One person's grunge is another person's livelihood

Doug Knippel was looking at his compost a few years back and noticed a group of redworms crawling around in the dirt. That’s when he began to unearth his business plan.

Knippel’s Northwest Redworms, a company based in Camas, Wash., near Portland, Ore., is the “Grungiest” business of the year in the 2007 StartupNation Home-Based 100 rankings. As much as Knippel might not think he deserves the title, when one counts ratio of worms to compost as the key metric of his business, he’s got a good shot at winning this award. In fact, Knipple thinks he’s even more suited for the “Greenest” award since his enterprise is, in fact, environmentally friendly. But when you’re dealing with that much slime, dirt, and rotting foodstuffs, the HB 100 judges determined that “Grungiest” was the right category for this business.

Prior to launching his worm empire in 2005, Knippel made a living building cabinets in his brother’s employ since leaving the Air Force , which he also quit in 2005 after 17 years in service. He has also gotten his hands dirty and composted throughout his life, using biodegradable organic household waste such as vegetable scraps and other materials as nutrients for plant growing. Though the process is a smelly one, it is embraced by many environmentally-friendly communities because it’s a nutrient-rich way to grow plants and farm without using chemicals. It also takes advantage of useful materials that would be thrown out otherwise.

The problem with compost is that it takes a while for some of these materials to break down into a small enough substance that can be used as plant food. Imagine a pile of rotting watermelon rinds. Though the food goes bad relatively quickly, it takes a while for it to rot down into a suitable mush.

When Knippel saw the worms, scientifically known as Eisenia fetida, he remembered stories he had heard saying they can speed up the compost process by eating through the gunk and passing it through their bodies, creating a finer material.

“Anything breaks down, but redworms make it 100% organic compost,” he says by phone while out with his creepy crawlers. “Plant life bonds to it.”

When Knippel launched, his startup costs were, to coin a phrase, dirt cheap. With his cabinet-making skills, he figured he could design customized cabinets in which the redworms could do their slimy jobs, as well as lay eggs to reproduce. His research and development costs were as simple as looking up information on the Internet and checking out books at the library. Knippel had Web-development skills, so he was prepared to build his own, www.northwestredworms.com, which features a large photograph of his slimy product. He also had 10 acres of land that he could devote to red worm rearing and knew an area dairy farmer who agreed to let him use part of a 100-acre plot as well. Imagine acres of writhing worms.

Unlike the expense of paying benefits and salaries to hundreds of employees, Knippel compensates his hundreds of thousands of redworms with only post-consumer food waste. There’s no need for a health plan or extended vacation packages when your workers’ sole delight is devouring rotting vegetables. Despite his low overhead, Knippel ran into some problems at the beginning. He started with a half-pound of redworms and it took a full six months for them to procreate into the 20 to 30 pounds of worms he knew he’d need to start selling the creatures. They might eat fast, but the spawning goes a bit slower.

“The first thing it took was a lot of patience because I dabbled with it,” Knippel says. “There were a lot of times during the first six months that I thought that this was another joke.”

Redworms, like other products in the organic-growing world, have been under scrutiny as scams, and Knippel was concerned that he was becoming the victim of his own hype.

But the worms eventually multiplied, and Knippel was ready to start offering his service.

He started out by advertising his redworms on the popular classified Web site Craigslist, and, taking a friend’s ardent advice, on eBay. The eBay experience was short lived, as the online-auctioning company eventually banned the selling of his creatures on its site. But through the experience, he learned to his surprise that he could package and ship worms as far away as Alaska and Puerto Rico. Now he promotes his business at farmers’ markets, through his Web site, and through community composting programs.

And his grungy business has generated some serious green. This year Knippel made more money from Northwest Redworms than he ever did working as a cabinet-maker.

To contain the grunginess, and combining his cabinet making skill with his redworm husbandry skills, Knippel has now packaged the redworms in cabinets that sell for between $20 and $350. He also offers instructions on do-it-yourself redworm cabinet construction for $15, admitting that the items are his biggest sellers. But Knippel views this, and educating the composting community about his product, as helping his business in the long run.

He has a similar view of the few competing worm mongers out there who compete with him.

“I encourage it,” he says of the competition. “We can only help each other. There’s a demand and sometimes you’re short on worms. It’s always good to have a back up that you can refer a customer to.”

More featured 2007 StartupNation Home-based 100 articles:

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