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How I Built A $20 Million Business From Nothing

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 wearing. 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.

Photo Courtesy of Hobby Farm

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.

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Politics

Do 2020 Presidential Candidates Still Have Rules to Play By?

Not too many years ago, my advice to political candidates would have been pretty simple: "Don't do or say anything stupid." But the last few elections have rendered that advice outdated.


When Barack Obama referred to his grandmother as a "typical white woman" during the 2008 campaign, for example, many people thought it would cost him the election -- and once upon a time, it probably would have. But his supporters were focused on the values and positions he professed, and they weren't going to let one unwise comment distract them. Candidate Obama didn't even get much pushback for saying, "We're five days away from fundamentally transforming the United States of America." That statement should have given even his most ardent supporters pause, but it didn't. It was in line with everything Obama had previously said, and it was what his supporters wanted to hear.

2016: What rules?

Fast forward to 2016, and Donald Trump didn't just ignore traditional norms, he almost seemed to relish violating them. Who would have ever dreamed we'd elect a man who talked openly about grabbing women by the **** and who was constantly blasting out crazy-sounding Tweets? But Trump did get elected. Why? Some people believe it was because Americans finally felt like they had permission to show their bigotry. Others think Obama had pushed things so far to the left that right-wing voters were more interested in dragging public policy back toward the middle than in what Trump was Tweeting.

Another theory is that Trump's lewd, crude, and socially unacceptable behavior was deliberately designed to make Democrats feel comfortable campaigning on policies that were far further to the left than they ever would have attempted before. Why? Because they were sure America would never elect someone who acted like Trump. If that theory is right, and Democrats took the bait, Trump's "digital policies" served him well.

And although Trump's brash style drew the most handlines, he wasn't the only one who seemed to have forgotten the, "Don't do or say anything stupid," rule. Hillary Clinton also made news when she made a "basket of deplorables" comment at a private fundraiser, but it leaked out, and it dogged her for the rest of the election cycle.

And that's where we need to start our discussion. Now that all the old rules about candidate behavior have been blown away, do presidential candidates even need digital policies?

Yes, they do. More than ever, in my opinion. Let me tell you why.

Digital policies for 2020 and beyond

While the 2016 election tossed traditional rules about political campaigns to the trash heap, that doesn't mean you can do anything you want. Even if it's just for the sake of consistency, candidates need digital policies for their own campaigns, regardless of what anybody else is doing. Here are some important things to consider.

Align your digital policies with your campaign strategy

Aside from all the accompanying bells and whistles, why do you want to be president? What ideological beliefs are driving you? If you were to become president, what would you want your legacy to be? Once you've answered those questions honestly, you can develop your campaign strategy. Only then can you develop digital policies that are in alignment with the overall purpose -- the "Why?" -- of your campaign:

  • If part of your campaign strategy, for example, is to position yourself as someone who's above the fray of the nastiness of modern politics, then one of your digital policies should be that your campaign will never post or share anything that attacks another candidate on a personal level. Attacks will be targeted only at the policy level.
  • While it's not something I would recommend, if your campaign strategy is to depict the other side as "deplorables," then one of your digital policies should be to post and share every post, meme, image, etc. that supports your claim.
  • If a central piece of your platform is that detaining would-be refugees at the border is inhumane, then your digital policies should state that you will never say, post, or share anything that contradicts that belief, even if Trump plans to relocate some of them to your own city. Complaining that such a move would put too big a strain on local resources -- even if true -- would be making an argument for the other side. Don't do it.
  • Don't be too quick to share posts or Tweets from supporters. If it's a text post, read all of it to make sure there's not something in there that would reflect negatively on you. And examine images closely to make sure there's not a small detail that someone may notice.
  • Decide what your campaign's voice and tone will be. When you send out emails asking for donations, will you address the recipient as "friend" and stress the urgency of donating so you can continue to fight for them? Or will you personalize each email and use a more low-key, collaborative approach?

Those are just a few examples. The takeaway is that your online behavior should always support your campaign strategy. While you could probably get away with posting or sharing something that seems mean or "unpresidential," posting something that contradicts who you say you are could be deadly to your campaign. Trust me on this -- if there are inconsistencies, Twitter will find them and broadcast them to the world. And you'll have to waste valuable time, resources, and public trust to explain those inconsistencies away.

Remember that the most common-sense digital policies still apply

The 2016 election didn't abolish all of the rules. Some still apply and should definitely be included in your digital policies:

  1. Claim every domain you can think of that a supporter might type into a search engine. Jeb Bush not claiming www.jebbush.com (the official campaign domain was www.jeb2016.com) was a rookie mistake, and he deserved to have his supporters redirected to Trump's site.
  2. Choose your campaign's Twitter handle wisely. It should be obvious, not clever or cutesy. In addition, consider creating accounts with possible variations of the Twitter handle you chose so that no one else can use them.
  3. Give the same care to selecting hashtags. When considering a hashtag, conduct a search to understand its current use -- it might not be what you think! When making up new hashtags, try to avoid anything that could be hijacked for a different purpose -- one that might end up embarrassing you.
  4. Make sure that anyone authorized to Tweet, post, etc., on your behalf has a copy of your digital policies and understands the reasons behind them. (People are more likely to follow a rule if they understand why it's important.)
  5. Decide what you'll do if you make an online faux pas that starts a firestorm. What's your emergency plan?
  6. Consider sending an email to supporters who sign up on your website, thanking them for their support and suggesting ways (based on digital policies) they can help your messaging efforts. If you let them know how they can best help you, most should be happy to comply. It's a small ask that could prevent you from having to publicly disavow an ardent supporter.
  7. Make sure you're compliant with all applicable regulations: campaign finance, accessibility, privacy, etc. Adopt a double opt-in policy, so that users who sign up for your newsletter or email list through your website have to confirm by clicking on a link in an email. (And make sure your email template provides an easy way for people to unsubscribe.)
  8. Few people thought 2016 would end the way it did. And there's no way to predict quite yet what forces will shape the 2020 election. Careful tracking of your messaging (likes, shares, comments, etc.) will tell you if you're on track or if public opinion has shifted yet again. If so, your messaging needs to shift with it. Ideally, one person should be responsible for monitoring reaction to the campaign's messaging and for raising a red flag if reactions aren't what was expected.

Thankfully, the world hasn't completely lost its marbles

Whatever the outcome of the election may be, candidates now face a situation where long-standing rules of behavior no longer apply. You now have to make your own rules -- your own digital policies. You can't make assumptions about what the voting public will or won't accept. You can't assume that "They'll never vote for someone who acts like that"; neither can you assume, "Oh, I can get away with that, too." So do it right from the beginning. Because in this election, I predict that sound digital policies combined with authenticity will be your best friend.