As conditions change, do you change as well?

    One fine spring afternoon a few years ago, a couple of guys in nice suits came into our office in California.
   They represented a lobby group that was in town to “help” us fend off all the unnecessary environmental regulations that would “hurt” our business.
   I listened carefully to their presentation, and then when they were finished, told them that if it weren’t for some of the “unnecessary” regulations, we wouldn’t be in business. I explained that the need for our products in large part was because there were regulations on the books.
   The enforcement of these regulations that required providers of water to meet certain standards was becoming a substantial part of our future business.
   I went on to point out that in the future we were planning on expanding our product line to include marketing possibilities such as water re-use and greywater treatment.
   The two guys left our office looking confused. I think they hadn’t run into many businesses in the area who actually thought regulation was not necessarily a bad thing.
   Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not a big fan of regulation.
   On the contrary, I bridle as much as anyone when government entities intrude on my life and business.
   The point I want to make is that things change. When business conditions change, I see business owners react in two different ways. One way is to stonewall. You see examples of that every day.
   Businesses facing changing conditions or moods in the country react by hiring lawyers and lobbyists to keep things the way they are. The coal industry and U.S. auto industry, need I say more?
   The other reaction is to observe and adapt. You could see a phenomenon in the last few years with certain innovative car companies going out on a limb with hybrids and energy-efficient vehicles in the face of strong trends toward SUV’s.
   I remember when I was in my 20s looking around in despair sometimes thinking there is nothing new under the sun, all the good opportunities are taken.
   It wasn’t until my 40s when I realized how wrong I was.
   In our case at Blue Future, we could make use of an old experienced technology, slow sand filtration, combine it with new materials and scientific discoveries, and make a brand new approach to water and wastewater treatment that fits our times.
   After 15 years in the innovation business, I see new opportunities all the time for new goods and services. These new opportunities happen because things change— attitudes, environmental conditions, scientific discoveries, public awareness.
   When I was a kid, there wasn’t much of a market for environmental products. In fact the word “environment” hardly had any meaning at all. Environmental engineers were called sanitary engineers. Everyone used lead paint.
   Cars belched fumes (I can still smell that smell). Land fill dumps didn’t care what you put in them. Smog was just a reality, no one thought about doing anything about it. It was the smell of progress.
   Now, “environment” has big meaning to everyone. And with that comes big opportunity for brand new business. For example, there is a burgeoning vineyard and winery industry in Washington that is growing leaps and bounds every year.
   There are all sorts of opportunities for innovative business there. Industries like that have need of support and materials — water and wastewater treatment, innovative irrigation systems, new ways to control pests, packaging systems, transport, and advertising.
   There may be someone right now in Whatcom County thinking of a new process or material that could work there, employ people, generate revenue.
   Since I got into my business, I see changing attitudes and requirements in just about every aspect of life. The list is endless.
   For the innovative entrepreneur, every time you look around at things you use everyday, and get frustrated about how they work, opportunity is ringing for a new business.
   The bottom line for me is that in this changing world, some things fade away because they are no longer relevant for the time. You can fight to keep them around in a doomed effort.
   On the other hand, with everything that fades away, something new is needed.
   We just need to pay attention, get frustrated, roll up our sleeves, and invent the better pollution-trap, or tool, or appliance, or manufacturing process, or material, or service. To me it’s a choice — stonewalling to protect the old and outdated, or seeing exciting new opportunities in undiscovered territory.

Humphrey Blackburn is the president and CEO of Blue Future Filters in Bellingham.


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