CYstarters Spotlight Story: CattleTEC

How one Iowa State University graduate student carries on a family legacy of entrepreneurship

By Melanie Van Horn, senior studying public relations at Iowa State University

This story is part of a series featuring each of the fifteen startups in the CYstarters 2019 summer cohort. Each team has the opportunity to focus on their startup or business idea while receiving $6,500 or up to $13,000, along with mentorship, accountability, and educational sessions on how to build a business.

Alex Irlbeck, a graduate student studying agricultural engineering at Iowa State University, is behind a new business aimed at helping cattle farmers keep better records to make the best financial decisions for the farm’s livelihood. Irlbeck is from Templeton, Iowa, where his family’s cattle farm is located.

Alex Irlbeck isn’t surprised that he ended up starting his own business. Growing up on a farm in western Iowa and watching his father balance farming and running his own welding shop, Irlbeck always had a feeling that he would follow the path of an entrepreneur.

“I always figured after I graduated college, I’d go work for someone for a while, with the ultimate goal to go back to work on our farm or run the welding shop. I didn’t think I would start my own business right away,” Irlbeck said.

As he continued to work in agriculture, he noticed a growing problem affecting cattle farmers like his family. Since the cattle farm wasn’t the only business the family runs, it is difficult to balance the records with the everyday chores and duties of a farmer. This made it difficult for Irlbeck’s family to make economic decisions and generate a profit for their farm.

After a few class projects and professors pushing him to find a solution, Irlbeck created an inventory management software called CattleTEC.  The platform helps cattle farmers keep better records and make the best financial decisions for their farm’s livelihood.

“That was a big reason why I wanted to start CattleTEC, because of some of the problems we had faced to earn a profit and expand our operation. It was always an issue for us.  I hope to make life a little easier for our family and other cattle farmers,” Irlbeck shared.

How did you start to develop your idea?

It started as a project in agriculture engineering instrumentation class, a different idea to use sensors with feedlot cattle. But that didn’t turn out to be a great idea. After that, I shelved the idea for a while. When I added entrepreneurial studies as a minor during my undergrad, I took Bill Malone’s Management 313 course.  We worked on an idea throughout the semester. Working with my initial idea, I focused on issues with the record-keeping process.

Improving record-keeping is important. There are a few people in the industry trying to do it, and no one is doing it well.

How does CattleTEC work?

We automate the record-keeping process for cattle farmers. Right now, we’re focused on inventory management.  Our system learns the weight of each bale of hay using the farmer’s existing tractor or the skid loader.  Weight is important to predict how quickly you’re using your resources to feed cattle. We send the weight inputs to our online platform where farmers can see everything, including how much inventory they have gone through.  It’s financially focused for farmers to integrate markets to determine their break-even based on how much inventory they have used.

When did you make the decision to pursue your idea as a business?

During my undergrad, I viewed it as more of a class project. I came back to Iowa State to get my master’s degree in agricultural engineering, which essentially gave me a year and a half to work on my business. I started to spend a lot more time on it and took more entrepreneurial classes where you focus on one project. CYstarters was when my idea really turned into an actual business, where I decided I was going to continue to do it and invest money into it.

Alex Irlbeck pitches his startup idea to a panel of judges during a pitch-off for students in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences on Feb. 26 in Curtiss Hall. Photo by Christopher Gannon.

How did the CYstarters program help you move further along with CattleTEC?

It’s a really good program. The Pappajohn Center hosted workshops where professionals would come in and do a session on sales, finance or patent law, and offer their expertise.  You have money, which is nice, but more important is having the time committed to working on your business. They really encourage you to be at the Core Facility working on your business like it’s your full-time job.  CYstarters allows you to not have to worry about paying rent because you’re getting paid to focus solely on your business.

What kind of challenges did you face in the entrepreneurial process?

It seems like there is never enough hours in the day, and it seems like some days all I get done is attending meetings. Everybody thinks you just start down the path of creating a business right away. But it takes time to brainstorm and talk to people.

There’s also the challenge in describing your idea almost every single day. If you can’t, you really need to figure out what you are doing.  Having to explain to someone who doesn’t know anything about my idea or farming was valuable for me to learn.

What about being an entrepreneur has been different than what you thought it would be?

My dad’s been running his own business for 14 years now, so I understood it.  I saw something the other day that said that the CEO of a company only has 5 percent of their day that actually works towards the tasks that get something done, and I definitely relate to that. It’s answering emails or setting up meetings and delegating tasks.

One thing that surprised me was just the sheer amount of people that you talk to every day. A lot of it is chance meetings. There are so many people who want to help you and connect you to their network.  The right people want to help you succeed.  There are so many resources at Iowa State.  All you have to do is sit down with them and they’ll point you in the right direction and a list of people to connect with for accomplishing your business goals.

What have you learned about yourself through this process?

I learned organization is critical. It’s not glamorous or anything, but you have to be on top of your stuff. It’s not like I have a lot of customers to keep track of now, but it’s keeping track of deadlines and checking in with my software developer to make sure he has enough guidance.  I have a meeting coming up with someone and I need to brush up on what he actually does so I can have this conversation.  The preparation is just as important as the meeting.

What advice would you offer to someone who wants to start a business?

Pick a direction and start.  Everyone says to fail fast, and you actually have to start in order to fail or succeed.  A lot of people are half-in and half-out.  If you want to start a business, tell all of your family and friends.  Everyone will ask you about it, which provides a level of accountability.  Force yourself to keep working on your business until you have an actual reason to stop.

Interested in learning more about CattleTEC?  Visit the website: https://www.cattletec.com/.