Kim Le: Healthy SuperFoods on The Rise; How Prime Roots Raised $4M

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The recent surge in plant-based meat alternative options must have key players in the meat industry shaking in their boots. With newer products as tasty as—if not tastier than—the real thing, environment-conscious consumers and many fast food retailers are turning toward faux food options with gusto.

We talked to Kim Le, CEO and Co-Founder of Prime Roots, who explained to us that starting the company wasn’t much of a stretch from her own roots. “My mom’s a professional chef so I grew up in her kitchen and I’ve always been really interested in food,” Le explains. “I grew up in a very entrepreneurial family, all really focused on food and experiences around food.” As for the entrepreneurial side of her business, she admits that things have gone rather smoothly from the start, all things considered, and that she has been really fortunate to have a supportive ecosystem in place.

I think a lot of the entrepreneurial journey is about luck and meeting the right people and surrounding yourself with the right people.

Prime Roots Bacon is Here to Save America… and the World

Popeyes’s new chicken sandwich is here to save America. That’s what the New Yorker has to say about it, anyway. The fast food chain’s new meal is just that transcendent. Helen Rosner even calls it an object of near holiness, but Prime Roots wants you to think a little more carefully about which culinary experiences you call “religious”. It’s not that the plant-based food company wants you to sacrifice your palate on the altar of social change. It’s just that its protein substitutes really are that delicious. In the culinary universe of Prime Roots founder, Kim Le, you can’t release meat’s pressure from ecosystems if your tofu tastes like tofu. That’s why her vegan masterpieces are the true objects of near holiness in this story, both on a gastronomic and an ethical level.

Product Development for Yummies

In case you’ve been hiding under a pile of McDonalds Burgers all year, the ethics of veganism have now grown to include climate change. Animal agriculture is to blame for 18% of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions that drive climate change. That’s why Kim Le was willing to go through the torture of sampling every meat alternative she could get her hands on at her local supermarket—she’s part of a massive global transition towards eco-veganism, and she has the tools to spur change: a palate that can pry deliciousness out of the most unlikely plants and the R&D skills to turn science into flavor. “There is life beyond salads,” Le says, and the ashy, mushy textures of today’s protein substitutes simply will never manage to snatch chicken sandwiches from meat-loving hands.

Kim didn’t need much money to start with. She had a kitchen in her home and a supermarket in her neighborhood, so she created a matrix of the marketplace from her own trolley. It turns out you don’t always need a laboratory or a wealthy venture capitalist to develop a product line. She took stock of the texture, nutrition failures, and over-processing that dominate the meat-replacement market, then built prototypes and proof of concepts in her own home. Her koji-based super protein has the addictive umami notes you expect from Kobe beef and lobster, and her ethical delicacies will hit the shelves in 2020.

Prime Roots has already become a market leader. Large multinational companies are bashing down its doors asking how they, too, can enter the market. “One of our investors has a philosophy,” she says, “Better for the world. Better for me. The intersection of those two things has an exponential opportunity—financially but also in terms of unmeasurable impacts.”

Following the Yellow-Brick Dream

Twenty-four-year-old Le seems too quietly spoken to be as incisive as she is, but if you look a little closer, you’ll see that the unassuming Wizard behind the curtain has a booming voice and the magical talents to change the world.

The plant-based meat market is expected to grow into a $140 billion industry, and Kim has hopped on board early enough to dominate it.

Her company has just raised over $4.25 million in pre-seed funding through the esteemed IndieBio accelerator program. That funding helped Prime Roots to validate its technology before it raised its first seed round in 2018. More importantly, though, it didn’t require her to give away controlling interests in her business.

The process of getting funding and pitching or applying for things does take a lot of time away from building your company. So weighing that and understanding where you are in your company is so important.

This is all the more critical in the social impact space where there is more at stake than mere profits, so Kim is quick to warn entrepreneurs away from funding unless it’s completely necessary. It often comes with aggressive terms that require you to give up equity or control. In the early years of business, entrepreneurial dreams are sacred. They, and not equations or investors, are the wizardry that launches the world’s most legendary brands.

Still, Le is quick to add nuance to her warning. “There are also a lot of grants and capital that doesn’t come at the cost of equity so be on the lookout for those,” she says.

Prime Roots is a socially-motivated and wildly technical business, from both a culinary and a scientific perspective, so she needed an accelerator to add oomph to her initial efforts. The program she chose connected her to the venture capital world and equipped her with skills she’d not yet learned. It didn’t, however, foster dependence, and therein lies the difference.

Kim Le believes in connection, but not at the cost of business ownership unless absolutely necessary.

“Being in a basement too long is not a great thing because you have to get out there and validate what people want [and] get your ideas out there,” so each day, Kim puts on her figurative chef’s hat and engages with communities over her prototypes. Her product line is an artefact of those alliances. Better yet, they’ve dished up their share of marketing value.

Focus on the Entrepreneurial Family

You could thank Le’s qualification in agricultural production systems for her success. You could thank her foodie-dominated childhood and product-development experience instead. You could even thank the accelerator program that ultimately allowed her to scale, but then you’d be missing her most important business resource: Her family’s emotional support.

No business management 1.01 lecture will teach you how to hold onto your dreams under impossible circumstances. Business leaders are just born with the strength they need to overcome the confusion and doubt of their launch years, aren’t they?

If only that were true. “We’re approaching three years since I started to dream up the future I wanted to live in,” says Le, but these pre-launch years haven’t been easy. Entering the food space is no small feat. Her fear of the regulatory landscape, of capital requirements and scaling pressures, has been significant. She’s had the optimism and problem-solving skills to see her through the tough times, but she credits her supportive family ecosystem even more. In the coming months, the world will get to taste the results of that biome: chef tested, foodie-approved, and hearty, just like Prime Roots.

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Transcription of Interview (Transcribed by; there may be errors.)

Adam Force 0:12
Welcome back to the Change Creator podcast show. This is your host Adam Force and I am excited today because we have a lot of good stuff going on. So to kick it off, don’t forget go back to…if you missed…it go back to the last episode with Martin. We talked about scaling e commerce. Then even if you’re not in e commerce, there’s a ton of value here because this is a guy that has scaled several, seven figure ecommerce shops and now he’s addressing the plastic pollution space with his latest business, Moop. But annually, he has managed over 100 million dollars in Facebook ad spend. They were testing over 10,000 ads a day. So pretty big operation. He knows a lot because of the data and everything that he’s experienced–really good with that tool. So there’s a lot of good nuggets in there for learning how to scale.

Today we’re going to be talking with Kim Le and I believe that’s how to pronounce her last name. But she is one of the co founders over at Prime Roots, which is a really great company. And you know, being a vegetarian for seven years, for a number of reasons, you know, I love seeing these types of companies pop up because she is a super food vegan company. And it’s important when it comes to things like the climate crisis, we need more companies like this to start transitioning some of the food habits and take the pressure off the ecosystems. So we’re going to talk about how she created her proof of concept, got this thing started. And since 2017, just with that proof of concept, she was able to raise over $4 million in funding because this is a hot space, everybody. This industry, as we have to transition our foods and we get into this vegan or vegetarian space.

Investors are really into it and they see the importance around it. So we’re going to talk about the industry. We’re going to talk about how she got started and proof of concept and all that kind of stuff and the funding. Alright, so stay tuned we’re gonna dive into that conversation with Kim in just a minute. And if you guys haven’t stopped by Facebook, we…this is our like as always mentioned just reminding you that’s our primary social media channel that you’re going to find all of our updates. And from our Facebook page, you can find the Facebook group if you want to get into a more specific conversation about growing and scaling your business. It’s called the Profitable Digital Impact Entrepreneur. There’s a button on the Facebook page. Just stop by, follow us, get involved; we want to hear from you. And we appreciate that. So I think that pretty much covers it.

Last but…you know one other thing…Just don’t forget you know, we have a lot of good content guys out on So if you haven’t swung by in a while swing by There’s a lot of new guides that we’re putting out there. We’re really trying to organize the content and we did an organizational update. So when you go to the blog page now you’ll see the way that that’s set up and you’ll find different guides. Okay, and lastly, if you scroll down on the homepage, we do have the waitlist now for the Captivate Method. This is our signature program. It originally started in 2018, where we taught storytelling to help people attract the right customers for their business and really use storytelling. People were hungry for more. And they wanted to know more about the application to the business really using this to drive sales and things like that.

So we did expand the program. And we do teach how to start getting automated, and how to start setting up your sales stories, how to get more sales, more conversions. And we really lay that out there even we do key performance indicator measurements and stuff like that. So it’s a really robust program and we offer two coaching calls a month that are part of it so that you can ask questions in real time. So if that’s interesting to you, jump on the waitlist and we’ll send you some info, you’ll get a chance to join our Master Class with me and Amy, we’re going to walk you through this framework and everything that we do, and you can see if it’s a good fit for you. All right. So that’s about it. Let’s jump into this conversation with Kim.

Announcer 4:03
Okay, show me the heat!

Adam Force 4:08
Hey, Kim, welcome to the Change Creator Podcast Show. How you doing today?

Kim Le 4:12
Good. Thanks for having me.

Adam Force 4:13
Yeah, thanks for being here. I love what you guys are doing and I’m excited to learn more because it seems like you’ve already taken some big steps and we’ll get into that stuff but tell me just a little bit, you know, what’s going on in your world these days? Like what’s the latest and greatest in developments and what’s exciting for you right now?

Kim Le 4:35
Yeah, so bit of background. So primary, it’s we make a koji-based super protein, which is an ancient Japanese super food that we ferment and turn it into all different types of high protein food applications. And the first few that we’re going after are alternatives to meat and seafood, because the koji that we grow has the natural texture, the protein content and the taste of meat, and the umami notes just naturally. So that’s what we’re doing, currently. My day to day is really leading the team and leading the efforts to engage with our community or product development together, and to be able to make the best products that are truly no compromises.

Adam Force 5:24
I love that. And what got you into the business?

Kim Le 5:30
So I grew up in a very entrepreneurial family, all really focused on food and experiences around food. My mom’s a professional chef, so I grew up in her kitchen. So I’ve always been really interested in food. I went to UC Berkeley to study and also did a lot of research there where I was looking into agricultural production systems. And learned that a large part of the crops that we grow actually get fed to animals. And the way that meat is made is really inefficient because we’re feeding, you know, 30 calories of nutrient rich grains and legumes and other plant material that you could just, you know, whip up a [unintelligible] dish to feed a human, but we’re feeding it to a cow.

So that or any other animal to give us, you know, what we call meat. So I was questioning, you know, what is meat? And is there a way to make meat better, more efficient for our planet, and also for health? And so that’s kind of like what led me to, to approaching, you know, a very technical and socially motivated company from like a culinary and a scientific perspective.

Adam Force 6:40
Yeah, yeah. And, I mean, that’s an interesting perspective, just thinking about it that way. And it is technical. So it makes me curious, you know, you grew up in a family of entrepreneurs in the food space, and I guess, how do you even start thinking about approaching these ideas because I’ve had many ideas and I’m just sitting there saying, Well, how do you manufacture that? How do you even come up with the product idea? Who do you talk to, to start thinking about, you know, figuring out recipes or ingredients and breaking down these things, because there’s a lot of science behind it, I guess, and, and a number of other professional angles you had to look at. So where does that start for you?

Kim Le 7:23
I think it starts…so, for Prime Roots specifically, what really got us kind of rolling was I was part of a program called The Alternative Meat Lab at Berkeley. But in terms of like, you know, going from the classroom and the lad to the…to actually having a company that has a lot to do with, you know, the family and my ecosystem being really encouraging and supportive of the mission that I was after.

And I think because I had acquired the requisite toolset of you know, having launched products in the past, having developed products in the past, knowing what that trajectory looks like, made it a lot less daunting. Like, I can definitely imagine how, you know, how can seem very daunting from the outside because there’s like, regulations, scale up, like, where do you get the capital? All of that. It’s…there’s a lot of like moving pieces.

Adam Force 8:17
There is and I mean, and where do you find someone to say Listen, I want to create this substitute for, you know, the meatspace and different types…and like, where do you start? How do you start experimenting with solutions for that and testing them out?

Kim Le 8:35
So for me, it was really understanding what was the status quo in the industry? So early on, I would you know, I had always tried these products like just throughout my life, but I always had, like a literal bad taste in my mouth because it always tasted really planty, was mushy, like, Tofurky tasted like tofu which it is. Like, if you’re vegan/vegetarian/plant-based, you know, or you’ve tried these meat substitutes before, you know that, like, it can get pretty boring.

Adam Force 9:10
Oh, yeah.

Kim Le 9:10
Um, so I went to the grocery store pretty much bought everything everywhere and like started trying products. And I identified like the core issues, which were taste first, they just didn’t taste right, or they tasted like plants. And then the texture was also a really big issue. And then if you flipped over and looked at the label, there are many products kind of like the legacy brands that are definitely more nutritious than like the current like, up-and-coming brands. But you know, those are kind of like the three things that we think about [unintelligible] developing, and then and then after that, you kind of have a matrix and you know, like what needs to be done. And then you see, you know, how things have been done in the past, why it’s not working and then kind of go off of that to find better solutions.

Adam Force 10:00
Gotcha, gotcha. And I mean, do you need funding out of the gate to start, you know, getting in a lab and actually trying to cultivate these ideas?

Kim Le 10:09
So, I was able to get really good proof of concepts and prototypes of all of our products just in my kitchen. So we actually don’t produce any of our products in a lab. And we have a commercial kitchen. We also have a production kitchen that we work out of to basically grow all of our food and then also make it into the final products.

Adam Force 10:36
I love that. That’s awesome. And I’m curious like what inspired you though to…so have you…are you a vegetarian? Vegan? Like, where are you right now in your life?

Kim Le 10:47
I am pretty plant based.

Adam Force 10:49

Kim Le 10:50
And I guess like, probably the most accurate like, identity although I’m not a fan of identities, probably flexitarian but 99.9% of my meals are plants.

Adam Force 11:02
Yeah, yeah, I’ve been the same way for about seven years, me and my wife, we, you know, it’s funny when I met my wife, this is about 10 years ago now, she was vegetarian and I was not. I ate meat regularly, I had no idea what’s going on in the world. And I was like this like salesman to her. And I convinced her …I convinced her to start eating meat again. And the year after that, I started, you know, being exposed to certain information and things that kind of really hit home for me. And I was like, man, we got to be vegetarian. Yeah, you wake up, and it’s like, and all of a sudden, so now the past, you know, seven years or so we’ve been vegetarian. And I mean, we do like a little bit of fish here and there, maybe once a week, like maybe, but we’ve been pretty good about being plant based these days and it’s getting easier and easier, that’s for sure, especially with great companies like yours coming out giving more options and things like that.

And I don’t know about you, but like, I’ve tried a lot of stuff. You know not to knock Tofurky here but yeah, I don’t really like Tofurky. But we find brands and they’re like, and sometimes people like, well, this doesn’t taste like a burger. And I always think to myself, I’m like, well, it doesn’t have to taste like a burger. It’s just another alternative. It’s…and I go, It’s not a burger. It’s not a hamburger. So it shouldn’t taste like that. So to me, I’m curious, like, are you really trying to mimic flavors or just make something unique of its own as a replacement with like, the nutrition and stuff?

