Nick Carter is the co-founder and CEO of Market Wagon, an online farmers market that lets consumers browse and buy from local growers and vendors online. Launched in 2016, Market Wagon operates in 20 local markets in the Midwest—an increase from six at the beginning of 2020. The company's vision, as stated on its website, is to serve "local farms and food artisans by growing the market for their products with consumer-friendly shopping and delivery services."
Photograph courtesy of Nick Carter
Carter developed Market Wagon with unique perspective on the gap between smaller producers and consumers eager to "buy local": He grew up on a family farm in Indiana. Shifts in the U.S. agriculture industry and an entrepreneurial itch led Carter away from farming to the startup community in Indianapolis. After several years building a successful tech career in the Circle City, including the launch of a separate software company, Carter seized an opportunity to return to his roots and merge his knowledge of the U.S. farming landscape with his platform development experience. He founded Market Wagon with Dan Brunner (who serves as the company's chief operating officer), a logistics veteran and a former VP of Kiva Systems, which Amazon purchased for $775 million in 2012.
In an interview with Winsight Grocery Business, Carter discussed the access issues that farmers and other small producers face in helping would-be buyers find and purchase their products—issues exacerbated by COVID-19—and how Market Wagon seeks to bridge the gap. The following interview has been edited lightly for length and clarity.
Christine LaFave Grace: What kind of farm did you grow up on? How did the changes that you saw in the U.S. farming industry inform your perspective when you moved into the e-commerce space?
Nick Carter: I grew up on a small family farm. We raised, when I was a kid, beef, dairy, pork, ducks, alfalfa, wheat, barley, corn and soy, and by the time I graduated high school and was moving off to the big leagues, it was corn and soy—that was it. So consolidation and centralization in our ag supply kind of decimated family farms over the last 30 years or more.
I have always been an entrepreneur at heart. I was a college dropout, moved to [Indianapolis], got a job, and eventually, by the time I was 22, I started my own company. I taught myself how to write code so that I could start my own software company. That was a really successful startup, and about five or six years ago, I had the ability to kind of ask myself, "Well, what do I really want to do? What am I passionate about?" And this was it. Making an impact on farming and food.
It’s access to the marketplace. As our grocery industry continues to consolidate into bigger and larger suppliers. If they could wave a magic wand and have one vendor that brings them all their eggs from the entire nation, they would. And so more and more family farms are just losing the opportunity to sell into the flow of commerce. Farmers markets are kind of tapped out; they’re about maximized in this region. So we just needed to create a better, faster way for those farmers to be able get in contact with the consumers and the consumers to get in contact with the farmers and for us to be able to facilitate that transaction.
How does Market Wagon connect with vendors?
A lot of them are coming to us. We have an application on our website where you can apply to become a vendor. We’re always welcoming new vendors in; it’s a constantly growing marketplace. When we’re brand-new to a city, we’ve got to do a little bit of reach-out, find some of the top local vendors at the local farmers markets, get in touch with them and see if we can get them online.
For consumers ordering through Market Wagon, there are no purchase minimums, contracts or subscriptions involved. What kind of capacity or commitment are you looking for from vendors?
Number one is they have to be willing to engage. It’s more than just list your products, put up prices. There’s posting; there’s content, constant messaging; there’s people asking questions and engaging on the platform. It’s a very social shopping experience that we’ve created, and [vendors] need to be willing to engage in that. They build a connection directly with the consumers. They’re chatting on the platform with customers just like you would if you were at a farmers market having those conversations.
What have you learned about this local-focused e-commerce space in the past five years?
I think consumers are hungry to know where their food is coming from and how it’s produced. And they’re asking all kinds of questions that supermarkets cannot answer: “What’s the environmental impact of the way this farm operates?” “What am I contributing my dollars to here, and how is it impacting the world around me?”
As someone who grew up on a farm and has first-hand knowledge of challenges that farmers face, when you go into a new market, what questions can you answer or fears can you allay either from vendors themselves or others in the community?
Everywhere we go, there’s one universal need, and that is farmers need more access to the market. They just need more and more opportunities to sell their stuff. One of the things that often comes up is, are we competing with farmers markets? And the answer is no. People who enjoy walking physically at a farmers market don’t transfer to online and then abandon the farmers market. The farmers market continues to thrive, and we love that. But what we are able to do is help those consumers who maybe would have gone to the farmers market this Saturday, but their kid had a soccer game, or they were out of town. They can now order online. So we are augmenting that.
There are so many people who would love to shop that way [at farmers markets], but it just doesn’t fit their lifestyle, and now with the online option, essentially we’re making the pie bigger. We’re bringing more opportunity.
How has COVID-19 changed the landscape for vendors, for buyers and for Market Wagon?
COVID definitely made a change, but the way I look at it is, what COVID did is it took eventualities, things where we knew we were going there, and it just compressed the timeline. In particular, e-commerce grocery.
E-commerce grocery year after year increasingly has been growing in terms of adoption, [people] willing to buy their food online. There’s a comfort level with picking up the tomato, feeling it, squeezing it, smelling it and then putting it in your cart, but more and more people have been adopting e-commerce grocery over time. We knew that by roughly 2030, about 20% of all food will be sold online. Last year, it was only about 5%. This year just took an eventuality and compressed the timeline. It made people adopt something earlier than they maybe would have, but we were getting there anyways.
What's next for the company?
We have lots of big hopes and dreams. … The biggest one is just geographic expansion. We’ve been working on this business for five years, and we’ve got it pretty well perfected. When the year started, we only had six locations. Now we have 20. We’ll have 50 by the end of next year.
We’re [also] expanding our team rapidly. I’m really looking forward to that. We had five full-time people in March. We’ve got 20 now. It’s just building a rock-star team and people who are really passionate about what we’re doing and how we’re serving the community and joining the team and helping to propel us forward.
What are some top-priority markets for you?
We don’t like to tell our competitors where we’re headed next; there are a lot of people with their eyes on us. We’re just expanding out from the Midwest. We’re a Midwest company; we love the Midwest; and we’re just expanding out from the Midwest.
Do you think there are any "Midwest values" or groundings that help your success?
I do, actually. We’re conservative in the sense of we make sure that what we’re doing is profitable. There are a lot of people that play in this space and have over the last couple of decades, and they’re very successful people. I mean, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, these guys that all of the startup founders kind of idolize, and many of them didn’t make money or even know how they would make money for the first 10 years in business. And that’s just not how we’ve operated. We needed to know from Day 1 that we had a business model that was viable and could survive. It’s that Midwest conservatism, and it’s served us well.
What feedback on Market Wagon has stuck with you? Is there any comment you've received that makes you think, "This is why we're doing this"?
Over and over and over again through the pandemic having people tell us that we saved their family farm. It’s pretty surreal when you have farmers in your office [saying], “If we didn’t have Market Wagon, we would not know what we would do with this food.”