more similar than it sounds

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Jay Reeder
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Jay Reeder

Founder and CEO, Ninja NumberJay is the founder of Ninja Number, a virtual phone system that helps entrepreneurs increase revenue with an AI-powered automated telephone lead optimization. Jay is the founder of Ninja Number, a virtual phone system that helps entrepreneurs increase revenue with an AI-powered automated telephone lead optimization.

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Alpacas have gone from being a lesser-known version of a llama to a full-blown craze, and are becoming ever more popular thanks to their friendly nature, fluffy exterior, and cute faces. Running an alpaca farm, therefore, is miles away from running a high-tech company in a world full of technological innovation, digital transformation, and cut-throat entrepreneurship. Right?

Actually, the truth is that the two are very similar, at least in my experience. While from the outside, the alpaca industry might look like a relaxed affair between a few enthusiasts, launching and running a successful alpaca farm taught me valuable lessons which I could then apply to running the tech startups I also lead.

Running an alpaca business requires just as much organization, productivity, and “smart work” as needed to build a successful startup. Here are a few of the many things that the world of alpacas taught me about being a CEO of growing tech companies.

Alpaca

The best talent might not be locally available

Building out a herd of quality alpacas means importing the best genetics from around the country and sourcing herdsires that carry desirable traits. 

This lesson applies to startups too: it can be difficult to source local talent that’s really good at specific skills. Hiring remotely is a great option for tech businesses that don’t require their teams to be present in-person, and allows you to get your hands on the best of a talented global workforce. Hiring remotely doesn’t only serve to help build your expertise; remote workers are happier and more productive, according to the 2019 State of Remote Work Report

Like inserting new bloodlines into my alpaca farm, getting better workers for my tech startups improves the entire team by inserting new ideas and new talent into the organization. We aren’t limited by geography and can pull in experts that we otherwise wouldn’t have access to. You can hire remote contractors from all over the globe, in everything from AI to public relations.

Knowledge sharing is key

Within the alpaca industry, sharing knowledge while continuously learning is a crucial part of becoming a leader. I attend seminars each year with my family, who do a great deal to run the farm, to learn from others, and pass along what we’ve learned along the way. I’ve shared my knowledge by presenting at seminars for regional alpaca associations, as well as at events such as the national halter and fleece shows.

We love helping other alpaca farmers improve their farms, develop new husbandry techniques, and maximize their experience of the alpaca lifestyle. This means continuing to read, study, attend seminars, and do anything else that helps us be inspiring and valuable leaders in the alpaca industry.

More alpacas

For example, a few years ago I started teaching marketing seminars on agritourism at the National Alpaca Show and for associations around the country. By detailing a complete model based on TripAdvisor that could be immediately employed at any farm, I was able to give farmers that previously had no knowledge of agritourism what they needed to start turning a profit.

And of course, the concept of learning and sharing is key in the development of a tech business too. I’m constantly reading about new trends in everything from AI to SEO, and sharing these ideas across the organization. You can’t create successful startups without learning to insert new ideas and improving upon systems and processes already in place.

Sharing this knowledge is important in tech. You never know what could come from partnerships and alliances you make in the field. With 23 years in the telecom industry, I’ve managed to create many allies with whom I communicate regularly, bouncing ideas off them and identifying upcoming trends.

Working towards thought leadership takes time, but it’s worth it

Thanks to the process of learning and knowledge sharing, I have been able to publish articles for Alpaca magazine. My wife Melissa and I have served on the boards of state and regional associations, along with various committees for the national organization. I was also elected President of the Southeastern Alpaca Association. Entering thought leadership territory within the alpaca world was a journey, but one that allowed me to understand the complexities of the wider industry and use this to power our own farm.

Becoming an industry leader is no easy feat. But once you gain the credibility that comes along with thought leadership, it can do wonders for propelling your business ventures. I founded my first telecommunications company in 1994, followed by several other ventures that helped me stay ahead of the curve.

My leadership skills and contribution to innovation in the industry earned me a place on Glassdoor’s list of the “20 Highest Rated Telecom CEOs To Work For.” Honing these skills over time not only allows you to grow as a business leader, but it also empowers your team and helps them strive to grow the business.

Another alpaca!

Use tools to improve efficiency

As the alpaca business became increasingly popular for events and tourist visits, we found ourselves inundated with calls and messages from potential visitors. Rather than keeping up with these through traditional methods (taking a note of the message and spending time to call them back) we decided to deploy tools to automate these processes and save us time.

By using AI-powered phone software, we’re able to review all of the communication the farm has received over the course of the day in a matter of minutes and quickly reply to people — keeping customer satisfaction levels high and making sure to not waste any time.

This approach to deploying the right tools at the right time is important to fast-growing startups that need software that scales with them. As your business grows, deploying tools such as a CRM solution, virtual phone system apps, and team collaboration and project management tools will facilitate a smooth transition from a small business of a few people, to a growing force in your industry powered by a happy team that has everything they need at their fingertips.

While there are differences in running an alpaca farm and being CEO of a tech business — there isn’t a lot of wool-shearing and luffa-growing in an office full of developers — there are a remarkable amount of similarities too. 

Ultimately, the goal of both businesses is to grow, enrich the industry, empower our teams, and be the best option out there. And it just goes to show that inspiration and education can come from the unlikeliest of places. Launching and running an alpaca farm is an endeavor that I likely wouldn’t have envisioned for myself earlier in my career, but now I couldn’t imagine a professional life without it. 

Published November 3, 2019 — 17:00 UTC