Kim Le 12:34
I love that you bring that up because, like, as I have, like transitioned over time to being more and more plant based and actually lost the taste for meat, and like, and you realize how gross meat actually is. And also how like, one experience with me is never the same as another experience because you know, you have more feces, more e coli, more, like, whatever it is in like one version versus another. So something we think about a lot and that we’re actually seeing the industry move towards is, you know, how do we think about you know, what’s next? Like these…we are today imitating meat and seafood. And that’s…we really see as a transition.

And I think that like these products will always be in the market, we will always have these alternatives that look and taste and feel like meat. But if you look at the plant based milk industry, for example, there’s a there was a whole wave of you know, just trying to make something that looks and feels and acts like milk. And now there’s like more flavored milk and plant based milks that people are really loving and that shows that people didn’t really like the taste of milk. I tried to go to the grocery store to get my hands on this like tumeric plant milk the other day and it was sold out at every single store except for one an hour away from me and I like actually went and got it.

Adam Force 14:05

Kim Le 14:08
Just like, I like love the concept so much. And it definitely lived up to like the expectation. But yeah, we think about like what’s next? But I think today, the reality is 95% people still eat meat, and it’s just convincing people tho eat less meat. And that, you know, there are really great alternatives that exist. There’s a South Park episode recently. I really liked it. It was basically talking about how these alternatives are pretty much, you know, like their counterparts they’re, you know, mostly heavily processed junk foods. And people don’t really know the difference between the two. And so the junk was currently it’s like, Oh, I didn’t really care about like, it was this process or that process food. That it was just processed food. That’s what I like. Like I thought you’re gonna feed me broccoli which is not what veganism or plant based like there’s so many options beyond salads.

Adam Force 15:09
Yeah, it’s true and it is a transition. I mean you grow up completely just learning that this is how it is. I mean lots of great marketing kudos to the beef and meat industries for you know, making everyone believe that this is the way of the world. You know, same thing with the dairy it’s just like, you gotta have milk. Gotta have milk. It’s just like everyone will swear by it. I’m like, Why on earth would we be drinking milk from another species that is supposed to grow up to be 1000 plus pounds?

Kim Le 15:38
Also, like, so many people are lactose intolerant.

Adam Force 15:42
Yeah, there’s, there’s that too. And I say, Man, I would take cashew coconut milk over that stuff any day. It tastes so much better. It’s, it’s crazy.

Kim Le 15:53
But you can see like brands like Oatley, they have a far superior product in my mind. Really like infiltrating the lives of like meat eaters and becoming like the status quo. Like, screw grass-fed, pasture-raised, like cows like, oat milk, you know, is the thing that people bought.

Adam Force 16:12
Yeah, for sure, for sure. Yeah. And I’ll close out this little part of the conversation real quick with like something that we just found out like we were big fans of the Just Mayo option for mayonnaise. If you’re familiar, and all of a sudden for like a few months, it disappeared from shelves in the supermarkets. And I was like, What the hell is going on? Did something discontinue? And I was like doing all this research. And so we recently found out that it was Hellman’s mayonnaise. They were suing Just Mayo for using the word “mayo.” And they were doing that, you know, to keep them off the shelf. So all of a sudden, guess what happened? Hellman’s put out a vegan mayonnaise. And they were trying to just take over the market and that’s the part of capitalism that I hate. That’s like dirty business to me.

Kim Le 16:58
Yeah, I think that’s, like, a byproduct of our, like, somewhat dysfunctional, legal and like lobbying situation that we have in America.

Adam Force 17:09
Yeah, that’s a whole other interview. Yeah. So I guess I’m curious, like, you talked about the transition. So you’re building up this business and tell me where you are now. So you have all these proofs of concept. And was it you got funding? Is that through the Gates Foundation? Is that correct?

Kim Le 17:27
And no, so we went I guess more traditional venture capital. We went through an accelerator program, which really got us off the ground and so validating the technology, and then we raised a seed round last year.

Adam Force 17:44
Oh, awesome. And where did you do the accelerator program? Where was that?

Kim Le 17:48
It’s in San Francisco at an accelerator called IndieBio. So they incubated a lot of future food companies.

Adam Force 17:56
Okay, that’s it. So is it was kind of a niche accelerator.

Kim Le 18:01

Adam Force 18:02
Interesting. It was, is that an accelerator you had to pay to be part of?

Kim Le 18:07
They pay you. So it’s … it’s like considered a pre seed round. That’s kind of how we got our starts financially. Before that it was just bootstrapping.

Adam Force 18:21
Yeah, I mean, that’s the way it goes. So that’s pretty awesome. And, and what I guess I’m curious, like a to me like the animal world, one of the big parts of it aside from just animal welfare is climate change. How do you see yourself playing a role in that part of today’s you know, current situation?

Kim Le 18:43
Yeah, that is, like 100% the thing that like, keeps me going every day and, you know, makes me you know, wake up and like, I’m just so happy to be doing what I’m doing. It really drives me because I was a former, like, very competitive snowboarder. And so over the years, I would see, you know, resorts closing, the seasons getting shorter, and that’s really sad. Um, I also did a fair amount of diving and looking at reefs in Southeast Asia. And so my family’s actually there right now. And I told them that you have to go see the reefs because you won’t be able to see them in five or 10 years, maybe even next year, right.

And like my siblings, who are very much Gen Z’s they went and like they’re really excited to be able to go diving and see all these things, but they like they came up and they were like, it was really sad because it looked like blue planet or any of these documentaries were like things are bleached. And I went two years ago and the reefs are still vibrant. So it just it’s really sad because you know, you don’t get to see the effects of climate change every day except for you know, sometimes if you’re diving in the reef every day. But you know, the world is changing. And the fact that people care about it, but don’t care enough, as you know, is it saddens me, but at the same time, I think the solutions that we’re creating makes it a lot easier for people to contribute.

Adam Force 20:16
Yeah, yeah. I mean, that’s the idea is it’s you know, because everyone’s like, Oh, be conscious when you shop. And I guess that’s part of the transition in my mind, because I don’t want to leave it in the hands of people to have to think about that or make certain decisions one over the other, like my cost versus, you know, my well being and stuff. So I think it really falls into the hands of people just approaching businesses like you are to just make it a standard make this the norm, like why, you know what I mean? So just more holistically with the business. What is it not just the cost to the company, but the cost to the people and the planet and stuff like that?

Kim Le 20:49
Exactly. Yeah, like organic farming has really infiltrated kind of like our whole food system and like people, that was really by consumer demand. So about 10 to 15 years ago, was when you know, people started talking about organic, learning more about it. And Walmart was actually one of the first big players to really look into it and adopt it. And so it really does start from consumers, which is why I’m so optimistic about plant based because consumers are 100% driving the trend. We get large multinational companies wanting to talk to us pretty much like weekly, because they’re like, we need to get in and we don’t understand how to do it. Can you help us?

Adam Force 21:36
Really? And there are other food companies is are coming to you for consultation, basically?

Kim Le 21:43
It’s a mixed bag, but consultation/collaboration, and I think people see this as the way of the future, but they’re dissatisfied for one reason or another of the current alternatives that exist and the biggest concern for a lot of companies is how there’s been a lot of recent press around how really processed these newer meat alternatives are, how, you know, it’s not actually healthier for you. I mean, though, both of those claims can be rebutted. But I think it’s really about what the consumer perceives and what the consumer wants. And we have to give them that instead of, you know, going through a 5-10 year battle to change hearts and minds.

Adam Force 22:24
Yeah, yeah, that makes sense. Yeah, it’s true. I mean, the consumer demand has been an exciting shift, thanks to just a lot of people, you know, spreading information, and thanks to the internet and stuff like that, and I’ve seen some of those articles come out about, you know, combatting saying, well, it’s process and that’s true. So there’s, you know, maybe there’s a human health discussion, and then there’s a Earth health discussion, which, you know, they’re two different discussions, but also, you know, it’s a big part of it. So maybe this is all just transitional, you know, as we learn and we work with what we have so far, right?

Kim Le 22:56
Yeah. I hope it is transitional. If not, I’m still in this fight for the long run. Plant-based milks have gone from, like low single digits to almost 15% in the past few years. I see the same happening for meat.

Adam Force 23:12
Yeah, I mean, and actually, you know, investors are pretty hungry to get in this space. So that means that the space will continue to probably blossom with new innovations. And as far as just doing business the right way, as best we can within the current system is like, I…you know, when I started Change Creator, there was nothing about social entrepreneurship, not in any universities, no magazines, no books, and it was very hard to find any info. And so now you can look and it’s in 20 of the top universities around the, around the US, you have courses on social entrepreneurship. So you could see this trend of the businesses have to think smarter about what they’re doing. And then you see, you know, investors investing in these types of solutions. So that’s why I say, I hope it is a transition and it seems to be going up that way, which is nice.

Kim Le 24:04
Yeah, it’s 100%, one of our investors Collaborative Fund, they have a mantra, like a philosophy that, you know, better for the world better for me, products and companies, you know that the intersection of those two things, has exponential opportunity. So that’s financially but also in terms of a measurable impact that, you know, things like climate change. Yeah, moving the needle in the right direction. So I think investors are starting to wake up to that. And hopefully that trend continues.

Adam Force 24:38
Yeah, I think so. And, you know, now schools are starting to have part of the learning curriculum include climate change, believe it or not.

Kim Le 24:47
That’s awesome.

Adam Force 24:48
Yeah. I mean, I could just see this future of like, this climate change thing that we’re battling, and now it has, it’s so serious that like, we need to have actual course curriculum. My kids are going to grow up with like, becoming climate warriors basically.

Kim Le 25:05
And that’s so empowering.

Adam Force 25:08
It is. I think it was Norway that’s doing that.

Kim Le 25:12
Oh, that’s awesome.

Adam Force 25:13
Yeah, pretty, pretty interesting. And I, once I heard that as, whoo, that’s, I can see where this is going. Because it is such a serious thing. And God, you know, with everything going on, we need all the help we can get. So if they can teach at a young age, like what all the important parts of this conversation are, that’s, that’s awesome.

Kim Le 25:31
Definitely. Yeah. And I think it’s important for like, the US and in general that, you know, of course, there going to be skeptics and climate change deniers. And it’s really important not to focus on those people and focus on like, how can I personally as a person involved in organizations or not, you know, help better the situation for all and instead of trying to like fight and waste your energy or trying to convert people that have their minds and hearts in a certain place.

Adam Force 26:03
Yeah, yeah, definitely. So I guess I’m curious now, how long have you been? When was your? When did you start Prime?

Kim Le 26:13
I started the company around January, February of 2017. So we’re approaching about like, three years since when I started to dream up the future that like I really wanted to live in. And so that started then. I was going through the program at Berkeley and then kind of one thing led to another. And it’s been I mean, looking back I can’t believe it’s been three years.

Adam Force 26:41
Yeah, the time goes quick. What were some of the bigger challenges? Any big major challenges like that just stand out to you that you had to try to get through or you know, did you ever have a point where you felt like oh my god, this is not gonna work?

Kim Le 26:56
Truthfully, I don’t think we’ve ever faced that type of like feeling because I’m sure at the moment it felt like it and I probably like brushed it under the rug. But I’m a really optimistic person and I love to problem solve. So I take it as an opportunity to kind of like solve problems and so we haven’t hit any like catastrophic problems yet, you know, knock on wood. I think a lot of the entrepreneurial journey is about luck and meeting the right people and surrounding yourself with the right people. And I’ve been very fortunate to have a really supportive ecosystem.

Adam Force 27:42
Yeah. Well, it sounds like that accelerator and your family like it’s been…it’s served you well.

Kim Le 27:47
Yeah. I think the one thing that entrepreneurs and just generally people don’t talk about is the importance of family and I would not be here without family. And they helped me tremendously just like, every day.

Adam Force 28:06
Yeah, yeah, that’s awesome. I mean that–you’re right–that ecosystem is really important. And every time we meet people, I mean, you gotta get out there too. I think a lot of digital entrepreneurs today just get stuck behind the desk trying to create the next sales funnel. And rather than, you know, building their networks and realizing that you never know what doors are gonna open, I mean, we went to San Francisco for a conference and we found out that a Nobel Peace Prize winner and Dr. Muhammad Yunus was doing a talk down the road at the Commonwealth Club. And they were sold out of tickets and stuff.

We’re like, well, let’s call them and we went in as they let it was like $200 a ticket, but they let us in for free because we said we’re media. And we wanted to interview Dr. Yunus. We ended up doing a whole magazine cover story with him totally off the cuff but never would have happened if we weren’t out and about, you know what I mean?

Kim Le 28:51
So awesome. Yeah, it’s like, I think just being out in the world, it’s when you’re building a company, it’s really important to be focused and like, building and like actually making something people want and validating that, but like being in the basement for too long, like, it’s also not a great thing because you have to get out there and like, actually validate if people want to talk to people get your ideas out there. So that’s been the learning, definitely, cuz I spent a lot of time kind of just in my own head, just like in our kitchens working. And it’s so important to get out and talk to people. And we’ve been focusing a lot and building our community to really help with that.

Adam Force 29:37
Cool.Yeah, that’s amazing. By the way, how much were you able to raise to get this thing going?

Kim Le 29:44
Um, so our seed round was a little over 4 million. And so we, yeah, we raised that last year, and we’re set to pretty much launch our products early in 2020. So we’re really close.

Adam Force 30:03
Awesome. And I was just curious like, so going through the accelerator just for people listening who are in, you know, doing this type of stuff…is the accelerator is…did they connect you with the venture capitalists? Did that help make it easier to…not to get the funding, but to just get the connections?

Kim Le 30:21
100%. I think accelerators and incubators are great for steps for entrepreneurs that are thinking or know that they need, you know, venture capital or just general capital to scale their businesses. And I think the first thing you have to ask yourself, if you’re kind of like thinking about getting funding is do I really need the funding? And so, you know, there’s a lot of great blog posts and essays on the internet about that. So if you’re building something that requires a lot of capital, not necessarily like at scale [unintelligible] at scale, but you have to if there’s a way you can do it with less money now, you should definitely bias towards that.

And if you can do it with your own money or with friends and family 100% do that, because taking capital comes at the cost of losing ownership of your company. And, you know, obviously dealing with more people having more expectations like you don’t…like it’s not 100% your company. And so accelerators and incubators if you do think that like the venture path is right for you, is 100% like the best way to start because these ecosystems are really connected to the venture capital world. That’s where a lot of people actually source talent and deals from. And then secondly, there’s usually a program that you go through that really gets you from like zero to maybe like 0.5. I won’t say zero to one, you know, like, you got a good proof of concept. And like an understanding for how to run a company kind of being like handheld through that process. And that’s really valuable.

Adam Force 31:59
Yeah. Yeah, that’s amazing. I mean, that’s a lot of good advice, too. I think some people get really confused about whether they should…I mean, I was looking around originally when I moved to Miami and people wanted like…like one accelerator I spoke to is like, Yes, it costs us 15 grand a week they wanted. So, I mean, I guess everyone has different models and stuff, you got to find one that’s right for you. And sometimes they’re not in your area. So you’d have to go and like, they want you to be there in person a certain amount of the time and it can be a little bit difficult sometimes.

Kim Le 32:32
Yeah, it’s definitely a commitment. And there’s, you know, like, the most famous accelerator by far is Y Combinator. They’re pretty much you know, agnostic to type of company. And that’s a great program. And if you know that you’re a more niche company that you want specific support with, like, for example, biology, and IndieBio is a great one for that. There’s also a lot of grants and you know, capital, that is…doesn’t come at a cost for equity. So, you know, be on the lookout for those as well.

