Urban Worm Interview Series: Bentley Christie

I am thrilled, humbled, and a little nervous that Bentley Christie agreed to be the next victim in the Urban Worm Interview Series.  He’s as close to a rock star as you’re going to find in the world of vermicomposting.

One of 3 known images of Bentley Christie

One of 3 known images of Bentley Christie

Bentley’s not a rock star because he has some pedigree or produces a massive amount of vermicompost.  Bentley is so revered because he is a bridge between the academics and the Everyman, using his online platform at Red Worm Composting to provide a hugely helpful fountain of knowledge that can be used immediately by vermicomposting beginners while being respected by academic heavyweights like Dr. Clive Edwards and Rhonda Sherman.

To his readers, Bentley is a cheerleader, an vermicomposting evangelist, and a patient and encouraging supporter for anyone looking to use earthworms to mitigate waste management and create some insanely-effective organic fertilizer.

To me, he has also been a supporter and cheerleader, but also a mentor, a source of much-needed “tough love,” and – I’d like to think – a friend.

Bentley, as you will see in the following series of interviews, sees the world of commercial vermicomposting and vermiculture as a pie to be grown, not to be split and consumed in a zero sum game.  If you win, it doesn’t mean he can’t also win.

He encourages potential rivals to up their game, even if it appears on the surface that they will become direct competitors to him.  But he knows what most people forget; that vermicomposting has such low consciousness in the minds of most people, especially Westerners, that more businesses – both physical and online – is a wonderful thing!

I hope you enjoy Part I of this interview with Bentley.  We go over some of his personal back story, how he innovated in his physical business, and a little bit about his flagship website, Red Worm Composting.  And stay tunes for Part II and III where we talk some more about the Worm Farming Alliance and his thoughts behind internet marketing today.

Enjoy!

Bentley’s Personal Background

UWC: This question has been on my mind for a couple years so let me get on with it.  What does Mrs. Christie think of this worm thing?  How has she handled seeing her suburban backyard, garage, and maybe the kids’ bedrooms transformed into worm-a-palooza?

BC: LoL – good question!

Well, we don’t actually have a garage, and I haven’t QUITE gotten to the point of invading my kids’ bedrooms (although I DID convince my daughter to set up and keep her own small worm bin in her room for a period of time), but yes my wife has endured a lot!
To my face, she understandably expresses a fair amount of frustration. “Behind my back,” she seems to extoll the virtues of me pursuing my passions, and she seems very proud of me.

All things considered, she has been extraordinarily understanding. We live in a pretty small house in the suburbs, and my worm stuff takes up a lot of space.

She definitely has her limits (eg. I ended up having to dismantle a Worm Inn Mega that was sitting in one of our bathrooms – hahaha), but I still feel like I’m “getting away with murder” far more than the average hubby. 🙂

UWC: I think I remember a story about your father’s reaction when you decided to quit your job to pursue the worm business full-time.  Can you describe that?

BC: Good memory, Steve! But it was worse than leaving a “job.”  I was getting towards the end of a MSc (Masters of Science, up here in Canada) degree. My dad was at the time a university professor with a PhD (he is mostly retired now…still has the PhD – lol), so he took it pretty hard!

Amazingly, he recovered pretty quickly and actually became a very big supporter.

One other important detail to add here. This was back in the fall of 2005, and it wasn’t actually a “worm business” I quit school to pursue. My dad would likely have been much more understanding about that. It was an affiliate marketing business.  It wasn’t until the next year that I started dabbling in “eco” websites. 2007 was when I really started working on Red Worm Composting. And spring of 2008 was when I actually started my own official “worm biz.”

UWC: Did you fully replace any income you had before you left school?  Or did you just take the leap and figure it out?

BC: I think my grad school stipend was something like $650/month – and the affiliate marketing was the most money I had made at any sort of “job” up till that point (maybe even since!), so it’s safe to say I had replaced my income. Haha

Joking aside, this was actually hugely important because we had just bought our first home, and we were planning a wedding for late the next summer. My wife had (and has) a decent job, but it would have been tough to keep everything afloat with just that plus my stipend.

