How rural broadband investment helped hatch a tech business

Jenny Brookfield, January 26, 2018 4 min read

This article was originally posted on the Tech North website.

Lancashire-based Dot McCarthy says the government’s project to bring superfast internet to out-of-town areas has opened up a world of opportunities to boost farming – and she intends to lead from the front, thanks to a £1.7bn national investment in rural broadband.

The University of Manchester graduate will launch Roundy Club during 2018, at the same time as running her family’s working farm in Helmshore, Rossendale.

The Seeds of Change

McCarthy says the improvement in infrastructure inspired her business, which aims to streamline the process of selling farm produce to a customer base that is constantly fluctuating.

“Just a few years ago using internet-reliant tech was massively unrealistic for many farms as the internet speed just wasn’t available in the rural farming environment,” she says. “The investment has allowed a whole new user group to enter the online marketplace. Us farmers are coming online, and I, for one, plan on making the most of the opportunity to sell easily and directly straight to my customers.”

McCarthy came up with the idea after failing to find a platform that would allow her to sell the eggs and meat produced at Cronkshaw Fold Farm more efficiently, freeing her up to concentrate on other farming tasks. When friends voiced similar issues, she decided to take action, came up with the business idea and immersed herself in the tech community. As part of her Masters degree in Geographical Information Science, she had learned to code and  decided to come up with an app that would remove the hassle that farmers face daily.

“I find repetitive tasks really boring and love figuring out ways to use technology to make things happen more efficiently,” she says. “I got so bored writing tonnes of mundane invoices and checking delivery times and dates for farm produce over and over again. I figured I might as well have a go at writing some code to see if I could make the whole process easier through some kind of app platform that farmers could use to streamline the sales process.”

dot on her tractor

The Roundy Club app is aimed at anyone from farm gate sellers to those who have food delivery rounds and farms that sell in bulk to larger customers. The beta version will launch this summer, with Cronkshaw Fold and three of McCarthy’s farming friends set to put it through its paces.

The fact that it’s at such an early stage means she is careful not to reveal too much about how it will work, yet she believes it will make important changes for the farming community.

“Large-scale farms are often held at the mercy of supermarkets,” she says. “Being paid six months in arrears is commonplace, as is being dropped in the bat of an eyelid by bulk buyers and having to find somewhere for your food to go. Then there’s the endless admin of meat and veg box schemes for smaller farms. Modern tech can streamline all of this – I want to give farmers another option.”

Getting into the Tech Scene

Keen to get to know her new sector, McCarthy has been attending tech events to glean as much advice as possible. She founded LeanIn Rossendale in 2017, a support group for entrepreneurial women, part of the international movement started by Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg. She also signed up to Tech Manchester’s mentoring scheme, where start-ups are paired with experienced entrepreneurs. After attending a speed-dating-type event, she contacted Northern Stars alumnus Elizabeth Clark, whose company, Dream Agility, is based in neighbouring Ramsbottom.

“Knowing Liz was going to be at the event was the reason I went,” she says. “She lives down the road from me and she has some really useful advice to offer about running a successful tech business.”

That advice has included how to keep an existing business ticking over while you’re setting up something new. For McCarthy, this has meant taking on a part-time member of staff to run the farm while she spends two to three days every week coding the app.

Then there’s been the expansion of what the farm offers so that it can draw in enough income to support a fledgling tech business.

So far this has included decorating an old farm shed and setting up a woodland yurt which are now listed on Airbnb for glamping getaways, running mini farm explorer toddler groups and children’s parties and inviting school groups to learn about farming and where food comes from. The farm also has facilities for meetings, wedding and events, as well as a series of educational volunteering programmes. Of course, that’s all in addition to the rainbow eggs and lamb, mutton and goat meat the farm produces to sell.

“The plan with these projects is that they will be able to pretty much run themselves alongside the livestock side of the farm, and bring in enough income for me to pay someone to work at the farm day to day so I can code,” McCarthy says. “You don’t get a day off as a farmer, animals still need feeding whether it’s Christmas day, Friday night or whatever. It’s not something you can put down and come back to so I need to have systems in place.”

dot mccarthy and her sheelp

Meeting the challenges that farmers face

Dot has huge ideas about the potential of the Roundy Club app and how it could develop, but for now it will focus on making life easier for the suppliers. She has 600 customers waiting to use it, with similar figures from the farms involved in the beta stage, which is expected to begin in July.

Some of her farming friends will face challenges with the arrival of Brexit, through the expected loss of EU funding they receive to maintain the land and the wildlife on smaller farms. That’s where Roundy Club will come in.

“Farms need to find some way of increasing profit margins and that’s the aim,” she says. “If I can streamline the process and make it easier for farms to sell food and save time on admin, and increase the potential for local people to find out about these sellers, then that would be fantastic. I’ve got customers from my egg round in Rossendale happy to support this and give feedback. They all know me as the kid from the local farm who grew up here so they’re all gunning for me.”

Startup stories, Manchester, North West, App & Software Development, Early Stage