Jason Earle was miserably sick as a child – and he blames his basement. He suffered itchy eyes, headaches, asthma attacks, and a pneumonia/asthma incident so grave that he was mistakenly diagnosed with cystic fibrosis. "I grew up in a nice house," says Earle, "but we had a wet, moldy basement."
Earle’s symptoms went away soon after he moved from that house as a young teenager, but he did not forget the experience of being so ill for so many years.
In the spring of 2003 he founded Lab Results, a company that sniffs out mold in homes and businesses. His partner, Oreo, is the inspiration for the company name. "He’s a lab mix," says Earle of the $14,000, specially trained mold dog, which he bought from the Florida Canine Academy.
Oreo is one of only a dozen or so mold-sniffing dogs in the country, the only mold-sniffing dog in the Northeast, and the cornerstone of Earle’s business.
In starting his company, Earle did Bill Gates one better, dropping out of high school rather than college. A student at West Windsor-Plainsboro High School, he was told mid-way through his junior year that he would have to repeat the year. He had missed a lot of school due to his mother’s death and a bout of Lyme disease. Not an avid student in the first place, he decided to work full time at a gas station, save money, and then go on to college. His father, Sam Earle, a journalist turned software developer, who has worked at the Times of Trenton, the Trentonian, and Bloomberg, and who once owned the now defunct West Windsor-Plainsboro Chronicle, supported his son.
One day Earle was pumping gas when stockbroker in a BMW and a big hurry came in with a flat tire. When he asked Earle to fill the tire with air, the young pump jockey told him that it would be flat again in no time, and offered to fix it quickly instead. A five-minute fix got the car moving, and earned him a $50 tip, which he thought was a mistake. When he saw the stockbroker again, he tried to return it, but was told that there was no mistake – and was offered a job interview.
"I went off to New York in my father’s loafers and a shirt that was too big," Earle recalls. His new mentor gave him the job, and a new suit to boot. Shortly thereafter, at age 17, Earle became the youngest person to earn a brokerage license. "It’s in the Guinness Book of Records," he says.
He worked for a small investment firm for nine years before going out on his own. Did the Wall Street experience fund his mold remediation business? "No," says Earle, "I was undercapitalized, and when the market cratered I went broke."
No matter. With the optimism of youth, he knew he could get back into the game any time. He sold all but his most essential possessions and hit the road with a 20-pound backpack. He traveled all the country and did a fair amount of reading along the way. He was particularly attracted to the stories of people who suffered from asthma and related breathing problems. When he got home he decided that he wanted to get into environmental remediation, and signed on with a company in that field, assuring its owners that he just wanted to learn, but that he wouldn’t attempt to take away customers.
He had read about termite-sniffing dogs, but did not know that there were mold-sniffing dogs until his then girlfriend’s mother told him about seeing a television program about the animals.
His business plan came together in a flash the moment he heard about the dogs. He sent off a deposit check, charged to his credit card, and soon Oreo was his. "She’s the most important part of the business," says Earle. "She can find the source of mold in a house in five to ten minutes."
The business does involve more than the dog, though. Earle also uses infrared thermal scanning, electronic moisture detection, and hand-held laser particle scanners – $75,000 worth of equipment altogether.
His customers most often are people with allergic or respiratory symptoms. Many call after seeing his ad, but a growing part of his business comes from physician referrals, most often from pediatricians, obstetricians, or ear, nose, and throat doctors. These are the calls he finds most satisfying. "The most amazing thing to me," he says, "is how sick some people are in cases where there is very little mold." The illnesses, he says, often clear up entirely when the mold is removed.
His least favorite calls involve real estate transfers. "Right off the bat three of the four people hate me," he says, referring to the seller and the two real estate agents. The lawyers involved in the transaction tend to be antagonists too, and even the buyer, the person seeking a clean bill of health of a house, often wants to spend as little as possible for an assurance that all is well.
Lab Results charges $499 to check for toxic mold. Further testing, which is sometimes required, is extra. Homeowners insurance generally does not pay unless the mold is the result of a "sudden event," such as a broken water pipe. Generally a mold problem has to do with maintenance, perhaps a leaky appliance or a backed up gutter.
In addition to examining homes for mold, Earle takes on commercial buildings. He does not offer remediation for either type of customer, citing the possibility for a conflict of interest. Cleaning a house of mold could cost $2,500 for a small, two-day job or up to $20,000 or $30,000 if the job involves tearing down walls (www.moldtips.com).
Rather than expand his business in place, Earle is in the process of getting the paperwork ready to offer franchises. While he would like to go nationwide, he suspects most interest in the business will come from states like Florida, California, and Hawaii. "You want humidity and affluence," he says.
Mix in an Oreo, and there is a chance to build a business around helping people to breathe easier.
Lab Results LLC, 66 Witherspoon Street, Suite 378, Princeton 08542. Jason Earle. 800-630-9047; fax, 609-683-5144. Home page: www.stopmold.com