By Emory Rakestraw
Photo courtesy of EarthKind
It was a mouse scampering up Kari Warberg Block’s leg that spawned EarthKind Inc., a line of eco-friendly pest repellents. Back then, Block was the wife-to-be of a Midwestern farmer. Today, the CEO splits her time between Bismarck, N.D., and Mooresville, where EarthKind is manufactured. In between was the hard work of bringing a nontoxic, nonlethal product to an industry that has mostly thrived on extermination. EarthKind’s pouches of herbal mixes are on hardware-store shelves at Lowe’s and Ace. Block, 54, has grown the company into a $10 million entity since discovering that balsam fir essential oil and ground-up corncobs repel mice effectively. Though EarthKind is headquartered in North Dakota, 38 of its 42 employees are in North Carolina. Block hopes to take the company global with the help of EarthKind’s first outside investor. The company plans to name the investor, a former CEO of a large organic food company, this month or early next year. Comments were edited for brevity.
What have been some turning points in starting the business?
I called SC Johnson [maker of household products such as Windex, Drano and Ziploc] and Woodstream [maker of the ubiquitous wooden mouse trap for more than 100 years]. They both turned me down and said, “This is the stupidest thing I’ve heard of; no one is going to use this. Natural is going to cost too much.”
I’m more introverted. I had to learn to beg for money and get grants, assert myself and get other people to believe in it. The thing that kept me going is being a mom and knowing that other moms want something safe around their kids and pets. I knew that farmers loved it already because it prevented a lot of damage.
Why did you keep pushing the product even when it seemed odds were against you?
People don’t wake up, get out of bed and say, “I’m going to do the impossible,” but they do when it matters. I knew in my mind that if it was going to happen, it was going to be up to me. For anyone starting a business, the money is not worth it, but it’s like being the change you want to see in the world. For me, that was worth it.
Being a woman made it a little harder. I still run into this. One major retailer said they hated [the product] and it doesn’t look like anything in the category because it’s too feminine. Lowe’s Cos. was the first one to do it. Finally, I got smart and said, “Give this to your wife and ask your wife what she thinks.”
Are you seeing a rise in “green” pest control?
This sector is exploding, and we have about seven or eight copycats of our rodent product. That’s scary as an entrepreneur. I remember the first one that came out, I felt like I had been kicked in the gut. Instead of fighting them, I said the market is big enough, and in the long run it’s a good thing — because that’s my true intention, to make my category greener.
People love sprays, and they love their habits. We took more of a humane approach. We don’t want to kill them, we want to keep them out.
What does a typical day look like for you?
The typical day can be all over the board. I work with retailers, scientists and artists, connecting everything from when I’m working on inventions. [She has invented all of her own products.] Then I work with the science team to do testing, then I work with regulatory.
How do you come up with a new product?
I started with rodents – the most difficult-to-control household pest. My goal was to have three products to my name. People have problems with spiders, and there’s not a natural solution for spider repellent. Our product repels the bugs that spiders eat, and it smells good. If spiders don’t have food, they’re going to leave on their own. You can kill the spiders but more will keep coming if you have the food — that was the thing that was missing. I look for the missing pieces, something that no one else has figured out.
I’m finally now getting to the really fun part. For the last 10 years, 90% of what I [have done] is what I don’t like doing, but I had to do it to get the business growing. I used to have every single job in the company. I did all the sales, all the marketing, all the packaging. Now, I’m getting more and more removed, and I’m focusing my time on the growth of the company.