Before starting up, Kari Warberg Block was struggling financially as “a farm wife who had rodents.” That all changed when she “invented a product that keeps them out” and transformed herself into a successful eco-friendly entrepreneur.
Fueled at the start by a dream of bringing pet- and kid-safe repellents to people like her, she took to her kitchen to stuff pouches full of herbal mixes that repel roaches, rodents and other pests, then launched a small business with them in 2007. Ten years later, those pouches are the backbone of EarthKind, a venture that is projected to pull in $10M in revenue in 2017 and has sold tens of millions of patented, EPA-registered products.
The products developed by the 27 employees of her Bismarck, N.D., business and manufactured throughout the U.S. are available online, in small, local farm stores around the country, and through major retailers like Lowe’s, John Deere and ACE Hardware, as well as Target’s website, with more distribution deals in the works.
And now, she’s looking to grow EarthKind far beyond America’s borders. “One of the things that’s global is my purpose in protecting families,” she says. “That’s something every mom wants to do, is protect her kids, and make sure their home is safe and pest-free.”
From the Kitchen to Both Coasts
Warberg Block says her startup story began with “a couple of aha moments.”
Before becoming a business owner, she was working part-time at a perfume counter to help her farm family make ends meet, as money was scarce at the time, though the job often left her with headaches.
That all changed with a relatively small, if startling incident: a mouse ran up her leg, and she fended it off with a conveniently located bottle of perfume. “It was an instinctive thing and a collision of past experiences.”
At first, she considered simply tweaking pest-control products to be more fragrant. But farm living had given her an appreciation for all things natural, so she decided to rethink and then remake pesticides completely.
Initially, she made the pouches of herbal repellants as a side project. But Warberg Block had a sneaking suspicion that her invention could be profitable, not to mention helpful. She decided to ramp up her efforts by taking product and business development classes and pursuing patents. The first patent provided her second “aha moment” when she thought: “’Aha, I think I can do this.’ I had no reason to, but, I thought, maybe I can.”
While developing her products and formalizing her business plan, Warburg Block also pursued grants from local economic and governmental organizations for startup capital, receiving cash in $1,000-to-$5,000 amounts that helped her buy vital supplies, as well as her first personal computer.
She then hit the pavement to convince locals — both parents and farmers alike — to try her products and generate word of mouth that could reach beyond the confines of her social circle. Their positive reviews paved the way to new relationships with progressively larger stores and, later, distributors. She also allied with farmers for supplies like lemongrass, cedar chips, peppermint and rosemary.
As Warburg Block’s business grew, her star rose. She was included on Ernst & Young’s 2012 list of Entrepreneurial Winning Women and was named North Dakota’s Small Business Person of the Year in 2013 by the U.S. Small Business Administration. And more recently, she was recognized by the Manufacturing Institute for her work.
These were key moments of connection and celebration that helped her gain confidence that “I have a business here,” she says.
Now, she’s pursuing a plan to make that business even bigger and stronger by bringing EarthKind products to farmers and mothers the world over.
Some of her motivation is personal, she says: “The majority of them live in poverty — it brings it back home to where I started.” But with farming being big business internationally — think tank Momagri reports that close to 40 percent of the world’s population works in agriculture — she also believes it’s a smart growth path with broad potential. She intends to start in countries like Mexico that are close to the United States, and to leverage her distribution deals with companies that have global footprints.
To help realize her global vision, Warberg Block is taking on an investor for the first time, an ex-CEO with passions for the environment, health and family issues, who is set to become owner of around 20 percent of the company. Because the deal is still being finalized, she declined to name the investor, saying only that he is a champion of organic products and that “his goal is to protect his farm workers and their families.”
She expects that her new partner will help EarthKind navigate some of the roadblocks she anticipates encountering. “There is a lot of cost involved, and it takes years to get through the regulatory stuff. Each country has different guidelines for testing. That’s where the money from investors comes in.”
Of course, even as she expands overseas, she says she will continue to focus on her U.S. business. “We have so much further to go in this country, and lots of growth here to do.”
Bringing Others Up With Her
Warberg Block has had other people on her mind every step of the way along her entrepreneurial journey, and uses what spare time she has to support other female entrepreneurs. In 2013, she joined the advisory board of the National Women’s Business Council. She also speaks before women’s groups often and writes a personal blog.
As for EarthKind, she dreams of making the business a household name. To accomplish that, she is ramping up marketing efforts and making appearances on television shopping network QVC. She is also working on designing free guides on how to keep pests out of homes, which she will share for on her website.
After all, delivering positive change in the form of healthier pest control alternatives to the lives of farmers and families has “really driven everything from the beginning,” she says. “Being an entrepreneur, to me, means leading change.”