Former youth pastor’s agtech firm has a purpose beyond making money
As a young boy, Randall Schwartzentruber loved to build things out of Lego and take machines apart when they quit working.
“Receiving my first computer was a life-changing was a life-changing experience,” he recalls.
As a young adult, he spent close to 10 years working in youth ministry for The Gathering, a Kitchener church plant.
Now, as the co-founder and CEO of BinSentry, a fast-growing agricultural technology firm, he gets to combine his passion for discovery with his love for mentoring people to be all that they can be for the glory of God.
“My current place of work has become the place that I do ministry, and that is also exciting.”
Raised in Haysville, a hamlet 20 minutes west of Kitchener, he spent a lot of time on his grandfather’s farm, with tinkering and automation becoming an increasing passion.
Even while working as a youth minister, he looked around at things the church needed and wondered about how to automate routine activities.
Outside of the church, he worked several days a week at a Tavistock cheese factory to pay the bills. “I call it tent-building, just like (the Apostle) Paul, that’s how I was able to support my true passion, and the thing I went to school for, ministry.”
In 2014, with a growing family to support, he started a job doing smart home automation, getting some extra schooling and certification to become qualified for automation engineering. “That experience is what uniquely positioned me for what I am doing now, which is running an Internet of Things agricultural sensor company.”
In lay terms, the Internet of Things puts sensors to work to perform mundane tasks.
Schwartzentruber’s journey into full-time entrepreneurship began when the owner of a feed mill described not having a way to track on-farm inventory as one of the largest business challenges.
Historically, the way people determined how much feed was left in a bin was to climb up a ladder and whack a rubber mallet on the side of the bin.
Assuming that he would find a solution for the man’s problem with a quick internet search, Schwartzentruber was surprised to learn that no cost-effective solutions existed. That discovery led to a 1.5 year process of “ordering various components online and tinkering on the kitchen table” in the evenings after his four children had gone to bed.
Eventually, he began to make progress on a solution, and decided to leave a secure job to start his own company.
Early on, it wasn’t easy. “After spending time trying to solve this problem, I can confidently say, we understood why no one else had done this up until that point in time.”
BinSentry had to experiment with hundreds of sensors, as most didn’t work for more than a few weeks without being overwhelmed by bin dust.
The solution they settled on (Light Detection and Ranging or LIDAR, systems also found in self-driving cars) uses low-power, battery operated cellular sensors, with solar charging backup.
Canada’s largest telecommunications company rolled out a network that would hand the data from these sensors just as BinSentry began selling its devices.
“We ended up being in the right place at the right time with the right skillset.”
When he started BinSentry, Schwartzentruber knew that companies with two co-founders have a greater chance of success. So he prayed for guidance and ended up turning to a childhood church friend, Nathan Hoel, a software architect who is now BinSentry’s chief technology officer.
Hoel was happy in the job he had, and initially rebuffed Schwartzentruber’s offer. Two months later, he reconsidered and came on board. “That’s really when BinSentry took off.”
While the two men’s values, vision, and mission for BinSentry align perfectly, “the way we think about problems is completely opposite” and leads to great solutions, Schwartzentruber said.
Wallenstein Feed, one of Ontario’s largest feed mills, was BinSentry’s first customer “and definitely a huge proponent of what we were trying to do in the early stages of our company’s founding.”
In 2019, Bin Sentry won $100,000 at the Forbes Innovation Summit, which showcases agricultural technology companies. BinSentry was one of two firms selected from 300 applicants from around the world to win the top prize at the Indianapolis competition.
BinSentry entered the contest as a way of raising its profile “It was quite an experience to have your solution validated in that kind of way,” he says.
Helpful as the money was for a young firm, the attention that the contest, and Schwartzentruber’s subsequent opportunity to speak on a panel at a Forbes-sponsored event, was even more important, in his view.
That recognition generated instant credibility that “goes a long way in the ability to sit down with potential customers.
Several partnerships have allowed BinSentry to grow rapidly. In September, they announced they had secured $10 million (Canadian) in venture capital funding. Weeks later, they unveiled a deal with agribusiness giant Cargill to distribute their product.
Staffing has almost doubled to 23 in recent months and could hit 40 by year-end.
BinSentry has its own salesforce to market its product to Cargill’s competitors, and is starting to grow into South America. It has sold over four thousand systems and expects to place 10 to 20 thousand by 2022.
While the company has a long sales cycle, it might become cash-flow positive (more money coming in than going out) over the next 12 to 24 months. Getting a large poultry or pork firm to put BinSentry’s product on all of their bins could push BinSentry forward quickly.
“A lot of things have to go right in order to get that level of saturation with a customer.”
COVID-19 and market reaction to it are the big wild card in how things will unfold in the short term, he said.
Being a CEO is at times difficult and anxiety-inducing, and Schwartzentruber realizes he there are moments where he just has to trust the Lord.
“The excitement to be part of something that God is building to provide opportunities to people within our organization and outside our organization as well is probably the single most motivating factor.”
BinSentry’s current focus is on scaling up, so the company’s opportunity to shine Christ’s light is in valuing employees and their contributions, he said.
He wants to help employees to understand that their work is a way of participating in an act of worship.
“If we are able to create a space where they are able to use those skills, gifts and passions to create a better world, then they are worshipping.”
Creating a space where individuals are valued, heard, where they are given an opportunity to be worshipping through their work is a major motivator for Schwartzentruber.
“Of course, our visions are bigger than that. We want to be able to take the wealth that the Lord is enabling us to generate and go and create opportunities for other people outside of our organization.”
The company has discussed being involved in missions trips, building homes for people, or perhaps working in sustainable agriculture in developing nations, plans that have been put on hold due to the pandemic.
“We are a company that prides itself on being creative.”
He is excited that BinSentry’s business journey may allow people “to shine the light of Jesus in this world,” but uncertain where that journey will lead.
“That willingness to surrender what we are building here is the reason we have got to where we are at.”
Whether or not employees are people of faith, they get excited about a corporate mission “that is driven by meaningful purposes,” he said.
Investors in the company were asked about their openness to BinSentry’s vision, including its inclination towards being charitable. The team of investors who are backing the company buy into BinSentry’s values and understand that “being true to that vision is how you attract the right employees.”
A different view of managing growth
Many tech firms want to keep their staff for a long time.
BinSentry takes an opposite approach. “We try to hire people and train them, so they can go out and do exactly the same thing that (co-founder) Nathan (Hoel) and I are trying to do,” Randall Schwartzentruber says.
Not that he is hoping to push staff out the door, but if staff gain skills at BinSentry that lead them to a dream of starting something new, he will be happy for them. From a Christian perspective, the former youth pastor’s dream is to make disciples in business who share the BinSentry vision.
“We’re trying to multiply the vision that we have, of building businesses that are driven by a purpose that is more meaningful that just generating profit but is instead driven by a goal of making the world a better place.”
He hopes that a number of companies are spawned by BinSentry’s vision. “I truly believe that if we do that well, success will naturally follow that.”
Schwartzentruber recognizes that he has benefited greatly from entrepreneurial mentors in the Kitchener-Waterloo business ecosystem and wants to provide the same mentoring to other young entrepreneurs. “Personally, I cannot wait to have the opportunity to pay that forward.”
He is excited about building Christ-focused businesses that, in addition to making a profit, “want to make a difference in growing the Kingdom of God on earth.”
He believes that God wants to entrust wealth to people who can be trusted to use it for Kingdom-building charitable purposes.
Young people need to understand that “there is another way that you can do business, that glorifies God and generates wealth at the same time,” he said.