A launch pad for green and clean entrepreneurs

Two Steps Forward

A launch pad for green and clean entrepreneurs

Have an idea for a cleantech or green business? Carrie Norton would like to talk with you.

Over the past half decade or so, the number of aspiring entrepreneurs with some green or clean technology or idea seems to have skyrocketed. They come from everywhere: freshly minted MBAs, seasoned corporate refuges, do-it-yourselfers who have built a greener mousetrap, app makers, moonlighting engineers, freelancing designers, Mom-and-Pop outfits, and more. We receive their PR pitches regularly at GreenBiz; I hear about them from colleagues, friends, friends of friends, and veritable strangers who, by design or circumstance, find their way to my e-mail address.

The vast majority of these enterprises are destined to fail, not necessarily because their ideas aren’t worthy, but because of flawed execution: insufficient market research, inadequate business skills, an overzealous business plan (“Every new mom will want one!”), no defensible intellectual property, a lack of strategic partners — and, of course, insufficient capital. Roughly speaking, the 80-20 rule applies: 80% of the ideas will never get off the ground; of the 20% that do, only 20% will achieve any level of success. Do the math and it works out to a 96% failure rate.

Norton aims to improve those odds.

Norton, a longtime friend, has harnessed her experience in start-ups and sustainability to launch Green Business Base Camp, a service aimed at giving aspiring entrepreneurs with green or cleantech ideas a crash course in the skills and insights needed to succeed. It starts with a four-day intensive in-person workshop, supplemented with online resources and continued mentoring. To do this, Norton has pulled together a network of successful entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, thought leaders, corporate executives, and various others who will serve as teachers, mentors, and, potentially, investors in start-ups. (Full disclosure: I am an unpaid advisor to GBBC.)

“I was inspired to start seriously moving on this when we hit the economic crisis,” Norton told me last week. “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.” (You can read our full interview here.)

GBBC serves “a gaping hole” that Norton found in the marketplace for early-stage entrepreneurs. While there are a growing number of business accelerators run by cities, nonprofits, and others, few have focused on helping those interested in businesses addressing social and environmental enterprises. Norton — who honed her skills working for Garage Technology Ventures, the pathbreaking dot-com founded by Guy Kawasaki to help Internet entrepreneurs get off the ground, then worked at IdeaLab, an iconic incubator of more than 75 startups — believes that environmental and cleantech entrepreneurs need a service of their own.

"Navigating the clean and green space is more confusing and different than navigating traditional tech," Norton explained. "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." Beyond that, she says, new business models, like those in the so-called "sharing economy," present new challenges to companies. "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?"

Norton isn’t the first to create services aimed at sustainability-minded startups. Business-plan competitions like the Clean Tech Open and incubators like San Francisco-based Greenstart are two examples of organizations on similar paths, though GBBC is different in at least three respects: it is broader than just cleantech, can serve a larger number of entrepreneurs at any one time, and is global in its ambitions. Moreover, GBBC aims to attract entrepreneurs at an earlier stage, including those that are still struggling to figure out a business plan. Norton described three types of entrepreneurs she hopes to attract: first-timers, serial entrepreneurs who lack cleantech and sustainability knowledge, and engineers or technologists with innovations but who lack business skills.

The four-day workshop Norton is planning—the first one begins May 31 in Los Angeles—will take a hand-picked mix of 100 such entrepreneurs through an intensive program, beginning with the basics of starting a business: validating the idea, doing market research, creating a business structure, securing intellectual property, and so on. Next come modules on marketing and branding, from naming to social media to PR skills. The “human talent factor” is the focus of a third module, about building and leading a team, selecting vendors and collaborators, recruiting co-founders, and "the entrepreneurial mindset.” A fourth series looks at product design and development, supply chains, and “government as a vendor and partner.”

In between these sessions, participants will work in small groups to hone pitches and develop slide decks, receive individual coaching on their pitch, ultimately making 15-minute pitches and taking questions from judges. As things wrap up, participants will hear from experts and successful entrepreneurs about “exit strategies,” and how early-stage entrepreneurs should “begin with the end in mind.”

This year, GBBC will hold three of these workshops—in Los Angeles, London and a third in Asia. Next year, Norton plans to launch 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.”

I asked Norton about the role of big companies in her program. “We work with big companies in a number of ways,” she responded. “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 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.”

Those big companies also serve as a cautionary tale, Norton says. "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."

Will it work? It’s, well, early stage, so it's hard to know. But I’ll give Norton high marks for her vision, and for the savvy she and her team bring to the party. Norton is one of the most determined, connected, and passionate individuals I know, strong qualities that will increase the odds that GBBC will end up in the rarified air of startups that succeed. And if it does, GBBC could play a pivotal role in fostering a new generation of entrepreneurs interested in tapping into the growing markets for green and cleantech products and services.

I asked Norton to envision what success might look like for GBBC. She responded, “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.”

“So, in effect, you're modeling the curriculum in real time?” I asked.

She replied, “Yes, indeed.”