Adam Force 33:04

Kim Le 33:05
Just remember that, you know, the process of getting funding and pitching or applying for things does take a lot of time away from building your company. So weighing that and understanding where you are in your company is so important.

Adam Force 33:19
We went through that same exact thing. We spent about, I don’t know, probably a year where we were trying to run our business and build it up. And then also do the travel and meetings for all like potential investor pitches. And we…at one point, we’re like, you know what, like, we’re making money with these products. And I’d rather just like put more water on those and see them grow than divide our time. We quit going after investors and said, screw it, let’s just focus all of our energy on doing what we gotta do. And, you know, I guess that’s a decision everybody has to make at some point.

Kim Le 33:49
It’s a, it’s a snare that most entrepreneurs will run into.

Adam Force 33:53
Yeah, I mean, and that’s the thing because you really, to your point, when you said it takes a lot of time. You’re right. So it’s like we had to say we’re either going to dedicate all of our time to this or this. So which ones are going to be, right?

Kim Le 34:05
Understand that, I think finding the right people to partner with is better than finding just money from the wrong people or people who don’t see eye to eye. Because they can be a lot more trouble than they’re worth. And so, like control your process and like, for example, if you do say this is taking too much of my time, or we’ve had cases where, you know, we’ve had great opportunities come up and fundraising and you know, getting capital is really kind of this all in or not, and just saying like, okay, we’re going to do this other thing instead. And controlling your process is like, really empowering. And, also like something you should, you know, kind of think about.

Adam Force 34:47

Kim Le 34:47
Opportunity costs.

Adam Force 34:48
Opportunity costs. Exactly. Now those are great points, great points, and we are just about out of time here. So we’ll wrap up and where can people find you? Can you give them, you know, the best location online for them to check you out as you get ready for your launch and everything.

Kim Le 35:05
For sure we’re at And actually on our website, we have ways that you can get involved. So you can join our general waitlist membership, which is completely free. Basically, you give us your email and your zip code. And we’ll be really mindful of sending you things when we’re in your area or if we have any big announcements, and we send out emails like very infrequently. And then if you’re like really, really passionate about the future of food and want to help us in a more involved way, we have an ambassador program, where it’s also free. You just apply, a survey and you get to be part of our tester group. You’ll get invited to Ambassador only events, and it’s a more tight knit community for people that really want to be more involved. But all in all, we love our community, we always host events and we’ll be launching in the Bay Area early 2020.

Adam Force 36:03
Well, we’re looking forward to it. And I appreciate you taking some time today to talk about what’s going on in your world and we’ll keep an eye on it and get ready for your launch.

Kim Le 36:13
Yeah, thanks Adam.

Adam Force 36:14
Alright, have a good one. Talk to you later.

Kim Le 36:15
You, too. Bye.

Announcer 36:16
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Transcribed by

Andrew Savage: How Do You Disrupt Urban Transportation & Tackle Climate Change?

Why Lime Has 100 Million Reasons to Celebrate a Greener Urban Landscape

Listen to our exclusive interview with Andrew Savage:


Subscribe to this show on Spotify  |  iTunes  |  Stitcher  |  Soundcloud

Pedalling into the Lime-Light One City at a Time

The business world reads The Art of War over its cornflakes every morning. It takes competition that seriously, so it’s terrified that China is stealing America’s wealth. The business world wants to know if mid-sized companies can really nab a share of Fortune 200 profits and, by the way, can a company survive if its shareholders have stock in rival companies? The business world is not too sure. I mean, is a competitive advantage even possible when globalization is this far-reaching? The business world needs to know because Harvard Business Review doesn’t advise rival companies to join hands and sing kumbaya. Entrepreneurs have secrets, dammit, and if they expose them, all hell will break loose…

… Well… Except for Andrew Savage. Andrew keeps fewer secrets because he thinks direct business rivals should join hands. He’s turned his competitors into collaborators — and they’re marketing his business on this behalf, traditional business practices be damned.

Soaring into a Flooded Market

You might not have heard of Savage’s micromobility company, Lime, but you’ve probably seen its scooters zipping along the streets in your city. Need a first or last mile ride? Just log into the Lime app to find your nearest scooter, then enjoy your sparkling conscience for travelling carbon-free. Lime could have positioned itself as a smartphone-empowered Lyft for scooters or a public transport alternative, but then it would have needed to compete in an already-flooded market. Savage and his partners chose a more collaborative model, and that’s made all the difference.

These days, when you open your Uber app, you’ll find a Lime scooter in your area. Google Maps will give you ride costs, ETAs, and battery range. No wonder the micromobility business has just achieved 100 million rides. It’s scored marketing gold through some of the world’s most powerful brands, then slotted itself into everyday lives by harnessing our favorite digital tools. 

The City of the People

Before humankind began wearing its social value as an emblem on the bonnet of its Ferrari, pedestrians ruled the roads. The Walking City of 1890 was a wonderland of horse-drawn carriages and sprawling parks. Ford’s revolution swallowed the landscape in only a decade. Cities were for cars, not people, so national parks shrank. Playgrounds vanished. Sportsgrounds became less common, but the new mobility movement hopes to undo all that change. It’s slowly producing a more walkable city, and Lime is coming along for the ride. Stark raving bedlam is slowly becoming a thing of the past for traffic-jammed cities, and we have a little green scooter partly to thank.

Minding the Gaps

Lime serves 120 communities in over 30 countries, and it’s growing at a staggering pace. That’s good news for the blue planet. The company has prevented 25 million car trips during its short life. That’s more than 9,000 tons of carbon saved, but that doesn’t mean all local governments have welcomed Lime with tea and cupcakes straight away. Scaling a business that comes without codes and sub-chapters requires more than mere strategy. It demands stubborn ambition.

Many cities lack the ordinances for a Lime-served city — a challenge that would chase most entrepreneurs away from the micromobility niche entirely, but not this startup. Lime confronted the issue head-on, helping to draft the Mobility Data Specification and a set of model regulations to serve handpicked governmental partners in every city. Sometimes they were counsellors, sometimes, stakeholders, but they were always passionate about clean transportation. Still, the micromobility niche has required Savage to move in a hundred directions at once, but his experience in the renewable energy industry equipped him for that.

Lime might have eschewed tradition in some ways, but it still sees the wisdom in old fashioned business practices. It has its eyes firmly on its biggest growth markets: cities that are built for pedestrians with high gas prices, traffic densities, and interest in climate solutions. In many ways, its smartest efforts have been in creating a sustainable niche, whether through competitors, governments, or prime locations. The brand has embraced a circular economy in which consumers seek access rather than ownership, and to serve it, it offers simple things: reliability, freedom, and affordability.

The Community-Driven Brand

Tech innovators like Airbnb and Uber scrambled into cities asking for community forgiveness — a move that won them plenty of bad press. Lime decided to ask for permission instead. “At the highest level,” says Savage, “we’re looking to create more just, equitable, and liveable communities.” You can’t help a community by storming in and trampling everything, so Lime decided to prove itself on a small scale before fighting the big guns in New York and Chicago. “Crawl, walk, run,” says Savage, so crawl is exactly what the startup did during its first year. Its willingness to earn trust pushed it ahead of rivals who launched at the same time. The more it walked through pilot projects, the easier it became to get cities to take it seriously. Now it’s running headlong into a cleaner future while competitors scrounge for scraps of the marketplace.

Thinking Big

It’s pedalling towards a carbon-neutral future, but it also wants to change the bread-and-butter lives of humanity. Its scooters, says Savage, give people joy, whether in the form of more family time spent outside of traffic jams or more gas money in the bank. The startup markets a lifestyle, not a product — a value, not a service, so storytelling is a core component of its campaign.

Lime’s company culture lives through the ethics of its founders, so it’s one of the few tech innovators who’ve demonstrated consistent values. Like all social impact niches, the micromobility movement has its detractors, but that’s okay because Lime isn’t finished honing its goals just yet. It’s committed to a 100% renewable energy fleet that will one day include e-vehicles, and it’s constantly rethinking its climate solutions. An evolving social impact business is always just one more step away from achieving perfection, and the world is paying attention.

We also recommend:

Transcription of Interview (Transcribed by; there may be errors.)

Adam Force 0:00
Hey, what’s going on everybody? Welcome back to the Change Creator podcast show. This is your host Adam Force coming to you from sunny Miami. I love these winter months. This is the best time of year for us. I know some of you are struggling with the cold weather. My wife and I were just in New York City. And man, we did forget a little bit just how brisk it can get. But we did miss Brooklyn and Manhattan so we had a good time out there. And so speaking of Miami, I don’t know where you’re from, where you might be listening in from, but around certain cities, you’re going to see scooters.

Scooters are all over the place. And they’re doing these tests to modify, update, enhance urban living, it’s called the micro mobility movement. And then they’re having an incredible impact on the transportation industry and the impact is in social and environmental areas, right? So we’re going to talk about that today with Andrew Savage. So one of the major brands out there is called Lime. So if you’ve seen these scooters, you’ve probably seen a Lime scooter, and they have over 100 million rides on these scooters so far, and the impact is incredible. So who we’re talking to is Andrew Savage. He’s the Vice President of Sustainability, and part of the founding team of Lime.

They’ve raised a ton of money, and they’ve had a huge impact, as I mentioned, over 100 million rides. So we’re going to talk about how do you disrupt the transportation world as an entrepreneur, right? How do you get into this type of thing? It seems so complicated, like so I always want to know how to break into this type of category, get, you know, cities on board and you know, set it all up all that kind of stuff? And also, what does it mean, what’s going on in the transportation industry? I think this is a major area for entrepreneurs to be thinking about. So we wanted to talk about this and what does it mean to climate change as we shift and transition our transportation habits, right?

So this is a pretty awesome conversation I’m excited to have and share with you guys. So if you missed last week’s release…actually, we didn’t do one over the holiday. I’m lying. We didn’t do one over the Thanksgiving holiday. The one before that was with me and Amy. We did a discussion on why your online sales might not be you know rocking and rolling the way that you hoped. So there’s a lot of valuable nuggets in there so hopefully you got a chance; you can check it out. If not, go back you can have a listen to that conversation. I think you’ll get some good nuggets out of it. All right. And last but not least, don’t forget to stop by We have a ton of fresh content up there for you all to check out and follow us on Facebook, guys. We do a lot of good content on there. And if you want to get serious, we have our Facebook group, the Profitable Digital Impact Entrepreneur, you can find us there. Alright, let’s get into this conversation with Andrew.

Announcer 2:56
Okay, show me the heat

Adam Force 3:01
Hey, Andrew, welcome to the Change Creator Podcast Show. How you doing today, man?

Andrew Savage 3:05
I’m doing great. Thanks for having me.

Adam Force 3:07
Yeah, I appreciate you making the time. I know you are super busy. And just looking at all the things you guys have accomplished. You’re a bit of a baller. So I’m really interested in digging into how all this came to be. So if you could just tell me a little bit about just what’s going on in the world of Lime today. What are the most current events? What’s happening with you guys?

Andrew Savage 3:30
Yeah, sure. Well, thank you. Again, it’s great to be on the show. And, you know, we have a lot going on. I think a couple things that we’re most focused on right now is both expansion around the globe, we now serve over 120 communities in orver 30 different countries. And at the same time as expanding, really focusing on our business, on profitability, and improving product and hardware. So when we’re moving, we’re always moving quickly in a bunch of different directions. So it’s a complicated business because you really can’t afford not to be moving in a lot of different directions at once.

Adam Force 4:09
Yeah, yeah. Interesting. So let me…so now let’s just give a little bit of background how you got there. Right. So all this exciting stuff. What were you doing before Lime and what was the epiphany or the transition to Lime?

Andrew Savage 4:24
Yeah, so I had my sort of earlier part of my career I had worked in government and politics and environmental policy and energy policy. And coming out of that and experience working in Congress where I realized we weren’t going to get as much done on the climate crisis or on other challenges that I had felt like we urgently needed to address. I shifted to the renewable energy industry, and spent six years in solar and wind development.

And really an amazing experience both understanding project development, understand the implications of how to grow a business and scale a business. And in many ways the transition to transportation with Lime was a natural one because I had spent that period talking a lot about and thinking a lot about how do we electrify our transportation system? How do we make transportation cleaner? It was one thing to be doing solar for a home. But it’s another thing from a climate perspective to be shifting our economy to run on renewables.

Adam Force 5:26
Yeah, yeah, it’s true. And you know, I always look at cities you know, I love New York. I lived in New York, I lived in Philly for six years and all that stuff and I always look at things I’m like, you look at historical design and I’m like, some of this is just not good design for you know, what we would look for today when it comes to sustainability and you know, whether it’s the transportation you see all the cars the congestion and all this kind of stuff. So you start thinking about these, you know, scooters and I guess you guys call it. What is it? Micro mobility, right?

Andrew Savage 6:00
That’s Right. Yeah.

Adam Force 6:01
I love that. And you know, we just started seeing all these lines of scooters and this whole movement taking place. And it seems like you’re almost like you said, you’re creating a shift and it’s almost like a cultural shift in transportation, right?

Andrew Savage 6:16
Yeah, I mean, it really is. And I think you raise a really good point that I don’t think a lot of people think about the cities that they live in today, as having evolved over a very short period of time as quickly as they did when the car was invented. So not much longer than 100 years ago, there were no cars in any city around the globe. And we in a matter of a decade or two, cities were transformed into car centered communities. That meant you lost parks, that meant you lost space for the community and that you lost stickball in the street, all kinds of you know, vestiges of the past.

And I think when you look at communities today, it’s very hard to see what the future could look like when you project what you want to see them be. And so, you know many ways, I think micro mobility and what we’re up to with scooters is sort of the pointy spear among other changemakers in this space because we’re really trying to envision the city of the future at the same time as we’re deploying programs in cities of the present.

Adam Force 7:23
Yeah, yeah, I love that. Yeah, I always thought about like public transportation systems and all these different things that would be helpful. Like, I always thought about cities being more circular like so things can just easily go in a circle, like a train. And so when I see the you know, micro mobility movement that you’re part of, I just find it so much more flexible. It’s just easier, it’s more affordable. I mean, there’s so much benefit, and I love walking around the cities but sometimes you know, it’s 90 degrees out and after I just get on a subway or I have to walk 10 blocks, I’m going to be a sweaty mess when I get to work. So yeah, scooter’s a lot easier for sure.

Andrew Savage 8:05
Yeah. I mean, I think what you’re… I think that’s exactly right and the business proposition that we started with as a company was, was when the industry was essentially called dockless bikes or scooters hadn’t even been invented yet. But this was just two and a half or three short years ago. And the premise was that the freedom and flexibility of not having to go to a docking station, which was the traditional model, in shared mobility, would free people up to use the product more. And we’ve actually seen that. And people love the flexibility that will get from point A to point B, without a restriction on what that point B looks like, which is, frankly, that’s how people operate, right? You don’t plan your day, generally around where a docking station is for shared transportation. And that’s the premise that we’re operating under and the freedom and flexibility that we have.

Adam Force 8:57
Love that and that’s the number one reason I never use the bikes. I was like, I’m not going to go hunt down some docking station. But the scooter, it’s like, oh good, boom, you just go wherever you got to go, you leave it, you’re good to go. So that’s a huge step forward. And it kind of leads me to just start thinking a little bit of like, when Lime was ideated I mean, you look at this as a younger entrepreneur, and you’re thinking about business and getting into a big space like this, it’s kind of daunting. And I feel like there’s a lot of complex, you know, barriers to get around. So what have been some of the bigger challenges in getting Lyme started?

