Farm-to-Phone Apps Have Surged During the Pandemic. Will They Stay Once It's Safe to Return to the Grocery Store?
Sarah Hernandez is a full-time farmer, though she doesn't own a huge farm.
She grows microgreens, among other vegetables and herbs, in her yard in La Mirada. Microgreens, bite-sized version of larger veggies, don't require much space; Hernandez grows them vertically on 10x20 flats stacked on wooden shelves. She visits four farmers markets each week, then delivers microgreen boxes straight to customers who find her on CropSwap.
The app offers a farm-to-phone marketplace, connecting consumers directly to farmers. It's one of several services that have taken hold during the pandemic, allowing consumers who would otherwise go to farmers markets or grocery stores to get fresh produce or other goods delivered. CropSwap is also making it easier for some home-based growers to tap into the gig economy and sell within their communities.
CEO Rob Reiner co-founded the app with Daniel McCollister. The way Reiner tells it, they seem like an unlikely pair. Reiner grew up in Houston, studied computer science, and moved to NYC with the dream of being a Wall Street broker. There, he worked in software startups, but didn't find himself attached to a project that felt like a challenge.
Then he met McCollister in 2017, who invited him to see his gardens in Woodland Hills filled with an array of produce — kale, Brussels sprouts, onions, garlic, beans, tomatoes and more.
"I had believed you needed 100 acres to grow food, and here was Dan, showing me one acre that was growing more food than an entire neighborhood could consume," Reiner said.
McCollister wanted an easy way to sell or donate his food to his community — like a Craigslist or Offer Up for produce — so that's what the pair built. Their first version of CropSwap launched in 2017 and saw some 7,500 people selling or bartering various produce in the L.A. area alone. Got an orange tree? Put the fruit on CropSwap.
Screenshots of CropSwap's platform.
But Reiner found early on that users would often buy a bunch of oranges one week, but the next week, they'd go back to Whole Foods.
"There wasn't an understanding that the farmer was there to stay and could continually give you that produce," he said.
To attract both consistent consumers and — also key — investors, Reiner pivoted the app. Its goal became to teach people used to visiting chain grocery stores about local food systems and how to tap into them. He scaled back the bartering component of the app, though users can still trade messages with farmers.
"I could have a million users on CropSwap, but if I'm not attacking the WalMart consumer and the WalMart consumer is still buying [Walmart's] produce, then I haven't done my job," he said.
In 2019, CropSwap started offering curated boxes of seasonal, local produce that customers could receive right after it was harvested. Reiner described it as a hybrid consumer-supported agriculture ( CSA) box. Customers can subscribe to them or get a one-off. All farmers have to do is curate the boxes, put them on the app, and fulfill sales.
"We give farmers the tool to create their own delivery options," Reiner said. "They can do it all themselves and sell direct to consumers."
Customers who download the app can browse what's available in their area for either pickup or delivery. Farmers drop pins to indicate five-mile radiuses where they deliver, usually on specific days of the week.
One might be inclined to think that farmers markets would be CropSwap's biggest competitor, but Reiner said it's actually other apps such as Barn2Door and subscription services like San Francisco-based Imperfect Produce or Sacramento-based Farm Fresh to You.
Unlike those services, which use third-parties to box and handle deliveries, CropSwap farmers box their own food and the same farmhands who picked the produce are often the ones who deliver it.
In Los Angeles, the largest farm on the app is Sow a Heart, which also owns Sage Plant-Based Bistro with locations throughout the county. On CropSwap, they offer a Family Harvest box jammed with produce for $55, including delivery fees. By comparison, a Whole Foods cart on Amazon Prime that contains roughly the same items comes out to about $85, not including tip.
CropSwap does not charge sellers to be on the platform as others, including Seattle-based Barn2Door, do. Instead, it takes 8% of sales — in line with what a farmers market might charge — once a seller reaches 50 subscribers. Reiner said they're able to keep consumer costs low because they're not spending money on storage facilities, branding, marketing or transit.
