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Kari Warberg Block Goes Eco-Friendly While Kicking Out Pests

Kari Warberg Block had a problem.

The self-described North Dakota farm wife was trying to get rid of rodents and pests, but she was also loath to kill anything, let alone get rid of it manually. Not only that, but as a mother of two, Block tells mom.me, "I didn't want to use poisons around my kids and my pets."

That's when the entrepreneur created EarthKind, an eco-friendly company with a line of repellants that was inspired by, of all things, her work at a perfume counter.

"I'd go home every day with a horrible headache, and it was kind of one of those blinding glimpses at the obvious," she says. "I'm like, 'Mice have got to hate the smell because it's 2,000 times stronger [for them.]'"

So Block used essential oils (a key ingredient in perfume), ground corn cobs and sachets reminiscent of potpourri, and her business was born.

Block tells mom.me how she created her business while still maintaining her stay-at-home mom life, how she got her kids involved, and the moment she first felt successful, which came after literal sweat and tears.

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How did you launch your business?
Originally it was supposed to be a product for farmers, but I started giving it away. Then I realized there was a demand, and went and got grants to help. We got it EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) registered and brought it to market, and now it's sold all over the country.

Our first brand that we came out with was Fresh Cab, and then we branched out into another brand called Stay Away, which just won a Nexty "People's Choice" award (for) making social change and environmental change. We're happy to win it, but (Stay Away) is more for the homeowners, the moms like myself who don't want to use poison around kids and pets.

How did those moms help you grow your business?

The moms were the ones who really helped our Fresh Cab brand grow because they'd hear about my story (when) I'd go and speak wherever I could. They'd come home and they'd say, "Honey, you should use this. It won't hurt our farm cats." That's how the guys heard about it, so it was really a natural step for us. It's turning out to be really successful, so I'm so happy that we went in that direction. There really wasn't a natural product that works out there until ours came along. I took a very different approach, and I basically beat down the doors at EPA and kept going and going and going until they would look at our product.

I basically beat down the doors at EPA and kept going and going and going until they would look at our product.

How did you come up with soaking corn cobs in essential oils to create the Fresh Cab and Stay Away products?

My dad was an entymologist, and when I grew up, I saw trials of studies and they were always like poison stuff. So the first step was really a woman's approach or a mom's approach: "Why don't we just keep (pests) out to start with instead of luring them in and killing them?" And I thought smell would work, and that's how it all started as a repellant and something that would keep them away. So being on the farm and wanting it to be natural, I said it's got to come from farm-grown ingredients. So perfumes come from essential oils, and the ability to make the product slow-release over time, corn cobs are a perfect vehicle for that, and I knew that they had been used in the potpourri industry. I tested it, and it actually worked.

How old were your kids when you started, and how old are they now?

They're now 26 and 27. When I started, they were growing up, so elementary school age. Then I started getting in the EPA stuff when they were in high school. It takes years and years to go through the EPA hoops. It worked out in our favor, looking back, because when we started the name EarthKind everybody thought we were pot smokers. Now it's right in style.

So the kids [pictured below, with Block] got to do a lot of it by hand, and it actually helped put them through college, too. They helped me right at the kitchen table. They got to see firsthand how a business is built. My son became an engineer after all the experience. He'd take our products to his science class, and they'd measure everything for me.

My daughter was always at trade shows. She helped with the money and setting up the displays, and she's a National Guardswoman, and she is also a blogger for us. She goes by the name Martha the Mouse Detective. She went to school for detective work, too—in criminal justice, she got her degree in that. She's using her degree very differently than most detectives. She writes from a mother's perspective, because she has a 1- and 3-year-old herself.

When did you first feel successful in your business?

When I got this award. Those kind of things show up later. So many times I was ready to quit, and I'd cry, and something would just come through and somebody would call me and say, "I love your product. I'm so glad you're doing this."

It's really hard when you're doing something new that nobody's ever done before. There's no road map. Like having a child, you don't get a book that says this is what you need to do. So it was really hard.

So many times I was ready to quit, and I'd cry, and something would just come through and somebody would call me and say, "I love your product. I'm so glad you're doing this."

What's your advice for women who'd like to start their own business?

What worked for me is I found the deepest conviction that I had, which was, I am going to do this even if it's the last thing I'm going to do because somebody has to do this. I was like, "Why is everyone killing pests when they don't need to? There's an easier, better way." And the thing of it is, those entrepreneurs that are successful, they do it in a way that only they can do. It's not something that anybody can tell you how to do.

You tailored your business so that you could be home for your kids. How did you make that work?

I really wanted to stay home with my kids. I really did not want to work outside the home and never see my kids because I grew up like that, in a city, and it wasn't cool. So I involved my kids with me in the business. And I did things where I didn't have to travel, and when they graduated, and they were off in college, that's when I started doing the traveling. It worked out in my favor because I built the business differently to do that. Instead of doing marketing myself or sales, I just decided I would make all the products and do all the manufacturing so that I could do that during the days and be home with my kids on nights and weekends. And then somebody else would do all the selling.

What would you say have been your biggest sacrifices?

The hard part about entrepreneurship and growing a business is your mind changes a lot. You have to keep focused. You have to make decisions. It changes you when you start doing that. It changes you for the better, but your friends can change. The people you spend time around will change because you have to surround yourself with positive, supportive people, and along the way it's hard to see what happens around you in the midst of success.

Although 90 percent of the people are really excited and happy about it, there are some people that are miserable that they can't make it for themselves. It just really changes things. The more I've become successful, the more I want to be a role model and help people going through that because it doesn't have to be lonely.

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Who are your entrepreneurial role models?

One of them that I have always looked up to for years was Anita Roddick, who started The Body Shop. I think I first discovered her when I was in high school, and she would go around the world and find ingredients from farmers, and she'd make it into skincare. That was what I did with my company. I was like, "You know, I can buy this from other farmers, so they don't have to lose all their money to the middlemen." She was a great role model for that.

And my father, too. He was always making jokes: "Someday I'm going to invent the better mousetrap and just get rich." And so here I am, as his daughter. He went into the petroleum business eventually. I was vegetarian and all-natural, and he was selling fuel and gas and oil.

Did that create any tension at all?

It did. We were like oil and water growing up. We were always at each other. We never got along. Now he's passed away, but I feel like he's helping me, he's proud. He died from cancer. Now I feel like I'm helping him, helping other people reduce some of the chemicals out there. He's a huge role model in more ways than one, even in the afterlife.

We're a 2 percent carbon-footprint company. We moved our plant to North Carolina even though we're a North Dakota company because it was wasteful to do all that extra shipping.

Once you were in the business, did you have to set limits?

I did. I actually hired consultants that would go to trade shows for me if it was necessary. I remember once my kids were still in high school and one of my girlfriends from the area, she did trade shows, and she went to New York for me and we picked up Container Store, which is still a customer today.

I made my own air fresheners, and so she was like, "I want to take this and show this." And I'm like, "I can't do this." So we bought the booth, and she went. It was a lot of money at the time and I was sick about it, but I tell you what, 10 years with a nice customer like that ... it's really paid off over the years.

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