And as I alluded to earlier, it eventually led me down the path to where I am today!

Bottom-line, I am proud to be a “drop-out,” but on the flip-side, I am also very happy I spent those extra years in school, since much of it was closely related to my current focus and interests.

UWC: Bentley, it’s certain that I would not have started Urban Worm Company without your encouragement and guidance.  And truth be told, I may not have even pursued vermicomposting as a method of recycling to the extent I have without you either.  So I have to ask, “Who was your Bentley Christie?” 

BC: Wow, what a compliment – thanks, Steve!

As for my own journey, I ended up having a MAJOR turning point after investing quite a lot of money in vermicomposting/composting information products, and basically reading  everything cover-to-cover.

I bought ALL back issues of Worm Digest (sadly, I don’t think you can even buy these any more), and a current (at the time) subscription.

I subscribed to Castings Call and bought ALL back issues of  it, along with a variety of other Vermico info products.

So I guess if I was forced to pick just one person most-responsible for my future wormy ways, it would likely be Peter Bogdanov, the owner of Vermico. Apart from creating some really fantastic information products like Castings Call, I was very inspired by his overall business model. His major strength was connecting people in the industry and helping the spread of high-quality information.

On the academic side of things, Dr. Clive Edwards was hands-down the most influential person. He had even offered to be an outside reader for my MSC thesis, believe it or not. And we ended up staying in pretty close contact in the years after I left school.

UWC: When it comes to vermiculture and vermicomposting as a business, I think most people, myself included, grossly underestimate the physical labor involved, not to mention bagging and shipping.  What do you think are the first doses of reality when someone starts raising earthworms?

I think one of the major wake-up calls for a new “worm business” owner (or wannabe) is the fact that it’s not NEARLY as easy to grow gobs of juicy worms as we tend to think – especially not in a limited about of space.

Even WITH all my reading/studying, I was completely and utterly clueless about this. I figured that if I set up a utility shelf with some “growing trays” in my basement I’d be able to grow enough worms to supply any worm orders (by the pound) I received – especially when supplemented by bulk worms ordered from another supplier.

I think another big wake-up call” relates to outdoor systems. Many people mistakenly assume that raising worms in outdoor beds is a piece of cake.  Of course, Mother Nature is more than happy to prove us wrong. There are SO MANY potential challenges with outdoor systems it’s not even funny.

Are there ways to make both of these scenarios work? ABSOLUTELY – but there are definitely some nuances (major understatement – haha).

Another huge smack in the face for me involved my realization of just how important (and limiting) TIME can be. Not only did I assume it would be “fast and easy” to harvest and pack worms (again, it CAN be if you have a good system in place) – but I also made the mistake of thinking I could have a million different moving parts in my “business”. I wanted to grow multiple kinds of worms, and sell all sorts of different products.

It wasn’t until I really  got laser-focused, and put a real value on my time that things started to head in a positive direction.

An Accident Leads to a Gold Mine

UWC: The brand butter in your physical business is something you refer to as a “worm mix,” which I would describe as vermicompost with an extreme density of worms, babies and cocoons.  Can you talk a little bit about how you stumbled upon selling this way?

It’s not so much a “vermicompost + worms” as it is a “quality habitat material + worms”. When the mix gets to the point of having a high concentration of vermicompost I consider it to be past its prime.

What’s funny is that I’ve always been a big proponent of the “worm mix” concept – without really thinking about it…at least not until my “major turning point” (something I’ll talk about in a minute).

Pretty well any time I would start up a new vermicomposting system, I would simply remove worm-rich material from another active system and use that as a starter culture. It ALWAYS worked extremely well, and the population in the new system would expload – and basically find its own “balance” without any assistance from me.

