Intuit Helps Small Business Capture a 'Green Snapshot'

Can the company that tamed financial accounting do the same for carbon accounting?

That's the aim of Green Snapshot, a just-launched free service of Intuit, the company that makes popular financial management software like Quickbooks and TurboTax. Snapshot is aimed at the same market as those products: millions of small and midsized companies, few of which have the time, temperament, or temerity to calculate their company's carbon footprint, let alone take action to reduce it.

The program is fairly straightforward: It automatically mines your Quickbooks data, culls the various payments you've made, and taps an online database that assigns a rough carbon equivalent to each of the payees. Based on that information, it instantly creates a carbon footprint analysis, along with a set of recommendations of ways to lower it.

It's simple and quick. Did I mention that it's free?

At first blush, Intuit may seem an unlikely source of such a program. But if you think about what Quickbooks and similar programs do, it makes sense. In essence, those financial management programs take a jumble of business information (expenses, payroll, income, payables, receivables, etc.) and organizes it in the form of income statements, balance sheets, budgets, and other documents. The goal: understanding your finances in order to help you manage your money and your business more effectively.

Snapshot does the same, taking disparate business information about purchases and activities and organizes it. The goal: understanding the parts of your business that have the greatest contribution to global climate change in order to help you manage those activities and your business more effectively.

The idea for Snapshot began in 2007 when Rupesh Shah, Director, Corporate Sustainability at Intuit, who joined the company eight years ago with a freshly minted MBA from Northwestern University, was tapped for Intuit's first environmental post. Shah had worked in product development, which turned out to be a good fit: The company wanted someone who could mesh improving the company's footprint and engaging its workforce with the potential to develop new products.

That last part was key. "We could do a lot of stuff with employees, or supply chain, or packaging, but that wasn't going to make a big difference," Shah explained to me recently. "Where we could make a big difference was from a customer-facing perspective. So once we started to throw some examples out about what Intuit could do and what opportunities our customers could have around green, then [senior management] started to get it, and then they started to invest in it."

Shah saw an opportunity to help small businesses, Intuit's core audience. "Everyone recognizes they're very important in the environmental game but few people have been able to really engage them."

He got that right. Since the dawn of the green business movement, small and midsized firms have been largely left out of the picture. Regulators and activists have focused on large industrial players -- the ones with the spewing smokestacks, drainpipes, and dumpsters -- all but ignoring the roughly 98 percent of the companies around the world that have under 100 employees. With the exception of a relative handful of green business programs sponsored by local governments and chambers of commerce (most of which have pretty low barriers to entry), there are few robust and affordable resources to help the countless printers, dry cleaners, parts manufacturers, warehouses, hair salons, restaurants, and butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers that are the backbone of most countries' economies.

Shah also understood another key: "The key hypothesis I had was that in order to get them in the game we had to make it super easy for them."

Along the way, Shah met Michael Gelobter, founder of Cooler, a company I profiled in 2007 that utilizes complex life-cycle databases to provide an economic model, rather than an engineering-based one, for determining the climate footprint of a given purchase. It's a blunt-instrument approach that's cheap and fast -- and yields pretty accurate data.

Cooler's database became the engine for Snapshot. As Shah explains: "Snapshot reads your Quickbook data, pulls every dollar the business has spent over the past twelve months, and works with Cooler's economic input-output matching engine. It looks at the payee and the vendor of every transaction and tries to match it to the closest of about 1,000 carbon categories that the Cooler engine has. And for each of those carbon categories there's a carbon intensity -- emissions per dollar spent." The result is a report detailing a company's carbon footprint and cost-effective opportunities to reduce it.

Presently, the system typically matches about 8 of 10 transactions. The report you get shows which transactions weren't included in the carbon footprint calculation. In the coming weeks, Intuit plans to add the ability for users to link those unmatched transactions to the Cooler engine, and each user's contribution will help make the system smarter for everyone.

I asked Shah, what's in this for Intuit? Is there a business model here that the company hopes to exploit?

"We have a business model that we're testing," he responded. "The savings engine has a bunch of actions that we recommend. About half of the actions are behavioral -- clean your HVAC, drive smarter -- and about half involve buying something -- an Energy Star computer, or some other greener product." Intuit is planning to point customers to retailers and earn affiliate fees, though Shah quickly noted, "We haven't made a penny yet, and I don't think that we're going to make any meaningful money any time soon."

Beyond that, Shah hopes Snapshot will help small businesses to communicate their environmental achievements to their own customers. "I was struck when I was interviewing small businesses, how many of them were trying to get their customers to see that they're doing something green. But there's no real authentic way to message that." Shah believes Intuit can play a role in providing "a little bit more transparency and legitimacy for those claims around green."

Will it work? Hard to know -- the product is barely a couple weeks old -- but you've got to like the strategy: a free add-on to a popular product that provides genuine value to customers and, just maybe, to Intuit itself, all the while burnishing the software company's green cred.

As Shah put it: "Our goal in this was not pure charity or philanthropy. It's to build a tool for customers that they would find valuable, help increase the reputation of Intuit, both as a corporate citizen but also from an innovation perspective, and to try to monetize this. We'll see."