Andrew Savage 9:38
Yeah, I mean, I think one point I’ll make is, I think there’s an important element that you can’t know everything and if you are someone who wants to be able to dot every I and cross every T and have surety in your decision, it’s pretty hard to be launching into something like a new space, a new business, a new venture like this. You sort of have to throw some caution to the wind, and, and trust. And I think part of that trust is also knowing that you’re entering a space that you really care about, because I think that gives you a lot of ability and energy and latitude to, to put both, you know, to jump in with both feet and dive in. You know, so I think that’s sort of one of the basic premises that I would share that feels key to me.

I think the big challenge is, really, to get to your question more, because it was an unknown space, the Government Relations and sort of marketplace that we were operating within was a big unknown. That happens to be my background. I certainly love the challenge of this. But we were essentially asking communities to accept us as a business in a case where they didn’t have regulations on the books. They didn’t know what to do with our business, right?

They couldn’t look at some code or some sub chapter within there, you know, you know, within their city rules and say this is where you fit in; it was different for every single market that we went into. The second thing that we also ran into and the challenge that we had was in an era where you had Uber, Airbnb, other tech innovators that went into cities and asked for forgiveness rather than permission, cities were on alert, and they did not want to see businesses or see dockless, you know, bikes or scooters, enter communities without more of a partnership. And so we very quickly established a practice and really a mission of working with cities in a collaborative way, which I think has clearly served us well.

Adam Force 11:47
I mean, who do you even start talking to in the cities? Where does that even…the conversation begin?

Andrew Savage 11:54
It really varied from city to city. I sort of laugh here because one of very first communities was in South Bend, Indiana — Mayor Pete, who’s now obviously running for president, a great innovative leader. But I think it really varied market by market. Sometimes we found a city councilor was extremely passionate about mobility and transportation. Sometimes we found the mayor wanted mobility and transportation, sometimes we found the Department of Transportation director. So it really was a matter of finding a key stakeholder within the community that could be an advocate for us, that could help us navigate entering the community in a way that was productive for both the community and for us in the business.

Adam Force 12:37
Gotcha. Yeah, that makes sense. And I guess that leads me to be curious about you know, there’s a lot of people where it’s like, Great, now I can go hustle and find, you know, a city councilor, whoever that might want to…I might be able to get their ear, but what did you need in place already for them to take you seriously?

Andrew Savage 12:58
Yeah, you know, I think it was a commitment. Well, I think what we, what we learned very early on was we were not going to be taken seriously by New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, you know, the big markets that we all wanted to be in from the get go. We had to be willing to start small and have some test markets or some pilot markets, where we proved ourselves. And we had some very good advice from the former mayor of Philadelphia, and I remember sitting in the boardroom with him or conference room, and he said, crawl, walk, run.

He repeated it: crawl, walk, run. And what he was urging us to do was to do that crawl thing first. And that meant going to smaller communities that might not have had the unit economics that we wanted. But were markets where we can prove ourselves and markets where we could demonstrate and build a trust, that we were a business that was worth doing business with. And that was incredibly important advice, and I think was why we were successful among our…compared to other competitors that may have started doing similar things at a similar time.

Adam Force 14:04
Ah, yeah, no, that makes sense. So, finding marketplaces that will give you a chance. And I mean, I’m curious…now you guys have raised quite a bit of money. And I can understand why — this is a big operation. But like you said, you start by crawling. So where’s…how many rounds have you guys raised at this point? Do you know?

Andrew Savage 14:23
We’ve raised four different rounds. [Unintelligible]

Adam Force 14:28
Okay. Wow. So, so the first round got you started? And I think at this point, you’re over $700 million in funds raised for the full operation that you have now, right?

Andrew Savage 14:39
Yeah, that’s right. I think it is definitely a capital intensive business. And so, you know, we were essentially raising money, almost non stop. So every six months or so, on average, we were closing a round. And I often would, you know, talk with, you know, city leaders and others about this. And, you know, we weren’t raising money for the sake of raising money. We were raising money because it allowed us to scale good programs; it allowed us to invest in hardware; it allowed us to be as strong as city partners we possibly could be, and build a team so that we could deploy programs in markets and serve them well. So, you know, often, you know, I think in Silicon Valley, there’s a badge of honor in how much you raise. I think of it more about just being able to serve the community that we’re committed to serving.

Adam Force 15:27
Yeah, I think that makes a lot of sense. And, you know, for an operation like this, I it sounds like, you know, you definitely need to raise some funds. I can’t imagine just trying to do it, you know, organically yourself, which probably wouldn’t be possible to even test the market. There’s going to be overhead, just creating the equipment and all that other stuff. So was there a lot of regulation that you had to sort out in order to get this thing like initially launched?

Andrew Savage 15:54
Well, yeah, I think as I mentioned, like the regulations within each city were incredibly complex. In fact, one of the early things that we did was create a model regulation, because they simply didn’t exist. And I remember, you know, typing that out and thinking, what do we want to abide by? What standards can we live by? What standards make sense to the industry? So that we can hand that piece of paper over to a city and say, Hey, we don’t know this, you don’t necessarily know this either. But let’s start somewhere and I think it was that type of work that allowed us to scale and grow into markets as quickly as we did.

Adam Force 16:29
Yeah, yeah. I think that makes sense. You know, and we’ve seen it grow a lot here in Miami. There’s just a ton of people using the scooters and that’s funny when you first started seeing them pop up we were like, What what’s going on here? How does this work? What is this? And you know, it’s just it was just all of a sudden you see him sitting on the sidewalk and now today I mean, people are buzzing around on these scooters all over the place. So how has your…the adoption been and feedback from people? What’s that been like now that you’ve been in the market, testing for a bit?

Andrew Savage 17:04
Yeah, I mean, so we’ve now achieved over 100 million rides across the globe, certainly an accomplishment that I never would have expected three years ago to have made. I think, what is humbling, what is inspiring, what gets us all up every day, working as hard as we do is the impact that we’re having on communities. You know, I think some of the statistics around who our users are is most interesting. One third of all of our riders make $50,000 or less. So we’re not talking about just folks in Silicon Valley that are on scooters. This is a real world service that people are depending on to get to and from work, to get to school, to get, you know, over to daycare to pick up your kids and, and there’s a real value in that and I think that’s inspiring to all of us.

In addition, you know, again, there’s a fair amount of gender and racial diversity as well: One third of all of our riders are also people of color. So what we’re hoping to do is be able to serve communities and provide a service that covers the gaps, that helps people get to and from public transportation. That was what we call sort of the first and last mile, which is a challenge that cities have faced across the globe for decades. And so, you know, that’s what gets us excited. I mean, there’s of course, a whole level of environmental benefits, which we can chat about, but the users and the adoption have been quick, diverse. And it’s amazing to see the joy that people have when they hop on a scooter the first time and you can see why it’s taken off because people just love it.

Adam Force 18:48
Yeah, it’s fun. Well, I love the human benefits for people, it’s probably be saving a lot of money for them and making it easier for them and giving them more reliable transportation to get around. So let’s definitely touch on the environmental because now you got benefits to people, but also the environment. And I love, you know, something we talked a little bit just about how this is contributing towards the climate crisis and shifting ourselves away from cars and things like that. But maybe you could tell us just a little bit more what this means to you guys that line when it comes to the environment and what you’re seeing or what your goals might be with it.

Andrew Savage 19:28
Yeah, sure. I mean, you know, at the highest level, I mean, we’re looking to help create more just, equitable and livable communities. And, you know, there are going to be 2.5 billion more people living in cities across the globe in the next 25 to 30 years — 2.5 billion people that these cities are really not well equipped to host or to move around. And so, you know, we see our solution as being part of a myriad of solutions that are necessary in a lower carbon world. So, you know, our scooters are all electric, they are charged on renewable energy no matter where in the world they’re being charged, we buy renewable energy to charge those scooters. Because we feel so passionately that a carbon-free future is going to be critical for this planet. And so as we think about how those 2.5 billion people are going to get around, we’re also thinking every day about how can our service be more sustainable and be in constant improvement to meet that challenge that we have as a globe?

Adam Force 20:32
Yeah, yeah. Is there anything statistically — and you may not have this on the top of mind but just curious, for example, — like how much like…if you had a certain number of scooters…like you mentioned 100 million rides. What does that mean for the carbon footprint — meaning like, you know, is that equal like taking off a certain number of cars off the road? Like, is there anything top of mind like that, a comparable?

Andrew Savage 20:59
Yeah, yeah, I appreciate that. I appreciate that you asked. There are a few — there number different ways that we can sort of slice and dice that. But I’ll give you a few examples. So in the hundred million rides that we’ve, we’ve served as a business, 25% of those have prevented a car trip. And we know this through user surveys that we do. We know this through user surveys that cities do. So the cities often corroborate our numbers. You don’t have to take my word for it. So if you take 100 million rides that we’ve served, and now we’re well over that, that’s 25 million car trips that we’ve reduced or prevented, and that equals around over 9000 tons of carbon saved.

That’s also the equivalent of running a car around the earth 100 times consecutively. So a pretty long car trip. So you know, and then maybe to dial down into a specific city, one of our biggest markets in Paris. We’ve served enough rides in Paris alone to have now over two car-free days in Paris. So if you picture Paris going two 24-hour periods without a single car driving on the street, it’s a pretty big impact and in my view, and I think as any anyone in business would hope we’re just getting started here I think, you know, we just hit our hundred million ride milestone but we’re already obviously looking out towards what do the billion rides look like and when do we get there?

Adam Force 22:27
Yeah, I love that. So, I mean, I remember I was going through the websites and I know you guys have multiple websites. Do you guys have this stuff plastered all over telling these stories?

Andrew Savage 22:40
Candidly, probably not as plastered as we should. I think with any business that’s growing as quickly as we are there’s a you know, competing of priorities and our competition of priorities and we can’t do it all. I think candidly, we can probably do a better job of telling the story and I think often, we have too many stories to tell. Often, we are, you know, we sort of have an accomplishment, but then we move on to the next accomplishment. So, you know, candidly, I think it’s an area where we should be doing more. And I think the impact really speaks for itself when we’re able to tell those stories.

Adam Force 23:17
No, that’s incredible. I really love what you guys are doing. And I’m excited about it as a cultural shift and the contribution towards…

Andrew Savage 23:25
Thank you.

Adam Force 23:25
Yeah, the environmental stuff and how it…I mean, even…I didn’t even really think about it as much towards the way it helps people. But really making people’s lives easier, giving them more — a better option for getting around, saving money. Like it just…I can see how people will start to rely on this regularly. And it’s nice because of that flexibility. I can look at my app, I can see where the scooters are. And I, you know, I can go and jump on one. It’s really as simple as that, which is pretty cool. I mean, it takes like two seconds to get on this thing and get going.

Andrew Savage 23:56
Yeah, I mean, it’s something that we really couldn’t have done in an earlier era where a smartphone wasn’t so accessible. But, you know, now just under two thirds of our riders ride regularly to get to or from work or school and so to your point about regular use, I mean, two thirds of our riders are using it as a sort of daily utility school, work, daily habit, is really how you create a business that makes lasting change and it’s why we are so laser focused on our riders and also more communities that we can serve.

Adam Force 24:35
I can just imagine, I mean, I can see…like, you ever see like the Humans of New York and the stories behind them? I can see people telling their stories on how this has made…like it’s as simple as a scooter but the difference that can really make in making someone’s life just way easier. So that could be pretty cool.

Andrew Savage 24:55
Yeah, I often think about that sort of story and like being able to, you know, follow the daily user that, that, you know, might use it to get to work, but then might use it to go, you know, get, you know, take a scooter to the doctor’s appointment. And, you know, the time that it saves. I mean, we all know that people spend an enormous amount of time stuck in traffic. We also know that, you know, people own vehicles that sit idle 96% of their working life, right? That isn’t a very good use of money or capital, right? So it’s the worst investment that we often, too often make, right? And most of us don’t want to have to make that investment in the car.

And so to the extent that we can help move that needle and change the way people live and provide a utility that gives them either joy, give them more time to spend with their kids, gives them more money…I mean, all those things are in addition to the environmental benefits, which are critical, but those are real world things that people live and breathe every day. And so while sometimes it can be easy to overstate the environmental benefits, the social benefits are really significant. And I think often, you know, you maybe governments and others don’t put as much value on that, because sometimes there isn’t a financial value per se, but when you break it down, there really is.

Adam Force 26:15
Ultimately, yeah, I think there ultimately is. And if you think about there’s values outside of financial that are important meaning every time my wife and I…we have one car because we live in Miami, so we have one car because she does have to drive a bit outside to the University of Miami. She works at the hospital. And so every time we get in the car, though, let’s say we’re doing some weekend errands. Sitting through the traffic in the city and just getting to places — there’s not a time that goes by that we don’t sit there and say, God, I hate driving. I hate driving and sitting in this traffic.

And then what happens? Somebody honks on their horn, which means the next person catches… it’s like it’s like a virus that catches on and everyone starts feeling this frustration and you have this bad energy. Everyone’s angry, everyone’s pissed off. And I feel like we can start getting rid of that anger from people by getting people out of the car. So I love that benefit as well. And the other thing I was curious about as you’re talking, and I’m sitting here thinking, I’m like, Well, I wonder what would happen when you try to get into a city like New York because they have like, you know, Miami, we don’t really have a good public transportation system here. So the scooters are perfect. But you know, subway, kind of the subways in New York are thing that the MTA is…it’s like a big thing for them. And I’m sure you know, there’s a lot of money behind it. So how do you foresee that? Like, is that going to be a challenge? Because it’s going to compete with the subways?

Andrew Savage 27:43
Yeah, it’s a good question. I mean, we very much view ourselves as complimentary to public transit, because if you think about the benefits of public transportation, is it’s bringing people often more than a mile, right? You’re taking a train, you know, two to three miles, you might be taking a bus three, four or five miles, etc. What we really see our services doing is bringing people to public transit, or from public transportation. So if you, you know, go to Oakland, for example, where you see people grabbing scooters all the time — they come out of the BART station, they hop on a scooter, and they get that last, you know, that last connection or last mile to work

You know, we’ve actually done a really interesting partnership with Google Maps, which I’m really excited about because it allows people to go on to Google Maps and see how they can use public transportation plus a scooter — a Lime scooter — to improve and speed up their commute. And that’s I think, when you really change hearts and minds when you can, you know, integrate yourself into people’s daily lives or, or really importantly, change behavior, right? So you might go from thinking, Man, that bus trip or that train trip is going to take too long because I have to take, you know, two different lines or, you know, I can’t get there in time to being able to hop on a scooter or take a scooter from the train station, and speed up that trip. And so that’s to me really exciting when we can be a compliment to public transportation. And I think important for the cities that we serve, support the public transportation investment by bringing more people to them.

Adam Force 29:25
Yeah, you know, that’s a great point. And I want to call that out for anybody listening. Because when you’re thinking about your business, and you’re thinking about partnerships, like I always say, it’s not about competition, you’re not there to compete with other companies. You want to be collaborative, right? Cooperation has been more powerful than anything in this world. So that whole positioning that you had, which is we want to compliment the public transportation system. And that made sense to me. And as soon as you mentioned Google, and that partnership, the light went off,.I was like, Oh crap, that makes a lot of sense now because when you type in, “What what does it take to get there?” and if it includes now the scooter option? That is… I mean, it doesn’t get any better than that. That’s beautiful.

