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From Zero to First Cotter Crate Sale

From Zero to First Cotter Crate Sale

They say 90% of start-ups fail before ever getting to launch their product. What did the 10% do differently? Start-ups without this knowledge are like solders going into battle without a weapon. In this short article our CEO Nick Cotter details what he thinks put Cotter Agritech in the minority.

The idea

The most important step the 10% make is talking to customers as early as possible. The other approach is ‘build it and they will come’. I don’t recommend it. Some think this works because their idea came from having a problem and they think everyone else has the same problem. Our ‘Cotter Crate’ was like this at the start. We invented it from struggling to vaccinate our own lambs. Necessity is a great basis for the initial idea but you have to get past your own initial viewpoint, and hear the needs of those who will ultimately pay for it.


The first Cotter Crate


The first potential customers we spoke to was at the 2019 Ploughing Championships (with a raw prototype, mind you). We done the bare minimum: €1000 for a patent application was all we’d spent. You can imagine the surprise when we won the Best Start-Up Award. Farmers were asking ‘when can I buy it?’. My brother and co-founder Jack won the Engineers Ireland Innovator Student of The Year a month later.


2019 Ploughing Championships

It was very encouraging and pushed us to pursue the idea. You would think on this
feedback, you simply run with it and get making money. However, we spoke to a group of farmers from Wicklow who said they wouldn’t invest if it only did lambs. It needed to do adult sheep too. Redesigning it would costs €€€ but after a lot of talking, we went with what the market told us to do. The next 2.5 years involved monthly farm visits with a single prototype. We brought the prototype back to our shed after each testing round, improved it, and got back out there. We kept going until farmers said “there’s nothing more to add here”. What we then launched wasn’t even really our idea, but a collection of ideas. Like a crowd project.


Testing with farmers Tom Staunton (left) and Mark Winterbottom (right)


"two heads are better than one, even if the other is a turnip”

My grandfather Sonny Cotter often said, “two heads are better than one, even if the other is a turnip”. Mentorship is an underrated activity. You need to bounce ideas off someone to filter the good ones from the bad ones. This is really important because you cannot afford to spend too long walking in the wrong direction. Maybe it’s an Irish thing, but I can’t remember anyone saying no when asked for help. We got a lot of value from participating on the UCD Agcellerator programme, which included mentorship from people who have gone where we want to go – Ed Harty (ex Dairymaster) & Fabien Peyaud (Herdwatch CEO).

One of the best bits of mentorship I got was at the Ploughing a few years back from Alan Heaney who brought Lely robots to Ireland. He had seen us online. There’s a lesson in here too that you never know who’s watching; so get good at your socials (could do with getting better myself). He said, “you have to get out of the boiler suit and into the real suit”. Alan’s dead right. You can’t just narrow in on your expertise (marketing, engineering etc.). Engineering types, in particular, have to understand that the idea is only about 10% of the formula. Big decisions have to be made by founders, and you can’t make good ones if you don’t understand every aspect of your own business. You can get help in this area from the likes of Accelerators and Local Enterprise Offices.


You should tap into grants and competitions where possible. They will help you grow more belief in your idea. We won the 2022 Global Student Entrepreneur of The Year and it really put the business on another level in our own minds. We also entered many competitions that we didn’t win, but business is a numbers game – you hear ‘no’ more than you hear ‘yes’; but the more times you try, the more often you hear ‘yes’.


Winning the 2022 Global Student Entrepreneur Awards


You’ll also communicate much better because of the application process. Communication is an underrated skill. You should watch Patrick Winston’s ‘How To Speak’ lecture to improve. I watch it before any big presentations. If you can’t communicate your vision, you’ll find yourself walking alone with no team and no customers.

Not giving up

You will have to do things you don’t like, and when you don’t want to. Long hours and what will feel like endless challenges. It will knock the s*** out of you and you will have many moments of self-doubt. A support network is crucial (family, friends, your partner, mentors, other entrepreneurs). I especially became great friends with our early test farmers. I highly recommend that you heavily involve all these people in the journey and ideally, that you have a co-founder. The journey is far more enjoyable if you share it with others.


Jack & girlfriend Eleonora, Nick & girlfriend Aoife, Mom & Dad helping at a trade show.


"the worst things in my life never happened" - Mark Twain

Start-ups will have 2/3 life and death moments every year. I usually went to Dad for these as he’s a bit of a stand-up philosopher. He often replied, like everything, this too will pass”. I think it’s a lovely line. He’d sometimes follow this up by quoting the “Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness” line from Desiderata. Mark Twain’s “the worst things in my life never happened” line was said other times. These are important things for a sleep deprived and isolated start-up founder to hear so they get outside of their head once in a while.

Today – Scaling Up

It hasn’t necessarily got any easier but we see the impact, and the trajectory is really encouraging. The Cotter Crate is selling well. I’m visiting New Zealand soon to begin scaling there. We’re doing more R&D, including facial recognition of sheep. By all accounts, the dream is being realised. However, every day is still challenging. Managing supply chains, people, expansion strategies, keeping the business bankrolled etc. The problems are just a bit different, a bit bigger scale and a bit more complex; but we can look back on everything we have achieved to date and it gives us the confidence to keep going.

A bit of inspiration

I’ll close by being a bit of a stand-up philosopher myself. The last line from Desiderata reads, “Strive to be happy”. Make sure that, god forbid, if it all goes to pot you can say, “but we’d some craic doing it didn’t we”. That’s all that matters in the end.

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