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How I Turned $1 Into a $20 Million Business

4min read
Business

My journey has taken a very different path from most business people, because I started with nothing, literally.


I just knew that when I started EarthKind® with a 99 cent package of garden seeds, and a dream, that I would turn it into something special one day.

Now with my company worth over $20M, I can honestly say that I've never done things in the “traditional way." I hoped for a better future, a future where I could make people's lives a little easier through my inventions, while at the same time protecting the planet and families from dangerous pesticides.

I began like many entrepreneurs, especially women —out of necessity. Our family farm was barely making it, and I was fresh out of alternatives. I knew I had to do something, anything, and make it work somehow. Living on the financial edge every day is stressful. All I could think about was when the next (equipment) breakdown was going to be, how we were going to pay for that, and where the money was to pay for sports equipment and school activity fees. Things that many families, especially in rural communities, deal with every day of their lives.

So, I began by using what I had. Being a farm wife, I had the availability of clean, organic soil and water. I bought a book on how to make $10,000 cash off your backyard. I sold produce for cash every Saturday morning. I'd keep all the money and continue to reinvest for our growth. The only money I'd take out was what I'd pay my kids for helping me and for the lot fees at the farmers markets. Believe it or not, it was possible to make $10,000 a year from a parcel of idle land, selling the produce, and living off my harvests throughout the year. In case you are wondering, we lived pretty frugally – we didn't have running water or air conditioning in our farmhouse back then. We lived on $18,500 a year. My kids tell me today they didn't know we were poor. Farmers call this land rich, and cash poor.

I then joined a co-op to grow everlastings on my space. My plan was to turn that $10,000 into $30,000 a year. The co-op failed, and I was stuck with thousands of dollars of dried flowers – with no way to market them in their current form. So, I got creative, and cut them into 1'2" pieces, mixed them with North Dakota wild-crafted yucca and bittersweet, added essential oils for aroma, and marketed them as North Dakota potpourri for $12.50 per bag. People living with allergies and chemical sensitivities loved them! I made the rounds with a tank full of gas and attended regional trade shows. Before long I had over 200 stores continually reordering my beautiful blends. Eventually, the other growers, who'd also misplaced their entrepreneurial dream with the same co-op group, sold me their flowers at a discount once they saw my success. I was making $30,000 a year, just over the SBA noted ceiling of revenue for most small businesses, but I wanted to go bigger. Customers, however, were choosing scented candles over potpourri. I couldn't believe that people would prefer to burn petroleum wax with toxic fragrance, but they did.

Once again, I re-thought, and re-set, my efforts with plan B! I made the conscious effort at this time to commercialize the tractor cab potpourri that I had developed and been using on the farm to keep mice out of our equipment, and that's how my first product, Fresh Cab®, was born. I began giving out samples in the fall of 2002. Knowing farmers the way I did, I knew they were not going to take the time to do anything extra, so I figured if they were tossing a bag of poison in the cab, they might just as well try my non-toxic pouch. The product was working and my early trial customers were happy with Fresh Cab®. It repelled the pests so there were no dead bodies to clean up and it was safe around animals and kids.

I was on my way! Sales began to grow, we picked up more equipment dealers, including our local John Deere, and we were getting noticed and getting press. That turned out to be a double-edged sword. At a local tradeshow, an Environmental Protection Agency representative sought me out to tell me that any product being sold to control pests needs a license, a process that could cost up to $2M. That was a piece of information that rocked my world. How was I going to get EPA approval when I was barely breaking even? There was a fleeting moment when I thought about giving up, but I knew I was on to something— my product had to reach the masses, there was a gap in the market and I firmly believed it was wrong to just keep killing things because it goes against nature. I also knew that even a small percentage of the market could create a healthy business.

It took about four years of back-and-forth with the EPA and around $200,000 to finally get the license. The money came from grants, selling my beloved packhorse and camper, and income from selling produce. It was not an easy time, but in 2007, I was back on track and EarthKind® was officially launched. Later, in 2016, I added a line of “home" products called Stay Away®, so now I covered both the commercial and mass sides of the business.