From Consumer to Micro-Farmer
Hernandez had been following CropSwap on social media because she was interested in potentially trading her seeds for other produce. About six months ago, CropSwap reached out to ask her if she'd like to sell on the app. So far, she said "a good amount" of people have tried her variety microgreens box and she's gotten a lot of useful feedback. She currently has about 10 regular subscribers, a number that fluctuates with customer needs. Some are weekly buyers, while some purchase every other week. Hernandez said CropSwap is the most direct farmer-to-consumer experience she's had apart from the actual farmers market.
"I make the deliveries myself every week. My boyfriend helps me out, but it's just us two," she said "I'm growing it, we're cutting it, packaging it, and we're delivering it."
Through the app, she can tell her customers if she needs to change delivery dates to accommodate her market schedule or travel plans. Customers can also ask her questions, just like they would at the farmers market. If she gets more subscribers, she has space to add another set of shelves and she'd be able to hire an employee to help package and deliver produce.
There are other small vendors, too, like a beekeeper in West L.A. who sells honey flights, a jam maker in East Hollywood, and more home microgreen growers like Hernandez. Reiner said there are about 250 subscribers in L.A. Some get just one box, but some larger vegetarian or vegan families may purchase up to five.
The direct-to-consumer approach has served as a boon for some farmers during the pandemic. In Richmond, Virginia, Three Fox Farms' founder Alex King told RVA Magazine he didn't know what to do with his crops after restaurants and farmers markets closed at the onset of the pandemic. King ultimately partnered with Leafy Lanes Urban Farms to offer a box of assorted fresh vegetables, which they sold on CropSwap. They were so successful, the farmers said, they had one of their strongest seasons and King was able to invest in new hoop houses and a walk-in cooler.
Hernandez also had a good year saleswise. She said she found her customers wanted to eat healthier and appreciated the contact-free delivery experience CropSwap could provide.
Beyond the Pandemic
Reiner doesn't think pandemic subscriptions are a fluke, though he has had investors who question that. Still, he's betting the quality of fresh, local produce delivered straight to consumers will "ruin" them for inferior fruits and vegetables that have to be stored in a warehouse. Plus, he said, some CropSwap growers offer products that are hard to get in stores. For example, a farmer who specializes in iron-rich kale for vegan bodybuilders.
In its next iteration, Reiner plans to partner with chefs to make the boxes more of an experience by offering recipes and cook-alongs. CropSwap is also working on a partnership with Nourish LA to offer customers the ability to donate boxes to other families. Reiner also envisions a tracking system that lets customers know how their purchases will impact their health, environment, and communities and a future where CropSwap could make suggestions to make its customers healthier.
"Imagine if we knew your intake because of the product you were consuming," he said. "If I knew, for example, that you were low on iron, I could start suggesting boxes that might increase your iron."
CropSwap has also partnered with Jamiah Hargins' Crop Swap LA, founded in 2018 to allow Angelenos to share produce. Crop Swap LA is building new neighborhood gardens in West Adams. The produce they yield will be available on the CropSwap app, and neighbors will receive a code to become the urban farms' first subscribers.
"People are going to start seeing how much food can come from local gardens. And that's going to start deteriorating the mindset that you need so much land to grow food," Reiner said. "I would love it if kids could get involved in this and tell their parents I'm going to turn my whole backyard into selling food for my neighbors."
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Despite — or in many cases because of — the raging pandemic, 2020 was a great year for many tech startups. It turned out to be an ideal time to be in the video game business, developing a streaming ecommerce platform for Gen Z, or helping restaurants with their online ordering.
But which companies in Southern California had the best year? That is highly subjective of course. But in an attempt to highlight who's hot, we asked dozens of the region's top VCs to weigh in.
We wanted to know what companies they wish they would have invested in if they could go back and do it all over again.
