I first heard that local farms offered weekly produce boxes — as part of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs — about 4 years ago. At that time I had joined a wonderful CSA in San Diego called The Be Wise Ranch.
But when I moved to San Francisco this summer, I had to find a new local program! Several people had recommended farms (the Bay Area actually has many CSAs) but MyFarm sounded particularly interesting. Members’ food was grown in backyards all around San Francisco proper and delivered on foot or bike to a neighborhood pick-up spot. Friends had told us that that their produce was also tasty!
I signed up mid-July to receive boxes on a weekly basis for the rest of the summer season —amounting to around 9 weeks of food — that we had to pay for up front. Given my experience with Be Wise Ranch, I knew that this was a standard practice because farms need a commitment for the growing season so they know how much crop to plant.
As soon as Chris & I received our first box, however, I knew things were “off”. For starters, our large, $35/week box contained half the amount of produce as my large box in San Diego, which was $10 cheaper.
Next, the food was handled carelessly: delicate fruits like peaches and pears were often damaged or crushed by the weight of other foods. Lemons appeared to be torn off the tree in such a way that the fleshy meat became exposed (and quickly rotted). And many vegetables were covered in the dirt that they were grown in — not unexpected, but not entirely desirable either.
Without sounding too picky here, this ruined the “user experience” of receiving what was otherwise a surprising cornucopia every week. Be Wise Ranch, in contrast, always had gorgeous boxes of clean, neatly and carefully packed produce—complete with labels for less well-known items like cherimoya and dandelion greens.
After about 6–8 weeks, we had decided that MyFarmSF was too expensive for the quality and quantity of food we received, even if they had good intentions about growing ultra-local organic produce.
The Demise of MyFarm
Everything seemed to be going fine with the organization in early September. We received newsletters and suggested recipes. Even one week before the collapse of MyFarm, they sent a very positive email about registrations for the upcoming fall season, gloating about how successful they’d become.
Then — all of a sudden — the tone of their emails changed drastically. Gone was the positive and upbeat tone; now they sounded defensive, disorganized, and unprofessional.
Trevor Paque, the President of MyFarm, wrote to his customers on September 7 that his business model wasn’t working out. July was a profitable month; August was not. It had gotten so desperate that, at the time of writing, they were unable to hire workers to maintain or harvest the crops and that we shouldn’t expect a box that week. Deliveries would resume the following week. He promised reimbursement and transparency, offering to follow up with news as it became available.
We didn’t hear from MyFarm again for a month. We had no deliveries for those 2 weeks that we had pre-paid for, and no apologies — no follow-up emails — and no replies to my emails asking if we should, after all, expect a delivery any time soon.
They did finally contact us again, but with another unprofessional email, chronicling every single thought and decision point they had encountered in the past month. In the end, their lawyers suggested that filing for bankruptcy was their best option.
Pulling a “Vidoop”
Of course, I have been extremely frustrated with MyFarm and the ride they took us and their other customers on. But emotions aside, to be honest, they’ve “pulled a Vidoop”.
Let me explain: Chris worked for Vidoop in 2008–2009 until they unexpectedly laid off their entire team this past April. They ran out of money and time pursuing shiny things, and kept their fiscal situation a secret up until they announced that they couldn’t make payroll for employees’ prior two weeks of work! To this day, there has been no public announcement, nor updates or notifications on their website.
The story’s the same with MyFarm. Their website today looks like they’re still in business. You can still fill out a contact form, see pricing information, and submit a payment! This is absurdly irresponsible!
Even more irresponsible is their behavior leading up to their bankruptcy. One member, Spike, told us that he gave the company $1500 to plant and harvest a garden in his backyard the week before they went under! They never once mentioned any problems to him, and it wasn’t until farmers came to his yard that he learned they hadn’t been paid for the past week. Of course, they then cut off all communication channels and have not apologized or offered to reimburse him. This is outrageous.
How to Fail Without Pissing People Off
Although many startups are doomed to fail, it is possible to fail with grace. I would have written a completely different blog post if MyFarm had conducted themselves by these guidelines:
- Be open. Long before there is no hope for recovery, be transparent about your business practices—what’s working and what’s not. People are happier with more information because it can help them make better decisions and temper their expectations. Put this information in emails and on your website. Like I mentioned earlier, the MyFarm website continues to look like it’s a fully functional business, continually seeking new members, even though its past customers know this not to be true.
- Ask for advice and listen to it. Listen to your employees, customers, and professionals in other fields. They may be able to help (even financially) or they may have learned lessons in the past that are useful in the present.
- Get help before it’s too late. Don’t wait until bankruptcy is the only option. If you seek advice and are transparent about your situation, people may actually be able to help. They will also care more if you’re being honest with them — or at least will be more understanding if things don’t work out. Pride before the fall helps no one and can indeed make matters worse.
- Don’t screw the people who are counting on you. This means don’t miss a payroll. Don’t withhold merchandise or investments if they’ve been pre-paid. Basically, avoid burning bridges because you never know when (or how) those people will be critical to your success in the future.
- Express genuine sympathy. Something that’s been missing from all of MyFarm’s long-winded emails is any genuine sympathy for their customers. Their talk has been very self-centered, almost forgetting that people were counting on them to provide sustenance. Acknowledging your customer’s distress (e.g., by answering complaints, emails, etc.) will show that you care about their situation.
All in all, I can’t blame Trevor Paque for pursuing his dream — and failure is an essential part of learning. But there’s a big difference between those who fail well and those who fail poorly — and those who fail poorly leave a lasting impression that’s hard to scrub out.
Given the lack of transparency provided by MyFarm, I felt that it was important that someone provide information to help other prospective customers of MyFarm make a more informed decision.
In the meantime, we’ve signed up with a new CSA called Eat Well Farms. We still believe in and want to support these local efforts — and hope that Eat Well Farms will provide a better and more transparent experience than MyFarm.