by Deb Seminary
Kari Warberg Block has been inventing things since she was very young. “I started making my own lotions and shampoos about the time I was five years old,” she said. “It made no sense to me to throw a plastic bottle away, so I started figuring out ways to fill them. Since I did not know what I was doing, I developed a sensitivity to certain chemicals. My skin got burned, my hair started to fall out. That is how I started making natural and organic products and I have been doing it basically my whole life.”
Born in Logan, Utah, Block attended a different school every year of her life, until high school. Both of her parents had grown up in North Dakota and when her mother passed away, her dad brought the family back to live in Williston.
Unfortunately, because there was no consistency in her schooling, she developed a learning disability and was always behind (kids her age). In high school she was told she would never go to college. But, she did not give up, and graduated from University of Mary with a Magna Cum Laude when she was 39, eventually receiving a Mary Bell Banner Award for distinguished alumni modeling the Benedictine Values.
After high school Block left North Dakota as quickly as she could. “It was different, so quiet,” she explained. “I moved back to Minneapolis and it wasn’t like I remembered it, so I came back and have been here ever since. I married a farmer and really grew to love the peace and solitude. Raising kids on the farm was amazing to me. I got the opportunity to have long term relationships and be involved in the community, church and FFA. My kids have life-long friends from those days.”
She had an organic garden on the farm and, in 1993, she founded Crane Creek Gardens to sell the produce and a potpourri she had developed. “It was beautiful potpourri with essential oils,” she said. ‘Then the market fell when Yankee Candles came out.”
She had also been working on a solution for a problem that wouldn’t go away. “On the farm it was a constant barrage of rodents getting into things. It was expensive. It never made sense to lure them in with baits, poison them, wait until they die and then clean them up,” she said.
An accident left her on her back for almost a year and gave her a lot of time to think and research what was going to KEEP the rodents away. “Growing up with a father that was an entomologist helped,” said Block. “I had a behavioral aspect to pest control, not just a chemistry of what is going to take them out.
She developed Fresh Cab, a natural, chemical-free botanical rodent repellent, that keeps mice out from the start. “I knew it was a problem on the farm, but I had no idea it would take off with all of the people that owned campers, motor homes, boats, cabins, the list goes on and on!”
Like most women entrepreneurs, Block found it hard to get a loan and had to use her credit card. “Back then, as a woman with nothing, they didn’t want to take the chance,” she said. “I have since learned that women usually start out with six times less capital than men, and take a less bold, more cautious approach.”
She got a patent, and went through all of the hoops to get it EPA registered. It was a difficult process, because it had never been done before. She said it is very exciting now, because back then Fresh Cab was the only natural rodent product on the shelf. “This year, the EPA is removing eight of the most toxic rodent products on the market. Since our product is available, affordable and effective, it has changed the dynamics. It opened the door for other people and now 10% of the products are non toxic. Our goal is to reduce the sale of poisons in our category to 50% by 2020.”
It proved to be harder to get Fresh Cab to consumers than to invent the product. “Invention for me is intuitive,” she explained. “It is second nature to figure out how to solve a problem and do it in a way that does not create more waste. Taking the steps to commercialize it is really difficult and complex. There is the patent process, the regulatory hoops, setting up an organization, hiring the right people, figuring out a business model – and as it grows, it changes. Being creative and good at organizing chaos really helps in that process. I have to be flexible, and have an adaptive leadership process, because as the business grows, it requires different leadership styles. It was a huge transition when we got to one million in sales and then again when we got to five million.”
Along the way she became a Woman-Owned Certified Business. She learned from the Women’s Business Center, Vistage – a local CEO group, the Small Business Development Center and gained a wealth of knowledge while she was getting her degree from the University of Mary.
Block’s company, earthkind, currently has distribution in about 55,000 stores. Her product line now includes pest prevention solutions and air fresheners. Stores are asking for more products and ways to partner in promotions and campaigns.
One of Kari’s first mentors was Bill Isaacson, an inventor and entrepreneur who had retired in Stanley. “I knocked on his door one day and told him I needed help,” she said. “I said, ‘I have this stuff that really works, but I don’t know what to do with it!’ ”
Isaacson connected her with the Center for Innovation in Grand Forks and her product was a tough sell to the group of men running the program, initially developed for engineers. Isaacson convinced her to keep at it and use her passion for the product to get into the program. She persisted and was actually the only one in her program to succeed.
Tara Holt was also a valuable person in Kari’s entrepreneurial life. “She got me on a bus to Minneapolis to the gift mart and by the time we arrived, I had sold about fifteen stores my potpourri, just on the bus. I couldn’t afford the exhibit space, so I stood outside the door with the product in my arms and eventually got into over 250 stores.”
Another mentor was Sister Thomas Welder. “Bill Isaacson was on the Board of Higher Education and had to speak for something (at the University of Mary),” explained Block. “He brought me with him and asked me to get up on stage and talk about being an entrepreneur. I talked about being tech savvy and how scary it was when you don’t know anything.
“Although I didn’t know it, I also touched on some of the Benedictine Values and later Sister Thomas told me how clever it was for me to plan ahead and use them in my talk. I was so embarrassed to tell her I didn’t even know them. She later sent me a card and I ended up going to school there, getting a BS in Management.
“As a kid growing up I would see Mr. Bubble. I couldn’t use it because it was tough on my skin, but I would see the boxes and my dad told me the inventor was from North Dakota. I thought that was the coolest thing in the world – put bubbles in a box and sell millions of them! So, I count Harold Schafer as one of my early mentors. He was quite a marketer and I use one of his brilliant selling techniques in my presentations – telling retailers how many people will buy the product and how much money they will make when they sell it in their stores.
“There is a lot of North Dakota influence in our company’s roots and culture. I feel strongly about keeping our headquarters here.”
Block is also a mentor to many, offering advice to up and coming entrepreneurs. “That is the cool thing, as a leader,” she said. “When I look back, I don’t realize how much I have done, except when I see the people around me and the impact I have had on them. It is a responsibility, but I know what I do is not for me, but for others. I am always asking, ‘what is the greatest impact I can have in this situation?’ It is really nothing more than serving others.”
Awards and Accolades
Besides being named the North Dakota Small Business Person of the Year in 2013 and 2nd Runner-up in the National competition, Block writes for ‘Huffington Post’, ‘entrepreneur’ and serves on many boards and advisory panels including the Startup Weekend for Women in Fargo.
She was recently accepted into the Ernst & Young Entrepreneurial Winning Women’s program, which serves market-leading entrepreneurs. “They take companies public, do advisory services and provide networking opportunities,” she said. “I applied for that program in 2012, was accepted and it has been very helpful.”
The latest ‘honor’ to come her way is the appointment to the National Women’s Business Council (NWBC) by Senator Heidi Heitkamp. NWBC serves in an advisory role to the White House, Congress and SBA on policy recommendations that will help women in business.
More To Come
Since stores are asking for more products, that is what they will get. “I still have inventions I thought of years ago that I will be developing,” said Block. “We will be expanding and continuing to educate consumers about the use of natural products to help them reduce their need for chemicals in the home.”
Her children are involved in the business on a limited basis. Her daughter writes the ‘Martha the Mouse Detective’ blog, which can be found at earthkind.com/blog. Her son is a design engineer who helps with some designs for earthkind in his spare time.
Kari Warberg Block’s goal is to get chemicals off store shelves and out of homes. She is well on her way, as a leader for change.