Having a farming background and being a successful entrepreneur has given me a unique perspective on innovation. Times of change -- from the Agricultural Revolution to the Dark Ages to the Renaissance -- are not dissimilar to the growth cycles of innovation.
Here are a three lessons I've learned about innovation based on my journey as the inventor of earthkind, a simple, scented pouch that shifted the entire retail pesticide category from toxic-kill methods to safer-repel methods in just seven years.
During a recession, the culture becomes like soil: rich and eager to grow new things. Schools plant innovative seeds in students. Government agencies, like the Small Business Administration, get ready to tend to those seeds. Mentoring groups like Start-Up America accelerate business growth like fertilizer, and crowd-funding opportunities pop up all over, offering support for good ideas.
I recently attended an innovation showcase in Washington D.C. that was an excellent example of this and from which I took some key lessons. I was invited as one of 35 top American bio-innovators. Two U.S. senators spoke about earthkind's innovative path to success by finding new uses for agricultural waste. Along with my fellow innovative colleagues, we were lauded for creating new green jobs, diversifying and enriching our communities, and generating new intellectual capital to share.
What I took away was: if you yearn to do something truly unique, there has never been a better time than now. Help is there, the only trick is finding the right version of it. Start locally, expanding outward to your industry, and then at a statewide level. Seek out national programs if you must. As you open your awareness to what's available, the right audience and advocates for your product or idea will emerge, as well.
Weathering the Storm
Every farmer knows there will always be challenges to face, but that at the end of the day or a season, a hearty crop can withstand a storm and come out stronger in the end. Similarly, innovators also have barriers to overcome, but by working cooperatively and smartly, they can thrive and succeed.
I faced challenges from business experts who suggested I take shortcuts by manufacturing overseas, source cheaper labor or use less expensive ingredients. Others suggested I opt for an online business model, selling an unregistered pesticide. I ignored them all, instead, drawing on a support system like USDA-funded North Dakota Agricultural Products Utilization Commission. Through the group, I was able to qualify for grants and prove that my innovation was not only viable, able to stay in the U.S., but best of all -- be better than anything currently available. Working with federal and state EPA regulatory agencies, we were able to build relationships with suppliers, growers and retailers that were as committed as we were to creating a kinder earth through safe, natural and effective alternative pest control options.
Open your periphery of possibilities. In the beginning, a new innovation doesn't make sense to most people. Innovative thinking is often upside-down from conventional thinking. If you know in your heart, or gut, that the advice you've been given doesn't "ring true" with you -- ignore it. Ultimately, the innovator must be the one to see the forest through the trees, and keep a steady hand balancing reality with vision.
Helping and Harvesting
Being resourceful, even when you are resource-poor, yields great results.
I began with a lot of ideas but not much influence. Doing a situation analysis in the beginning of your project and recognizing shortcomings makes it easier to find the help you need to succeed. I began volunteering with local organizations to prepare me for what was to come when facing state and national boards. Finding good help grew from there. Once I truly got on my way, an unstoppable ripple effect began, leading to me eventually being named to the Top Three Most Innovative CEO's by Vistage International.
Innovation addresses and solves systemic social and economic problems. A stronger economy, a better standard of living, a healthier environment, and the freedom to pursue happiness are the fruits of an innovators' labor. Those who have the creativity and mettle to not just invent "a better mousetrap" but the courage to act on it -- don't have to do it alone. I am living proof.