Interestingly enough, what I noticed with the typical “pounds ‘o’ worms” stocking method (i.e. those times where I had ordered some worms from a supplier and was using them to stock a new system) was that I virtually always ended up with:

– Some dead or dying worms

– A fair number of restless, roaming – often even escaping – worms

– Just generally, more of a “settling” period being needed before the system worked well.

All of this kinda came together for me – from a business standpoint – after nearly two (VERY frustrating) years of operating my “real world” biz based on the “pounds of worms” model. I had been basically buying ALL my worms from a supplier in bulk, and then re-harvesting for smaller orders.

What’s funny is the “major turning point” resulted from what SHOULD have been one of my easiest orders ever! The customer wanted the same quantity of worms I was picking up from my supplier! I figured I’d just bag em up, ship em off – and enjoy a decent profit, with little labor, for once.

Long story short, it was a very hot, summer day – and for some strange reason I decided to take my worms for a little road trip after picking them up, rather than heading straight home. Anyway, once they were finally in my holding trays down in the basement I started to realize that all was not well. I started finding more and more dead and dying worms

Rather than risking a TOTAL meltdown, I quickly decided to dump them all in a larger outdoor bin. While I certainly wouldn’t be able to fill the customer’s bulk order anymore, I figured I could at least use the worms for some smaller orders – hopefully at least recovering my investment.

Once the worms were settled into the bed, I was scooping up handfuls of worm-rich material with my hand and it suddenly occurred to me that I might be able to partially salvage the order after all, by simply bagging up this mix. Obviously the customer wouldn’t end up paying nearly as much – but it could still be a “win/win” scenario, since I knew it would be great for stocking a new system.

Still, I wasn’t sure if the customer would go for the idea – but by that point I was so fed up that it didn’t really matter! The idea of completely shutting down my physical business was actually pretty appealing.

Long story short (oh wait – didn’t I already say that 20 paragraphs ago? Lol), she DID go for it, and that’s the primary way I have sold worms  here in Canada ever since!

UWC: From a business standpoint, why does it make so much sense?

As many new “worm farmers” will agree, it is FAR easier to grow loads of tiny worms, than loads of bigger worms. High quality worm mix can be produced quite easily in a limited amount of space, and it doesn’t take very much time to “harvest”.

Yet the composting potential is still very high! I clearly remember one of my major frustrations when trying to fill worm orders by the pound was seeing all the countless small worms (harvested from my own beds) that were needed to reach the required weights. It was pure insanity.

But it’s very important to point out that there are  some serious advantages on the customer side as well (which is the main reason I am as big a fan of this approach as I am).

  • It costs customers a fair bit less
  • Little to no worm roaming
  • Little to no worm death
  • Habitat material helps to jump-start the system
  • The product ships incredibly well (I have had TWO separate shipments in transit for a month, and in both cases the worms were fine)

UWC: Do you actively increase the concentration of worms and babies in the worm mix, using the “light method” or something like that?  Or have you just cracked the code on getting high density?

My worm mix approach has evolved over time. My earlier versions were more concentrated and were sold in smaller bags. In 2015 I decided to simplify even more by shipping less-concentrated mix in a single, considerably-larger bag. Again, it was an advantage for both me AND the customer.

I knew from experience that there was a great deal of “magic” in the habitat material itself (a high-quality version of what I often refer to as “living material”), and that providing customers with a lot of this stuff would go a long way towards helping to ensure their success, regardless of any mistakes they make during the system set-up process.

Obviously for me, it is much easier to simply grab worm-rich material and put it in a single bag and then box it up.

That being said, I am still very finicky about my quality standards. I know exactly the sorts of densities I need to see in order to feel like I’m providing my customers with excellent value. So a lot of the time I will still concentrate anyway.

As for “cracking the code,” I do know a thing or two about encouraging lots of breeding and getting a population to shift more towards loads of smaller worms than fewer larger worms. I’m constantly stumbling on interesting new approaches as well.

On a rather funny (but related) note, this past winter I added lots of cut up denim (from old jeans) to my one of my outdoor beds. I was curious to see what the worms would do with it – and figured it would serve as a “slow-burn” food/bedding that would help to keep them chugging along during the colder months.

