Those of you who have gone through my Modern Worm Farming Mini-Course (UPDATE: I have plans to revamp this before making it publicly available again – feel free to sign up for my “7 Fun Ways to Make Money with Worms” mini-series in the meantime), and/or who are just generally familiar with my overall business philosophy, will know that I tend to steer well clear of any sort of “one size fits all” (or as I like to say, “cookie cutter”) recommendations. I truly believe in the importance of designing a business that caters to our strengths, background experience, and PASSIONS (focused in an area where there is consumer demand, of course)!
Well, that’s all fine and good – and I certainly stand by that stance – but as I’ve discovered via my interactions with many would-be vermicomposting entrepreneurs, a lot of folks just want to get started with some sort of fun, part-time worm business (for once I’m actually using this term literally). Perhaps it’s intended as a fun way to earn some money after retirement. Maybe it’s an enterprise to start with your kids as a means of teaching them about entrepreneurship, while helping them save up for that XBox (er…I mean, college!). Or, it could simply serve as an enjoyable way to really jump into your favorite hobby while adding some helpful revenue to your household bottom-line. The small part-time worm business can work well in ALL these cases, and many more.
What’s funny is that this approach is actually very near and dear to my heart, because it’s essentially what I’ve been doing with my “real world” worm business up here in Canada.
So what does one need to get started?
Something I tend to treat as a “given” is some sort of involvement in the wonderful world of vermicomposting. In other words, if you are completely new to the field, but like the idea of starting up a business like this, I’m ALWAYS going to recommend starting with some sort of basic worm bin (just head on over to the RWC “Getting Started” page and you’ll get pointed in the right direction). You might assume that starting and maintaining a basic worm bin is only “for amateurs”, but in reality, a small enclosed, plastic worm bin is likely one of the most challenging vermicomposting systems to master. If you can do well with a plastic tub, you can more than likely do well with larger worm beds!
Aside from learning the fundamentals, honing your vermiculture skills etc, starting small will also allow you to decide if this is REALLY something you want to pursue on a more serious scale. Who knows – you may end up reaching the conclusion that it’s not quite as appealing as you thought it was going to be, or simply that it’s not the type of hobby you want to turn into a business.
So, that takes care of the complete newbies – what about those who are already vermicomposting enthusiasts?
Well, I think your two major considerations are: 1) Worms and 2) Customers – the rest, are just details (ok, maybe not – but this is all I’m going to write about here!! haha)
Obviously, if you are planning to sell composting worms (whether for vermicomposting, bait, live food etc), you’re going to need a supply of them (business 101 here we come! haha). You can either grow them yourself or find a supplier. There IS a third option – finding what I like to refer to as a “surrogate worm grower” – but it’s beyond the scope of this post to get into that.
Grow Your Own – A lot of people assume that if they live on a regular urban/suburban property they won’t have enough room to grow a decent “worm herd”. Well, for starters – I’m sure there must be some really talented worm-growing hobbyists out there who could probably maintain a stock of 50-100 pounds of worms in their basement (in an apartment etc etc). With the right set-up, and a disciplined, scientific approach this can be done. Let me assure you, though, that I’m definitely NOT one of these people! I did, however, eventually hit on a good strategy (after a LOT of frustration, I might add) for becoming my own suburban worm supplier. In a nutshell, it comes down to selling a different product (or a couple of different products in my case) than the standard “X pounds of worms”. I started thinking hard about what my customers were really after, and it dawned on me that it wasn’t actually a pound of worm meat at all. What the VAST majority of them want is an enjoyable/successful vermicomposting experience!
The two different products I sell are: 1) “Red Worm Culture”, and 2) “Compost Ecosystem”. They are both considerably less expensive than a pound of worms (another perk for customers), yet they still offer an effective means of starting up a vermicomposting system. I like to think of Compost Ecosystem as a “compost activator on steroids” – it represents a great way to convert a regular backyard composter or compost heap into a thriving vermicomposting system. The material contains lots of worm cocoons and smaller worms (some larger worms as well), plus a wide variety of helpful composting critters (microscopic and macroscopic). The Red Worm Culture on the other hand, contains a LOT more worms (material is removed from worm-rich zones in my beds, then further concentrated) so it tends to be the preferred choice among those wanting to get their vermicomposting systems up and running more quickly.
Working with a Supplier – This can be a great option for those people who really don’t want to be bothered with the process of growing/harvesting worms. Ideally, you will likely want to connect with someone locally, and someone you can develop a really strong working relationship with – but, given how well composting worms ship, you can probably do just fine by having someone send you bulk shipments as well. I think this can work especially well for those people who can move all the worms fairly quickly – eg. you are holding some sort of workshop and part of the cost for each participant covers their own supply of worms. I think this could also work well for those who are selling a higher-end product such as some sort of “vermi-garden” or large-scale vermicomposting system.
My own experience with suppliers (with my “real world” biz) has been mixed. I have worked closely with a large-scale grower in my region, but the problem was that I just didn’t put enough effort into establishing a “win/win” type of arrangement. He was very happy because I was placing lots of bulk orders, but I ended up frustrated because I then had to turn around and re-harvest worms for individual customers (which took quite a long time).
I think one of the common mistakes people make is focusing way too much on trying to grow worms, produce castings etc early on without giving enough thought to the actual selling. Unlike “Field of Dreams”, this is not an “if you build it, they will come” sort of scenario!
That being said, there are some fairly easy ways to drum up some business fairly quickly. Something I really harp on is the importance of creating at least some sort of basic website. It is AMAZING how much business you can generate from a small site and a little bit of additional promotion. Virtually ALL my “real world” business has resulted from people finding my website (Worm Composting Canada) and sending me an email (believe it or not, I don’t even have a phone number, address/directions, or any means of placing an online order!).
If your website is a work-in-progress, or you just don’t want to bother (regardless of HOW much I nag you! haha), the good news is that there are some other easy ways to advertise your business. One really cool method involves using online classified ad sites (Kijiji, Craigslist, USFreeAds etc). Don’t expect your phone to start ringing off the hook (or your email inbox to fill up), but my experience has been that you can certainly drum up a bunch more sales – especially during the composting season. Just make sure your ad is as descriptive as possible, and that you include some sort of image (if allowed), since this will help increase the chances of someone finding and looking at your posting.
One other (easy/inexpensive) method I think could work very well is putting up flyers in your area. In my neck of the woods, most grocery stores (and a wide range of other establishments) have bulletin boards for exactly this purpose. Perhaps you could invite people to some sort of low-cost (or no-cost) backyard “vermicomposting party/workshop” where you could showcase some of your products and get people excited about the possibilities. One idea I had for my area was to offer a low-cost backyard composter maintenance package. Basically, the idea would be to quickly help the customer get their bin properly set up (I should mention that backyard bins are given away free in our region so a lot of people have them) using a variety of raw materials along with some of my Compost Ecosystem mix.
There is certainly a LOT more that can (and will) be said about starting up a fairly small-scale, local worm business. Hopefully this will at least provide people with some food for thought in terms of how to get the ball rolling with their own fun vermi-enterprise!