In 1984, Arnie Koss was handcrafting Shaker-style brooms in his Vermont farmhouse and selling them at craft fairs all over New England. His twin brother, Ron, was the director of the Ronald McDonald House in Burlington. Both brothers, then 33, had wandered through a long series of jobs and start-up businesses: house parent at a group home, sprout grower, math teacher, tool restorer.
They were again restless and looking for their next big thing.
In their recent book, "The Earth's Best Story: A Bittersweet Tale of Twin Brothers Who Sparked an Organic Revolution," the brothers take turns telling how they turned that restless drive and a big idea into a company that revolutionized an industry and helped cement Vermont's reputation as a leader in "green" business.
Here is an excerpt from Ron's narrative in Part Two: The Earth's Best Start-up Begins:
Arnie drove into the Ronald McDonald House parking lot on September 16, 1984. I remember his fire-engine-red broomcornmobile van. It was a beautiful day, late in the afternoon. I wasn't expecting to see him, and he didn't waste any time getting down to business. "I've decided to do the baby-food business. We've talked about it for years. It's still a great idea. No one else has done it. Why not us? I'm doing it with you or without you."
In an instant I was at a decision point about starting a baby-food company. Give me a break! I wanted change, and yet I felt my heels digging in. The enormity of the commitment was thankfully an abstraction, but the responsibility of making baby food was not. I immediately connected with my fear of that responsibility (which somehow I knew would be mine), and the weight of that burden isolated the wind that was filling my brother's sails from my own.
Arnie's determination and enthusiasm was a done deal. He had leapt, but I had to wrestle with this deep-seated fear before I could join him. I wasn't sure if that was possible. He left the parking lot, and I was left in turmoil.
Two things happened then: a greater fear emerged, and I made a solemn promise to myself. First came the fear. What if I lived my life and never "went for it" and never stuck with something through thick and thin, no matter what? What if I had to look back on my life and face all of the reasons why my dreams didn't come true and my ideals were never expressed? What if I knew that I only got my toes in the water of life, but never submerged myself, never swam to the other side because, through my toes, I anticipated the current to be impossible or the other side undesirable or falling short of my expectations? The fear of such a life overwhelmed my fear of making a mistake that might hurt a baby. I knew that food was made safely all of the time, and I trusted, despite the urgings of my supersized worry gene, that with the kind of attentiveness I would devote, food safety would not be a reason to say no to organic baby food.
Then came the promise. You know that feeling when you've started a diet and then an evil cookie presents itself or a pint of ice cream mysteriously appears in your freezer and then inexplicably in a bowl, your bowl. After the affair and those moments of self-hatred and despair, there is the swell of renewed determination and hope. "Never again will that cookie have its way with me. I will prevail. I must prevail." That's the way I was feeling when the decision to leap into Earth's Best materialized. No matter what, there will be no giving up. There will be no loss of focus. No matter how sweet the dessert, no matter how seductive the sirens' call to "forget about it," I promised myself that I would not be the one to knock myself out of the box. I would not quit. …
Consider This Question
How do you start an organic baby-food company with no money, no food-processing experience (except for sprout growing), no expertise in infant nutrition, and no organic-foods industry to speak of? There was no Google in 1984, there were no fax machines, and although there were computers, Arnie and I did not have one or even know of anyone who did.
If our focus had been on what we didn't have in place, Arnie and I would have been instantly swept away by a tidal wave of ignorance and more ignorance. But all an entrepreneur really needs to get started is that dream and destination. Arnie and I had already checked off those top two items on our "to do" list.
Item number three was to find a place to ponder the details. Just across the street (diagonally) from the Ronald McDonald House was the Tru-Vision building. An optician had his office on the street level, hence the name. There was a For Rent sign in the attic loft, and Arnie and I checked it out. The price was right: $25 a month for about 120 square feet. Clearly it was a sign from the universe — or so we thought: Organic baby food was an idea of true vision.
The location allowed me to run back and forth to the Ronald McDonald House. Arnie had a short driving commute. It was perfect. We set up a plywood desk, found a couple of non-ergonomically designed chairs, bought a pad of large paper for brainstorming, installed a phone, and borrowed an electric typewriter that unfortunately did not have a working q key. As it turns out, we proved you really don't need a q to get into business. What you need is low overhead that affords you both the time to find your way and the focus necessary to move forward.
All we did in those earliest of days was brainstorm madly and hang up the brainstorm on the wall. Then we'd lie down on the floor, talk, reflect, rest, and think. The pillar that all of our intention and orientation was anchored to was simple: Whatever we did in the realm of baby food, we wanted it to be the "best." Otherwise, what would be the point? Mediocrity, in our opinion, had already been accomplished by Gerber, Beech-Nut, and Heinz. Added sugars, modified starch fillers, overcooked foods, foods grown with pesticides, and meat and dairy products derived from animals routinely exposed to antibiotics still plagued some commercial baby foods back in 1984. Amazingly to us, convention had established baby food as a cheap commodity.
Why would the first foods for children conform to the pressures required to drive costs down to next to nothing? Why would the most vulnerable and precious population of consumers be subjected to just ordinary and sometimes even the cheapest of foods, rather than the best of foods? Why did dog food and pet food in general have value-added brands well before baby food? Imagine organic dog food before organic baby food! Why was the "walk" about baby food and quality so inferior to the "talk"? Our answer: Because of a failure in leadership, imagination, and lost or misplaced values. Gerber, Beech-Nut, and Heinz were all doing the same thing, more or less. Their focus was on market share, price point, margins, and the related pitched battles to either get the upper hand or fend off the invading forces. The actual baby food seemed incidental to their success; hence generally the same products across the board. In 1984 there were value-added consumer choices for just about everything, from cars, TV dinners, concrete sealer, and toilet paper to chocolate. But not baby foods. The Big Three had a lock on the product category and the category to us was stale and inferior.
Arnie and I came at the idea of baby food from a completely different angle. Our goal was to make the world a better place, nothing less. This is how we would define "success." This was our bottom line. The status quo was a farce, and perpetuating it was — and remains — indefensible.
What's the point of putting pureed peaches in a jar, if in the course of doing so, the pesticides used on or around the peaches pollute the ground, ground water, and air, and even sometimes migrate into the finished baby food? What's the point of putting food in a jar to nourish babies while simultaneously applying chemicals to the earth that does not? The fact is, children have the least developed and most vulnerable immune systems. This information was not top secret. The fact is, mother's milk is contaminated by chemicals representing our so-called modernity. Does such information suggest that we stay the course or change it? Arnie and I were hell-bent on change.
This excerpt is reprinted from "The Earth's Best Story: A Bittersweet Tale of Twin Brothers Who Sparked an Organic Revolution," by Ron and Arnie Koss, with permission from Chelsea Green Publishing Company.MORE IN Movies
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