Jason Hanna and Doug McDaniel Win Big Idea Competition with “Farm Spotter”

Winners Jason Hanna and Doug McDaniel of Farm Spotter, Knoxville, February 2016 (photo used with permission)
Winners Jason Hanna and Doug McDaniel of Farm Spotter, Knoxville, February 2016 (photo used with permission)

Jason Hanna was not only born in Knoxville, he’s pretty much been a downtown kind of guy his whole life, growing up in Old North and attending Fulton High School. Other than a year spent playing music in Salt Lake City, he’s always lived in downtown Knoxville. It seems odd on the face of it that he and co-developer Doug McDaniel would be on the verge of developing an online system serving farmers – and restaurants. It’s a long story with numerous twists and turns.

It started with his good friends whose families had farms in east Knox County as he grew up in Knoxville. He’d split time between hanging out in the Old City at Cup A Joe, which used to be found at 132 W. Jackson, and doing decidedly non-city things like cutting tobacco on those farms. Also cutting his musical teeth on lots of bluegrass, folk and Bob Dylan music which spoke to the heart of rural America, he felt a draw to farming culture. It would all come full circle eventually.

Dixieghost, Blank Newspaper's Knoxville's Finest Awards, Scruffy City Hall, March 2015
Dixieghost, Blank Newspaper’s Knoxville’s Finest Awards, Scruffy City Hall, March 2015

Returning from Salt Lake City in 2008, he formed Dixieghost and took a variety of jobs including doing a bit of data analysis. He settled in with Three Rivers Market for several years as a produce buyer and began working part-time on a small farm which used natural practices. While at Three Rivers, he purchased produce from a Mennonite farm, Spencer Mountain Produce, located near Crossville. After a bit he began working for them part-time doing deliveries.

Eventually they asked for help with marketing and he sought out new restaurants to purchase their produce, connecting them to Bistro at the Bijou among others. He found himself in a similar situation to his childhood, living in Old North and spending time on a farm outside Knoxville.

Meanwhile, he’d become friends with Doug McDaniel. Doug is a videographer and producer who filmed last year’s acclaimed Ace Miller documentary, “Legends of Appalachia: The Ace Miller Story.” That film featured music by Dixieghost and became the first collective venture for Jason and Doug. Later he shot the music video for the song “Clermont” from the Dixieghost album “Wine and Spirits.” They’ve also collaborated on the annual Mabry-Hazen benefit. Doug owned a tech company which provided kiosks for the Atlanta Olympics, organizes the Scruffy City Film and Music Festival and has shot video for Michael Samstag.

Jason says his goal has always been to work for himself  and he sees Dixieghost one of the products of that desire. He manages, fronts and does the booking for the band and he’s proud to say they are a profitable group, which isn’t easy to accomplish. He wants to be able to do work everyday about which he is passionate.

With this goal in mind he’d considered several businesses. A conversation with Doug at Public House, however, helped provide a focus for those ambitions. Doug is very active with Airbnb and they discussed application of that model of an online market place connecting guests with accommodations, to connecting farmers and restaurants. They contacted Jonathan Sexton, the Entrepreneur in Residence at the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center, who worked with them and encouraged them to enter the “What’s the Big Idea?” competition.

Jason Hanna, Farm Spotter, Knoxville, February 2016
Jason Hanna, Farm Spotter, Knoxville, February 2016

The winner of the competition, they learned, would be awarded $10,000 and given office space for a year to get their idea off the ground. They made their first pitch to Jonathan who gave them feedback and suggested they read the book, “The Mom Test,” which discussed talking to potential customers to see if your idea is workable. They set about talking to farms and restaurants. They got some encouragement and heard some things they didn’t want to hear about potential problems with their idea.

Eventually, the duo and their idea was chosen, out of a group of about fifty applicants, to be one of the six groups vying for the ultimate prize. The competition was held this past weekend at Scruffy City Hall under the direction of Emily Skaar from the Entrepreneur Center. After an initial pitch in front of potential mentors including technology gurus, managers, marketers, accountants, local business owners and others, Jason felt they’d done well, but was very impressed with other presentations like a proposal to make biodegradable plastic.

After the pitches, mentors selected teams with which to work and meetings went into the night, leaving Jason and Doug with a number of critical comments. They stayed up even later re-working the model and questioning whether the idea would ever produce more of an income stream than that required to pay each of them about a half-salary. The cost-modeling portion of their meeting had not gone well.

The next morning they met with their team and started with vision they’d refined overnight. The team, to whom they are very appreciative, included Trevor Jones, John Gargiulo, Cole Hyam, Michael Bowie, Steve Chin, Kathy Watters, Josh Smith, Brad Miller and Keith Moore. The biggest changes involved simplification. They eliminated any involvement in delivery, leaving that to be effected by the farmer and/or restaurant. With the goal of building a larger company, the app they had planned, became an online connection program.

New Farm Spotter Offices, Knoxville, February 2016 (photo used with permission)
New Farm Spotter Offices, Knoxville, February 2016 (photo used with permission)

Essentially, a producer (or farmer) will make a profile stating certifications, location, inventory, minimum purchases and pickup guidelines. The buyer sets up a profile and they will be able to search by numerous parameters, including the food they need and certifications they want – such as Hillel/Kosher, organic, etc. Buyers make connections with producers all via the program and payment is taken when the transaction is complete, similar to Airbnb or Uber. Revenue for the company is generated via service fees to the buyer and a percentage of sales from the producer. The program also allows farmers to send out alerts when they have a large amount of produce – say tomatoes – to move, which should reduce waste by making the system more efficient.

The refined version eliminates most overhead and provides a model which should be easily transferable to various locations. The initial push will be for a network surrounding Knoxville and then Asheville, focused on getting local food to restaurants. Plans include expansion to Seattle, New Orleans, San Francisco and Portland as a second stage. The cities were selected based on numbers of restaurants and strength of their locavore culture.

After working for over fourteen hours on Saturday, the groups were at it again on Sunday. By that evening they made their final pitches and Farm Spotter was chosen as the winner of the start-up cash and office space.

Promotion will be largely through social media campaigns and there is a built-in benefit for consumers, as well. The program – and an app, eventually, will allow consumers to search the site for restaurants which serve the kind of organic or other food they desire. In turn, this gives the restaurants added benefit.

Winners Jason Hanna and Doug McDaniel of Farm Spotter, Knoxville, February 2016 (photo used with permission)
Winners Jason Hanna and Doug McDaniel of Farm Spotter, Knoxville, February 2016 (photo used with permission)

Farm Spotter is already working via email. Six Knoxville restaurants, including the West family restaurants have signed up and they have their first farm. Next they will expand that network while finishing development of the program. They are in search of investors to help them, while hoping to launch online sometime this spring or summer. Interested in investing? Have a farm or restaurant and want to get involved? Contact Jason at Jasonjhanna1@gmail.com.

It’s another example of the very cool ideas coming out of our city. A number of very creative people are about moving their companies and our community into a promising new era.