Andrew Savage 30:08
Here’s another interesting one. Since you like that one, I’ll give you a second. So speaking of competition, I mean, one of the businesses that we actually compete against the most or the services that we compete against the most is ride hailing. Because if you’re in a city and you want to, you know, go down the street, a mile, your options often are take a scooter or ride hail. And we’ve actually — and part of that [unintelligible] that I mentioned that has allowed us to save 25 million rides is because a significant number of our riders are choosing to take a scooter over hailing a ride on their app.

And we’ve actually partnered with Uber and within Uber’s app across the globe, you can actually see Lime scooters as an alternative to taking Uber vehicles. So in addition to that partnership with Google, which helps you form your way from public transportation faster, you can actually choose to spend less money and often move faster through a city by taking a scooter instead of taking an Uber ride. And that actually only further supports the mode shift from vehicles, which are often carbon emitting to renewably powered scooters that we’re trying to make. So there’s really a double win there of bringing more eyeballs to the surface, but also saving on carbon as well.

Adam Force 31:33
Yeah, yeah. Now that’s great. I love that. I mean, the Uber thing is great, it’s convenient. And, you know, I just…but there’s just more benefits to the scooter. Now, can you have a family of four jump on a scooter? No, but I think that for most couples, and people just going into work and doing all these things like it’s just such a good flexible option. So I’m just happy to see them growing and getting a lot of use. I was curious if they would be adopted by people and they definitely seem to be having a pretty big uptick and a hundred million rides is, is really impressive.

Andrew Savage 32:12
We’re also finding that in Europe, which is one of our biggest growth markets, the European Communities are even more inclined than North American communities — not to say that there isn’t a significant amount of growth in North America, but European cities are… they’re built and designed for pedestrians, they have higher gas prices, they have higher density. And there’s also a really high premium more interest in climate solutions there so we’re actually finding extremely quick adoption as we look outside of North America across the globe.

Adam Force 32:47
Yeah. Yeah, that makes…that’s great. And you know, as you were talking, something else came to my mind that’s just another huge benefit. And I’ve always said this to my wife, I was like I you know, we have this capitalist model where we have to buy, buy, buy which means people have to make more, sell more. And it’s just this infinite loop. And I’m like, well, this, it’s not people don’t want to own anything. They only…they just want access to things and what you guys are offering is access without ownership. And I think that is a very important part of the future.

Andrew Savage 33:21
Yeah, it’s a really good point. I mean, there’s the evolution of the folks embracing the circular economy is, I think, a really pertinent one for our business. I think, you know, Ellen MacArthur Foundation has some leading work on this for those listeners who are interested, but, you know, they raised the question of when you need a hammer, is it the hammer itself that you need or the service that the hammer is providing, right? You’re trying to hit a nail, right, to boil it down to one of the most basic or common elements. It’s the service, right? And so our goal with shared transportation is to prevent people from having to own, own, own, and continuously accumulate things, but have a service, have a service that’s convenient to them and have a service that is there when they need it that’s reliable and that provides…it provides an efficient, affordable way to get around. And so, to me, you know, embracing that circular economy element is so critical to our business, I think if it’s shared transportation, so well.

Adam Force 34:24
100%. I mean, we’ve been doing it for a long time with libraries, like you just need the book to read, learn the information, then you don’t need to keep the book forever on your shelf. You know, like nobody wants to own a million CDs with CD cases, they just want the music.

Andrew Savage 34:39
I think about my parents all the time because they were just avid, avid readers, and were always getting books from the library. And while I profess that I do not have enough time to read these days, I’ve got two young kids at home and obviously Lime takes up a lot of time. I just think about them and their you know, embracing of the community and a shared service, which is the library and I think you raise a really great point that we don’t all need to own everything at the moment that we need it. I think, in an economy where absolutely everything is for purchase on the tip of your fingers, literally now, it can become too easy to consume. And I think it’s exciting to be able to think about ways where you can consume in a way that is more sustainable, that has a lower impact on the world.

Adam Force 35:26
Yep, that’s perfect. I love that. So we’re going to wrap up, I want to be respectful of your time. But the one last thing I want to ask and I’ll just ask for this as a heartfelt answer from you is, you know, what is something…if you had everybody…the world’s ear, — I ask this randomly to some people — and if you had the world’s ear, and you could tell them what you believe is the most important message, I mean, what would you want to share with people?

Andrew Savage 35:57
You know, I would say that people need to be involved in the decision-making in their communities. And I know that politics can often be seen as a third rail, you don’t bring it up. But I come from a political background. And having been now in two businesses where regulation, policy, politics are at the heart of our success, of our growth, of our deployment, I just think it’s so critical that people often are saying to me, Hey, why don’t we have scooters in this city or that city? Or why don’t we have more scooters in this city or that city?

It comes down to community engagement. And we have done very well, in cities where the community is saying we want this and we need the service and we want more of it. And I would just say that to your question, being engaged in — whether it’s scooter policy or something else that you’re passionate about, I think is just so critical. I think it makes our communities work. I think often people don’t think that they can have an impact. But having been on the other side where I served in government, you can have an impact with very few number of voices. And so I think that would be my sort of parting thought.

Adam Force 37:11
I love that. Yeah, get involved, take action. I think people get too comfortable behind the computer on Facebook, just thinking that like is going to do something.

Andrew Savage 37:21
It really doesn’t take…it does not take a lot. I mean, I will tell you that a city councilor that hears from five or 10 people takes notice; a mayor that hears from 10 or 20 people takes notice, and so it doesn’t take much to move the needle. So it doesn’t take many friends to move the needle. So you know, take those likes on Facebook and, you know, pull people together and ask for something that you’re looking for to make your community stronger.

Adam Force 37:44
I think that’s a great insight is that, you know, 10 people that reach out to the mayor, the city councilor, like they’ll start paying attention. So when you see things about call your city council or call, I mean, that stuff is real. So that’s…they want to hear from you and if you sit there and think, well, it’s not going matter if I call, you’re wrong, right? So that’s a great point. I love that. Alright, well listen, let’s give a shout out. What’s the best place for people to learn about Lime?

Andrew Savage 38:12
Our website or you can check us out on various social media handles as well.

Adam Force 38:19
Awesome. Appreciate your time, Andrew and look forward to seeing more in the future from Lime.

Andrew Savage 38:24
Thanks a lot, Adam. Appreciate you having me on.

Announcer 38:27
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Blake Mycoskie Exclusive: The Brand that Launched a Thousand Impact Businesses

Listen to the exclusive interview with Blake Mycoskie:

 Subscribe to this show on Spotify  |  iTunes  |  Stitcher  |  Soundcloud

In 2006, America’s top-earning CEOs were making $240 million a year while a fifth of the world lived on $1.9 a day. It was in the absurdly vast space inside the wealth gap that Blake Mycoskie found out that shoelessness meant more than the comforting warmth of concrete beneath your feet on swimming-pool-days. For the world’s poorest, it meant parasitic infections, frostbite, and sometimes, even death. Blake wanted to fix the problem, but a constant flow of shoes would require a constant flow of money. He would have to hack a pathway to the top of a new kind of mountain, and a for-profit business model seemed a natural solution.

So began a social enterprise called TOMS: the brand that launched a thousand impact businesses. His concept was tidy and potent: to donate a pair of shoes for every pair sold. He hoped to sell a thousand pairs a year. He didn’t. An LA Times feature sparked 1, 200 sales in just a day. Then came Vogue, then Time, People, and Elle. As the 2008 recession crawled nearer, TOMS’ sales figures rose… and rose. Blake covered 10, 000 pairs of bare feet that season, but the brand did more than just change lives. It woke the world’s change creators up to the returns a for-profit model could generate.

Waking Up to Authenticity

The era of TOMS was also the era of the ultimate marketing machine and all the dishonest billions it attracted. Mycoskie was one of the first entrepreneurs to encourage startups to use their story as the thrust of their marketing efforts, but he says countless brands have used his lesson as yet another plastic vehicle for marketing lies. Today’s buyers have a fatal allergy to dishonest tactics. Their skins crawl when they hear sales spin, and they trust their spam blocking APIs and AdBlock more than they do their local charities.

Tom's marketing plan

In an internet era, a secret discovered is a secret spread from a grand stage playing to millions. Transparency is no longer optional because, in an increasingly-connected world, your brand’s story will be told with or without your permission. Today’s impact businesses must live in a way that creates a strong digital story. “I don’t think every business has to have a giving component,” he says, “but I do think every business needs to answer the questions, ‘What is your purpose? What harm are you doing? What are you improving in the world?’ “

This is more than a call for startups to wake up to the marketing knowledge of their buyers, though. The authenticity he requests creeps into everything, from your branding and corporate culture to your hiring practices.

The Problem with HR Superstars

As TOMS grew, Mycoskie let his HR director handle much of his head-hunting. They hired C-suite rock stars who’d learned their tricks at other companies. It turns out that you can’t teach an old executives new tricks. They were attached to their bad habits, which were firmly packaged in an unchangeable shell. His corporate culture was borne of magic, and every entrenched C-suite habit absorbed some of that sparkle.

These days, he doesn’t require a “kumbaya” culture of every company; only clarity and intent. If you want to sharpen your Wolf-of-Wall-Street claws and establish a cutthroat culture, celebrate that, but don’t pretend you’re a Sheep of Wall Street. Corporate culture is best served neat, not shaken or stirred. James Bond might be a fair shot, but magic was never his strong suit.

Magic requires new perspectives and a wealth of different data sets, so Blake thinks some of your company’s most important assets are hidden away inside your employees. If he could travel back in time and recreated TOMS from scratch, he would have hired his staff himself, keeping his focus on mindsets instead of corporate experience.

Dealing with Pressure

For the first eight years of TOMS’ life, Mycoskie held his startup on his shoulders alone. He paid for every new shoe design, factory overhead, and employee. “I think that’s a great way to run a business,” he admits because it made him more conscious of how he spent his money, but even the most powerful entrepreneur can bend under daily pressure. “I had no investors so every single dollar was like a personal check.”

The media’s early interest had forced the fledgling company to grow into adulthood overnight. That’s challenging work for any entrepreneur. Being the sole source of funding is a simple form of pressure, but when the world expects greatness of you, you need a shinier brand of mettle. Then there were the people, every one of them growing and changing and needing more.

Once TOMS had grown to $400 million in sales, he brought in a partner, keeping his position as chairman of the board and hiring a CEO to relieve the pressure of solitary leadership. That gave him the space to see a new path forward–one that didn’t require TOMS to represent his whole identity.

Beyond TOMS

Social enterprises have changed enormously in the 12 years since Blake sold his first pair of shoes. The social impact space has been normalized, and globalization has raised rich and poor enterprises onto the same high stage. Any business can grow, whether it’s founded in a dusty shack in Punjab or on a bustling New York City street corner. Marketing has evolved beyond Ogilvyesque tradition, and corporate culture has become a core part of every brand. You can no longer grow a business without considering all the stakeholders. You’re too visible, too connected, too vulnerable to public opinion to operate thoughtlessly.

Blake sees the planet and its people as the biggest stakeholders of any company, and that has knock-on effects that aren’t immediately apparent. Enterprises need to place ethics ahead of every path they choose, but the way you define business must change, too.

The Industrial Revolution ended in the 19th century, yet today’s companies are still focusing on producing to the same scale and in the same way as they did a hundred years ago. Mycoskie isn’t sure the purpose of the human experience is to be productive and to achieve financial success.

His first goal was to simply build a for-profit social impact company. He’s since discovered a passion for sharing lessons instead of products. He hopes to give others the courage to turn their own stories into real-world dreams, so he’s just founded a self-development company called Made For, which takes members on a 10-month journey into the center of their own souls. Two hundred people are already moving through the program.

Some might say this change of pace is his stepping back, but he calls it stepping forward.

“[Stepping forward] is a lot scarier because you’re looking into the abyss and you don’t know what you’ll see. I’ve enjoyed life as an entrepreneur but I don’t know if I’m going to evolve or if I’m going to just keep starting businesses. Because all I’m going to do is prove to myself and the world that I can do it again and again.”

The Power of Mentorship

Mycoskie wasn’t born this woke. He was mentored into his irrevocable success. Richard Branson taught him through the pages of “Losing My Virginity.” Howard Schultz and Yvonne Chouinard’s lessons were also delivered through text. Blake only met his heroes long after they’d showed him how to make his first million. Some of the best lessons are available to anyone with an Amazon account and an appetite for reading, and now, they’re also available through Blake’s burgeoning program, Made For.

A New Definition of Success

Any ordinary social impact business is launched for the change it can create and the viability it can achieve with its products. Blake thinks that misses an important ingredient: the authenticity of the creation process. For him, founding a business is a process of self-development. You can’t prepare a feather-light sponge if you’re not immersed in the baking process, no matter how perfect your recipe is, and the enterprise creation process must be just as meaningful and authentic. A leader must become the business, or the story the world will tell about it will be barren.

“Success is somewhat empty, no matter if you do it in a somewhat honorable way like I did with TOMS or in a Wolf of Wall Street way. The human condition needs far more than what our culture is asking.”

The Industrial machine is dying, and founders must find a new way forward. That way should do more than just spread happiness to others. It must also incite it in every philanthropist. “We’re all designed to be happy,” he says, “and the happiest people I’ve seen are the ones who are able to be in touch with the inevitable truth that all we have is this moment. And this moment is [our] entire existence. That’s how I’m defining success these days.”

Blake is one of a rare few thought leaders who are reinventing society, but his ideas are only new because the enterprise has been a Promethean fire wielded, not for human pursuits, but industrial ones. Yesterday’s thought leaders asked, “How profitable? How huge? How fast?” Blake asks, “How authentic? How challenging? How true?

Key Takeaways

-1) “If you have a really incredible, authentic story that you can back up at every touch-point in your organization, lead with it. If not, lead with your product and your product attributes.”

-2) Be directly involved in your hiring. Look for shared mindsets in your staff, and not necessarily experience.

-3) Make the most of the fresh perspectives of your staff. They’re important data sets that you might never otherwise explore.

-4) Make sure your philanthropy is designed to be meaningful to your own growth. Your happiness matters and social enterprise should never be used to shift your focus away from your own pain.

-5) Find mentorship through the writing of your heroes.

-6) Don’t let old ideas of success limit you. Think beyond profits and products.

-7) Don’t try to create a brand or corporate culture that’s inconsistent with your authentic intentions. Be true to your intent, or you will lose the trust you might never regain.

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Nasreen Sheikh: From Child Slave to Powerful Social Entrepreneur Helping Women Escape Poverty

Nasreen Sheikh was born silent. With no documents to acknowledge her birth or death, and with poverty stuck in her throat like smoke, she was the perfect victim of the sweatshop industry. You can’t report a crime if you don’t exist, and Nasreen learned from an early age that the more she stifled her voice, the safer she would be.

Freedom has a way of scraping through, and for Nasreen, it came in the form of a stranger who offered her a mere $5 but ultimately gave much more. With his mentorship, she escaped the rag trade empire at 11. She set up an empowerment center called Local Women’s Handicrafts across the sweatshop that stole two years of her childhood. Today, she profits from the very skills it had once exploited as a grand “go to hell” flourish.

