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After assessing the market, Kellee James concluded that there was a gap in the agricultural industry and that there was a need for a subscription data service to report the condition of agricultural goods that are ready to be sold. From there, Mercaris was born. The enterprise essentially delivers price-related information and guidance to customers on a monthly or weekly basis via text or email for growers to provide consumers with access to quality organic foods. Maximizing the distribution of organic and Non-GMO crops is the first step Mercaris has taken in achieving sustainability and solving SDG Zero Hunger by promoting sustainable agriculture.
Kellee James was able to acquire highly confidential and secured data reports through various surveys.
James expands on her approach to retrieving data, "We made agreements with a bunch of different participants in the market. They agreed that they would turn over very confidential information and we signed legal documents that say we won't disclose their name." Mercaris consolidates its statistics from grain handlers in Eastern Canada and all across the US.
Gathering and distributing data is only the first step of this service, but what exactly can growers and businesses do with this information? Mercaris has been able to provide a virtual trading platform where growers of organic goods can meet with customers interested in buying these crops to make transactions. Once the trade has been completed, the physical commodity will be delivered to the consumer. Additionally, Mercaris does provide consulting services to help a client decide if their service would be highly beneficial.
At a young age, Kellee was never exposed to an entrepreneurial mindset. Her father was in the Army and she never really thought of business and innovation as a career path, especially with no significant parent figure actively pursuing business.
It wasn't until after graduate school, that Kellee James "accidentally" found herself at a startup company called Chicago Climate Exchange (CCX) in 2005, where she loved the mission of the enterprise and developed a good relationship with one of her team members. Speaking about her time at CCX, Kelle says "Once you are involved in a startup or running your own business, it's really hard to go back to a normal job." As Kelle was introduced to the entrepreneurial lifestyle at a tech startup, her passions aligned with a team member that she had met, and they both became inspired to develop Mercaris together. Kellee's co-founder contributed the computer programming skillset, whereas Kellee specialized in business development.
Kellee says, "I am eternally grateful for that professional experience because I met my co-founder...It showed me that I too could be an entrepreneur and you look around and your like, I can do this."
Throughout Kellee's time working at various companies, she faced and encountered unjust treatment with the presence of racism and sexism, which ultimately became a motivating and inspiring factor for Kellee to become an independent businesswoman.
Mercaris has become a useful tool for farmers and allows them to make an informed decision of what crops to grow more than others. Right now, they are growing an influx of grain and dairy products, but Mercaris plans on expanding its selection of crops and wants to start growing cocoa, coffee, sugar, eggs, and organic counterparts of other food products. A major impact of providing data on organic and non-GMO food items is that it encourages customers to eat healthier and acquire their necessary vegetable intake.
With the market intelligence Mercaris provides and the productive work environment Kellee has established, Mercaris has become a Benefit Corporation. With this status, Mercaris supports various philanthropic services including parental leave for staff members and they will pay for members whose reproductive rights are stripped away from them. Kellee is also an avid supporter of encouraging her employees to get involved in civic organizations and she says, "It's important to walk the talk."
Ultimately, throughout the services Mercaris provides, the end goal is to strive for sustainability and nutritional eating, and Kellee James has played an essential role in creating a conduit of agricultural and entrepreneurial success.
After being in business for over 8 years, Mercaris' revenue is very close to hitting $2 million and they are expecting to break even within the next year. Seemingly, it has taken Mercaris longer than expected to reach its desired goal, but to compensate for that, Kellee James raised $10 million in venture capital. Although Mercaris has not become profitable just yet, they are on an upward trajectory to boost revenue.
Behind every successful business, is a strong and like-minded team with outstanding individuals. Mercaris is made up of 13 employees with 12 employees being full-time and the remaining one taking on a part-time role. Additionally, they have two independent contractors who help with completing individual projects that contribute to the growth of Mercaris.
Kellee James says, "The next stage of growth for us is expansion," She is definitely interested in increasing the skillset of her team. Currently, her employees specialize in various fields from computer programming to sales/account management, and any other remaining projects are outsourced. With the help of this team, Mercaris was able to increase customer retention, which can often be a gruesome task with subscription-based data services. It is one thing to onboard a customer, but it is even harder to keep that customer from leaving.
Creating a healthy work ethic and culture within the environment of the startup is a top priority for Kellee James. She says, "If you're a paranoid person who doesn't like to communicate and share information, you will hire people and build a team just like that."
In terms of looking forward into the future, Mercaris is focusing on providing data to farmers or third-party companies to help with futures and options contracts as a method of hedging price risk.
Kellee James says, "It is almost like an electronic insurance policy." Essentially, if the price of a crop were to be too high, it would result in a payout occurring, and Mercaris helps provide data for these crop prices to determine what exactly is "too high".
Mercaris has transformed the agricultural industry and has been an impressive promoter of moving into organic crops without the use of pesticides. A common issue with pesticides is the detrimental effect that these toxic chemicals can have on a farmer's health including birth defects that they can pass on to their offspring. Pesticides can even enter runoff, which ends up harming other aquatic populations such as fish in various bodies of water. With more of a shift to organic farming, there will most certainly be a less destructive impact on the "landscape level".
Formulating a platform where consumers can purchase commodities that are immensely nutritious and rich in vitamins, not only benefits the environment, but the health and well-being of citizens, which addresses the UN's Sustainable Development Goals.
Founder Kellee James says, "Organic is not the only answer, but it is one important answer to how to make our food supply chain more sustainable"
She expands more on wanting to maneuver into grass-fed beef and dairy as opposed to the current grain-fed beef and dairy. With a grass-based diet, it is much more efficient and effective, reducing land usage, and creating a more sustainable environment.
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Kellee James, Founder