Hottest<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://dot.la/media-library/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDk5MzIyNS9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1OTQ3MjQ2OH0.JYCNMjYvosYa5SI7701CH_jMFbeFdMcRCChXt442cq0/image.png?width=980" id="3927d" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="f2f18f0bc4400a388e43736c560ff87f" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="PopShop Live logo" data-width="686" data-height="128" />
Boiling<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://dot.la/media-library/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDk5MzIyOC9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2MzI5MjYwMn0.h7Nq7GiwXTcg_7Io5WEXblFX0rWQHxn69RzluTh7n_Q/image.png?width=980" id="4e424" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="d02c4cad650c987721ff91ee939a5bf7" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="Scopely logo" data-width="361" data-height="93" />
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Warming Up<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://dot.la/media-library/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDk5MzYwOS9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY3MzQ1MzE4OX0.fS5XtGx4M-tqWecrth6NCHawGSg2aSkb-yR-cY3wbtU/image.png?width=980" id="4fca7" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="aa7476f8a6216fed6b372d8a59876a6b" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="600" data-height="600" />
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Though Silicon Valley is still very much the capital of venture capital, Los Angeles is home to plenty of VCs who have made their mark – investing in successful startups early and reaping colossal returns for their limited partners.
Who stands out? We thought there may be no better judge than their peers, so we asked 28 of L.A.'s top VCs who impresses them the most.
Mark Mullen, Bonfire Ventures<p>Mark Mullen is a founding partner of Bonfire Ventures. He is also founder and the largest investor in Mull Capital and Double M Partners, LP I and II. A common theme in these funds is a focus on business-to-business media and communications infrastructures.</p><p>In the past, Mullen has served as the chief operating officer at the city of Los Angeles' Economic Office and a senior advisor to former Mayor Villaraigosa, overseeing several of the city's assets including Los Angeles International Airport and the Los Angeles Convention Center. Prior to that, he was a partner at Daniels & Associates, a senior banker when the firm sold to RBC Capital Markets in 2007.</p>
Dana Settle, Greycroft<p>Dana Settle is a founding partner of Greycroft, heading the West Coast office in Los Angeles. She currently manages the firm's stakes in Anine Bing, AppAnnie, Bird, Clique, Comparably, Goop, Happiest Baby, Seed, Thrive Market, Versed and WideOrbit, and is known for backing female-founded companies.</p><p>"The real change takes place when female founders build bigger, independent companies, like Stitchfix, TheRealReal," she said this time last year in <a href="https://www.businessinsider.com/greycrofts-dana-settle-on-closing-funding-gap-for-female-founders-2019-12" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">an interview with Business Insider</a>. "They're creating more wealth across their cap tables and the cap tables tend to be more diverse, so that gives more people opportunity to become an angel investor." Prior to founding Greycroft, she was a venture capitalist and startup advisor in the Bay Area.</p>
Erik Rannala, Mucker Capital<p>Erik Rannala is a founding partner at Mucker Capital, which he created with William Hsu in 2011. Before founding Mucker, Rannala was vice president of global product strategy and development at TripAdvisor and a group manager at eBay, overseeing its premium features business.</p><p>"As an investor, I root for startups. It pains me to see great teams and ideas collapse under the pressure that sometimes follows fundraising. If you've raised money and you're not sure what comes next, that's fine – I don't always know either," Rannala wrote in <a href="https://www.mucker.com/more-funding-wont-magically-fix-your-startup/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">a blog post for Mucker</a>. </p><p>Mucker has a portfolio of 61 companies, including Los Angeles-based Honey and Santa Monica-based HMBradley.</p>