I have always had the intention, and still do, to build a new kind of company. I truly believe that business can solve some of our most pressing social problems, and be a force for good in the world. When I discovered that there was 80 percent unemployment within the handicapped population, I considered this workforce as a viable option for open positions – and I'm glad I did. Today, approximately 20 percent of our workforce has a disability and we provide those employees with fulfilling long-term jobs that focus on their abilities.

I also made the decision to keep EarthKind® a totally 'Made in America' brand. That plan included sourcing American-grown raw materials from family farms, manufacturing stateside and keeping a low carbon footprint. As I began to scale the business, the bigger chains wanted lower prices and some suggested that I manufacture in China to get the price down. In my mind that defeated the whole purpose of growing a business using U.S. agricultural products that are environmentally friendly. So I took a different approach at the negotiating table and armed myself with research that showed customers would buy our products if they were in their stores. I have stuck to my guns; even turning down Wal-Mart. There's a point where low pricing just erodes the value of the brand and the mission of the company.

Now, the market has finally caught up with my vision. IRI, a Chicago-based market research firm, estimates that year-over-year retail sales for the overall pest-control market — which includes chemical products and devices intended to kill insects and rodents — was almost $800M as of late December 2016, up 5.5 percent from the previous year.

Unlike most of the poison-based products – 90 percent of this sector – 0ur EarthKind® products are safe to use around food, children and pets. Driven by consumer demand in other industries as well, the all-natural category is growing. Sixty-one percent of pest-control users polled prefer to use natural, non-chemical alternatives, according to a recent Mintel Group research report. It's this type of compelling research that wins over big retailers and opens up opportunities to grow as partners. Lowe's is a great example of the type of partnership that is integral to growing my company the way I envision it. They had conducted surveys of their own and found that customers were asking for all-natural options for things like herbicides and pesticides.

They liked what we were doing and are committed to enhancing the economic growth of their diverse and small business suppliers. They love our company culture and our purpose—this is what they have to say about us:

“We partnered with EarthKind® because it provides our customers with natural alternatives in the pest prevention market, and its hiring practices positively impact the communities we serve," Lowe's Director of Corporate Sustainability Chris Cassell said.

I have always thought if I worked hard and worked towards a goal, that eventually success would follow. And to a certain degree, it has. But there is so much more to building a successful company and taking it to a new level than just hard work and innovation – it's all about leadership. Something I read recently really sums this up for me:

“Dynamic leaders do not let a person, company, or disruption come along and recreate their destiny for them—they change with the trends, innovate, and lead their team through the accompanying changes. Dynamic leaders adapt to new technologies and pivot with changing markets and customer attitudes and desires."

I realize I have to be willing to leave my comfortable domain and embrace a new sense of business savvy, tech-savvy, emotional intelligence and cultural fluency. I have to be seen to outwardly do and be all the things I inwardly embrace and believe in.

I'm ready to take my company to the $100M mark, I'm ready to step into my personal power to make that “mind switch" because someone needs to take the lead at making family, pet, and planet friendly pest control effective and affordable.

Our newsletter that womansplains the week
4min read
Lifestyle

Going Makeupless To The Office May Be Costing You More Than Just Money

Women have come a long way in redefining beauty to be more inclusive of different body types, skin colors and hair styles, but society's beauty standards still remain as high as we have always known them to be. In the workplace, professionalism is directly linked to the appearance of both men and women, but for women, the expectations and requirements needed to fit the part are far stricter. Unlike men, there exists a direct correlation between beauty and respect that women are forced to acknowledge, and in turn comply with, in order to succeed.


Before stepping foot into the workforce, women who choose to opt out of conventional beauty and grooming regiments are immediately at a disadvantage. A recent Forbes article analyzing the attractiveness bias at work cited a comprehensive academic review for its study on the benefits attractive adults receive in the labor market. A summary of the review stated, "'Physically attractive individuals are more likely to be interviewed for jobs and hired, they are more likely to advance rapidly in their careers through frequent promotions, and they earn higher wages than unattractive individuals.'" With attractiveness and success so tightly woven together, women often find themselves adhering to beauty standards they don't agree with in order to secure their careers.

