Most of us have two concerns when it comes to our compost: 1) how to keep it from smelling up our kitchen, and 2) remembering to take it to the curb each week. What happens after the magic truck comes to haul it away is not something we often pause to consider.
But Gorge residents Pierce Louis and Tyler Miller are not “most of us.” They have in fact given the post-curb composting process very careful consideration, and have found some glaring holes. They started Dirt Hugger to fill these holes, and to keep local food waste from filling holes that should be reserved for non-organic trash.
Pierce tells us more:
The spark that inspired the birth of Dirt Hugger: In 2009, a local governmental agency called Tri-Counties Recycling commissioned a study that did an organic inventory for the Gorge region – breaking it down by type and volume—and then looked into processing capacity and options. The result was, we have all this stuff but there’s no local processing capacity. My partner Tyler and I starting looking into that. We visited composting facilities in other parts of the states, facilities that were processing over 100,000 tons a year.
We thought we could do something different, something close to the community and close to the end market that was a tenth the size and capital of the other facilities. At the time, we were working for a drone company, but business had just sold, and thought it was a good time to jump ship.
The difference between compost and drones: This is all new to us. I think from an entrepreneur’s perspective it’s a good thing because we ask tons of questions, we drink up as much information as we can. We have that beginner’s mind to approach something from a new angle.
The problem Dirt Hugger solves: The big problem is keeping valuable organic waste from going to the landfill. We want to reuse it, whereas in landfills, it just takes up space and creates methane.
We’re at the heart of an awesome agricultural community. Some of the biggest cherry farms in The Dalles have been farming for four generations, and they’re realizing, wait a minute, we’ve got 0.5 percent organic matter in our soil. They’re switching to compost, not because they think it’s “cool,” but because it’s getting results. It’s a good business model. Ironically compost is now cutting-edge, even though it’s an old concept.
The second problem is how a smaller community can effectively handle waste. Big cities like Portland, Seattle, and San Francisco have the infrastructure, but how can we create a model that can be implemented in other small communities? We’re designing a new model that is way more efficient, energy wise and footprint wise. What we’ll build next is hopefully a first step toward a prototype facility.
The biggest surprise in your entrepreneurial experience to date: Dirt Hugger is the first time either of us have started anything ourselves from scratch. We both worked for a bunch of startups, but this is the first time we’ve pulled the trigger. There are a million surprises a day, but probably the “best” surprise is how many people have come to the table to support us. People have popped up when we needed them to, and they have been absolutely critical to making this work. For instance, we happened to be located next to a heavy construction company, and the owner saw what we were trying to do and let us borrow his front end loaders for an hourly charge. That was huge. We’re excited to pay all this support forward to someone else someday.
Failure stories: We fail daily—pretty solid failures too. We’re totally of the “fail often, fail early” school. We’ll try anything, but we try to do it at a small scale so that the impact of the failure is minimized. No one here should be hesitating because they’re afraid they’re going to fail.
At first, we drove around in a pickup truck to pick up organic waste. Our first customer was only giving us coffee grounds, and the can weighed 125 pounds. We had no clue what we were doing. It was really hard to get into the truck. We’re both short, and we didn’t realize food was so heavy. We were terrible at picking up garbage, it was awful! Luckily, we learned quickly and got a garbage company to take over the route.
Advice for a budding entrepreneur: My old boss told me, you just have to focus. There are so many opportunities, and it’s tempting to chase them all, but you have to stay focused on your core. What do you do, what customers do you serve, and how do you make money?
Recommended read: Escape from Cubicle Nation was a huge inspiration to quit my job. It even emotionally walks you through the fact that you’re leaving a paying job and secure environment.
What wild success looks like: There’s a Dirt Hugger in every town. We believe organics recycling is going to be as institutionalized as can recycling. In fact, I just got an email this morning from someone who wants to start a Dirt Hugger in Australia.
What you wanted to be when you grew up: I never had any idea what I wanted to do. My brother’s a doctor, and I used to be kind of jealous because he had everything all mapped out. Part of being an entrepreneur is not knowing. It’s kind of like college or school, you get to start over every four years.
I worked at a kite-boarding company when I was first starting, then aerospace for four years, and now this. What I like is that there is no path. The trajectory is that you’re building experience in knowing how not to screw up.
It’s funny because I had to give a talk at a career day for a high school last year. I told them, if you don’t have any clue what you want to do, that’s cool. You can adapt and evolve.
What’s next for Dirt Hugger: There’s a lot on the horizon – we’re moving to a new site and have launched a Kickstarter campaign to help cover the costs. This project is applicable to folks in Portland because Portland doesn’t have enough capacity, and some of the overflow is starting to come to us, which is closer than other places it was going, like Eugene and Corvallis. We’re also experimenting with an anaerobic food digester—the downside of composting is that it uses a lot of fuel for equipment, and the digester not only helps recycle food waste but also creates biofuels we can use for our equipment.
What’s next for you: After this, who knows. I’d like to do something that preferably doesn’t involve heavy equipment.