William Hsu, Mucker Capital<p>William Hsu is a founding partner at the Santa Monica-based fund Mucker Capital. He started his career as a founder, creating BuildPoint, a provider of workflow management solutions for the commercial construction industry not long after graduating from Stanford. </p> <p><a href="https://www.fastcompany.com/3048173/the-unexpected-and-hard-earned-lessons-from-a-dot-com-flame-out" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In an interview with Fast Company</a>, he shared what he learned in the years following, as he led product teams at eBay, Green Dot and Spot Runner, eventually becoming the SVP and Chief Product Officer of At&T Interactive: "Building a company is about hiring correctly, adhering to a timeline, and rigorously valuing opportunity. It's turning something from inspiration and creative movement into process and rigor."</p> <p>These are the values he looks for in founders in addition to creativity. "I like to see the possibility of each and every idea, and being imaginative makes me a passionate investor."</p>
Jim Andelman, Bonfire Ventures<p>Jim Andelman is a founding partner of Bonfire Ventures, a fund that focuses on seed rounds for business software founders. Andelman has been in venture capital for 20 years, previously founding Rincon Venture Partners and leading software investing at Broadview Capital Partners.<br><br>He's no stranger to enterprise software — he also was a member of the Technology Investment Banking Group at Alex. Brown & Sons and worked at Symmetrix, a consulting firm focusing on technology application for businesses.</p> <p><a href="https://dot.la/la-venture-podcast-jim-andelman-of-bonfire-ventures-2648143780.html" target="_self">In a podcast with LA Venture's Minnie Ingersoll</a> earlier this year, he spoke on the hesitations people have about choosing to start a company.</p>"It's two very different things: Should I coach someone to be a VC or should I coach someone to enter the startup ecosystem? On the latter question, my answer is 'hell yeah!'"
Josh Diamond, Walkabout Ventures<p>Josh Diamond founded Walkabout Ventures, a seed fund that primarily focuses on financial service startups. The firm raised a $10 million fund in 2019 and is preparing for its second fund. Among its 19 portfolio companies is HMBradley, which Diamond helped seed and recently <a href="https://dot.la/hm-bradley-2649022900.html" target="_self">raised $18 in a Series A</a> round.</p><p>"The whole reason I started this is that I saw there was a gap in the funding for early stage, financial service startups," he said. As consumers demand more digital access and transparency, he said the market for financial services is transforming — and Los Angeles is quickly becoming a hub for fintech companies. Before founding Walkabout, he was a principal for Clocktower Technology Ventures, another Los Angeles-based fund with a similar focus.</p>
Kara Nortman, Upfront Ventures<p>Kara Nortman was recently promoted to managing partner at Upfront Ventures, making her one of the few women – along with Settle – to ascend to the highest ranks of a major VC firm.</p><p>Though<a href="https://upfront.com/thoughts/announcing-upfronts-new-co-managing-partner" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"> Upfront had attempted to recruit her</a> before she joined in 2014, she had declined in order to start her own company, Moonfrye, a children's ecommerce company that rebranded to P.S. XO and merged with Seedling. Upfront invested in the combination, and shortly after, Nortman joined the Upfront team.</p><p>Before founding Moonfrye, she was the SVP and General Manager of Urbanspoon and Citysearch at IAC after co-heading IAC's M&A group.</p><p><a href="https://dot.la/moving-from-the-passenger-seat-to-the-drivers-seat-upfronts-kara-nortman-named-managing-partner-2648493740.html" target="_self">In an interview with dot.LA earlier this year</a>, she spoke on how a focus for her as a VC is to continue to open doors for founders and funders of diverse backgrounds.<br></p><p>"Once you're a woman or a person of color in a VC firm, it is making sure other talented people like you get hired, but also hiring people who are not totally like you. You have to make room for different kinds of people. And how do you empower those people?"<br></p>
Brett Brewer, Crosscut Ventures<p>Brett Brewer is a co-founder and managing director of Crosscut Ventures. He has a long history in entrepreneurship, starting a "pencil selling business in 4th grade." In 1998, he co-founded Intermix Media. Under their umbrella were online businesses like Myspace.com and Skilljam.com. After selling Intermix in 2005, he became president of Adknowledge.com.</p><p>Brewer founded Santa Monica-based Crosscut in 2008 alongside Rick Smith and Brian Garrett. His advice to founders <a href="https://crosscut.vc/team/" target="_blank">on Crosscut's website</a> reflects his experience: "Founders have to be prepared to pivot, restart, expect the unexpected, and make tough choices quickly... all in the same week! It's not for the faint of heart, but after doing this for 20 years, you can spot the fire (and desire) from a mile away (or not)."</p>
