To score success, you must be willing to make mistakes

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Remember Chicken Litter? I’m not surprised; it got about as far off the ground as a hen in flight. But without it, there might never have been a Kitty Litter, which revolutionized life for pet owners and earned me more than a few dollars in the process.I was in my 20s, laboring in my father’s sand and gravel business, and chafing to climb out of the rut we seemed to be in. When my father started buying crumbled clay to use as an industrial oil and grease absorbent, I looked for other ways to use the material. One day, I was talking to a guy about nesting chickens, and the Big Idea kicked in.

Turning failure into success

Why not sell the clay as a filler for chickens’ nesting boxes? I dubbed it “Chicken Litter” and drove from my Michigan home to a major egg-producing area in Indiana, hauling as much Fuller’s Earth as I could tow. I pitched anyone who would listen and gave out plenty of free samples. And though the chickens seemed to like it, I made few inroads with their owners. Chicken Litter failed as a product, a fact that my tradition-bound Dad made sure I understood.

But one day in the dead of winter, a friend of mine dropped by looking for some sand for her cat box. Problem was, at that moment our sand was frozen rock hard. The forlorn look on her face made me give the matter some more thought, and I offered her some of the industrial-use absorbent clay. She seemed skeptical when she left, but a week later she was back for more.

“This stuff is fantastic!” she gushed. “What do you call it?”

The chicken venture of a few months earlier flashed through my mind. “Uh … Kitty Litter,” I replied. One of the most successful products in the pet industry was born. But the possibilities didn’t dawn on me that day; I don’t imagine that the first fellow to discover fire immediately ran around his cave yelling, “Hey, now we can all stay warm and barbecue ribs!”

I initially regarded my friend’s visits as kind of a nuisance, especially after she began to bring her friends as well. But when they didn’t hesitate to pay for the product, the marketing alarm finally went off in my head. The rest is history, but there wouldn’t have been a story to tell had I not tried Chicken Litter, then crossed the mental bridge to develop the wildly successful Kitty Litter.

Nothing ventured, nothing gained

If mistakes were acres, I could fill a good portion of my Michigan estate. I think any entrepreneur is bound to make some wrong decisions because we take so many risks. My yardstick for evaluating a new venture is, “Can I afford the expense if this project is a total loss?” If I can, and if my gut feeling is “go for it,” then that’s what I do.

I always remember how my Grandpa Huber told me — as countless other parents and grandparents have advised — that a mistake is a waste of time only if I didn’t learn anything from it. I learned that what may not be right for chicken farmers was perfect for cat owners, and I discovered how to turn clay into gold.

This column is one in a series that will explore the thoughts, ideas and unadorned advice of an entrepreneur who made it, Edward Lowe. When he “brought the cat indoors” with a revolutionary cat-box filler, Kitty Litter, he created an industry that changed the lives of millions of cat lovers, not to mention cats. During his life, Ed Lowe used “plain talk” to speak about the bottom line from the bottom of his heart. We believe these writings, revised and updated after his death, offer value for both your business and personal life.

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Edward Lowe

During his life, Ed used “plain talk” to speak about the bottom line from the bottom of his heart. We believe these articles, which have been updated after his death, offer value for both your business and personal life.