Editor’s note: This is another in an occasional look at technology businesses operating in San Luis Obispo County.
As a founder and director of operations for Horsepower, a startup operating out of Cal Poly’s Tech Park, Landon Friend is connecting family farmers and ranchers through the power of the Internet.
At Horsepower.com, farmers and ranchers can create online posts, marketing everything from alfalfa and wine to dairy cows and horses. The idea behind the site: Give small farmers nationwide a chance to communicate directly with one another and consumers without brokers.
“Horsepower allows family farmers to be their own broker,” Friend said. “Instead of calling 50 people by the phone or faxing them, you put up a post and reach 25,000 farmers in five minutes. It provides transparency and empowerment for the farmer, giving them more control over who they’re selling to and how they’re selling.”
The startup was originally founded in 2000 by Friend’s parents, Ralph and Diane, San Joaquin Valley farmers who were frustrated with the often-expensive broker process.
Back then, Horsepower clients paid an upfront membership fee to sign on and download an application to their desktop. After connecting to the Internet, members could open an application, which would give them a list of offers of items to buy and sell from local farmers.
At one time, Horsepower boasted 20 employees and 5,000 members, and the company was profitable, Friend said.
But the business went dormant around 2003 when a venture capital firm, which had been its financial backer, pulled out.
Friend and his parents regained control of Horsepower several years later and, in December 2010, re-launched the company. Friend, 24, who was a child the first go-round, is now playing a key role in rebuilding the company, having used Horsepower as his Cal Poly senior project last year.
Along with his parents, both Cal Poly grads, Friend and two other partners — David Isham, a Cal Poly computer science graduate, and Dennis Ing, a Marin County resident who owns vineyards in Paso Robles — run the company. Horsepower is in the process of raising $300,000 from other investor partners that would go toward marketing or other enhancements to the website, Friend said.
The company is being sustained now by personal investment money from the founders and is generating some revenue from sponsorships.
“The Internet culture has totally changed, so it was really a blessing in disguise,” Friend said. “Now, more people are using the Web and more farmers are using e-commerce tools.”
Currently, Horsepower.com has eight employees — four of them Cal Poly interns — and nearly 300 members who are allowed to post free of charge.
Friend said farmers will soon be able to create profiles to tell their story and list what they have to sell or the services they’re offering.
Later this year, Horsepower will begin a subscription service, offering several tiers of service depending on the type of tools a farmer or rancher needs.
For example, a farmer might want to establish an email template to add photos, videos or a PDF file to a post so a buyer can obtain more information, Friend said.
Other revenue channels for the company include offering advertising space on the website and obtaining a fee for specific services such as hiring a Horsepower account manager to administer the tools.
Horsepower recently launched a new version of the website, featuring a more user-friendly layout, including a “region picker” that allows farmers and buyers to search for items in certain areas of California.
There’s also a farmers market component on the site that helps people to search for their favorite in the state. Horsepower occasionally hosts pick-up spots to better serve their farmers who have goods they need delivered directly to consumers or restaurants.
In addition to searching for farmers markets, Horsepower.com offers searches for products through classified ads and county fairs throughout the state.
Right now, users can search through postings from 4-H and FFA students participating in the Mid-State Fair.
“Students are posting projects, anything from animals to horticulture to equipment that they’ve built, like barbecue grills,” said Diane Friend, noting that Horsepower wants to engage agriculture teachers across the state and plans to dedicate an area on the site for student projects that are for sale year-round.
Horsepower’s aim is not only to hone the website’s tools, making them more valuable for users, but to expand its reach on the West Coast and nationally.
“The goal is to give farmers the tools to reach anyone anywhere at any time,” Landon Friend said. “It doesn’t matter what sector they’re in. There are no boundaries.”