Eva Ho, Fika Ventures<p>Eva Ho is a founding partner of Fika Ventures, a boutique seed fund, which focuses on data and artificial intelligence-enabled technologies. Prior to founding Fika, she was a founding partner at San Francisco-based Susa Ventures, another seed-stage fund with a similar focus. She is also a serial entrepreneur, most recently co-founding an L.A. location data provider, Factual. She also co-founded Navigating Cancer, a health startup, and is a founding member of All Raise, a nonprofit that supports and provides resources to female founders and funders.</p><p><a href="https://medium.com/@John_Livesay/when-google-bought-my-startup-81f1ee21488c" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In an interview with John Livesay</a> shortly before founding Fika, Ho spoke to how her experience at Factual helped focus what she looks for in founders. "I always look for the why. A lot of people have the skills and the confidence and the experience, but they can't convince me that they're truly passionate about this. That's the hard part — you can't fake passion."</p>
Brian Lee, BAM Ventures<p>Brian Lee is a co-founder and managing director of BAM Ventures, an early-stage consumer-focused fund. <a href="https://dot.la/brian-lee-los-angeles-venture-capital-2645125301.html" target="_self">In an interview with dot.LA earlier this year</a>, Lee shared that he ended up being the first investor in Honey, which was bought by PayPal for $4 billion, through investing in founders and understanding their "vibe."</p> <p>"There's certain criteria that we look for in founders, a proprietary kind of checklist that we go through to determine whether or not these are the founders that we want to back…. [Honey's founders] knew exactly what they were building, and how they were going to get there."</p> <p>His eye for the right vibe in a founder is one gleaned from experience. Lee is a serial entrepreneur, founding LegalZoom.com, ShoeDazzle.com and The Honest Company.</p>
Alex Rubalcava, Stage Venture Partners<p>Alex Rubalcava is a founding partner of Stage Venture Partners, a seed venture capital firm that invests in emerging software technology for B2B markets. Prior to joining, he was an analyst at Santa Monica-based Anthem Venture Partners, an investor in early stage technology companies. It was his first job after graduating from Harvard, and during his time at Anthem the fund was part of Series A in companies like MySpace, TrueCar and Android.</p><p>He has served as a board member in several Los Angeles nonprofits and organizations like KIPP LA Schools and South Central Scholars.</p> <p>"Warren Buffett says that he's a better businessman because he's an investor, and he's a better investor because he's a businessman. I feel the same way about VC and value investing. Being good at value investing can make you good at venture capital, and vice versa," Rubalcava said in <a href="https://moiglobal.com/alex-rubalcava-interview/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">an interview with Shai Dardashti of MOI Global</a>.</p>
Mark Suster, Upfront Ventures<p>Mark Suster, managing partner at Upfront Ventures, is arguably L.A.'s most visible VC, frequently posting on Twitter and on his <a href="https://bothsidesofthetable.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">blog</a>, not only about investing but also more personal topics like weight loss. In more normal years, he presides over LA's biggest gathering of tech titans, the Upfront Summit. Before Upfront, he was the founder and chief executive officer of two software companies, BuildOnline and Koral, which was acquired by Salesforce. Upfront backed both of his companies, and eventually he joined their team in 2007.</p><p>In a piece for his blog, "Both Sides of the Table," <a href="https://bothsidesofthetable.com/finding-an-investor-who-is-in-love-with-you-d0badf1a3998" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Suster wrote about the importance of passion</a> — not just for entrepreneurs and their businesses, but for the VCs that fund them as well.<br></p><p>"On reflection of the role that I want to play as a VC it is clearly in the camp of passion. I really want to start my journeys only with people with whom I want to work closely with for the next 5–7 years or more. I only want to work on projects in which I believe can produce truly amazing change in an industry or in the world."</p>
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