Ten entrepreneurial lessons to get your green biz going
Is it your career ambition to start your own green business or nonprofit endeavor? Join the club, my friends. Among recent college graduates and late-Boomer career-changers, “starting my own enterprise” is high on the list of preferred careers.
And why not? When I turn on NPR in the morning, I’m often greeted by an ad (I mean, an “underwriting announcement”) for the Kauffman Foundation, celebrating “the entrepreneurs who start businesses and change the world.” Such is the power of the entrepreneurial idea. Hard to imagine a foundation buying air time to celebrate “the people who take jobs at the DEP and process your water quality permit.”
No, it’s the entrepreneurs who get the publicity, the glamour, and (when it works) the money. That’s probably why I hear from so many people who want to start businesses and nonprofits in sustainability consulting, carbon offsets, home energy audits, biofuels, wind power, organic food, and almost anything you can prefix with the word “green.”
Many are people with modest ambitions, for whom “start my own business” means “make a living for myself and maybe a friend or two.” But there are also would-be entrepreneurs like the members of the MIT Energy Club I spoke with a couple of months ago. Their plans are on a whole different level; they need serious venture capital, not a loan from Mom and Dad. They are the people who will receive checks from the Kauffman Foundation.
However, if the successful business and nonprofit leaders I’ve been speaking with are any indication, the core advice to would-be entrepreneurs is much the same whether you want to build websites in your back bedroom or capture the world algae-to-energy market before you’re 30. Below, 10 entrepreneurial lessons to get you started:
Lesson One: What’s the big idea?
OK, we’re listening. What’s your idea for a business or nonprofit enterprise?
This is where the whole thing starts — with an idea. I’ve been told there are only two reasons to start your own enterprise: because you’ve got a new idea, or because you’ve got a unique twist on an existing idea. Since most of us aren’t bringing something revolutionary into the world, I’m guessing your enterprise is going to be in the second category.
So, what is that unique twist? Is your outfit just going to be better? Cheaper? New to the territory? More fun? More reliable? Bigger? Targeted to a different audience?
Lesson Two: What’s in it for us?
Ask yourself, Why do I want to start my own enterprise? If your answers form a list of personal, psychological, and financial benefits that rebound exclusively to yourself, think again. People don’t buy a service, support a cause, or invest in a business to help you get the life you want. From day one, your focus should be on how other people are going to be better off because you’re in business/service.
Those benefits have to be real, and they have to be verified (eventually) with credible information from prospective customers, clients, members, or donors. Sometimes, it’s possible to generate that data through research and through the example of others who have done the same type of thing under similar circumstances. Other times, the only way to find out if people want something is to begin to offer it and measure the results.
Either way, the measure of your success will come from whether others feel you’re serving their needs.
Lesson Three: Why you?
Well, sure, you’re brilliant, green-as-all-get-out, and fabulously good looking, but what do you bring to this business? Many of the people I’ve worked with said their greatest asset is passion for their idea. What they lack in skill, experience, knowledge, contacts, money, and credentials (I’m told) they more than make up for in desire to succeed and the ability to learn quickly at the always-expensive School of Hard Knocks.
And you know what? That is sometimes enough. The number of people who are running enterprises that they could never get hired to run are legion. So congratulate yourself for having one of the things you need to get started. Now, get to work on the rest of that list. Because the first time you sell yourself to a client, they’re going to want a compelling case for selecting you, and passion alone won’t cut it.
Lesson Four: Where’s the plan, man?
Every would-be entrepreneur is sternly instructed that they must have a multi-year business plan. By “business plan,” advisors usually mean a document that would pass muster in a banker’s office if you went for a loan. Such a plan makes a case for the business need, outlines its mission and goals, details expected costs and revenues on a quarterly or monthly basis, shows where money is going to come from to cover cash-flow gaps, describes the advantages the proposed enterprise has over identified competitors, and provides information about you and/or your partners in the new outfit.
Does this mean that every great new enterprise started with a great business plan? The sound of laughter you hear is coming from small business and nonprofit start-ups all over the world that never had a business plan and are doing just fine, thank you very much.
So, that means you don’t need one, right? Sorry, Charlie; you do. If your enterprise is worth launching, it’s worth planning for. And the tried-and-true structure of the standard, take-it-to-the-banker business plan template is a disciplined and effective way to plan.
Lesson Five: Are you the right person for the job?
Launching your own enterprise, either alone or with partners, is not for the faint of heart. Although I’m not as quick as some to lay out a strict entrepreneurial type, there do seem to be some common qualities. Can you handle the anxiety that comes with making decisions and taking risks? Do you deal well with a mix of failures and successes — not getting too low from the former or too cocky from the latter? Are you responsible? Can you see reality fairly clearly, without unreasonable optimism or gloom? Can you deal with the inevitable ups and downs of a financial life without a paycheck? Are you willing and able to do “whatever at takes” at critical times, especially when it seems like the enterprise is running you instead of the other way around?
These are just some of the personal questions you might ask yourself. One more: Does this sound like fun? It’s supposed to be fun. Otherwise, why do it?
Lesson Six: Get started.
The poet Goethe famously wrote: “Whatever you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.” If you’ve got an idea you believe in and a desire to try the entrepreneurial adventure, there’s eventually only one way to find out if it’s going to work. You have to try it.
Lesson Seven: Measure success by the “triple bottom line.”
It’s oh-so-easy to lecture other business and nonprofit leaders on the need to achieve high standards of environmental quality, social justice, and economic security. And we should be setting the bar high for all entrepreneurs. Ah, but now you must walk the proverbial talk in front of others, even (or especially) when third-quarter revenues are looking bleak.
Lesson Eight: Get support and help from other entrepreneurs.
People who start new enterprises learn really quickly that they are always in way over their heads in one way or another. All entrepreneurs make a lot of mistakes. So they turn to each other (in person, through lectures, via books) for assistance and learning. One of the surest ways to run your new venture into the ground is to pretend (especially to yourself) that you always know what you’re doing.
Lesson Nine: You don’t have to quit your day job just yet.
It’s becoming more and more common to find out that your coworker in the next cube is also an entrepreneur, launching a new enterprise while still enjoying the security of a regular salary, paid health insurance, and some kind of retirement plan. If the pressure of long hours from two jobs is preferable to the pressure of unpredictable revenue from a single new venture, this can be a great way to go.
Lesson Ten: It might not work out.
Enterprises go out of business every day. They were started with great promise and high hopes, but somewhere along the line, they sputtered and died. And the entrepreneurs are still suffering from entrepreneurial PTSD, right? Depressed, skittish, nearly suicidal? Well, there may be stories like that out there, but I didn’t find them. Some of the so-called failures had returned to regular jobs; some had started one or more additional enterprises since the failure; some (OK, one) sold out at bargain price just before the fall.
But here’s the thing. None of them were sorry that they gave the entrepreneurial life a whirl.
Kevin Doyle is the president of Green Economy, a Boston-based firm offering consulting, training, facilitation, and strategic planning help to the public and private institutions building a more sustainable economy. He is the co-author of The ECO Guide to Careers That Make a Difference: Environmental Work for a Sustainable World, and is at work on a new book about climate change careers. He welcomes your green career questions here or directly to firstname.lastname@example.org.