Introduction

Joel Makower is co-founder, chairman and executive editor of GreenBiz Group, a media and events company based in Oakland, California, that focuses at the intersection of business, innovation, and sustainability. GreenBiz produces high-powered conferences that convene the world’s largest companies, entrepreneurs, policymakers and others, and hosts a private peer-to-peer learning network of sustainability executives from Fortune 1000 companies.

For 30 years, Joel has been a well-respected voice on business, sustainability, and clean technology. As a writer, speaker, and entrepreneur on corporate sustainability practices, he has helped a wide range of companies align environmental goals with business strategy. He is author or co-author of more than a dozen books, including The New Grand Strategy: Restoring America’s Prosperity, Security and Sustainability in the 21st Century, (St. Martin’s Press, 2016), about a business plan for America, born at the Pentagon, that embeds sustainability as a strategic national imperative. He has also advised startups, venture funds and large companies on sustainability strategy, and speaks on these topics around the world.

The Associated Press has called Joel “The guru of green business practices.”

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Devathon has built software for companies backed by the world’s leading investors like Betaworks, Greylock, Andreessen Horowitz, Accel, KPCB, Lightspeed and many more.

In an exclusive interview with Devathon, GreenBiz Group Co-Founder Joel traces his journey so far and his plans for the years ahead.

When did you first discover your entrepreneurial spirit and How is your entrepreneurial career developing so far?

I’ve worked for my own businesses for more than 40 years. I guess you can say that I’ve never had a job that I didn’t create for myself. I’ve started three companies, all in the information services sector, two of them focused on how the business sector can tackle the world’s largest social and environmental problems, including leveraging a wide range of clean technologies.

My parents were both self-employed — my dad as a dentist, my mom opened a real estate office — and so it was second nature for me to think about creating my own path, even though I wasn’t sure what it would be. I initially studied journalism at Berkeley because I thought it would give me an opportunity to poke around and explore various topics. I never imagined that journalism — or, more precisely, communications across a wide spectrum of media and events — would be my ultimate path. It turned out to be the perfect opportunity to explore important topics and share it broadly with influential audiences, all in the quest of a more sustainable world.

What has been the biggest success and biggest failure stories you went through?

Where do I begin? As a book publisher in the 1980s, I had a runaway bestseller — we made the evening news on all three major U.S. TV networks the day the book was published — but my optimism led me to overprint tens of thousands of copies of the book more than I needed, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory — or, more precisely, loss from the jaws of profit. It was humbling, not to mention financially ruinous, at least for a time. That led me to understand that I was better at generating ideas and creating products than managing a business.

Which has led to my biggest success: GreenBiz Group. We’ve become the largest and most respected player in a niche field thanks in large part to my two business partners, Pete May and Eric Faurot. They’ve had the wisdom to “let Joel be Joel” by handling the day-to-day aspects of the business, along with strategy and finance, things outside of my expertise. They give me the freedom to write, speak and, as we like to say, “look around corners” for the next key trend. That synergy has enabled both me and the business to flourish.

How did you come up with the idea for GreenBiz and how did it all start?

I was raised with a sense of social purpose — that whatever I did, it should be important and make a difference. I’m also an information junkie, and love to help others make sense of things (but not by mansplaining!).

During the 1980s, I had a successful book packaging company, turning ideas into finished books for New York publishers. In 1989, I wrote a book on “green consumer” issues. It was published in early 1990, in the run-up to the 20th anniversary of Earth Day, which was a media extravaganza, and I was ordained by the media as an expert on the green marketplace. I quickly had a weekly syndicated column in nearly 100 papers on these topics, but I recognized that consumers weren’t really willing to change

At the same time, I saw a growing movement of companies addressing environmental issues, so in 1991 I launched a monthly newsletter — The Green Business Letter — and wrote the first of several books on sustainability. When the World Wide Web came into focus, I realized that I was a natural content aggregator, so I launched GreenBiz.com as a hub on business, the environment, and the bottom line. Pete May, a veteran B-to-B publishing executive, joined me in 2006 to grow the advertising business, and Eric Faurot, who launched and ran a number of big tech conferences, including Web 2.0 and Comdex, joined us in 2010 to help us scale our event business.

