Justin Webb is the co-founder & Executive Chairman of AgriWebb, a livestock farm management software company transforming global cattle and sheep production.
1) To kick things off, could you tell us a little about your career background and current role?
I am the Co-Founder and Executive Chairman of AgriWebb. Today, along with Kevin Baum, John Fargher and the exceptional senior team of AgriWebb, I manage our mission of empowering the livestock industry with the best tools to feed the world profitably, efficiently and sustainably.
The challenge of feeding 10bn people by 2050 with a necessary 70% drop in the carbon footprint of food production is inspiring and harrowing. Fortunately, technology is good at productivity problems, and I dedicate my career to the confluence of technology and agriculture.
I get to draw on my family background where the Webb family has been raising sheep cattle in Australia since the 1850s; however, I didn’t grow up on-farm. Instead, I studied Applied Mathematics and Economics at Harvard & Oxford. I applied those academic skills to the foundation of two businesses in Asset Management, where I implemented Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning to found & scale two “Hedge Funds” before selling them to Macquarie Bank & Westpac.
During the 2010s, I was co-head of BlackRock’s $60Bn retail funds Australian division when, privately, I reintegrated into the management planning of our family farming business. At these meetings, I realised our lack of data records for projections and accurate decision-making.
How could we know where to invest in the farm if we didn’t know the clear accountability of previous decisions? So when I poked or prodded at the commercial choices we were making in our farming business, I was only offered an anecdote or a story of what had happened on the farm next door: no precise data, no tracking, no confident predictions.
It turned out that the problem plaguing that farm in Western Victoria was the same for hundreds of thousands of farmers and ranchers around the world. Thus AgriWebb was born, grounded in the simple, powerful idea of digitising on-farm production data. Literally, a tool to replace the “notebook in the farmer’s top-pocket”: to put the cow in the cloud. From there, we have more than 20 million animals managed across over 120 million acres. That’s a land mass bigger than France or Spain!
I suppose it takes an outsider’s view to consider the world of AgTech in terms of impact. Let’s consider the legacy of our mission. We can rationally resolve that in 50 or 100 years, the world will likely not recall the next ephemeral social media unicorn that facilitated ‘selfie’ sharing. Still, it will robustly remember the technology that solved the challenge of feeding 10Bn people with healthy food in ways that improve our environment, not degenerate it. That’s the mission I work on every day.
2) What does a day in your life look like for you? Can you take us through a recent workday?
The sun rises with my two young children (3 & 5), who invariably start a day with infectious enthusiasm and excitement for what might happen. A pillow fight or LEGO masterpiece later (that’s the good stuff!), and with a quick workout in, I’m at my desk. I mention a workout because as a former athlete – in younger and fitter years, I rowed for Harvard, Oxford and Australia – I find my mind is most productive once the blood is really flowing.
I tend to run morning calls with the US and prioritise my inbox & Slack from home. A quick conference call with team leadership during my commute means that when I settle into the office, I’m clear for the day with a set of objectives.
I think it’s imperative to have one or two clear goals for the day. Keeping it simple prevents the ‘noise’ from becoming a distraction. I try to consider planning in a painfully blunt framework: What’s one thing I can do today to tangibly and demonstrably move the business forward, even by 1%. That’s what gets the attention.
Throughout the day, I love the buzz of our team. There’s not a day I walk past our mission statement on the front door without deriving energy. Whenever I can, perhaps to the frustration of my teammates, I take lunch with someone in the team. It doesn’t matter what role.
I aim to listen more than I speak and take on the insights of these inspiring teammates. I leave with pages of notes on blind spots, new initiatives or maybe just a better understanding of a mate’s personal perspective. Regardless of the result, the journey of sharing a meal is tremendously worthwhile.
Hopefully, the morning has moved that 1%, so now it’s time to put fires out, help where I can, and get out of people’s way! For the afternoon, I tackle my meetings. There’s usually a few Board Members, Shareholders, investors or industry corporate stakeholder that could do with a call. By late afternoon, the UK is coming online.I take calls with any enterprise clients that might need a bit of love and could lighten the load of our country manager or VP of Enterprise over there.
I’m pretty disciplined about getting home for my kid’s ‘bath time’. I want to experience those precious hours with my family during these special years. We have dinner – no phones – and actually talk.
We might watch a show or indulge in our shared love of reading for an hour before I usually have another hour or two of calls and meetings. I’m into bed with the best intentions of a good book by 10:30, and I’m asleep by 10:32!
There are times when the pressure is on and work extends late into the night, and other periods when I take a moment to indulge my friendships. This job requires a lot of you, so I feel no guilt in taking opportunities when they arise to enjoy a hobby, a drink with friends, or maybe learn something new. I also love the outlet of getting out to the country and amongst the animals to remind myself what actual hard work is!
3) Does your current role allow for flexible or remote working? If so, how does that fit into your life and routine?
