Disrupting Agriculture Finance Is This Army Veteran's New Mission
Austin Maness, Army Veteran & Founder/CEO of Harvest Returns
Tell us about who you are and your background in the military:
I’m Austin Maness. I began my military career as a cadet at Texas A&M University, while also serving in the US Army Reserve, December 2000 - May 2003, 420th Engineer Brigade, in Bryan, TX. Upon commissioning as a 2LT in the Field Artillery branch in May 2003, I served on active duty until September 2013. Duty stations included Giessen and Freidberg (Germany), Camp Casey, and Osan Air Base (Korea). Military education included Artillery Basic Course (Ft Sill, OK), Amor Advance Course (Ft Knox, KY), Joint Firepower Course (CP Casey, ROK), and Turkish Language (Presidio of Monterey, CA). Combat deployments included Baghdad and An Najaf, Iraq in 2004, Tal Afar and Ar Ramadi, Iraq in 2006, and Kabul, Afghanistan in 2012. After separating from the Army, I worked as a private contractor for a US State Department program based on the Turkish border that provided material support to Syrian rebel units in 2013.
Tell us about your business:
Chis Rawley (a US Navy veteran) and I founded Harvest Returns in 2016 in order to provide access for agriculture businesses to much needed equity and debt capital with the use of an online, crowdfunding investment platform. We work with farmers, ranchers, and ag-tech founders to offer quality investment opportunities to self-directed investors that are interested in diversifying their portfolios with agriculture assets. Harvest Returns strives to keep investment minimums as low as possible in order to allow as many investors to participate as possible, regardless of wealth level.
Describe how you got the business started:
Chris, our CEO, has been an avid investor in many asset classes. When trying to diversify his portfolio into agriculture, he noticed the difficulty of finding quality ag deals as well as the high barriers to entry. The company was founded in late 2016, funded 100% by the founder’s capital, and we spent roughly 8 months constructing our online platform with some legal and technical partners. During that time we researched and studied the rules and regulations from the IRS, the SEC, FINRA, and any other laws pertaining to selling securities. By the spring of 2018, we had closed our first official offering, and most investments were made from friends and family. Over the past 5 years, the company has taken some small investments directly, and at the beginning of 2022, we had secured $2 million in equity investment to expand our business.
Tell us why you wanted to become an entrepreneur:
My first job opportunity out of the military was as a contractor on a government program. I saw a sickening amount of fraud, waste, and abuse by government officials and employees and decided I wanted no part of that world. I was approached by my co-founder, Chris, about the idea of starting a company as I was finishing up graduate school. I never really had the urge to start my own company, but I certainly enjoyed my autonomy over the years.
“I knew I did not want to be some cog in a giant corporate machine, working a desk for the next 20 years.”
Quite a few of my Army buddies had separated from service and eventually found themselves working for start-up companies and their experiences definitely informed me of what to expect when starting this journey.
Describe how your military background prepared you for entrepreneurship:
Part of starting a company is putting a team together and focusing everyone on a common goal. While I never worked in recruiting while in uniform, I did rely on the management skills I developed in the service. Being able to adapt to any environment, developing multiple courses of action, and seeing a problem from several angles, are all incredibly valuable to the startup life and all are skills that come from serving in the military. Dealing with people - employees, vendors, customers, bankers, lawyers, regulators - all present their own challenges, and those are manageable thanks to the experiences I had as a leader at different levels in the Army.
Tell us about some of the obstacles and challenges you’ve had and how you overcame them:
In most cases, money and resources are always limited with a startup company. Fortunately, our CEO had enough personal wealth to get us going before we could start generating revenue and paying our own bills. We certainly had the support (emotional and financial) of our family and close friends, many from our military days. We kept a close eye on our spending and put a great deal of energy into being as efficient as possible. In the financial industry, government regulations are typically the greatest obstacle to overcome. Banking institutions are so big and are not agile in the least bit. Attorneys are always trying to squeeze another penny out of you while you are just trying to not get flash-banged by some bureaucrat. I had never taken a financial class in my life, and yet I was absorbing as much as I could through books, websites, podcasts, news, and other sources.
“Many entrepreneurs describe it as “building the spaceship while you are flying” and that is very much true.”
Describe how are you doing today and what the future looks like:
We have kept our team lean and agile. We currently have a 7-member team that we typically augment with an intern or two every semester. We also have a few freelance contractors that we reach out to as needed for special requests. Ironically, 2020 was the year our company really took off. As the economy was stalling a bit, more investors were selling off public stocks and looking for safer, hard assets. Combined with the cracks in the US food distribution system, more and more investors began focusing on agriculture and the food system as a “safer” place to put their capital during such a weird time. Since then, our revenues, our customer base, and our investment velocity have all increased. We are expanding the team and recently moved into a bigger office space. We believe that we can continue to grow our company to be very disruptive in the ag finance industry and continue to educate and connect our customers with the people that grow our food.
Share some advice with your fellow veteran entrepreneurs:
You don’t know what you don’t know and that sucks.
“Find the gaps in your knowledge and skills and be humble enough to reach out for assistance where you need it.”
You also have to be careful about who you rely on for support. There are plenty of “consultants” and “mentors” out there trying to sell you a bag of tricks to be successful. You have to put in the time, do the homework, and trust your gut on many things. You will certainly find thousands of ways NOT to do something when trying to improve your processes and that’s ok. Veteran networks are very helpful, but again, you have to pay attention to the task and purpose of any “networking” opportunity. If I knew then what I know now….I would certainly have taken a class or two in accounting, business management, and economics. I don’t need to be an expert, but I would have been in a better position to support my team if I had some basic skills in those subjects. You have to find the right balance when trying to highlight your veteran status. You will struggle sometimes when it comes to sharing that part of yourself in the business world and you will come across plenty of folks that over use it.
Where can we go to learn more: