There is a lot to lose as you get older: health, friends, memory, and often dreams. I sometimes think that maturity is just a matter of giving up on things you will never be great at to concentrate on those you can do well. When even those start to slip, I ask myself “who will carry on what I’ve started” and beyond that, “who will take up all the tasks and ideas I would like to see happen but am too old or too busy to start by myself.”
Ordinary people can start organizations that grow and prosper long after they have moved on. Looking at things I have helped start that are still thriving, the ones I cooperated with others on stand out. There is another list of businesses I have been part of that no longer exist. I started out to write this article about business ideas that younger people could develop and make a living at that would change the world for the better and support a family too. Along the way I thought “Why not ask other people if they had thoughts about opportunities they see?” No matter where the ideas come from, I want to relate lessons learned from innovators and entrepreneurs who envision a community they want to help build.
In a very 2020 family Thanksgiving event, I participated in a zoom meeting with my family during which my brother-in-law, Roger Ellison, showed us a brick that he made out of clay and recycled glass. It is part of his continuing series of experiments to develop a way to make his own bricks to use in kilns where he makes biochar. He also announced that he had sold his first cubic yard of biochar. I decided that this called for a dedicated zoom meeting with Roger about opportunities.
I was curious about how Roger makes biochar on San Juan Island but also how he manages to sell it since I also make biochar and am considering selling it. In small quantities it sells for $30 a cubic foot. As you can see in this picture, the startup equipment is not necessarily sophisticated or expensive. The downside is that in small quantities it takes periods of time off and on during most of a day to make a couple cubic feet.
This is not the place to discuss the whole process. But one of my first questions was if he knew of any trials that showed in quantitative terms the advantages of having biochar in your soil. It turns out that he did. Biochar Market Analysis for San Juan County and the Pacific Northwest by the Northwest Natural Resource Group lays out the whole situation for the product and the market. Roger sent me a copy.
One of the first observations in that analysis was that very few people know what biochar is, what it is used for, where it comes from and how much it is worth. It turns out that those are questions anyone needs to answer about any product before going much further and the analysis done for biochar could be a model for any market analysis of any opportunity we want to consider.
Biochar is charcoal without anything added. Think of it as a sponge made of pure carbon. It is usually made by burning off resins from wood or other plant waste to leave only charcoal. In the study, biochar was shown to increase crop production; increase soil biology, increase water and nutrient retention; increase nutrient density in food; aid soil structure and permanently remove carbon from the atmosphere. There was no question that biochar was a good and valuable product.
The study went on to point out that even at fairly good market prices 30-40% was taken as retail markup, packaging and transportation took additional time and money. Income ended up around $20/hr. The product faced huge hurdles in retail consumer understanding of its value. Commercial farmers looked at it as an expense meant to reduce costs of other fertilizer additives. That did not often produce sales because many farmers lease land and have little incentive to increase its long-term fertility at the cost of short-term profits. Most farmers prefer to produce biochar themselves but seldom can afford the time or investment to do that in significant quantities. So despite its inherent value and low production costs, selling biochar is not necessarily a money maker. I wondered how Roger managed to sell biochar for a profit at all.
The answer is that he sold biochar along with plants, fruits and vegetables at the Farmers Market. So his overhead was spread out to many products. Additionally, Roger sells all of his products through the San Juan Islands Food Hub, an organization that lists products and takes orders online and lets consumers pick up their orders at a central location. It is a cooperative organization run by the producers (https://sjifh.com). There are similar organizations in other Western Washington counties and near us in Spokane. Local Inland Northwest Cooperative, (LINC Foods), lets farmers list produce they have to sell online (https://LINCFoods.com). Farmers bring their crops to a central warehouse and from there LINC distributes it to restaurants, schools and this year, directly to individual consumers. This cooperative approach diffused the costs of retail markup, sales overhead, transportation and distribution.
Sensing more opportunities, I called Dan Jackson at LINC Foods and asked him what kinds of products they were looking for. He said that he gets that question a lot. His advice was that LINC, and the customers they serve are looking first for quality. You can get almost any variety of food you want from groceries and the wholesale distributors who supply them. If you want the best quality, you look to farmers and more direct sales such as LINC offers. His next piece of advice sounded similar to Aristotle’s “Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom”. In this view there are opportunities everywhere, not just ideas in articles like the one I imagined this would be. It takes passion and dedication to succeed but it also takes knowledge of the market and experience in production to achieve the quality needed to sustain sales.
Realizing that I needed more seasoned advice, I contacted Barry Lamont at Tri County Economic Development (TEDD) (https://tricountyedd.com/). His first advice sounded a lot like Dan Jackson’s and Aristotle’s, ask yourself what you want to be doing. He said 95% of businesses in Northeast Washington are Limited Liability Corporations or Sole Proprietorships started by people with their own dreams. You don’t necessarily need a lot of money or a lot of employees to get started. Jobs are opening up in the service sector such as yardcare, healthcare and home maintenance, because of our aging population (that would be me). Lamont also suggested that tradesmen like electricians, heating and cooling technicians, carpenters and plumbers are in demand.
He noted that if your startup ideas require more money than you have, it is really tough to get money from banks. My father, a bankruptcy attorney, told me “Banks only lend money to people who don’t need it.” The first thing banks will look for is security, what can they grab if the enterprise fails? The good news is that TEDD is a secondary lender, which means if a bank turns you down, you can apply through TEDD. It has government funding sources but doesn’t approve all loans. What they are looking for is experience. You need a good business plan and a history that will make their loan approval board believers in your idea.
Lamont gave me a lead on excellent market research. It is available through the market research guru at the Spokane Public Library, Mark Pond, (509) 444 5312. For example, a watercolor artist wanted to know the market for her art and asked Mark Pond for leads. In a matter of minutes, Pond had a list of possibilities so detailed that he drilled down and found the name and address of a woman who bought a lot of art and lived in the artist’s home town.
I’m still going to pursue describing enterprises I would like to see initiated to help our health and that of the soil, especially if readers like you send them to me. But before listening to anything I have to say, people wanting to start a career need to ask themselves who they are now and what they want to become. In the meantime before I start promoting ideas, I have a lot of questions for Mark Pond.