Complying with modern beauty standards may be what gets your foot in the door in the corporate world, but once you're in, you are expected to maintain your appearance or risk being perceived as unprofessional. While it may not seem like a big deal, this double standard has become a hurdle for businesswomen who are forced to fit this mold in order to earn respect that men receive regardless of their grooming habits. Liz Elting, Founder and CEO of the Elizabeth Elting Foundation, is all too familiar with conforming to the beauty culture in order to command respect, and has fought throughout the course of her entrepreneurial journey to override this gender bias.

As an internationally-recognized women's advocate, Elting has made it her mission to help women succeed on their own, but she admits that little progress can be made until women reclaim their power and change the narrative surrounding beauty and success. In 2016, sociologists Jaclyn Wong and Andrew Penner conducted a study on the positive association between physical attractiveness and income. Their results concluded that "attractive individuals earn roughly 20 percent more than people of average attractiveness," not including controlling for grooming. The data also proves that grooming accounts entirely for the attractiveness premium for women as opposed to only half for men. With empirical proof that financial success in directly linked to women's' appearance, Elting's desire to have women regain control and put an end to beauty standards in the workplace is necessary now more than ever.

Although the concepts of beauty and attractiveness are subjective, the consensus as to what is deemed beautiful, for women, is heavily dependent upon how much effort she makes towards looking her best. According to Elting, men do not need to strive to maintain their appearance in order to earn respect like women do, because while we appreciate a sharp-dressed man in an Armani suit who exudes power and influence, that same man can show up to at a casual office in a t-shirt and jeans and still be perceived in the same light, whereas women will not. "Men don't have to demonstrate that they're allowed to be in public the way women do. It's a running joke; show up to work without makeup, and everyone asks if you're sick or have insomnia," says Elting. The pressure to look our best in order to be treated better has also seeped into other areas of women's lives in which we sometimes feel pressured to make ourselves up in situations where it isn't required such as running out to the supermarket.

So, how do women begin the process of overriding this bias? Based on personal experience, Elting believes that women must step up and be forceful. With sexism so rampant in workplace, respect for women is sometimes hard to come across and even harder to earn. "I was frequently assumed to be my co-founder's secretary or assistant instead of the person who owned the other half of the company. And even in business meetings where everyone knew that, I would still be asked to be the one to take notes or get coffee," she recalls. In effort to change this dynamic, Elting was left to claim her authority through self-assertion and powering over her peers when her contributions were being ignored. What she was then faced with was the alternate stereotype of the bitchy executive. She admits that teetering between the caregiver role or the bitch boss on a power trip is frustrating and offensive that these are the two options businesswomen are left with.

Despite the challenges that come with standing your ground, women need to reclaim their power for themselves and each other. "I decided early on that I wanted to focus on being respected rather than being liked. As a boss, as a CEO, and in my personal life, I stuck my feet in the ground, said what I wanted to say, and demanded what I needed – to hell with what people think," said Elting. In order for women to opt out of ridiculous beauty standards, we have to own all the negative responses that come with it and let it make us stronger– and we don't have to do it alone. For men who support our fight, much can be achieved by pushing back and policing themselves and each other when women are being disrespected. It isn't about chivalry, but respecting women's right to advocate for ourselves and take up space.

For Elting, her hope is to see makeup and grooming standards become an optional choice each individual makes rather than a rule imposed on us as a form of control. While she states she would never tell anyone to stop wearing makeup or dressing in a way that makes them feel confident, the slumping shoulders of a woman resigned to being belittled looks far worse than going without under-eye concealer. Her advice to women is, "If you want to navigate beauty culture as an entrepreneur, the best thing you can be is strong in the face of it. It's exactly the thing they don't want you to do. That means not being afraid to be a bossy, bitchy, abrasive, difficult woman – because that's what a leader is."