She’d not even turned 16 yet. 

Today, she’s training and employing sweated labor survivors and travelling through the USA, giving them a voice. She’s freed over a hundred people thus far.

If fashion brands were the only predators in Nasreen’s story, that would be all of her achievements, but she was born in a country that’s divided into 3,000 castes. To achieve her highest social goals, she would have to create entire economies in forgotten places by empowering forgotten faces. Impossible? No. She’s achieving it one piece of silence at a time.

She appeared in the pages of Forbes magazine before she even knew what Forbes was and became the face of a movement before she had the documents to legitimize her existence. She opened her own NGO before she became an adult, and her business model is one of the most sustainable ways out of poverty around the world. Even so, Nasreen never meant to achieve such impossible things. She just wanted to help one woman, then two, then three.

The Arts and Crafts Movement 

An estimated 250 million children are forced to work in sweatshops for less than $2 a day. Everyone has heard the statistics, but the predation isn’t defined by simple slavery. Just as sweat is intertwined into every sweatshop garment, India’s patriarchal caste system is intertwined into every undocumented slave’s livelihood.

The issue is a complex one. To unravel it, you must travel to the landlocked republic of Nepal, where 37% of children are trapped in forced marriages before they turn 18. You must walk through the mud of Salia Sahi, where rape isn’t raping if you’re married. You must visit Kathua and Dharavi, which imprison children before they learn to write by never issuing the birth certificates they need to obtain passports and access healthcare.

To undo the injustices that victimized Nasreen Sheikh, you must unpick a figurative garment that’s taken thousands of years to weave. It’s an impossible task, but Nasreen eats “impossible” for lunch. She’s created a five-stage system for undocumented sweatshop survivors because you don’t become the face of a global movement by shying away from the opposition.

Unlike lesser NGOs, Nasreen tailors her assistance to the goals and skills of the women she helps. She gives them a safe place to live, then offers them six four months to four-six years of sponsored training. Then, each survivor can work for Nasreen’s Social Business (Local Women’s Handicraft profit crafts store) or get a loan to start a business. If she remains under the Local Women’s Handicrafts banner, she will train other survivors while earning a living salary. The combined NGO/for-profit model is practical and inherently sustainable. No matter how many women it helps, its ability to support increasing numbers is ingrained in its strategy.


Nasreen’s Store Growth System

Most NGOs rely on funding to support their growth, and that requires an endless search for new donors. The traditional NGO model has generated hundreds of funding strategies, and none of them begin to address the fact that donations are a finite and time-heavy resource. Nonprofit is a tax status, not a funding strategy, so Local Women’s Handicrafts and the NGO that feeds it are elastic enough to grow indefinitely.

The enterprise receives requests for support every single day, and while it has a waiting list, it’s growth is automatically provided for. Nasreen’s store supports her nonprofit’s growth to encourage further elasticity. She turns the skills she teaches into viable products that can develop further under her brand.

>To breathe life into her NGO, Nasreen had to apply for a loan before she’d turned 14. The loan covered only the barest of bones: a sewing machine and four walls to house it. She built her NGO one brick, one voice, one woman at a time. With that skeleton in place, she gained an education and built a social impact model with incredible scope. She’d never heard the term “iterative development,” and Chang’s Lean Impact strategy had yet to be written, but the approach came naturally to her anyway. With such complex issues to solve, it was the only way forward, but then came to Nepal.

A Flood of Silence

In 2017, Nasreen traveled to the border of India and Nepal after almost 200 of its residents were killed in a flood. The area was undocumented, but most of its men had left to find work in neighboring regions. Women remained behind, unable to escape because they were not allowed to work. Most NGOs were too intimidated to confront this complex society, but Nasreen isn’t most people. Confronting the crisis required her to obtain support from castes who refused to share a room with survivors, let alone donate their resources to them. Her approach required women to confront ingrained patriarchy by daring to become employed. In short, Nasreen had to overcome four core challenges: slavery, India’s patriarchy, the cast system, and the lack of birth certificates.

Craftsmanship has become a key escape from poverty and abuse.

From the dusty streets of Southern Africa to the cluttered slums of Lebanon. Nasreen is only too aware of the gifts it offers. The intimacy and power of her workshop leaked beyond its walls and into the hearts of higher castes and patricentric husbands. The model broke down all four walls it was designed to overcome, so she took it to the flooded Nepalese village. The spouses who’d once been horrified at the idea of their wives working now welcome the support. The higher castes who’d once refused to involve themselves in the under-class have felt the power of Local Women’s Handicrafts and come to support it.

Sheikh attributes the change to the authenticity of her center. “When you put so much love [into something],” she says, “people can feel it because we’re all human. We feel the love. That’s the power of humanity.” It’s not the kind of tactic you’ll find on Wall Street, but when you’re trying to fix humanity, you must work with the stuff of humanity. Even so, today’s consumers are adept at detecting phony branding and greenwashing, so sincerity creates the very bricks and mortar of a successful social impact brand. That’s why Sheikh’s model rose well beyond her expectations.

The good leaders train others to be a leader as well.

She still wasn’t satisfied with her numbers. She trained her workers to fulfill her leadership role, freeing herself up to travel the United States to draw attention to her cause. Her TedX audience gave her the kind of ovation Fortune 200 speakers can only hope for. She spoke at the 360° Fair Trade Conference and the Buy Good, Feel Good Expo. She’s been interviewed by Jay Shetty and The Chicago Tribune. Her tour of America has resonated with audiences because she speaks with sincerity. It has also inspired a new goal: to connect western mentors with under-served women in her community to fuel even more growth.

When she’s working in Nepal, she no longer takes care of the nuts and bolts of daily management. Her role is now a visionary one because you can’t manifest a global success story by focusing on rent payments. Sheikh admits that vision requires courage, but she has more than enough of that to spare. 

“You need a solid pillar and passion in your heart to do this type of work.”

Sheikh is working to clear the air of a polluted industry by bringing the voices of under-served communities to millions of Westerners. She’s achieving it because she’s only too aware of her resources. Has she educated herself? Certainly, but at her core, she’s a resounding example of the change she’s bringing to the world. Most successful change-makers are.

She’s confronting the fact that 35% of all births go undocumented because she, too, was once undocumented. She confronts the fact that over 150 million children are child laborers because she, too, was a part of that statistic. She also confronts the fact that there’s a forced marriage every two seconds because that almost became her fate. And most of all, she confronts these issues because she understands them intimately. You don’t have to build a cause out of your past, but you need to become intimately acquainted with the ones you serve.

“Know yourself. Go deeper. Find out who you truly are. When you find yourself, you will automatically be of service to everyone.”

Nasreen Sheikh was once silent. She wove that silence into every garment she produced in the ten by ten cell she ate, worked, and slept in. Today, she weaves a voice into every garment her fair trade employees create. Then she carries thousands of voices onto a global stage. Millions of people are listening. 


8 Key Takeaways We Learn from Nasreen

1) Build sustainability into your social impact model so that you’re not reliant on funding. You can achieve this through a pay-it-forward model, a for-profit support structure, or through permanent stakeholders. 

2) If you’re dealing with complex societal issues, build a minimal viable service, allowing your learning to inform later growth. 

3) Visit the communities you serve and learn all you can about the people your cause hopes to support. 

4) Use business activities to strengthen the capacity of your NGO. Don’t ignore macro issues like economic development in high-poverty regions. 

5) Digital marketing is a core part of any campaign, but don’t ignore traditional approaches to branding. PR isn’t dead. 

6) Know yourself. Build your social impact business around your unique concepts instead of copying others’ and being inauthentic with your causes. 

7) Treat the people you help as individuals. Dictating their freedom isn’t freedom at all. 

8) You can’t save the world until you help one person, so don’t let grand goals intimidate you. Start small. 

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Creating a Lean Business Plan For Social Impact: Eric Ries & Ann Mei Chang

change creator eric ries and ann mei chang

Listen to our full interview with Ann Mei Change and Eric Ries here

The road to profits is littered with good objectives. All you need to do to launch a firecracker startup is talk to a focus group and run a few field trials. Business management is easy. Udemy and will teach you how in five amazing steps you won’t believe are true…

… until that first fatal setback that shows you why 75% of start-ups fail: there are no maps for unexplored landscapes or demographic data for invented needs. You can read industry forecasts all year and still not hit on a single piece of actionable information for walking on unknown terrain.

That’s why Eric Ries’ Wikipedia page begins with failure.

A Yale education and an intellect sharp enough to cut diamonds with couldn’t save him. Conventional best practices simply didn’t work.

When failure comes to ordinary entrepreneurs, they blame their business plan. They blame their sales teams. They blame everything they can find in their dated textbooks, but Eric Ries decided to develop a new way of thinking instead. That new way is The Lean Startup and millions of white-collar acolytes are filling up convention centers, business pages, and forums to learn more about it. The lean approach is no longer a simple philosophy, but a movement that’s crowded onto every continent in the world.

Issue #23 of Change Creator Magazine presents a unique cover with both Ann Mei Chang and Eric Ries

Uncertainty in an Unpredictable World

Eric Ries is the reason concepts like minimum viable products, pivots, and feedback loops are so pronounced in today’s thinking. His tools help for-profit startups to develop products in high-uncertainty environments by pushing production further down the innovation cycle and drawing learning forward.

Think of the lean approach as the tour guide to your customers’ interests. Instead of giving you a half-considered map and sending you on your way, it stays by your side, helping you adjust to your terrain with every step. It’s transformed for-profit thinking, and now it’s moving into the social impact space, largely thanks to Ann Mei Chang and her book, Lean Impact. Even the private world’s uncertainty cannot compete with that of the social sector, so Chang believes it should stop executing plans as if it knows the answers.

A Dirty Word Called “Funding”

How do you save an endangered species?

We might have a hundred solutions, but the last northern white rhino and shrinking rainforests indicate that they aren’t working. How do you stall global warming?

The 2030 UN deadline for effective change tells us we still don’t have a bold enough plan to save the pale blue dot. How do you close the wealth gap, cure poverty, and mobilize a nation? Every one of these issues has several defined strategies, but few can account for the system that prevents social entrepreneurs from implementing them. Ann wanted to change that, so she spoke to change creators who had already beaten their way through the underbrush.

“The most common [challenge] that came up is the nature of funding. You have to come up with a detailed plan in advance and often plan down to the penny exactly. Some of the saddest stories I’ve heard are of organizations who have come up with these plans, been awarded grants [and then] discovered that what they were doing didn’t work and then kept doing it anyway because they had a contract to do.” The social sector is jerry-rigged to force change creators to map out in five and 10-year milestones with absolute certainty. It’s an impossible ask and, to muddy the pathways even more, demand and impact are intertwined.

Lean impact has cleared the trail. It might not be able to create your map, but it provides the cartography lessons you need to sketch it yourself.

Finding Certainty in High-Risk Biomes

In the business world, demand is easy to understand: you build a product. Your customers either buy it or ignore it. Feedback happens all on its own, but the social impact space doesn’t come with such a measurable response. To stretch the feedback loop even further, change creation comes with its own inbuilt well of compliments. “We’re dedicating our money and our lives to trying to do something to help others,” Ann says, “and somehow that stymies people into asking, ‘Could you do better?’”

While writing Lean Impact, Chang uncovered the story of Summit Public Schools, an emblem of how nonprofits can put the lean approach to work. Founder, Dianne Tavenner, wanted to have 100% of her students graduate, so she launched a few schools and watched her first students graduate with better results than those of their peers. Summit Schools were encouraged to scale prematurely, but Tavenner wanted to push her organization into a shortened feedback loop. “They figured out a way to gather more subjective data through focus groups and teacher evaluations, and then experiment by running variations of their classrooms over a year-long period and look at the results on a week-by-week basis.” In so doing, Summit turned its cause into a minimum viable product. Every tiny change was measured, all the way down to its classroom layouts.

In 2017, 99% of its graduating class was accepted into college, and 300 U.S. schools are replicating their model.

Chang sees that iterative approach as a way to escape the funding/contract mill. “If you’re trying to reduce the incidence of malaria in a region by distributing mosquito nets, it may take years to measure whether the incidence of malaria has gone down, but tomorrow you can test whether people are actually hanging up those nets and sleeping under them, and if they’re not, you can figure out quickly it’s not likely to work.”

The traditional Theory of Change defines a goal, maps its fulfilment, and then looks back to uncover the preconditions required to affect that change. The concept has worked its way into common lexicon, but Ann Mei has found that nonprofits are developing elaborate theories for the sake of obtaining funding, then abandoning their research on a dusty shelf. “Test those early linkages. If you think if you teach kids this way, they’ll learn better, test whether they’ve retained the information better using whatever indicators you can find, and optimize for that.”

Entrepreneurship will swallow you in for-profit thinking before you have a chance to measure your real impact, so shortened feedback loops are not options, but necessities. “We want to identify our riskiest assumptions–the hypotheses that we need to test early on that may cause our solution to fail.

Eric Ries is a passionate advocate of the scientific method for this precise reason. “In engineering-driven organizations, in science-driven organizations, even a lot of finance-driven organizations, the idea of rigorous analysis of day-to-day decision-making is considered essential, and yet that doesn’t get integrated into boardroom conversations. I think in the future people are going to look back on our era and find that really strange.”

Empathy in the For-Profit Impact Space

Social entrepreneurs must serve two audiences to the private sector’s single credit-card-wielding buyer: the consumer and the cause. The latter cannot be left to fail for long enough to gather quantitative feedback.

“Measuring impact is much more difficult than measuring clicks on an e-commerce site,” Chang says, but perhaps the most resounding reason she supports the lean approach is the need for empathy in a socially-driven industry. “When you’re experimenting in situations where you’re working with vulnerable populations, it has to be more thoughtful,” she says. “If you’re seeking social impact, it’s not enough to have people want what you have. You also need to deliver a social benefit.”

Thankfully, a social benefit can be measured qualitatively long before numbers can be crunched.

Drowning in Data

The private sector has begun to emphasize the importance of small data in a big-data-obsessed world — those actionable data footprints consumers leave behind as they navigate your brand. Without small data, businesses would drown in their own numbers–and they often do. Eric Ries expands on that thought process through vanity metrics, his term for the analytics businesses use to lionize unproven success and intimidate their rivals.

“I was once up against a competitor who liked to report the total GDP equivalent of all the user-to-user virtual transactions in their system,” he says. Those metrics are easy to celebrate…all the way to failure. “There’s no way to ever pivot because people will constantly say, ‘We’re almost on the right track. The numbers will turn around any minute,’ and by the time you finally realize that things are a disaster, it’s too late to change.”

Ann says the social sector has taken vanity metrics to an entirely new level. “Almost all [nonprofits] tout the number of people they’ve touched in some way. These numbers are completely meaningless. They largely mean that someone was good at fund-raising; that they wrote a good grant, someone gave them a bunch of money and so they did stuff for a bunch of people. It doesn’t actually say whether they made those people’s lives better.”

