Joel Makower in conversation with Carrie Norton of Green Business Base Camp
The mission of Green Business Base Camp is to give aspiring entrepreneurs with green or cleantech ideas a crash course in the skills and insights needed to succeed, while connecting them to a network of experts, mentors, and like-minded individuals. GreenBiz.com Executive Editor Joel Makower talked with the organization’s founder, Carrie Norton. Following is an edited version of their conversation.
Joel Makower: What led you to start this?
Carrie Norton: I've spent close to 15 years combining my interest in sustainability with entrepreneurship. The first big milestone in that path was Garage Technology Ventures, otherwise known as Garage.com, where I went right after business school, and got exposed to the model of how to increase the success rate of early-stage entrepreneurs. I'm really passionate about entrepreneurship and I'm even more passionate about sustainability.
Green Business Base Camp serves a gaping hole that I see in the marketplace for early-stage entrepreneurs focused on green business and cleantech. It's a hybridized version of many of the accelerators you see out there today. It builds on my experience, with a concentrated way of exposing entrepreneurs to the tools, knowledge and network they need as they build their enterprises. I'm trying to demonstrate a thesis I have, which is that there’s no longer a really good reason for the vast majority of early-stage entrepreneurs to fail. If we can do anything about reducing the failure rate among early-stage entrepreneurs focused on green business and clean tech, then we're getting to the future faster.
I was inspired to start seriously moving on this when we hit the economic crisis. Because, as Steve Case said at your recent VERGE conference, this is the country that was built on entrepreneurship. I believe that we can reinvent ourselves through entrepreneurship, but we need to do it in a sustainable way. So my goal is to help build entrepreneurs around the globe who are focusing on solving environmental and social problems through business.
Makower: What's been missing? What do entrepreneurs need that they haven't been getting that you think can make a big difference?
Norton: It’s a sectoral focus. In the time I first started talking about launching this business, in 2009, to last year when I actually incorporated, there's been a resurgence of resources for entrepreneurs. I'm involved in the StartUp America initiative. There's Y Combinator and there are many other incubators. But there hasn't been anyone focused on early-stage entrepreneurs in this sector. Based on my experience at Garage, where we were the first to offer the boot camp concept to startups, I was convinced that we could take that model and adapt it to today's environment by offering this shorter, more concentrated experience for entrepreneurs in the sector. That would complement many of the incubators out there and serve an earlier link in the chain of organized and qualified companies that were making it to the first stage of raising money or getting customers.
Navigating the clean and green space is more confusing and different than navigating traditional tech. The policy environment is very different; there's a deeper connection between how policy affects these businesses than with traditional tech companies. And the basic concepts of sustainability -- what it even means -- is not being addressed by conventional incubators. If you're creating the next Zipcar, how do you need to think differently about the life-cycles of products? How do you think about the end of a product's life at the same time you're building the company? The original model was, how do we take the Fortune 500 and retrofit them through sustainability? That's been kludgy at best. We need to start thinking about sustainability from the ground up, helping entrepreneurs integrate it from the very beginning. We're building sustainability into the DNA of these companies.
Makower: Where do entrepreneurs get tripped up and how can you can help reduce the high failure rate?
Norton: There are three types of people that are prime for Green Business Base Camp. There’s the first-time entrepreneur who needs help to simply get off the ground. There's the serial entrepreneur who might be coming from technology, who's become enamored of the opportunity to make a difference and wants to get into green business or cleantech but doesn’t know much about the space. The third category is what I call the technologist or the inventor, who might be coming out of a lab with a technology but who doesn't know how to think like an entrepreneur and who oftentimes doesn't have basic business skills to transform their technology into commercialize-able enterprise.
Makower: Tell me a little bit about the experience your boot camp will offer.
Norton: We're selecting 100 entrepreneurs that represent a mix of those three archetypes. They’ll arrive at the basecamp and they first thing that they'll do is have a structured networking breakfast together followed by a keynote from Paul Hawken. Then they will dive into an immersive overview of design—thinking environmental. How do we build sustainability into the DNA of these companies from the get-go, as opposed to doing it retroactively? That will be a foundational seminar everyone will take.
On the afternoon of the first day, they will be focused in cohorts of 20 on what we call the green business idea. They’ll learn business model validation, competitive research, legal structures, IP and policy environments and implications. After that they'll look at questions related to branding, marketing and sales.
The next couple of days are a combination of modular lessons looking at all the other basic building blocks of how to build a business, but focused through the lens of green business and cleantech. And working on a pitch and getting coached around that pitch, all building up to an actual pitch on Days 3 and 4.
Makower: Who are they pitching to?
Norton: They're pitching to a group of industry expert judges from a variety of sectors, including venture capitalists.
Makower: What's the profile of the ideal candidate for this?
Norton: It is someone who has an idea. Believes they have the commitment and passion to follow through on the idea. Wants access to a peer support network. Wants access to a seasoned mentor network. Wants exposure to the basic building blocks of principals for entrepreneurship. And wants to be in a qualified community of like-minded individuals who are similarly focused on solving the same kinds of problems.
Makower: What do you think the role of big companies is in fostering and mentoring and enabling green entrepreneurs? Is there any role for them in your program?
Norton: It's critical. We work with big companies in a number of ways. They sponsor our workshops. They provide expertise to teach some of the modules that we're offering. But perhaps most importantly, we’re trying to create what I call a virtuous loop of innovation. Big companies are looking for innovative ideas and many of them don't know how to innovate internally, so they're looking outside for what's next. We are working with a number of big companies that are interested in seeing what's next in green business and cleantech. They can provide partnership opportunities for our entrepreneurs to sell services and products, perhaps even to acquire them. It's critical that we continue that loop of communication between what's happening inside the Fortune 500 and what's happening on the front lines of innovation in entrepreneurship.
Makower: What's the vision for your business? You’re an entrepreneur. How does this grow?
Norton: We're starting with these highly curated immersive educational experiences for early-stage entrepreneurs around the world. This year we'll do three workshops: in Los Angeles, in London and a third in Asia.
The real scale for our business is going to come in by building an e-learning platform aimed at serving up content that initially serves the needs of the early-stage entrepreneur but ultimately can serve a number of different audiences with an interest in entrepreneurship, innovation, green business, and cleantech.
Makower: So what does success look like?
Norton: We build a profitable company that serves up great content all over the world. Ultimately, we are so attractive as a business that we get acquired.
Makower: So, in effect, you're modeling the curriculum in real time?
Norton: Yes, indeed.