To further whet your appetite, following is an article I wrote for greenz in November, 2010 covering the panel discussion that kicked off Global Entrepreneurs Week (GEW) in Japan that year. (I don't have the photos from the event handy, so I just substituted something attractive. Enjoy!)
Kicking off Global Entrepreneurs Week (GEW) week in Japan, the November Green Leaders Forum offered up a scintillating tell-all of ecopreneurism. Jacob Reiner, President and Chief Architect of Eden Homes and founder of Earth Embassy, Donald Nordeng, President of Ecocert, Shuichi Ishibashi of Energy Literacy Platform, and Tsuneyuki Fujioka of Fam-Fam (both winners of the British Council’s E-Ideas Competition) joined the British Council’s Huw Oliphant to share their thoughts on doing eco-business in Japan.
When asked about their greatest challenge as ecopreneurs, panelists responded almost unanimously with one word: capital. From having enough at the right time to finding it to using it wisely panelists viewed capital as a double-edged sword. Fujioka observed that having too much can result in complacency and failure, while Reiner warned against risking too much at one time. Ishibashi, whose group is in the process of conducting a broader test of their product, found the search for capital itself quite challenging.
“I’m an engineer. My colleagues are engineers. For the business side we have no one, and we’re creating links now to such resources. We’ve been helped and supported by other organizations, but capital is now our biggest challenge,” he said.
True to their innovative natures, panelists also offered creative ideas for finding the capital needed to move a project forward.
“At the beginning you only have passion. Energy is the only thing that exists. We needed advice from various designers, and we could only say, ‘We’ll be able to pay you back when we succeed.’ Maybe people can physically help you in their spare time. Volunteer time has the same value as money,” Fujioka said.
Nordeng suggested creating micro-lending programs like Kiva or those run by the Grameen Bank.
“It’s a common capital activity where the neighborhood gives you money and you pay them back as you can. It’s a creative system that gives you money as you need it,” he said.
A Balancing Act
Creating capital of any kind requires determination and drive, which can require compromise. As ecopreneurs, balancing the interests of the planet, the community, and the company may feel overwhelming. Focusing on creating a solid product helps even out the scale.
“The issues you face depend on what level your business is at. The first issue is to balance your ideal and reality. If you start from environmental issues you are more idealistic, but the buyer is not so conscious. If you have a good product at a good price, the eco factor will be the last push for the consumer to buy it,” said Fujioka.
Nordeng offered similar advice to budding business owners sorting through the maze of opportunities and options.
“Know your business and be able to say no to projects or clients that don’t fit your model. Get to know your customers in order to build a network and community of support for yourself. Stick to your niche so people know who you are,” he said.
Invest in Community
Throughout the evening panelists repeatedly pointed to community as a key to success. Reaching out and forging bonds with investors, volunteers, advisers, mentors and customers can mean the difference between success or failure. Fostering these relationships creates a circle willing to lend support – financial, physical, or positive public relations – at any time.
Reiner attributes much of the success of his company to the community partnerships he forged early on and still maintains.
“We’ve been able to do this because of the locals and their support. Make friends with the people around you. Seek mentors and let them help you,” he advised.
“I think the most important thing is to build a network. Everyday I meet someone new and pioneer new relationships,” he said.
Building that relationship, according to Nordeng, requires solid communication from “the company to their buyer and finally the customer” of who you are and the kind of work you do.
Think Outside the Box
When asked for ideas that would benefit ecopreneurs in the future, answers varied. Possibly the strongest advocate of community-building, Reiner suggested opening up private spaces for public use. Turning lawns into gardens and filling empty conference rooms with community meetings were just a few of his ideas.
“There should be a little alley (in Omotesando) with stalls where start-ups could sell their goods. Factories should open up an end of their floors to share tools. Open up resources to the community to mix a top-down, bottom-up approach to create space for entrepreneurs,” he offered.
Nordeng, perhaps reflecting the recent COP10 discussions in Nagoya, advocated expanding accounting and accountability systems to include biodiversity.
“The value of the biosphere is not accounted for or included in GDP. Sustainability doesn’t just include humans. Incorporating the non-human element will make the GDP more accurate,” he said.
Perhaps an additional challenge ecopreneurs face is not only keeping their doors open for one more day, but remaining a catalyst for societal change as the business evolves and grows. According to Fujioka, small business owners need to be cautious as well as innovative.
“Everyday I think there’s no meaning to what I do if it’s not sustainable. There is always a challenge to the balance between the ideal and what works. The most important point is the survival of the business. Provide a service and social innovation should be the outcome,” he concluded.
Tokyo Green Leaders Forum