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In this sustainability boom, why aren’t VC dollars pointed at greenhouses?

(BUSINESS) Venture capitalists eyeball booming industries while salivating, but one niche is being ignored. Why is that?

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greenhouses boom

If you’ve been consumed by all news regarding the housing bubble, anything related to cryptocurrency, and a myriad of new startups fighting for VC real estate, you could be forgiven for not realizing that the greenhouse industry – comprising arguably one of the less-shiny types of technology – is on the rise.

Homesteading is increasingly common, and the pandemic pushed some folks into having to grow some of their own food while simultaneously allowing others the time to explore their own food production. Regardless of the reason, 30 seconds on Instagram will show you the wild popularity of this old practice.

With this rapidly spiking trend comes a variety of questions, the most pertinent of which is this: Why aren’t venture capitalists investing in greenhouses?

Sifted’s Sarah Drumm references Dirk Aleven, a Dutch entrepreneur responsible for the startup FoodVentures, in a deep dive regarding the greenhouse boom – and why it matters.

Sustainability is at the forefront of the movement, with the destabilization of weather cycles and the extreme droughts of the last year on the mind of many.

“There is no more sustainable way of producing tomatoes, cucumbers, bell peppers or strawberries than in greenhouses, because it’s way more efficient on fertilisers and water usage,” says Aleven. “All the inputs are lower and your outputs are way higher.”

Dutch-backed greenhouse technology is sweeping the globe, with greenhouse projects from VentureFood launching in various Asian and Eastern European locations.

Aleven has his sights set on the United States and the Middle East as future locations as well. His faith in their mission (to make sustainably grown food more available in these areas) is largely backed by his confidence in the power of Dutch innovation in this area.

Jonathan Webb, founder of AppHarvest, a United States-based greenhouse startup, has that same confidence. “[T]he top scientists, researchers and technologists are not in startups in San Francisco or New York, they’re not at the universities in the US, they’re in the Netherlands,” he says.

For VCs, though, one of the main issues with this boom is its lack of scaling.

It’s easier to invest in something that has clear upward mobility; greenhouses, in sharp contrast to digital technology and comparatively small startups, have an upper limit on how much physical space they can occupy.

Farming is also expensive, with Aleven’s startup having to invest around $5 million of their own money in their first greenhouse.

And with the rise of more sustainable plant-based proteins – something with increasing cachet in VC circles – the idea of pouring tons of money into something that won’t show returns for 18 months, weather willing, isn’t particularly attractive.

Another problem is that VCs find themselves drawn to more visually impressive forms of sustainable growth, such as vertical farming. Aleven has his doubts. “It sounds appealing to [investors] to be in vertical farming — but that’s not going to work,” he says, alleging that greenhouses are, comparatively, much cheaper to build.

Aleven also eschews the sex appeal of something like vertical farming by invoking simple yet effective logic. “It’s a niche market… why would you take away the sun?”

Aleven’s confidence is inspiring, but it’s clear that while sustainable farming may be the future of food production, such projects will need to make much larger splashes before becoming the future of VC investments.

Jack Lloyd has a BA in Creative Writing from Forest Grove's Pacific University; he spends his writing days using his degree to pursue semicolons, freelance writing and editing, oxford commas, and enough coffee to kill a bear. His infatuation with rain is matched only by his dry sense of humor.

Business Finance

Tips on setting a more accurate freelance rate

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Setting a freelance rate can be difficult given that any industry has conflicting norms regarding an appropriate billing amount – a fact made more difficult by about a billion other factors such as experience, location, and so on. Whether you prefer to determine your rate the long-form way or you just want a calculator to point you in the correct direction, here are some tips for figuring out how much you should be charging.

Jennifer Bourn, business guru and freelancer extraordinaire, eschews the general “start with the salary you want and work backward” approach. Under this model, you would theoretically determine the amount of money you want in a year, divide that number by the number of hours you plan on working in a year, and charge whatever the quotient is (for example, $100,000 divided by 2080–which is 40 hours per week times 52 weeks in a year–is roughly $50 per hour).

The problem with this model, Bourn posits, is that it doesn’t actually get you what you want to earn. Once you take into account things like your overhead spending, vacation time, insurance, profit margin goals, and actual billable time versus the time you need to do administrative things, you’re looking at a substantially smaller figure at the end of the year.

Bourn’s solution is to start with the salary you want, add all of your expenses, multiply that result by your desired profit margin (e.g., 1.10 for a margin of 10 percent), and then divide by a realistic look at your billable hours for the year–not just the standard 2080 work days in a year (which is already problematic due to the aforementioned vacation time and potential for sick leave).

If all of that sounds like way too much effort, there are a myriad of rate calculators that you could use instead. Each of our following picks has a variety of applications:

  1. Clockify is a simple, straightforward calculator that looks at your industry, location, and experience level to generate an average hourly figure.
  2. Nation 1099starts with your desired salary and then gives you an hourly rate and a daily rate based on many of the factors espoused by Bourn.
  3. Your Rate asks for your desired annual income, your number of weekly billable hours, and your anticipated time off per year to come up with a set of rough figures for weekly, daily, and hourly rates.
  4. Freelance Rate Calculator is a Google Sheets template that takes into account your goals, expenses, billable hours, and more.
  5. All Freelance Writing is a more intensive calculator with an advanced option to determine all of your costs, goals, billable hours, time off, and so on, making it a pleasant option somewhere between Bourn’s long-form calculations and something like Clockify.

You should test your salary calculations in a variety of spaces if you have the time. This will ensure that you end up with a solid, well-corroborated result that you can quote to clients rather than having to fall back on one website’s opinion. Whichever option you choose, though, remember that you deserve to be paid what you’re worth–not just what your services are worth.

