Data That Feeds the Corn Belt
What do South African grapevines and a San Francisco bike rental shop have in common? They were both inspiration points on David Friedberg’s unusual journey into agriculture—mind you, his degree is in astrophysics from UC Berkeley.
Friedberg’s grandfather farmed grapes, which seeded his initial respect for agriculture. Later, as a twenty-something, he passed the Bike Hut on his daily commute while working his way up the corporate ladder at Google. But the Bike Hut was always closed on rainy days. "We found that 70% of businesses are affected by weather," Friedberg says. "It seemed like an interesting problem to solve."
By 2007, Friedberg started WeatherBill.com. Through the years, the company kept returning to agriculture as a prime customer. After all, farmers are affected by weather as much as any industry, Friedberg says. In 2011, the company rebranded as The Climate Corporation, crunching terabytes of data, creating their own weather models and selling weather insurance to farmers.
The company enjoyed big success in 2013, including its acquisition by Monsanto Company for almost a billion dollars and the launch of Climate Pro, a set of premium digital "advisers" that help drive profitable on-farm decisions. The company’s secret success, though, is how Friedberg has been able to recruit new employees away from tech titans, such as Google, Amazon and IBM. It shouldn’t be surprising, however.
"Ultimately, farming has a lot to do with mathematics, statistics and probability," he says. "Plus, we offer a real-world connection that makes this a rewarding place to work. I have a great deal of respect for farmers and hope we can offer a meaningful service to them. This is more rewarding than working on a chat app or a photo-sharing app."
Employees of Climate Corporation journey to the Midwest once a year to see farming operations in motion. Friedberg hopes it will keep employees interested in farming and spark new ideas.
As for the Bike Hut? It still operates on Pier 40 in San Francisco. And it’s still closed on rainy days.