When the pandemic started to ramp up, we decided staff should work from home. Before the borders closed, I packed the family in the car and headed south for our family farm ‘Eddington’.
While AgriWebb wasn’t equipped specifically to work remotely, we found ourselves pleasingly empowered with distributed working infrastructure. Credit must go to our global business mindset from day one.
Still, our product, engineering and development teams have led and educated the paradigm of seamless coordination across offices and distributed workers. Despite our headquarters in Sydney, we have employees all over the globe in locations from London to Denver, so the connection between everyone has to remain seamless.
Personally, my role requires a lot of travel. Over the past couple of years, we learned that so much can be done over Zoom, but very little can entirely replace the personal connection required to close a new partnership or funding deal.
So, when I’m on the road globally, I can keep a pretty similar routine to home. Rise, workout, prioritise the immediate issues and set objectives for the day. Typically those objectives are the meetings or deals I’m trying to close in-situ.
Evenings spent away from home become more focused on what I’ve missed during the day rather than bath time and bedtime stories. No matter what, I make sure to call home even to check-in. It’s so remarkable to have the support of your family, and making sure you recognise and appreciate the valuable role they play. This is something I learned after many years watching my father.
Having experienced continual growth over the last two years despite pandemic conditions, we’re supportive of our team working distributed locations with flexible hours. I find putting in time from Sydney and the farm extremely beneficial for AgriWebb as a business. Working in Sydney is fantastic because you’re right there with the developers. Still, you tend to get caught in obsessing over the sales number, next product release or whatever’s driving top-line metrics and then trying to on-sell them to investors and stakeholders.
On the farm, I see our stockmen and women using AgriWebb on a day-to-day basis. They’re reviewing the feed in paddocks, treating animals and checking inventory – the tool we originally conceived here is a critical part of the daily operation. And that is amazingly satisfying to me. It’s a great reminder to operate the business by our guiding philosophy: Live for the farmer.
4) What does work-life balance mean to you and how do you work to achieve that goal?
Before the pandemic hit, AgriWebb had expanded from an Australian agtech business into the United Kingdom, the United States and broader European nations. I spent a lot of time on planes travelling to meet investors and potential business partners and didn’t have the time to commit to achieving a solid work-life balance.
Although a challenging transition for not only our team but all Australians, the pandemic was a reminder to slow down where possible. It’s not always easy, especially when working remotely from home and the sound of an email or Zoom call is hard to escape, but the time I’ve spent with my wife and children has been invaluable. Even having my daughter run into the room mid-Zoom meeting, although distracting, makes you realise how lucky you are to have time at home when they’re young.
I also started to strive for a few personal achievement goals each year. I was learning new skills or extending on old ones. I decided that I would learn to sail and enter Sydney to Hobart. I’ve set myself a goal to write and publish a novel.
I also made a bet with an old friend- with considerable consequences – that we would work out 150 times – three times a week – over the year. (re)Learn French, read a book a month, climb a mountain, journal every day, are just some of the other achievements left on my list to check off.
It’s hard to know if you’ll ever conquer each one of your goals, but I am pretty sure that something that you commit to (and tell your friends about), will hold you accountable for pushing yourself to do something cool that will hopefully scare you just a little bit and make you all the more vital.
5) In the past 12 months, have you started or stopped any routines or habits to change your life?
The previous wager with a friend to be accountable to each other for the regularity of our fitness was remarkably impactful. At home, my wife and I committed to turning our phones to flight mode and leaving them out of the bedroom at night, which has broken the temptation to scroll or dig around the internet endlessly.
Finally, as my parents get older, I commit to calling my Mum and Dad at least a few times a week. It is incredible what you can learn from meandering discussions about life, experience and reflection from those so close to you.
6) Do you have any favourite books, podcasts or newsletters that you’d like to recommend?
I tend to read a lot of non-fiction and devour biographies or ‘futurist’ books. I find that far more exciting and cognitively sharpening than the brevity of newsletters and the like.
Reading a Parag Khanna or Dexter Dias book then combining it with The Age of Turbulence, Disneywar or Play Bigger in the context of current socio-economic paradigms leads to some mental gymnastics that always come in useful when I subsequently encounter business problems.
Conversely, to disengage, I am a big fan of Stephen Fry. His lyrical writing style opens up curious little doors that make me say: “Oh, I would like to know and learn more about this or that.”
7) Are there any products, gadgets or apps that you can’t live without?
I know I should list a few key apps, but I’m going to go with a product: a Scottish whiskey or a bottle of red. I’m sure I could live without that, but just not sure I want to!
8) If you could read an interview about work-life balance by anyone, who would that be?
Drawing on Michelle and Barack Obama would be up there on my list. Michelle cited in her book as prioritising phone calls from her children over just about anything. She said it, “made her feel like her life had a greater meaning.” That’s pretty cool!
Similarly, President Obama wrote about his dedication to carving out time for his family.
I would have to take inspiration from those two in working out how I balance my own time!
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