I’ve recently been harvesting material from this bed and have been completely blown away by the densities of juvenile worms I’ve been finding – not to mention how well they seem to have broken down the denim!

I’ve seen some similar results with various paper products as well.

Those who are in the WFA will also know that I have a bit of an obsession with Brian Paley’s (in)famous article about raising 100 lb of Red Worms in a single room. So that has also influenced my methods – and absolutely lends itself perfectly to the “worm mix” approach in general.

UWC: To someone who knows a bit about vermicomposting already, it’s probably obvious why a “worm mix” is a good idea; the worms arrive in their own habitat, are less likely to try to escape, the mix is full of babies and cocoons, etc.  But how much education of the consumer does it take to sell it?  I would imagine most people look to buy worms rather than a mix of dirt and worms?

BC: THAT is the million dollar question, Steve! Thanks for bringing it up.

There are definitely quite a few nuances involved in selling a worm mix product effectively. While I DO highly recommend this approach for those just getting started with their own worm business, I want to urge everyone to do it properly! And customer education is a hugely-important part of the equation!

I created a guide explaining what my “Easy Worm Mix” is all about. I also have a fairly in-dept FAQ, along with “follow-along” types of blog posts.

And I STILL have quite a few people asking how much I charge for “a pound of worms” (etc), or if they will be getting “a pound of worms” in their bag of mix.

When I patiently explain that this is a different kind of product, and gently point them towards the reading materials, most people start to “get it” and end up as customers. Not to sound harsh, but those that can’t get out of the “pounds of worms” mentality (i.e. I MUST have pounds of worms in order to effectively start a vermicomposting system), tend to also be those who will never really “get” vermicomposting in general.

That said, I don’t want to make it sound like I am ANTI-pounds-of-worms. That’s not the case at all. I myself sell by the pound (via drop-shipper) from the Red Worm Composting website. And I know full well that there are plenty of situations where having more (and/or bigger) worms right out of the gates will be beneficial.

UWC: What does a a unit of worm mix go for compared to a similar amount of worms?

BC: My pricing varies from region to region here in Canada (since our postal rates can vary widely) and is all-inclusive for the sake of simplicity, but I will provide an example for illustration.

One 12-litre (3.17-gal) bag of the mix shipped anywhere in my own province is $48, taxes included.

Of that, I might clear $20-$25 (yep shipping is expensive up here). My overall aim is always $20/bag after all overhead.

Another Ontario supplier charges $55 for 1 lb of Red Worms – with tax that is about $62. Add shipping to that and you are looking at upwards of $80 on average.

AND it’s important to note that the 1 lb of worms won’t be coming with all that wonderful habitat/ecosystem material.

UWC: Does this price attract buyers in your opinion?

BC: That’s a good question! Hard to say for sure. One thing I do know is that I seem to have “converts” – a fair bit of repeat business.

I think part of my success is that I am very confident in my product.  I know the facts, and I am utterly and completely mellow about the business (it is MEANT to be a fun, side business that helps to supplement my income). So I tend to have a very “easy come easy go” attitude with customers. I would MUCH rather have someone realize ahead of time that the product is not what they are looking for, than after they receive it  and this is a big part of why I put so much emphasis on education.

I have no clue how many people have come to the site and then went to buy worms elsewhere. Regardless, I am happy with the amount of business I get. Not so much that I can’t focus on my other projects (although spring can be challenging), and certainly not so little that I treat it as a “hobby business.”

UWC: How did overall sales go this spring for you?  Any comparisons you can make to 2015 or previous years?

What’s funny is that I assumed the past couple of springs were very similar to this year. It definitely felt like I put in about the same amount of time and effort anyway.

Upon closer inspection, however, it looks as though early sales (up to and including April 30th) in 2015 were basically double those in 2014 (and I even opened earlier that year). And this year they are significantly higher (than last year) once again.

