There's no magical formula for solving companies' growing lode of sustainability reporting requirements, but a startup just coming out of stealth mode is making a run at the problem.
The solution? A self-described "TurboTax for sustainability."
That's the mission of Measurabl (yes, that's the correct spelling), a spin-out of one of the world's largest real estate services companies. If it succeeds, it could ease a major pain point for corporate sustainability execs.
Measurabl offers a software-as-a-service solution to filling out sustainability reports, aimed at companies with $1 billion or more in revenue. Its initial market are real estate investment trusts and big retail developers that have portfolios of buildings. Firms in this sector, like so many others, are being pressed by investors, regulators and customers to document and report non-financial performance, including environmental and, sometimes, social impacts. Compiling, filling out and filing all these reports can consume significant time and resources.
That’s the pain point Measurabl is trying to ease, said founder and CEO Matt Ellis, formerly director of sustainability solutions at CBRE, the world’s largest commercial real estate services firm by revenue. During his five-year tenure there, Ellis helped build the company’s sustainability service offerings — things like greenhouse gas emissions calculations and sustainability strategy for CBRE clients. When the services were offered in 2011, “there was pretty swift uptake,” Ellis he told me recently. “We realized how limited we were. As soon as we got one or two assignments we couldn’t service any more.”
One service in particular was helping clients file reports under the Global Real Estate Sustainability Benchmark protocol, better known as GRESB. “GRESB requires a ton of data,” Ellis said. “Getting that data is tremendously difficult. It's very manual, very heavy in terms of Excel. It requires a lot of handholding.”
That led to Ellis to leave CBRE in April to start Measurabl and raise just over a half-million dollars to build what is now a seven-person team. “It was just one of those things where we looked at the process and thought, ‘If we had a platform to facilitate this, both the qualitative and quantitative aspects, it would be a no-brainer and we could service more clients far better,’” he said.
Measurabl’s board members include Ellis’ old boss, Dave Pogue, global director of corporate responsibility at CBRE, and Josh Henretig, director of environmental sustainability at Microsoft.
Measurabl isn’t the first tech solution for sustainability reporting. There’s OneReport, Credit360 and SoFi, among others. Measurabl claims advantages over each, including its guided, “wizard” approach that aims to hold users hands throughout the process, much like the popular tax-preparation software TurboTax; its capability to import data from third-party sources, such as utilities, travel companies and Energy Star; and the capability to push questions out to suppliers — all hallmarks of a startup aiming to disrupt a marketplace.
“You almost have to be an expert to even use these programs in the first place,” Ellis said. “And so it doesn’t really solve the problem, which is ‘What do I do when I don’t know how to do this? I'm not an expert. I need to be guided through. I don’t have the time and on-staff resources to run this software myself.’”
Ellis explained to me the resources typically involved with creating a GRESB report. “Almost always it's a team, and that team will usually be, at minimum, two people. I've seen teams as high as about a dozen people.” At the low end of the spectrum there’s an analyst, who covers the quantitative side of the reporting, and a sustainability director or equivalent, who takes care of the qualitative aspects of the survey. “Those two people together will spend about three to four weeks compiling data and preparing the report,” he said.
Boston Properties is a good example of a company at the higher end of the spectrum. Because of the nature of the organization, it will have four or five people in each of several regions, then someone at headquarters to roll the data up into the final report.
“You’ve got some pretty big groups handling this stuff,” Ellis said.
This week, Measurabl is announcing the first few “early adopters” — large firms piloting the enterprise version of its software, including VMware, Clarion Partners and Gables Residential. The early adopters will enable Measurabl to get real-world feedback on its software. The company plans to release version 1.0 of its commercial platform during the first quarter of 2014.
One early adopter is Bohdy Hedgcock, vice president at Clarion Partners, a real estate investment firm specializing in properties for institutional investors, with $28 billion in assets under management. Hedgcock previously had hired CBRE to assist with Clarion's GRESB filings. He was pleased with CBRE’s offerings, but “Measurabl was a much easier process in general,” he told me. Hedgcock cited “little things, like when you read the survey questions. It’s not always easy to understand what’s happening. Measurabl has taken sustainability-ese and put it into plain English.”
After Clarion submitted its most recent GRESB report, Measurabl offered feedback. “’Here’s where your strengths and weaknesses are, and here’s what’s easily attainable to improve your score,'" he said. "It helped us not only identify ideas for us but helped us prioritize them.”
Measurabl views one of its competitive advantages to be the “wizard” features of its software, leading the user through the various questions, taking a complex process and breaking it down into simple steps.
“That's what TurboTax did,” Ellis said. “It looks at that big, giant form. It takes it completely apart and reassembles it, and it does so in the spirit of trying to find efficiencies and make sure that you're answering fewer questions because your data is being carried forward throughout the survey. It's answering questions on your behalf wherever possible, whether that's through data syncing or through background math and logic based on prior answers.”
Hedgcock didn't quite experience that way. “It is and it isn’t TurboTax,” he said. “With TurboTax, I have all my tax records right here. And while it might be painful for me to go through all the forms, I can do it. With GRESB, the information isn’t at your fingertips. There’s a lot of data gathering that has to happen prior to being able to use Measurabl. It can help you understand what you need to gather, but you don’t just push a button and all your information comes out.”
TurboTax or not, Measurabl's value proposition is compelling, especially as the reporting burden grows. According to Ellis, GRESB reporting is just the beginning: His company is working with several other reporting frameworks and protocols, including CDP and the Global Reporting Initiative, to integrate their requirements into Measurabl’s software. “We're in a world where our clients are doing GRI, CDP and some others,” Ellis said. “And so the status quo is multiple reporting by thousands of organizations, and now their supply chains.”
Ellis is betting that his company’s better-reporting-mousetrap will get wide uptake among companies across sectors. “There is a mission to make this available to everybody, to make it affordable and to make it quality. And if we do so, we're going to see sustainability transparency take a big step forward.”
Images courtesy of Measurabl. Top image by Sergey Nivens via Shutterstock.