Big data disfigures the real and critical things that are getting in the way of your success. You’ll never discover why those youth you found employment for lost their jobs months later. You’ll never notice that one demographic who are not being served as well as the rest. You’ll look at the beautiful sunset from 93 million miles away and never notice that the sun is dying. “When you pay attention to the real data behind the metrics that matter,” says Ann, “you’ll make different decisions about how you deliver your intervention. ‘

Redefining Risk

Beyond Chang’s study of Summit, her research led her right back to a company belonging to Ries himself: The Long Term Stock Exchange (LTSE). The startup is hoping to overhaul the stock exchange to relieve public companies of the pressures involved in high-frequency trading. The concept is almost too wild to imagine, and yet it’s attracted the encouragement of giants like Tim O’Reilly, Aneesha Chopra, and Marc Andreessen. It is, Ries says, “making it possible to run organizations in a more sustainable, innovative, long-term ethical way.”

“I think that a high percentage of the work that needs to be done in the economy today needs to be done by startup-type teams,” he explains. Startups are nimble. They’re innovative. They can become financially self-sustaining, and few brands characterize those traits as well as LTSE.

There’s a reason Eric has become part of such a seemingly-risky side of entrepreneurial culture: he believes startups have the courage to tackle the world’s problems more aggressively by taking the very risks that reduce risk. “[Risk avoidance is] not actually a low-risk way to go. Corporations get disrupted precisely because they were unwilling to do anything they perceived as risky but that their competitor did not. I think we have to redefine what risk means.“

The problem is often less one of bureaucracy than of simple unwillingness and red tape, and while those tendencies are fizzling away in the sunlight, Chang believes the social impact space’s lack of profit focus is slowing it down. “People are wed to their existing solutions because of pride of ownership, brand identity, or risk aversion, and so the best ideas often don’t get picked up.

Social entrepreneurship is poised to take over the for-profit world, and Ries and Chang are riding the cusp of the wave, using lean startups as their sails. They’ve already changed the global conversation, but if you listen carefully enough, you will change the world.

Listen to our full interview with Ann Mei Change and Eric Ries here

Key Takeaways

  1. Create short feedback loops. Measure your impact on a weekly basis, even if it’s too early to test it quantitatively.
  2. Find the driver that will let you scale and accelerate growth.
  3. Identify those assumptions that could make your solution fail: those related to growth, value, and social benefit.
  4. Don’t drop your knowledge and research once you’ve secured funding. Keep measuring your growth rigorously, never allowing your good intentions get in the way of your ambition for your cause.
  5. If your initial plan doesn’t work, pivot to a new approach that’s more likely to carry you towards your vision.
  6. Vary and study your approach so that your minimum viable product can grow out of smaller milestones. Test your theory of change.
  7. Use the strengths of a startup business model to innovate more aggressively.
  8. Take the risks that reduce your risk.
  9. Don’t be tempted to use vanity metrics. Identify relevant metrics that are capable of picking up the nuances in your cause and its effects.

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How Sarah Kauss Grew S’well into a $100M Company Combating Plastic (interview)

SWELL change creator

Humanity has failed its planet remorselessly.

Freshwater resources have diminished by 25%, oceanic dead zones have ballooned, and we’ve produced 6 billion tonnes of plastic waste since 2015. We buy a million plastic bottles every minute. The resulting fragments of waste have become suspended just beneath the ocean’s surface, where they’re consumed by marine creatures and, ultimately, people. So goes the lifecycle of toxic waste.

Humanity is perched somewhere between enlightenment and extinction, and we need thousands of eco-heroes to tilt us towards a more hope-filled future. Sarah Kauss is one such warrior, and her efforts to hack away at plastic usage has grown into a $100 million dollar business named S’well. You could call it a bottle production company, but if that were true, The Wall Street Journal and Forbes would be speaking about more interesting things. The truth? S’well is a movement, and the dying world is paying attention to it.

If you think a single trendy product can’t carry a revolution, you haven’t met Sarah Kauss. Her reusable bottle, which keeps drinks cold all day, has become an icon of social advocacy. She’s built her brand on the back of enough ecological causes to make UNICEF blanch. Its revenue brings clean water to the most vulnerable children in the world. It fights alongside cancer research groups, plants thousands of trees each year, and is leading humanity towards an AIDS-free day.

S’well is as famous for its causes as it is for refusing to seek out angel investors when it was still a sparkle in Sarah Kauss’ eye. She pumped $30,000 of her own money into the startup instead, then patiently nudged it towards success.

Her far-sightedness has become an inextricable a part of her brand, which is why S’well products aren’t bottles. They’re hydration accessories. S’well is not a business. It’s a picture of the future. Kauss is not a social entrepreneur. She’s a dreamer, and her goal is to displace 100 million bottles by 2020.

Overcoming Hopelessness

She’s no stranger to hopelessness, and that’s precisely the reason she’s managed to bring hope to a situation that seemed doomed from the start. Humanity’s race towards its own extinction has gathered enough inertia to carry it towards its own horrific end, so it needs leaders who’ve learned how to find light in dark places. “No matter how insurmountable the situation may seem,” says Kauss, “I’ve been there before and always come out okay.” She keeps a five-year diary to remind herself of what she’s managed to accomplish in the past. This leaks into her approach to social entrepreneurship, which must push against humankind’s distress until something breaks through.

The term “social entrepreneurship” was coined in the Eighties. It’s a new approach to societal distress, so every leader must invent their own business model. That many of the world’s most successful social entrepreneurs are potent branders is no coincidence—they must invent needs in a compelling way while simultaneously invigorating causes that have traditionally attracted indifference.

Sarah Kauss is no different.

As a Harvard Business School graduate, she’s refused to squeeze herself into old fashioned business models. “It might be good to say that I had a complex business plan with detailed financial goals, but I didn’t. I had a basic business plan with this amazing ambition to enhance the drinking experience in the hopes of ridding the world of plastic bottles.”

Sounds simple, but you can’t build an empire out of dreams.

The road towards a plastic-free future is a challenging one requiring slow, steady growth.

“I wanted to position S’well as a premium brand and not just a reusable water bottle. I set out to learn everything I could about retail and manufacturing to bring this idea for a new kind of reusable bottle to life. Then I hit the pavement hard, going to 17 trade shows my first year. But I didn’t say yes to every opportunity that came my way and took growth slowly. This was pivotal to creating and maintaining our brand positioning.”

The trendy S’well bottle is a miracle of industrial design, but it’s also every bit as elegant as the brand itself. You want to drink out of this bottle, but maybe its contents are infused with a little hope and a generous sprinkling of spirit.

If you had the entire world’s ear right now, what would you say about our plastic pollution problem?

“Action is our friend and together we can do more by doing less. Here’s what I mean: the problem of plastic can be overwhelming. We’re bombarded with stats and stories that can create paralysis because you just don’t know where to begin or believe that your individual actions can make a difference. But they can. If we can find ways to simplify the challenge and offer easy solutions to act on, we’ll be able to get more people on board. That’s what we’re doing with the Million Bottle Project. We’re trying to educate people on the impact of single-use plastic bottles and the simple steps we all can take to reduce consumption.”

When you started S’well, how did you overcome the fear of losing it all?

“I so believed in the business I was creating and the good that S’well could do that it helped push any fear aside. I [also] had an amazing network of people who were willing to help me learn from their experience. This goodwill only made me that much more determined to be successful.”

What have been your biggest challenges growing S’well?

We had to on-board new people and new systems while trying to maintain quality and deliver an enormous amount of product around the world. We made it through the crises of unexpected growth and took a hard look at the business. We made some tough decisions about certain partnerships, created a few new relationships, further built our infrastructure, and basically recalibrated.”

You never raised funding. Why did you take that approach and how did you make it work?

“Using $30, 000 of my own funds was about being in control—growing the business the way I felt made the most sense for the brand. I wanted to keep the consumer at the forefront and not have to settle in an effort to grow the business quickly. Through patience, I was able to make it work. From the start, I wanted to position S’well as a premium brand and not just a reusable water bottle. It was—and is—a hydration accessory. This new concept took time to take off.”

What can we expect from S’well over the next year?

“We’ll be launching new accessories and some exciting new products, plus a range of fresh designs and collaborations. We’ll also be working with our partners, like UNICEF USA, RED, and Breast Cancer Research Foundation.”

Based on your experience and success as a true change creator, what key lessons would you share with a mentee?

“We all dream of growth, but if you don’t have the right people in place when it comes, it can be daunting. Having the right talent from the start will not only help you grow faster, but give you more agility when you’re punching above your weight.”

Speaking to Sarah Kauss is like getting a fresh injection of entrepreneurial spirituality.

She’s replacing industry analyses with determination, strategic triangles with optimism, and basic logic models with hope. That’s not to say she’s abandoned theoretical frameworks, only that she’s throwing all the optimism she has at them. And it’s working.

Stanford Business Review once called social entrepreneurship “a wave of creative destruction that remakes society.” When you’re dealing in drastic goals like AIDS and cancer, all the branding talent in the world can’t save you from compassion fatigue. Sarah Kauss seemed to understand that right from the start, so her secrets to success include patience and autonomy—and why shouldn’t they?

Entrepreneurship is about far more than just strategy. It is, at heart, a grand attempt at personal greatness, and Sarah Kauss is now one of America’s top female achievers. That means she has, indeed, achieved greatness. That greatness just happens to have pumped many of its profits back into the earth.

S’well’s core beliefs are “Sip well. Serve well. Sleep well.” That’s enough philosophy to turn a droll day into something brighter, and those tiny echoes of change are the figurative butterfly wings that cause hurricanes on the other side of the world.

The wind is already turning into a gale. Kauss’ 1 Million Bottle Project recently took the brand to the Sundance Film Festival, where 6,000 people took a pledge to abandon plastic bottles for a year. The product waltzed onto the pages of O Magazine, through Fashion Week, and into TED gift baskets.

It all began in 2001 when an unknown accountant named Sarah Kauss left for business school. That’s when the first plane hit the Twin Towers and the world became covered in thick, sticky dread.

The next year, Kauss opened her five-year journal and realized how far the world had come since September 11.

She had watched the world dig an impossible hope out of the ashes, which is why she can see beyond today’s smoggy horizon. And if Sarah can see the sun, maybe, just maybe, it’s because it is, indeed, rising.

Check out one of our favorite bottles!

Key Takeaways

  • Rapid-fire start-up growth isn’t the only way to broach social entrepreneurship. Sometimes, slow and steady builds the strongest brand.
  • Build a network of supporters who will fuel your determination during the first years of your business plan.
  • Simple business plans can build empires if you develop a powerful brand identity.
  • Sometimes preserving your vision is more important than preserving your bank account.
  • Premium brands take time to take off.
  • Prepare for growth by hiring people who can manage your mature business from the start.
    Social causes require work, not complexity. People need small, achievable actions if they’re to be motivated to create change.

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Google Fool’s Day and the Guerrilla Marketer

In days of yore, April Fool’s Day was about leaving glitter bombs on car seats and planting grass in colleagues’ keyboards. These days, it’s a marketing event glitzy enough to compete with the Super Bowl. Brands across the globe put their senses of humour to work in an attempt to win attention from a target demographic that just isn’t listening.

It’s been 12 years since Google launched its April Fool’s Day campaign, and it continues to gather a wider audience. The world’s favourite browser has reinvented the day, and every year marketing publications from Forbes to The Independent publish piece after piece about what Google pulled out of its hat this time. The brand has become such a ubiquitous part of April 1 that it’s featured on the April Fool’s Day Wikipedia Page. Take that, David Ogilvy. Even history’s most renowned copywriter didn’t manage to earn that much free brand exposure – but you can.

Nonsense and Sensibility: The 2015 Campaign

Google launched the prank ‘slow internet movement’, turned Google Maps into a Pac-Man game, and released yet another hoax app called Chrome Selfie. It merged two potent strategies into one: guerrilla marketing and video-based optimization. If you’re a small business owner with a budget small enough to cry over, it’s this combination that you need to be wielding to put your brand on the map (with or without Pac Man).

Guerrilla What?

Guerrilla marketing works because it’s absurdly cheap and easy to understand. All you need to make a campaign work is an overactive imagination.

It’s effective because today’s consumers have no patience for big budget advertising. In fact, they have no patience for anything that smells even vaguely of advertising.

Your promotions need to have an impact, but you needn’t hire Martin Scorsese to handle your video. Dropbox took itself from zero to 100 million users on the wings of a 2D explainer video and, four years later, its videos and graphics still haven’t deviated from that format. Why change what works? Google isn’t interested in Disney-worthy animation either. Why would it be when consumers aren’t?

How to “Video”

Fifty-two percent of marketers claim that video offers them a higher return on investment than any other medium, and it will account for 55% of all online traffic in 2016, so it pays to understand how to use it.
Subjective video quality has become a field of its own, unveiling the facets that resonate most with audiences.

Studies show that consumers respond well to unusual video elements like:

  • Dim lighting or night scenes
  • Bouncing images or handheld cameras
  • Animation with scrolling text
  • Ombre color effects
  • Unusual shapes and moving patterns
  • High color saturation
  • Camera pans and zooms

You might have noticed that these elements are not on the list:

  • Tom Cruise and Charlize Theron
  • Oscar-worthy performances
  • DreamWorks-style special effects
  • A Pulitzer-worthy script

There’s a reason for that. The internet is the first medium in a century to have been invented for consumers instead of advertisers. This unusual characteristic has created a new era in modern marketing. Consumers are now notoriously distrustful of advertising because the internet is their turf, not that of Saatchi and Saatchi. The second they catch you trying to sell to them, you’ve lost them, so these days, your campaign needs to entertain, inform, and engage. The masses no longer listen to corporations, but customer influencers. For that reason, the only marketing of any value today must be consumed out of choice.

You don’t get sceptical buyers to consume your videos using the kind of direction that belongs on a Hollywood set. It’s stories that achieve that. Google has capitalized on the humble yarn to turn a simple search engine into a way of life. It has woven a giant patchwork quilt of tales across the web in the form of videos for every one of its global demographics. Seth Godin summarises this approach perfectly in his essay, Shouting into the Wind: “If enough people care, often enough, the word spreads, the standards change, the wind dies down. If enough people care, the culture changes.” People spend money only when what they’re buying is worth more than its price, and Google is a lifestyle with a personality all of its own.

Where Google Ends and You Begin: Fighting with Budgets

Small businesses typically solve their cash flow problems through direct response marketing: campaigns that call for a specific action, whether it’s subscribing to a mailing list or placing an order. In a way, there’s a method to their madness: If you try mimicking the big-budget-quality of brand titans like Google and Coca Cola, you will fail. Google and Dropbox have, however, demonstrated how branding can be done on a small business budget. Chrome might have the kind of marketing dollars you can only dream about, but it knows how to make its cents count.

In video marketing’s infancy, the suggested length for an explainer was two minutes, but Chrome has put its money on 15-second ads instead: A baby chews on a laptop, a dog swings on a hammock, and a man films himself shopping. These are not exactly videos worthy of Steven Spielberg’s directing smarts, but they work because they tell the Chrome story and appeal to emotion. There’s plenty of humor there, but primarily, Google has fed old fashioned branding through the modern-day media of digital video and gamification. It’s then repackaged all three and sent them out as a guerrilla campaign. In some cases, it didn’t even film its own visuals: it’s far cheaper to source and buy existing content as long as it serves your campaign.

Doing Video the Google Way

Appeals to emotion are one of the most effective ways to sell, and brands are now focusing as much on 2D animation as they are 3D because storytelling is far more important to today’s viewers than visual impact. This may be responsible for the rise in popularity of 2D—it’s far easier to develop a novel style with it than it is with 3D, and online viewers respond, not to a particular style or genre, but to pure novelty.

