Marginal choices and ways of life can be eye-openers in their own right, even when they are likely to remain at the fringes of society. For mainstream marketers and business leaders, there are myriad ways in which a glimpse of such behaviour can be a source of inspiration, as Helen Edwards explains
Here are three examples of marginal behaviours along with those entrepreneurs who have decided to pursue them. A few caveats, before we look at them: we are talking about entrepreneurial start-ups and that is always a fast-moving subset. Facts that were correct as this article went live may have changed by the time you read it. Some businesses will have moved on, some pivoted, some joined with competitors, some sold, others run out of cash, or luck, or time. And who knows, one just might have punched that vaunted hole in the universe.
- Home burial (and other forms of alternative deathcare)
This one sets up the concept of direct or indirect commercialisation. Direct focuses on the marginal behaviour itself. Indirect is when the behaviour inspires ideas in an adjacent space. That’s what’s happened with home burial. Practicalities and legal constraints make it difficult to directly commercialise, although some conventional undertakers offer it as an option. But the recognition that people are seeking non-standard, more personal ways of disposing of the remains of their loved ones has inspired some fascinating business concepts.
Based in Austin, Texas, Eterneva makes diamonds out of human ashes. The concept came about in 2015 when Adelle Archer was made guardian of the ashes of a good friend who had recently died. Finding the existing options underwhelming, she chose to have them turned into a black diamond. Co-founded by Archer and Garrett Ozar, the venture uses machines to replicate natural diamond formation and so grow a real diamond from the carbon of human ashes. They claim to have honoured thousands of lives and the website showcases rave reviews. Investors are seeing the potential, committing more than $10 million to date.
Recompose comes at a similar need in a different way. Founded by Katrina Spade in 2017, the Seattle-based enterprise specialises in human composting, in a process known as natural organic reduction. The deceased is laid in a vessel surrounded by wood chips, alfalfa and straw. The body and the plant material take about 30 days to form nutrient-dense soil, which is then cured and can be used to enrich the land. This is deathcare as part of the sustainability effort, with the claim that for every person choosing it over conventional burial or cremation, one metric tonne of CO2 is prevented from entering the atmosphere.
- Eating insect protein
Many in the mainstream are viscerally repulsed by the idea of eating insects and mealworms. That hasn’t deterred entrepreneurs from seeking to explore ventures rooted in the burgeoning science of insect protein. Here are two that have come at it in very different ways.
It’s not hard to see how the idea for Bug Farm Foods came about. The UK-based venture is the brainchild of entomologist Dr Sarah Benyon and her husband and chef Andy Holcroft. Established in 2017, the business sells its cricket cookies and yellow mealworm powders for protein shakes both online and through stockists.
Pet industry veteran and sustainability enthusiast Tom Neish has solved the problem of human squeamishness around insects by circumventing it. His Yora Pet Food venture, alsobased in the UK, offers a complete range of dog and cat food entirely based on insect protein. By his calculations, cats and dogs consume about 23 billion tons of meat a year, with serious implications for the environment. So he worked with experts in animal nutrition and entomophagy to arrive at Hermetia Illucens larvae as the optimum ingredient for both pet and planet.
- Biohacking and the quantified self
These two lifestyle choices both incorporate the full embrace of technology to measure, assess or more directly enhance mental, physical and emotional responses. The emergence of Elon Musk into this space is not insignificant. His 2016 co-founded Neurolink venture helps people with brain or spinal issues gain direct control of their personal computers or mobile devices through micron-scale threads that are inserted into the brain. The aim is to eventually broaden out to life-enhancing biohacking technologies for the wider population.
At the more accessible end of the market is Swedish start-up Mendi. Founded in 2017 by three entrepreneurs with backgrounds in technology and neuroscience, the business seeks to “improve the brain health of millions of people”. Its launch product is a headband that monitors brain activity. It costs $350 and works by using sensors that measure the oxygenated blood and neural activity of the brain. Customers wear the headband and then use the Mendi training game to help strengthen neural pathways.
Working in new ways with different kinds of potential customers can feel challenging, scary even. The risks are real. But on the upside, this is where meaningful growth is to be found.
Dr Helen Edwards is a consultant, writer, adjunct associate professor of marketing at London Business School and author of the new book, From marginal to mainstream: why tomorrow’s brand growth will come from the fringes – and how to get there firstpublished by Kogan Page