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Business Finance

How should freelancers be saving for retirement (is it even possible)?

(FINANCE) Adulting is hard, but retirement looms no matter your age – here are some ways to start squirreling money away so it’s less stressful later.

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Freelancing is a tenuous approach to employment, made all the more so by a profound lack of amenities usually offered by more stable arrangements – chief among which is a retirement fund. It can feel impossible, especially when your business suffers amidst a pandemic, so some of what follows can be ignored until the ship isn’t sinking, but don’t wait a minute longer than that – deal?

So there are several schools of thought regarding the best way to start saving and where you should put your money, but the bottom line is that, if you’re a freelancer, you should be allocating your own retirement funds. Here are some ways to do just that.

Before you can even get into the weeds of how to invest in retirement, you should have a parachute in case things go sideways. My Bank Tracker suggests starting with an emergency fund of $1,000, adding to it as you can until you have anywhere from 3 to 12 months of expenses covered.

This serves two purposes: ensuring that you’ll have the luxury of time if you need to perform an abrupt job hunt, and establishing how much you can safely put away each month without jeopardizing your business or standard of living (within reason).

Having a relatively large sum of money on hand for emergencies is always good, and if you never have to use it for the purpose for which you set it aside, it can supplement your retirement whenever you decide it’s time to cash in.

My Bank Tracker also suggests storing your emergency fund using a “high-yield” bank account, such as an online savings account, rather than sticking with traditional, low-interest savings options.

You also need to plan for taxes, which in addition to whatever your tax bracket percentage is, includes allocating 15 percent of your income to pay Social Security and Medicare. This means that you’re probably putting aside a pretty hefty sum (at least 30%) each month.

Once you’ve established your emergency fund and planned for taxes, you should have a general idea of what your wiggle room looks like vis-a-vis saving for retirement.

The actual saving part of retirement entails investment in a retirement account such as an IRA, Roth IRA, a 401(k), or a pension plan (referred to as a “defined benefit plan”).

Each of these account types has benefits and drawbacks depending on your situation.

  • A Roth IRA will allow you to contribute a certain amount each year, and you can usually set up an account quickly from a variety of online locations. The money that goes into a Roth IRA is post-tax, meaning you don’t have to pay tax on the retirement funds you pull out. Your income, however, can disqualify you from investing – if you earn above a certain threshold ($140,000 in 2021), you won’t be able to use a Roth IRA.
  • Other IRA options exist as well, each with a cap on how much you can contribute per year and varying tax requirements. For example, a traditional IRA account requires you to pay taxes when you withdraw the money, and there’s an upper limit on how much you can contribute.
  • A SEP IRA is similar, but the upper limit on investment is substantially higher – and you need to be self-employed (or an employer) to have one.

Nerd Wallet also points out that a 401(k) is a reasonable option for self-employed people who don’t employ anyone else, especially if you plan on saving “a lot in some years — say, when business is flush — and less in others.” 401(k) accounts allow you to put up to a certain amount ($58,000 in 2021) in each year pre-tax, and you pay taxes on withdrawals whenever you start pulling out money.

More eccentric retirement options exist as well. Taxable Brokerage Accounts let you invest in stocks and securities through a brokerage, and you’re able to use the money whenever you please – but you’ll have to pay taxes on your gains each year, which can become expensive in the long run.

And defined benefit plans are expensive and entail high fees, but they allow you to set up a pension with high investment opportunities as opposed to some of the lower-investment options.

Whichever option (or options – you can always invest in multiple accounts) you choose, make sure you’re saving for retirement in some capacity. And remember that these accounts represent exponential growth, meaning that the sooner you start saving, the better off you’ll be when you begin your retirement journey.

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Business Finance

Stripe makes it easier to collect money from customers

(FINANCE) Stripe didn’t reinvent the wheel, but they are outshining competitors by adding features that help small businesses.

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stripe payment links

Payment processing is an attribute of any sales process that can make or break the customer’s experience – and, with it, your revenue stream.

While coding in a payment portal can be time-intensive and costly, payment processor company, Stripe has a simple alternative: Payment Links.

Stripe Payment Links are exactly what they sound like. Rather than linking a customer to a product and then having them check out via the usual cart process, you can send them a Payment Link for that specific product; the customer then enters their payment information in the ensuing window, and the product is theirs.

It’s a very straight-forward process that is made easier by Stripe’s no-code presentation, a choice that ProductHunt posits is an effort to go with the no-code flow we’ve seen in the last year.

And, the easier the checkout process is, the more likely a customer is to complete a transaction. It’s one of the reasons why Amazon’s “Buy Now” feature is so rewarding (and dangerous, especially at night).

By offering a customer a direct link to a product with a space to enter their card info in a hassle-free manner, Stripe has created an incredibly convenient way for them to pay – and, without the usual process of checking out involved, customers have less time to second-guess that payment.

Call it what you want (manipulative, pushy, morally grey), but if a customer doesn’t get the chance to rethink their purchase before the payment form has been filled out, chances are decent that they’ll follow through.

Certainly, there are drawbacks to this system. The link applies to individual products or services, which means that, while you can create an individual link for each item on your site, your payroll processing will categorize each of those links differently. That can be a mess to sort out at the end of the day.

But it’s a great way to ensure that customers who want something specific can get it quickly and without much ado about anything.

Putting a Payment Link in your bio after advertising a product on Instagram, sharing your link on Twitter, or even DMing links to interested customers is sure to be a productive, if shameless, endeavor.

Here is a quick rundown from Stripe:

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