Three things happy entrepreneurs can teach us about sustainability

It’s funny how life works.

Today I’m at home, hunched over my laptop, busily working on the schedule for a sustainability report…

…but this time last week, I was sitting in a deckchair in the middle of Hyde Park, wearing a canary yellow lei and giving careful consideration to the following conundrum: if you met a couple whose dream was to open the UK’s first cat café, what’s the killer question you’d ask before you invest?

No, I wasn’t having a particularly bizarre dream; I was at the Happy Startup Summercamp, the brainchild of the Happy Startup School and an inspiring guide to growing small businesses with happiness at their heart.

The day was packed with fantastic speakers, and I left buzzing with plans for my freelance business, from how to tell the story of my ‘call to adventure’ (thanks, Olivia Sprinkel!) to how to elicit honest feedback (courtesy of Henry Stewart).

But there were also some ideas that I’m planning to replicate with my clients to help them along their sustainability journey, and which I also wanted to share here.

1. Write your company’s obituary

I’ve heard of people writing their own, imagined obituaries in order to surface what’s most important to them, but I loved the idea of a company doing the same.

Ole Kassow asked a telecommunications client to do just that, and sparked a complete change of company philosophy when senior management realised that there was nothing about their enterprise that anyone would miss.

Chastened, the company decided to revamp their customer service, and to investigate how they could really make a difference in the world. A few short years later, the company is known and respected across Denmark for changing the ‘tone of voice’ of public conversation.

The obituary is a great example of helping clients to see the bigger picture for themselves, and one I intend to steal with pride!

2. Change ‘What do I want to do?’ into ‘How can I be useful?’

Andy Gibson’s fascinating talk was an account of his journey as an entrepreneur, from the first spark of an idea to re-engineer our view of mental health, to the iteration of his business that survived and is now thriving.

The original purpose of MindApples was to define and deliver the mental health ‘five a day’ – the equivalent of our daily fruit and veg – and ended up providing brain training services to investment bankers.

The story of the business reveals many lessons for aspiring social entrepreneurs, and I won’t try to replicate it here. But the one that stuck with me was the change of attitude that finally made this business work: from ‘what do I want to do?’ to ‘how can I be useful?’ The team realised they needed to ask themselves how they could fulfil a need rather than how they could engineer the change they wanted to see.

Perhaps it’s a perspective that more social entrepreneurs should embrace – it’s all too easy, when your cause is so worthy, to forget that there might not automatically be a need for the produce you’re selling.

The punchline, of course, is that MindApples is making a bigger difference in the field of mental health by working with an unlikely audience than it ever did working on its first idea. The money they have made teaching investment bankers to make better decisions can be reinvested in making a similar programme available to schools, and start to realise the vision the founders had from the start.

3. Ask people to do something outrageous

This one is perhaps my favourite of the whole day. I spend much of my time trying to develop effective sustainability messages, aiming to inspire corporate boards, frontline staff or customers to take action for a better world.

Often it’s an uphill struggle, and Andy Middleton’s talk (which covers similar ground to this Do Lecture) highlighted one of the underlying reasons – one I’d been struggling to articulate. “No-one wants to help you make a 0.2% difference to something,” he said. “But if you ask them to do something outrageous, people will join you to get it done.”

Perhaps that’s why it often feels like an uphill struggle to craft compelling messages from the sensible, stretching-but-achievable commitments of board meetings and corporate sustainability reports. No matter how carefully calibrated they are, they’re just not ambitious enough to get the blood pumping.

So, counterintuitive though it may seem, it might be those plans that sound most difficult to achieve – such as the ambitions of Kingfisher, Interface and a few others not only to reduce their environmental footprint, but to have a net positive impact – that will end up being the success stories of sustainability, because their sheer audacity will inspire the commitment required to meet them.

(And the killer question for the wannabe proprietors of a cat café? The answer is, of course, “Would you still be interested if cats weren’t involved?” It makes sense: as the café’s owner, you won’t spend a lot of time stroking cats – but you will make an awful lot of coffee.

If you’re not interested in the day-to-day workings of your business, it’s probably not the right business for you. So it’s lucky, then, that I rather enjoy being hunched over that laptop.)

Image: Happy Feet by Lalit Shahane is licensed under CC BY 2.0