Launching a Sustainable Business: Lessons from the Field

The Sustainable MBA

Launching a Sustainable Business: Lessons from the Field

I won't receive my MBA degree until later this year, but I've already racked up some active experience in starting a new venture. As CEO of DriveNeutral, an enterprise of the Presidio School of Management that helps individuals, organizations, and events offset their CO2 emissions, I've gathered some experience that I'd like to pass on to other sustainable-business entrepreneurs. Here are some pointers I wish someone had shared with me as I took the wheel at DriveNeutral, hoping to turn an original idea into a viable offering in the open market.

Practice the Pitch

Let’s start where most conversations about your business will begin: the pitch. The more innovative and novel your product or service offering, the more important your pitch becomes. For example, pitching DriveNeutral’s core offering involves for many potential customers a quick lesson in economics, i.e., how does neutralizing one’s greenhouse gas emissions relate to a market exchange platform? Distilling that information into a clear and compelling message took an enormous amount of testing and revision. (A clear example of how important the perfect pitch can be is one that Presidio provost Ron Nahser uses frequently: When cars first came into the market they were not sold as a new and exotic form of travel but rather as "horseless carriages.")

Practice the pitch early and often among friends and colleagues. Learn to persuasively communicate the most important features of your business in fewer than ten seconds, because often that’s all the time you’ll have to make your case. The utility of this approach hit home for me during media interviews on DriveNeutral. For radio, communicating in snappy sound bites works best. In magazine or newspaper interviews you’re more likely to get a carefully crafted message in print if it’s short enough for a journalist to jot down quickly. If it’s not possible to reduce your core product or service into a succinct series of sound bites, create a secondary pitch for time-crunch situations. Or, you may need to reconsider your business -- a great idea that’s too complicated to explain is a great idea that’s unlikely to receive venture capital or other financial support.

Consult with the Devil’s Advocate

As a sustainable business entrepreneur, you must be prepared for intense, often skeptical scrutiny from the marketplace. With DriveNeutral, we first introduced our business idea to the Presidio School of Management community -- people who are deeply committed green consumers and sustainable business practitioners. Receiving feedback from our friends and colleagues first helped us hone our message for potentially less receptive audiences down the line. As we found out, the harshest criticism from Presidio was based on a mistaken understanding of how DriveNeutral and our partners at the Chicago Climate Exchange work. This feedback helped us pinpoint which messages were getting through and which needed adjustment.

The fact is, criticism is almost always constructive if you’re willing to be flexible and attentive to your audience. If a group is less than wowed by certain product or service attributes or the way you communicate the offering, don’t get stuck -- simply modify your message. This sense of "non-attachment" allowed me to better incorporate feedback while staying committed to DriveNeutral’s core service offering. As long as you are true to the essential business idea, you can make smart adjustments to meet your customers where they live. Your business model should go through several iterations, responding actively and constructively to criticism, before it is delivered to the larger market.

Benchmarks, Timelines, and Exit Strategies

Because the future of any new venture is unknown, the successful entrepreneur must get relatively comfortable with uncertainty. This has definitely been the case with DriveNeutral. In order to alleviate some of this stress, I have mapped out timelines and benchmarks to determine the progress of the business as it develops. If the plan does not appear to be unfolding as well as anticipated, I know when to walk away from the whole experience. This knowledge gives me the confidence to continue taking well-calculated risks.

At the beginning of a start-up it’s important to know how long you can afford to stay committed to the business before it shows signs of promise. It’s all too easy to fruitlessly push uphill when there are no prescribed timelines and no metrics to assess the viability of the venture. Once you have decided what needs to happen and when in order to safely stay in the game, you will know when to leave if your benchmarks are continually missed. On the positive side, you’ll also know when it’s time to raise a toast to your organization’s achievements.

The Dual-Purpose Enterprise

A related issue for green-minded entrepreneurs is the dual purpose of the endeavor. This means that you must be able to speak in terms of raw financials and yet remain passionate about the mission, all the while being careful not to confuse the two issues. The last thing potential investors want to hear about are the environmental and/or social consequences of not funding your business idea, regardless of how serious these realities may be. The reverse is true for potential customers who are, for example, probably unconcerned about the amount of units that you need to sell in order to break-even. The bottom line is to know who to say what to and when.

Staying Creative and Committed

When selling a business idea to investors or trying to earn your first customers, you can’t fake your enthusiasm or allow it to wane. Therefore, I would like to end this column with one last admonition: Don’t forget to breathe.

Whatever you do, make sure that you have a routine in your day that is all about you. Most entrepreneurs find this relief in some type of physical activity, be it going to the gym, taking a yoga class, practicing martial arts, or going hiking every weekend. You’ll burn out too quickly if you don’t diversify your lifestyle at least enough to maintain your calm, focus, poise, creativity, and personality. These traits are critical to your business’s success. Best of luck to you and your enterprise!

Jason E. Smith will complete his MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio School of Management in June 2006. He has been featured as CEO of DriveNeutral, Presidio’s first student-run enterprise, in the Christian Science Monitor, USA Today, Roanoke Times, and Air America Radio. Jason also has experience in sales and marketing within sustainability-driven business and education.