Saturday, November 05, 2005

Get out there
and get lazy

Cranberries. Once a year maybe. Marginal, peripheral stuff in the macro economic world.

Cranberries. So what?

Wrong question. You say you want to find sustainable work? Look to the margins. The right question is how do you find a cranberry market for yourself?

Stuff that barely makes your radar is a big economic deal to the people working in those seemingly marginal fields. And that's just what gets to the edge of your radar. Most of the economy doesn't even show up. The rest of it is economic dark matter to you and me. And like dark matter, it makes up most of what goes on around us.

Good news, friend. Exponentially increasing opportunities are flowering in niches most people wouldn't think could support a church mouse.

There is economic sustenance for those that create innovations. There is opportunity in overlooked places right in front of all of us. It usually takes form as a better approach to an old problem.

Take Dan Brockman, for instance. A former hard working paper mill guy who came back to the family farm and got lazy.

My home state of Wisconsin produces more than half of the aprox. 575 million pounds of cranberries produced in the US each year. Big stuff for them but most of us in cheesehead hats have never seen a cranberry bog. It’s marginal to most of our day jobs even here in the middle of the Holstein bell curve.

In the fall, cranberry bogs are flooded and the berries harvested. The current device used to harvest cranberries is a complicated mess of old tech ag engineering. It's basically a big paddlewheel mechanism that's slowly maneuvered by several people through the bog. The machine beats hell out of the bushes in the water, whacking the daylights out of the berries with a big rotating beater as they float off for harvest.

Enter Mr. Brockman. A self-described lazy guy. He wanted it to be easier to harvest his cranberries. "I always approach just about everything with the idea that there's a better way to do it. You just need to find it," Brockman said. "I started cutting and welding and building. The first three machines didn't work at all."

It's taken 5 years to bring this story to life. Persistence wins out. Brockman’s cranberry harvester, the Ruby Slipper, now just flies through our Wisconsin bogs. Farms that use it are amazed at its simplicity and speed. Only one person is needed to operate it. Tests indicate it actually improves the cranberry yields in succeeding years.

Existing machines now used to harvest cranberries can cost $40 grand. Brockman’s device costs $7-$9 grand. Teryl Roper, a University of Wisconsin professor specializing in this field, says the Ruby Slipper is on track to "revolutionize cranberry harvesting".

Here’s what I really love about this story. The Ruby Slipper has no moving parts. Mr. Brockman, you're my kind of guy. Perfect.

Professor Roper said, "I don't know why no one thought of it before. It is elegantly simple."

His dad's response was the best. Mr. Brockman’s father, who started the farm 60 years ago and has been harvesting cranberries ever since, just laughs at his lazy kid. “I can’t believe that this thing works. It’s way too easy,” says Dad.

Is it a limited market? Of course. There are only 1,200 cranberry farms in North America. Not a very big array of potential customers. Economic dark matter. But Brockman and friends see the light.

Here’s the deal. They're estimating they can sell 500 to 1,000 of his Ruby Slipper harvesters in the next five years. Units will sell at $7K to $9K. Low end that's $3,500,000. High end, that's $9,000,000 in newly created revenue over 5 years. Who knows what will grow out of this effort beyond that? If you work their numbers backwards to get net dollars it sure looks to be a lovely, sustainable enterprise for Mr. Brockman and friends.

Will this make the waves with venture capitalists? Unlikely. Most money players wouldn't even notice.

Will this make a bunch of hard working folks living in a beautiful part of my state a good living for the foreseeable future? Looks probable. Will their kids be proud of them and see that the world can be made into a better place? Seems likely.

Mr. Brockman and the Ruby Slipper folks, if smart, know that this is not a zillion dollar lottery ticket. It's hard work. But it'll be their hard work, and their contributions and their rewards from a life hopefully well lived.

Here's my point... there is a better way to do most everything in this life. The fastest way, and the surest way, I know to get yourself into sustainable work occurs by fixing problems. Finding, simpler, better solutions. Then executing the details.

You can open up your enterprise in market segments that look like cranberries and economic dark matter to the rest of us. This is where your opportunities are.

This effort isn’t about head lines, it’s about capturing a sustainable piece of the economy for your enterprise. Brockman won't win a Nobel Prize. Neither will you most likely. But Brockman is making a difference, and you can, too. He makes things simpler and easier. You can, too. That's sustainable work, friends.

Fix something hard in your world. Look for the cranberry bogs of your life swirling around out there at the edges of your radar. That’s where to steer your enterprise.

It’s an unimaginably large global economy out there from the perspective of a start up or emerging enterprise. You can get a sustainable piece of it by making something easier and better in seemingly very small markets. Then execute the details.

Now get out there and get lazy.

Touring Wisconsin's cranberry harvest Great links from the Wisconsin State Cranberry Growers Association

Central WI visitors info for our cranberry harvest

Bikes and berries. Warrens, WI area bike trips throughout the marshes and local links

WI bathing suit beauty queen harvesting cranberries. One would hope for a warm autumn for her sake.

Yahoo News. Original AP story about Mr. Brockman

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