Business Rx: Earth Starter

April 14, 2013
The entrepreneur

Phil Weiner remembers his “aha” entrepreneurial moment, when he realized he could use business to help solve one of the world’s biggest problems: sustainable healthy food supplies. He was writing a paper for an agricultural economics course at the University of Maryland and he was struck by projections that will have billions of people jockeying for Earth’s diminishing resources in the coming decades.

Weiner partnered with like-minded classmate John Gorby to launch Earth Starter in May 2011 while they were still students. Their mission: to turn Earth’s consumers into producers.

“I was really interested in being a social entrepreneur, and I always wanted to develop a product — I wanted to build stuff that matters,” Weiner said. He has had the entrepreneurial “itch” for as long as he can remember, selling a variety of things throughout grade school and high school and exploring “many other failed ideas along the way,” he said. Earth Starter, with its “idiot-proof” Nourishmat gardening kit, is Weiner’s first win.

The pitch

Phil Weiner, CEO, Earth Starter

“We want to help people turn their brown thumbs to green thumbs with our Nourishmat, a roll-out garden blanket tool that takes the guesswork out of gardening. Users simply spread the fabric mat in a suitable growing space and plant the included seed balls in the marked holes. The mat uses companion planting techniques, which eliminates the need for pesticides. The weed-barrier mat also includes a built-in drip irrigation system that connects to a regular garden hose.

We launched Earth Starter to give people a healthy alternative to mass- produced food without having to spend a lot of time in the garden. We want to bring sustainable living into Americans’ lives, wherever they live.

“We see it as our responsibility to not only create products that empower people to grow food and flowers, but to create a company that builds stuff that matters. Our goal as a company is to maximize the triple bottom line and contribute to the global community by creating incremental local change.

Since launching, we have found a manufacturer and completed a 13-state beta test. We are ironing out deals with retailers and currently selling Nourishmats on our Web site. This spring, we’ll also be selling the Nourishmat kits at Whole Foods stores’ farmers markets in the region.

Currently, we are gearing up to ramp up production. We are also getting ready to launch a Kickstarter campaign to raise money. We need capital to scale up. The equipment needed to print our product is prohibitively expensive, but we’ve figured out a great joint venture agreement with our current manufacturer in North Carolina.

“We want to leverage our Kickstarter campaign to continue to manufacture our Nourishmats here in the U.S. We can keep jobs here, control quality and stay true to our brand promise. But when we go to talk to investors, they look at me like I’m crazy because they say we could cut our costs by manufacturing in China. How do we tackle the question of where to manufacture?”

The advice

Elana Fine, managing director, Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship

“While you may be able to squeeze out a higher margin by taking manufacturing overseas, that’s not the only consideration. You need to decide what the mission of the company is and stick to that. If you are helping people grow gardens in their backyard, it seems consistent that the mats would be produced in their “backyards” as well. You don’t necessarily have to be the lowest-cost product. You also have to know your customer. You are playing at the higher end of the market where cost isn’t the biggest factor.

In addition, at this early stage in your company, you want to make sure you have control over timing and quality. You also need to have good lines of communications with your suppliers. It would be much more difficult to keep tabs on those things if you were working with a manufacturer in China.

If you are getting that push from investors, make sure that they understand the mission of your company. Manufacturing in the U.S. really does fit with your brand mission. Stay consistent with your brand, but your manufacturing options may be something you revisit down the road as you grow as a company, make more products and consider more price-sensitive demographics. You need to make smart decisions that consider all factors. Constantly re-evaluate as you grow. China might seem like the best overseas option now; you may eventually consider other locations.”

The reaction

Weiner

“We realize that customers are willing to pay more for stuff made in the U.S., so we’ll stick with our brand promise. But we will continue to consider our options for sourcing materials and what makes the most sense without compromising our brand.”

Earth Starter won the $50,000 top prize at the University of Maryland’s April 5 Cupid’s Cup business competition, hosted by the Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship at the Robert H. Smith School of Business.

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