Facebook’s Auto-play Generation

Getting your audience to click ‘play’ is no longer the challenge it once was. In September, Facebook rolled out auto-playing videos, which have increased engagement and made storytelling far richer for marketers. Sound and sight are instantly and automatically engaged during browsing, and once the video has been played all the way through, a carousel appears introducing two additional adverts by the same marketer.

During the feature’s test run, KLLM Royal Dutch Airlines’ ad campaign was compared across Facebook and YouTube. Fans engaged with the YouTube version 300,000 times, but 350,000 on Facebook. The auto-play option will introduce a new era of native marketing, and advertisers will no longer have a choice as to whether or not to use this kind of strategy. There is simply no option. Competitive advantage just became harder to secure without video and guerrilla marketing.

Expanding from Concept to Campaign

Video lacks a certain longevity, so guerrilla campaigns benefit enormously from other media online and off. The “Dumb Ways to Die” campaign of a small train company developed a video that exploited two catchy elements: cute 2D characters and catchy music. Its cartoons did as their namesake suggested: demonstrate idiotic ways to die. To make sure their audience retained the information, they gamified the concept, rolled out a range of soft toys, and published a book. Taking guerrilla marketing into the offline world can be expensive, but it’s not always necessary if you expand your concept to mobile, tablet, and social media instead.

How to Run a Guerrilla Campaign in a Few Easy Steps

Assess your demographic. Not all target markets are responsive to guerrilla campaigns. They rarely put forward the corporate culture needed for regulated industries such as banks and insurance companies. Guerrilla campaigns depend on ruffling feathers, so make sure they fit your brand.

Tell your story. What is your brand? Who is your demographic? What culture do you want to portray? Most importantly, what do you have to offer your customers that is more valuable than the money they would need to spend on your product?

  1. If you had to communicate your essence in five seconds, what would you say? This is the core of your message.
  2. Guerrilla campaigns rely on press attention. With that in mind, conceptualise your campaign, making it edgy enough to win the interest of both customers and the media. The insights of a PR manager are useful at this stage.
  3. Make sure your campaign resonates and draws a response. Does it inspire, provoke laughter, or demand thought?
  4. Use a combination of media: games, mobile-based tactics, text-based content… you’re only limited by your imagination.
  5. Create a way to track your results. Constantly reassess and adapt your campaign to push up your return on investment.
  6. Guerrilla campaigns demand devoted customer follow-up. After they’ve made a buy decision, you need to make contact.

Search Engine Optimization

Even a guerrilla campaign needs to catch Google’s attention.

Decide where to host your video. YouTube works well for this kind of campaign because its intent is to entertain. Self-hosting gives you more control over your search engine results, so consider using Wistia and Vimeo Pro. These are paid services, but they link to your website, which may increase your return on investment.

    • Choose keywords for your video file name, title, and the XML sitemap.
    • Keep a tight rein on your comments section. It’s a unique opportunity to offer service and develop relationships with your potential clients while you identify your top customer influencers.
    • Provide a video transcript if possible. This directs Google to your content via a wider array of keywords and keyword densities.
    • Rich snippets, markup language, and Geotagging localize your brand and attract search spiders.
    • Create a strategy for building links that lead to your videos. Blogs, third-party sites, and Facebook are traditionally used, but if you’re going the guerrilla way, it will pay to think outside the box.

Dr James McQuivey of Forrester Research claims that one minute of video is worth 1.8 million words.

These are not just cat and baby videos.The average internet user sees about 32 videos every month, and 50% of C-suite execs watch business related videos at least once a week. Most click on the marketer’s site afterwards.

According to Forbes, 90% of customers say video helps them make buying decisions and 64% of customers say that seeing a video makes them more likely to buy. Are you rich and successful enough to afford not to have a video campaign?

Seth Godin on Leadership for the 21st Century

Seth Godin is the entrepreneurial icon of the digital age, and everything he touches turns to dollars and traffic. His first entrepreneurial venture attracted a $20 million investment within a year. Then he began preaching a concept the rest of the marketing fraternity had missed in the smog of Google ranking mania: that your target market won’t hear you unless you treat it with respect.

Godin’s permission marketing concepts overcame the black hat hype of the search engine optimization (SEO) era irrevocably.

Once he’d sold his first business and grabbed a cool $30 million from Yahoo, he got a few marketing years under his belt and launched one of the web’s most visited sites. He’s still known for changing the way marketers think about their industry, but If his ability to understand business was behind his success, Forbes would have changed an entire field merely by doing what it has always done: produce insights.

Seth Godin is not a marketer, a blogger, or an entrepreneur. He’s not even a teacher, even if he does have some pretty respectable online courses. He certainly wears all those hats, but his career has set him apart from such meagre pursuits because Seth Godin is a leader.

If you meet him, the first thing you’ll probably notice is that he doesn’t parrot Harvard Business Review jargon. Here, there will be no “circling back” or “shifting paradigms.” He won’t ballpark anything, net it out or right size it. He doesn’t recite Gallup studies about employee engagement; he “gets people to do what [he] wants them to do.” He doesn’t strategize; he “makes a difference.” He doesn’t teach. He goes “over there” with people who also want to go “over there.” If you’re looking for MBA propaganda, you won’t find it here.

This is not where best practices are leveraged, but where culture is changed. If you want to achieve the sparkling revenue of Godinesque entrepreneurship, you’re going to have to do the work instead of studying the text.

Related: 21 of the Best Leadership Podcasts You’ll Want to Listen To Now

Seth Godin’s perspective is as refreshing as champagne air, particularly if you’ve never bought a button down shirt or sat in a Stanford Graduate School lecture hall. His go-to-hell presence in Harvard Business Review in amongst all the jargon-fuelled boots on the ground signals one thing: you can become an entrepreneurial titan without a Master’s degree, and Godin will show you how.

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What Management Wants to be When It Grows Up

Seth Godin is changing the world by casting management aside as a poorly fitting garment. During the interview with Change Creator Magazine, he said:

“culture eats strategy for breakfast. Management is about authority. […] It’s about getting people to do what you need them to do.” Leadership, on the other hand, is “about exploration. […] It’s about getting people to want to do what you need them to do.”

He doesn’t label such autocratic pursuits as irrelevant. He knows they’re necessary, but there’s no shortage of them. Leaders aren’t as easy to come by, so creating them can send a tectonic force through the business world and beyond it.

Godin’s insistence on stiff ethics leaks into all of his work, even as it relates to his marketing approach. Here is a business mogul who thinks you need to truly see your customers if you’re to reach them. Here is a Stanford graduate who values trust over mass customization. Here is an MBA holder who thinks caring is more important than ranking. Leadership and originality are mutually inclusive, and Seth Godin is an original thinker if nothing else. Just don’t say he thinks outside the box because this particular lesson eats HBR verbiage for breakfast, too.

“Today […] you can buy something with one click shopping that gets shipped to you by Fedex from a place in China that you’re never going to go for 7 cents less than you can get it somewhere else. Well, we don’t need you to be better at manufacturing. We’ve got that covered. The mindset going forward, and what the culture is realising, is that businesses have so much leverage, we have so much freedom, we have so much power that it ought to come with some responsibility, and the responsibility is to make a difference and do work that you’re proud of.”

The Corporate Imposter

It’s time to resurrect old-fashioned principles in the social impact space. Godin thinks leadership should transform lives, but to do that, young entrepreneurs must combat their inherent imposter syndromes. He meets the challenge by acknowledging that everyone is an imposter. Whether you’re manufacturing, selling, or marketing, you must face uncertainty. You can click through reams of analytics and projections, but business leadership will never be evidence-based.

“It’s not like you’re a physicist who says force is always going to equal mass times velocity. We’re asserting. We’re not proving, and we have to get comfortable saying, ‘You know what? This might not work.’ And the idea that this might not work frees us up to do important work. The reason that litigation lawyers and SEO experts get stuck is because they want […] a guarantee. You don’t get [that] when you’re making a difference. You’re not a manager. You’re a leader.”

Empathy and the Entrepreneurial Giant

Seth Godin’s business leadership philosophy begins with happiness instead of proof because there can be no opportunity cost for that. Do what you want to do. Do what fills your soul. Change lives—but do so with empathy for those you serve.

The capacity to walk in others’ shoes makes marketplace transactions possible. It helps you to find out what your customers value, who they are, and how you’re hoping to change them. “Who can you connect? Who can you lead? What can you make better? How can you do it again?” Anyone can answer those questions, even you in the back row with the shabby high school diploma.

Teaching the Lessons

Seth Godin’s online courses are as original as all his ideals. His Skillshare and Udemy seminars have no lectures, tests, or homework. “We are proudly not accredited,” he says. “And if you ask, ‘will this be in the test?’ we will make a face at you.”

He wants his students to move away from book learning because it encourages them to do as little as they can get away with. Instead, his courses consist of about 14 projects that race through achievements at a neck breaking speed.

“We’re trying to do art, and if you’re making art, it’s not ‘how little can I do?’ It’s ‘how much can I do?’”

That work is underlined by production, mutual engagement, and feedback. Traditional online courses have an average completion rate of 5 percent in comparison to Godin’s 97 percent, because his doesn’t promise any special knowledge. He offers experience.

“You become what you do so let’s do this.”

Related: Seth Godin Marketing: Are You Building Something Average or Magical?

In keeping with his permission marketing ideals, his seminars earn enrolment through leadership. In three sentences, he tells his students, “I wanna go over there. Do you see what it’s like over there? Do you wanna go over there with me? […] Here’s a change in our posture, a change in the world I’d like to make. Do you wanna help me make that change?” Instead of offering schooling, he offers a culture-shift that ends in the opportunity to affect your own change. He’s taking the fear out of entrepreneurship, and that’s as honorable a task as any.

Using Culture to Overcome Business School Propaganda

Godin asks entrepreneurial hopefuls to find fellow travellers who can help them to explore the places that they fear. He wants his cohorts to overcome the intimidating lessons of Stanford and Harvard Business School. Such courses teach two important practices: to ignore sunk costs and understand the math of a decision tree. These aren’t skills people are born with. It’s inherently human to focus on one outcome and ignore all the rest, so decision making is a skill that must be learned.

That doesn’t make it impossibly complicated. You simply identify what’s important based on the ecosystem you’ve chosen as your marketplace, and then explore the unknown territory that terrifies you. Culture will inform your choices, and connection will produce more rewards than didactic management strategies ever will.

Finding Entrepreneurial Success

Seth Godin has written 10 books, produced one of Time Magazine’s favorite blogs, and created two wildly successful online businesses.

When asked what he does every day to make such an impact, he replies, “I do one thing every day. […] Most people don’t.” He compares his approach to a skate park. Some kids repeat the same trick over and over, while others try new tricks that make them nervous—not to learn, but because it makes them happy. “I decided a long time ago to do things that make me nervous. […] I made it a habit that I enjoy, and that’s how I spend my day.”

“I think it’s way easier than people believe. If you want to be an entrepreneur, you shouldn’t try to raise money, you should not have an original idea. If you begin with those two things in mind, the next step is, “What’s the smallest viable market you can serve?” [Then] find one person who’ll exchange money for what you can do for them. [Then] tomorrow can you find two people? [Then] you do it again. I started this when I was 14 and […] then I did it throughout college. That’s what it means to be an old school entrepreneur. At some point, you’ll be good enough at exchanging money for value that you say to yourself, ‘There’s another way I could add value that no one’s done before.’ That’s it. […] And if you want to make a profit while doing it, you can, but that doesn’t have to be your goal.”

Seth Godin found resounding success by choosing a figurative country he wanted to explore. Then he went there and explored it. Along the way, he changed the world, and so can you.

Or, check out our full interview with Seth Godin here.

How Media Empire Bustle Is Empowering Women

bustle media

The world rotates on its axis by the power of stories.

Words, and the connection they foster, can annihilate loneliness, cure trauma, and even diffuse oppression.

When Martin Luther King penned his dream, he did so through the language of intimacy and compassion—two of the most powerful drivers for change.

When Lincoln pleaded for equality, he used a narrative of acceptance. Mandela, Gandhi, and Churchill were masters of storytelling, too, and their words changed the very pulse of their nations.

Today, everyone in the western world who wants a voice can have one—and it’s only a modem away. In a post-internet world, even the smallest of voices can bring change.

One of the most enduring challenges of the first world is gender-based oppression. The more voices contribute to the feminist zeitgeist, the weaker oppression becomes. When Bryan Goldberg chose to become a part of that change, he decided a small voice would not be good enough. He wanted to create the loudest voice for millennial women, by millennial women, and so he did. That voice is carried by, a platform that’s unpretentious enough to put Harry Potter teams and feminism in the same story, but not gentle enough to oppose bigotry where it finds it.

The site isn’t satisfied to merely use words. It gives women without writing backgrounds a doorway into digital journalism, adding to a chorus that’s quickly becoming the title role. Bustle reaches 80 million unique readers a month—a triumph of language, certainly, but also one of entrepreneurial spirit.

The Dude in the Back Seat

Goldberg’s leadership style began to evolve with his 180 million dollar baby, Bleacher Report. By giving his fans a platform alongside his editorial staff, he managed to build a readership while working a day job. The user base became a ubiquitous part of the site, which ultimately sold to Time Warner for a small fortune.

He had to take a seat even further towards the back for Bustle. He was, as the internet continuously reminds him, not in possession of two X chromosomes, and his feminist readership needed the nuance of an authentic women’s narrative.

Kate Ward is at the helm as Bustle’s editor in chief, and she’s built a fast-paced site with ‘round the clock coverage, which is dished out by three editors. Google loves fresh, organic content even more than readers do, so Ward’s dynamic edge fuels Bustle’s search engine rank as well.

As for Bryan, you’ll find him working on monetization, sponsorship, and his CEO role, proving that it is, indeed possible for a man to succeed in a woman’s world.

A New Face for Feminism

If you spend five minutes on Bustle, you’ll find posts on everything from Trump to sex positivity, consent to empowerment.

Third wave feminism is beginning to lose its scowl, and Bustle is bringing a dash of humour and lightness to the movement.

Some of the writing comes without the polish of experience, but this is one of its greatest assets: It is empowering the voices of tomorrow and creating the connection that’s such an inexorable part of globalized movements.

In so doing, Bustle has become more than merely a magazine, but a site that doesn’t betray its authentic voice and which contributes to the therapeutic powers of uniting narratives.

Money in a Poor Man’s World

Sales teams are expensive, and it takes time to build an audience large enough to support monetization. It took Bryan Goldberg only a year to build the few million readers needed to attract sponsorships.

Websites that put out a meagre post a day can take years to inch towards this point, so Bustle launched 40 stories a day at a time when the world was waking up from the dot com dream.

It took remarkable clarity of vision to grow the desired ethos without changing it. “We are who we said we are,” he says, “Always have been. Always will be.”

The Butterfly Effect

The butterfly effect says that even the smallest flutter can change the world.

Every Change Creator does what they do because they believe they can make a difference, but ambition is in short supply.

Why not a thousand fluttering butterfly wings? Hell, why not a million? This is precisely how Bryan’s strength of vision has pushed Bustle forward. Right from the start, Goldberg won $6.5 million in seed capital. His drive proved to the world that media could be scalable.

Stories unearth the great lessons of life. They melt division and extract truth. Even if you live in the most divided nation in the world, access to words can bring a sense of unity more pervasively than any alternative. There are thousands of butterflies in the feminist media industry, and Bustle is teaching them how to fly.

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