Eleanor Herrin, CEO, Farmdrop
Eleanor Herrin loves food. She always has, and has cooked for herself since the age of ten, when declaring to her mother she had become a vegetarian.
Growing up in a farm town in Indiana, Eleanor grew up understanding how farmers were negatively impacted through being squeezed by the authorities to grow produce they didn’t want to grow. That memory stayed with her through her rise through Amazon in Seattle and later London, where, after growing through the finance division, she entered the food retail space through Amazon Fresh and Pantry, again in finance roles.
Feeling a disconnect between the Amazon customer experience and its lacking in the emotional connection she had always loved in food shopping, Eleanor committed herself to spending the rest of her career working in food.
Soon afterwards, she met Farmdrop’s founder and then-CEO Ben Pugh, who’d essentially just done exactly what Eleanor was looking to do. Joining Farmdrop was a no-brainer.
How do you innovate in grocery, one of the most established sectors there is? Is it a tech and logistics -based solution, or one of superior product and sourcing?
The food is at the centre of everything we do. It’s all about sourcing and quality.
First and foremost, we’re a food production company, serving a customer base who really cares about where its food comes from, animal welfare and agricultural sustainability, issues that the large grocer model doesn’t focus that heavily on.
We keep our operation lean to help our producers produce sustainably and grow their production. The tech that we are looking to build in the future is about sustainable production and improving the lives of the people in it.
The business was started to support producers. Ben met a squash farmer who was being squeezed by the supermarkets on price. He wanted to see how he could help improve the lot of the producers.
At the same time, like any business, we always focus on our customers and their needs.
Farmdrop is clearly a mission-driven business. To what extent do you have to build your operational decisions around staying true to the ethos the company is built on?
Luckily, we find that most of the time our operations and ethos match each other. It’s in our DNA, and every day we have passionate discussions on keeping true to our ethos, even if there are financial implications.
We have to make a profit, but we then use that profit to build our business. We can’t do one without the other and both are really important. We make sure everyone feels involved in our mission, from farmers to the tech teams. You’re not just a techie driving customer conversions. Your actions are tied to the overall mission.
Like many businesses, Farmdrop has seen a significant growth in customer base during the Covid-19 pandemic. Have customer demographics and their needs changed?
We’re seeing that new customers coming on board during Covid have much higher retention rates than anything we’ve seen before.
Coronavirus has clearly completely changed the home delivery landscape. What has been your experience?
It’s been incredible. We don’t see ourselves as benefitting from a crisis - we want to see how we can support as many people as we can.
I’ve been so impressed with our team’s attitude. They have been committed to supporting our customers and suppliers as best they can. Where producers have lost their restaurant trade, we’ve been able to help them maintain their production.
Can a company experiencing so much instant growth build for increased capacity, or is it a case of trying to fulfil orders at this stage?
We are planning ahead. We’ve built immediate incremental capacity to help us grow beyond where we are today. We have a temporary solution that is working for us, but we’ve blown the doors off our existing warehouse and are ready to expand very quickly to maintain capacity.
We aren’t having huge supply chain issues. Where we are, we’re quickly turning those around with solutions. It’s quite niche, but we may have issues with goat! We only have one producer and they may be limited on how quickly they scale.
Have Farmdrop customer shopping habits changed?
You’d be surprised. Most people are still buying fresh. With fewer slots available, people are buying some more dry goods, but mostly fresh. The pasta and toilet roll peak has settled away now since the first lockdown.
We are very data driven as a company, and becoming more so over time. We see what customers are buying and look to our next producers as and when we need to add.
What do you look for in your staff?
Everyone, from the delivery driver to the producers, really cares about our customers. We really need staff who have experience failing, or the attitude to do it. I think that’s very unique. Moving at the pace that we do, adding directions to what we do isn’t easy. You have to be someone who enjoys and embraces it.
We need people who don’t always need the answers handed to them, and are enthusiastic about it. We’re here to change the world. That takes real energy.
What excites you about tech?
I want to see technology that can help a producer be more sustainable, with tech taking away their need to focus on getting their sustainability certifications.
If we can help people eat well, so they feel healthy and can get on with their week, I think that’s really amazing.
Farmdrop is clearly more than an online grocery. What is your broader vision?
Everybody gets sceptical about a profit-making business with a mission. There are things that Farmdrop really wants to be a part of influencing on a large scale - long term health for example.
Changing the food system to be more healthy and sustainable would be amazing. We want to influence demand away from factory farming.
We aim to build sustainability into everything we do, from delivery to packaging. We probably have to be larger to have the impact, but we can influence people now. Our Made by Farmdrop range is the first completely plastic-free ready meal range to do that. Hopefully, others will follow our lead.