Kinda strange, but I guess it comes down to my continual tweaks and efforts to streamline. I think I am able to fill a lot more orders in the same amount of time (and with similar effort) as in previous years, so it just “feels” like I’ve been bringing in about the same amount of business.

I know for sure that the switch over to a single, larger bag of “Easy Worm Mix” has definitely helped – and it’s nice to see that it not only didn’t hurt sales, but it actually may have provided an extra boost (but I’m sure there are a variety of factors at play).

A Little About Red Worm Composting 

UWC: How does the Red Worm Composting site affect sales for your physical business?  Is it a brand awareness thing or do you see a fair amount of referral traffic from RWC to your Worm Composting Canada site?

I’ve honestly never really taken the time to figure out how much of my WCC traffic comes over from RWC. There are some obvious cases where someone actually orders from RWC and I refund them and refer them to the other site, and they then place an order there. But a lot of the time I’m not really sure how a customer has been referred to WormComposting.ca.

While I DO like to think I treat my Canadian business as a “real business” – to be perfectly honest, there is a LOT more I could be doing with it. As I think I touched on in another response, I love keeping it as a nice little side biz that doesn’t suck up all my time (yet still provides a very important source of income).

Regardless of how people arrive, I DO like to make sure that they are aware of RWC, since there are a lot of helpful articles, as well as various information products they may also be interested in.

UWC: What is the post or posts you’ve had the most fun writing? 

BC: Hmmm…that’s a tough one. Not sure there have been too many situations where I have actually had a lot of “fun” writing a post!

Sounds bad, I know – but writing has never come easy to me, so a lot of the time it’s been a matter of fighting my way through it.

The "Creepy Pants" in action

The “Creepy Pants” in action

(Let that be a lesson to all those of you who think you can’t create a website just because you’re “not a good writer”)

It’s safe to say that most of my satisfaction comes as I press “publish”! Haha

I guess if forced to come up with something, I might pick the “Creepy Pants Vermicomposter” series:

UWC: Bentley! This a family website!

With that admonishment out of the way, which post unexpectedly resonated with your audience?

BC: I think the biggest surprised might have been my original Vermicomposting Trench post.vermicomposting trench

It ended up getting shared on social media sites, and really gained a lot of attention, on Pinterest in particular. I think I expected that there would be a fair number of people interested in it – but definitely NOT to that extent!

UWC: I think most Americans know you as the guy behind redwormcomposting.com but who also sells worms.  How do you think Canadians see you?  

Interesting question – and it ties in closely with one you asked earlier.

I’ve often wondered the same thing, and I think a big part of my motivation to make sure my WCC customers know about RWC relates to the fact that I think it helps to establish my credibility.

I haven’t put NEARLY the same effort into content creation on the WCC website, although I do seem to go through phases where I am inspired to hammer out a handful of articles – so there is some useful content on that site as well.

So I think I am viewed more as a “worm business owner” than as a crazy, passionate worm-head, educator type.

A funny way to put it perhaps, but I think my Canadian website (and business in general) is a lot more reserved, just like I myself am in “real life.” I haven’t put in ANY effort to develop my vermicomposting persona up here – and in a lot of ways I almost avoid the spotlight and turn down a lot of opportunities for speaking, workshops, fair booths, etc.

This is likely why the RWC online platform is so important to me!

Wrapping Up Part I

Bentley is a normal dude who just didn’t let a little hardship get in his way.

He’s a self-described introvert, “painfully shy” as he puts it, so he chose to focus on an online, rather than a physical presence.

He bounced back from a potentially costly mistake to discover his “bread and butter” product.

He doesn’t have a ton of space for vermicomposting and vermiculture, so he wisely uses the space he does have and employs some innovative culturing techniques like the Paley Method to grow more worms in less space.

He struggles to write sometimes, but does quite a bit of it anyways, and we’re all the better for it.

He’s never stopped learning.

In Part II, we’ll move beyond the physical business and talk about the Worm Farming Alliance, why he started it, who he thinks we should watch out for.  Stay tuned!