What life on the farm can teach you about building your own startup


Brent Frei 300SmartsheetSmartsheet cofounder and CMO Brent Frei

Smartsheet cofounder Brent Frei was only 6 years old when he got his first taste of responsibility: driving a pickup truck.

Frei grew up in a wheat and beef cattle farm in Idaho.

One day, Frei's father made him drive a pickup home five miles away, while his father drove the tractor behind him. Frei's younger sister sat in the passenger seat next to him. Frei could barely reach the pedal, but he drove the pickup through the canyon, all the way back home.


"That night, I was this little proud kid, knowing what I just did. It was just an amazing feeling," Frei tells us.

And that experience taught him an important lesson he carries with him to this day: "People are much more motivated when they have control, and everybody's capable of a lot more than they think they are."

In fact, that's just one of the many life lessons Frei's learned while growing up at a farming town, before going on to carve out a successful career in the tech world. Frei spent years at Motorola and Microsoft before founding two startups, including one that went public - Onyx Software, which went public in 1999, and then was acquired in 2006. 


His current startup, Smartsheet, has raised $68 million so far, and is on a mission to replace Excel spreadsheets. The business has been growing fast too: it's grown 80% year-over-year for five straight years, while signing up more than 61,000 paying organizations.

But Frei still attributes a big part of his success to his days up in Idaho, harvesting wheat and barley for his father. In fact, he says there are surprisingly many things tech CEOs can learn from farmers. Here are some of the lessons he shared with us:

- Stick with hard work: Frei says some tech entrepreneurs complain when things slow down and turn "monotonous." Whenever he hears that, he looks back to his days in Idaho, when he had to sit in a tractor for 16 hours straight, going around the same route with a 12 foot plow behind him. "If you've gone for 10 hours and you really can't see a difference in the field, you really got to believe that there's light at the end of the tunnel. And what happens at a startup is exactly that. You just have to do the work," he says.


- Be an expert in everything: Frei says people get surprised by how versatile farmers can be. They can wire electrical things and fix plumbing, while they know about animal husbandry and crop science. "They have this very broad expertise - maybe not super deep in all of them - but that's exactly what you need when you start a company," Frei says. Entrepreneurs can't just be great salesmen, but also a good marketer, manager, and motivator, among many other things. "You need people who can wear a lot of different hats," he says.

- Take a creative approach: Farmers are some of the most creative people when it comes to solving a problem, Frei says. If they find something broken, they'll use whatever tool nearby and get it fixed quickly. "I find the same thing in business - you almost never have all the right tools to do the exactly right job done," Frei says. Whether it's your marketing strategy or customer service approach, you'll need a creative solution to really move the needle in your business. That's also what he looks for in potential job candidates. "We test a lot for how people would solve problems by thinking outside the box," he says.