Tell us something about GreenBiz

The world of corporate sustainability is one of the best-kept secrets in business, and a source of unlimited innovation and value creation. While they don’t talk about it much, most companies are working diligently behind the scenes to improve the efficiency of their operations, reduce or eliminate waste and pollution, and create new kinds of business value from taking on climate change, resource constraints, pollution, and other pressing issues. Most of the professionals inside these companies are “armies” of two or five or maybe 10 people, with huge mandates — 100 percent renewably powered! zero waste! carbon neutral! — but minimal resources. At the same time, they understand the risks to their company’s operations, supply chains, markets and reputations from not adequately addressing these issues.

Put it all together and it’s a classic case of companies needing information, peer interaction, convening, facilitation and other services that can help them seize opportunities. Much like “quality” was in the 1980s and “diversity and inclusion” in the 2000s, sustainability is a vastly complex topic that permeates every aspect of a company, and we’re able to provide the guidance and insight companies need.

We’ve become masters at creating high-wattage events for these individuals, giving them information and inspiration, but more importantly, creating an opportunity — the opportunity for executives to learn from one another. It’s not necessarily a unique business model, but we’ve deployed it in a niche where we have very little direct competition and it’s been a great ride, and a satisfying one, too.

One great example is our annual VERGE conference, which focuses at the intersection of sustainability and technology — energy, transportation, cities, buildings, the circular economy, carbon removal and other technologies that stand to accelerate solutions in a climate- and resource-constrained world. Each year, it brings together more than 2,500 professionals from companies, cities, startups, utilities, building portfolio owners and others. Each of these audiences has its own niche conferences, but there hadn’t been a place where they could come together across sectors, explore synergies and do deals. VERGE has helped accelerate the clean economy and spawned other organizations and initiatives that are making a difference.

What are your growth plans for the near future?

We’re continually upping our game and scaling what we do. We’ve found a winning strategy, so now the opportunity is to grow it. There’s almost unlimited potential, since there are more and more companies recognizing the need to get smarter on these topics, and because sustainability is permeating so many parts of so many companies. It’s no longer just the job of the sustainability department — it now involves those in responsible for fleets, facilities, energy, procurement, supply chain, operations, R&D, finance and many other aspects of the business. So, there’s lots of headroom to grow.

Looking back, what did you learn and what would you have done differently?

I’ve learned a lot! One is to focus on what I’m good at and love doing, and as little else as possible. That’s easy to say, hard to do. Thanks to my partners, I’ve learned a great deal about the power of teams and the art of nurturing talent within organizations. I’ve learned about the business opportunities in building and sustaining communities, and of being a trusted resource in a field where there’s a lot of confusion and politicization. And that there are no shortcuts to integrity.

In your opinion, what are the hurdles that keep people away from starting an entrepreneurial career? What advice would you give to the new entrepreneurs?

I think there’s a tremendous fear of failure, and about how far one can fall. And most entrepreneurs do fail, or fall, at some point. So, you need a certain fearlessness to be able to lean in and take the lumps as they come. There’s also a need for tenacity — to stick with something long enough to really get it right, even if it takes longer than you thought. (It always does.) But the key is the focus: to find a niche — and sometimes a niche within a niche — that is both small enough to be manageable and big enough to provide a reasonable reward. I learned in the book business that “the book that’s for everyone is for no one.” So, too, with start-ups. Everyone wants to hit that hockey-stick growth and many entrepreneurs bite off more than they can reasonably chew in trying to achieve it. Finding that market balance is critical. It’s kind of a Goldilocks thing — not too small, not too big, but just right.

Are you an entrepreneur looking for your MVP built? Get in touch with us at hello@devathon.com

Devathon has built software for companies backed by the world’s leading investors like Betaworks, Greylock, Andreessen Horowitz, Accel, KPCB, Lightspeed and many more.

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