Friday, November 17, 2006

Advice to Entrepreneurs about the Sustainability "Space"

Sustainability is hot. Green is the new black. Social entrepreneurship is seen as a way of providing purpose in one's work. I am getting a lot of requests from people for advice on how to get started in the "sustainability business," (caveat: my current view is that this isn't really a business, rather it is an approach to business). Students, recent grads, and people looking to reinvent their careeers smell opportunity, and want to get in on it. But because the area is pretty new, there aren't a lot of "traditional jobs" out there yet. So, you may have to create your own job by starting a business. Here are a few thoughts, based in part on a recent message I sent to some entrepreneurship students.

1) I would encourage you to think (deeply) about what you want to get out of a business. Building a business is a huge amount of work. Don't embark on this effort lightly. Passion is the "fusion power" of human energy- without a lot of it, you are unlikely to make it through the tough patches. Stephen Covey counsels to "Begin with the End in Mind"- good advice. Work backward from the goal.

2) Most times, entrepreneurship is a team effort. Pick your partners carefully. You will likely spend much more time with them than your spouse or significant other. The balance of compatability and creative tension is an elusive one. Who do you want to travel with?

3) Many companies start from answering the question "what sucks?" and then doing something about it. Take your time and do your research. Remember Thomas Edison's advice that invention is "1% inspiration and 99% perspiration"? My experience is that he was being conservative, probably because he didn't want to discourage anyone.

4) Think broadly about for-profit and for-purpose (what others may call "non-profit")* ideas, and how these may take the form of companies, co-ops or non-profit enterprises. Make sure that they are based on a sustainable business model, which basically comes down to delivering something of value and getting paid for it.

5) If you are going to build something great, it has to be designed to last... that is part of the obligation to your employees, customers, investors, suppliers and community- in effect, the business ecosystem. I could be wrong, but I think it will be hard to build a reputation in this space if you have an eye on a quick "liquidity event". This has many implications for the design of your enterprise.

6) Much of building a business is building a network. It is coalescing a team around an idea and then working really hard. It is knowing you don't have it quite right, but you won't know how to fix it until you start moving.

7) Want ideas? Cruise through Inc., Entrepreneur, Success, Business Week, Forbes and Fortune. These cover many traditionally successful start-up businesses. Reconceive them as sustainable companies; reconfigure them. Find spaces that are behind the growing interest in sustainability, in which you have an interest and some experience, if possible. Don't do another Patagonia, Interface or New Belgium, but take those concepts to industries and spaces that need them.

*Thanks to David Saiia at Ithaca College for sharing this term with me.

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