Editor’s note: This is the fifth in a series of profiles on College of IST students and alumni who are utilizing the skills and knowledge they developed at Penn State to make an impact in a variety of industries.
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – During his time in the College of Information Sciences and Technology, Simon Huntley, a 2004 graduate, found a way to blend his passion for technology with his interest in agriculture.
Through an IST class project, Huntley – who grew up on a small farm in western Pennsylvania – developed an online farmers market. That project helped to drive him in his first job after graduation: working on a fruit farm in Colorado, where he started a vegetable growing program, helped to launch a community supported agriculture (CSA) program, and learned about the work it takes to run a farm.
He also applied his technical skills there, developing a website and data management system that allowed the owners to manage CSA memberships and payments.
Today, he does the same for nearly 1,000 farms around the world as CEO of Harvie, a web-based platform that brings farmers and consumers together through customizable share programs.
“CSAs are already out there, so this isn’t new,” said Huntley. “What we’re trying to do is make it more customer friendly.”
Harvie matches consumers’ preferences with local farmers’ harvests to create custom boxes of fresh produce. It also provides recipes based on those preferences to help make CSAs appealing and more accessible to a larger portion of the population.
“I really think food brings us together,” said Huntley. “We have to eat three times a day. The way we eat determines the way the land around us is used.”
While Huntley’s mission is to connect more consumers with locally sourced food, his business model is aimed at helping farmers grow their sales and profitability. His team has helped farmers across North America sell out their CSA programs early in the season – a first for many of them. Through his software, Huntley also helps farmers retain members, which further helps them to increase sales.
“The farmers that I work with work really hard,” he said. “They have families and mortgages and bills to pay. To help them grow their businesses and hit their goals and be excited about the work they’re doing, and help their customers be excited, is very rewarding.”
Huntley recently launched Harvie from Small Farm Central, a similar business he started in 2006. He has grown his enterprise from a single employee – himself – in 2009 to a team of 10 today, which he expects will double in the next year. He is also eager to hire interns from the College of IST who, like him, can blend skills in technology with business and communication.
As the owner of a small business, Huntley steps in to help wherever needed in sales, human resources, and customer service, but he still works on technical items like product development.
“I’m not writing code anymore, but I’m setting the direction for the technical team,” he said.
While he certainly has an entrepreneurial spirit and a passion for farming, Huntley said that he’s always been interested in building things with technology. He started programming at the age of 12, so when it came time to develop the online farmers market in that IST class years later, he had the foundation to do so.
“That gave me the confidence when it came time to launch my business,” he said. “I saw a problem in the marketplace that I could solve on my own. That class helped me.”
Since his graduation, Huntley has gone on to be recognized for his work in blending technology and agriculture. He’s been the keynote speaker at regional conferences, won several agricultural entrepreneurial awards, and authored a book, "Cultivating Customers: A Farmer’s Guide to Online Marketing." He was also recently named one of Pittsburgh Magazine’s 40 under 40, honoring several dozen outstanding people under the age of 40 whose creativity, vision, and passion enrich the Pittsburgh region.
His advice for success to fellow entrepreneurs? Start early.
“It doesn’t get any easier as you get older, when bills and responsibilities pile up,” he said. “One of the best things that I did is start when I was 23 or 24.”
However, he acknowledges that anybody with an entrepreneurial spirit and drive can succeed if they put their mind to it.
“Find a small entrepreneurial organization to work for and really see it from the inside,” he said. “If you can make mistakes on someone else’s dime or learn from someone else, it will help you in your own endeavors.”
He concluded, “Find a small problem you can solve and solve that problem well.”