This is the second of three exclusive excerpts from Andreas Souvaliotis' new memoir Misfit: Changemaker With an Edge, which chronicles his life as a gay Greek immigrant and rise as a successful green entrepreneur. The book will be officially launched at next week's Social Enterprise World Forum in Calgary, Canada. You can read Part One here.
The spring of 2007 was, without a doubt, the peak of the "green frenzy." Al Gore's movie, "An Inconvenient Truth," had succeeded in bringing conversations about climate change into the mainstream, and suddenly, all my fellow marketers across North America were scrambling to figure out how to paint their products, their companies, their jobs and their talks with as much green color as they could find.
The trend was explosive and the tricks to riding that big green wave simple and obvious -- a bit too obvious and a bit too "vanilla," I thought. It bothered me that everyone was doing the same thing, reacting the same way and simply relying on the intensity of their green color and the volume of their screaming in order to steal a tiny bit more of the spotlight from the next guy. At this rate, I thought, the whole green thing would become nothing more than another forgettable spike, another silly fad. Consumers would quickly tire of it.
In the meantime, however, from looking at some market research, I was noticing something else that intrigued my climate- obsessed mind: The biggest influencer of consumer behavior was not the change in the eco-packaging of their favorite detergent or soft drink but actually the freaky weather outside. Billions of consumers around the world were beginning to respond to symptoms of climate change much more than to cheesy TV ads about cleaner-burning gasoline for their giant SUVs. And, of course, my secret advantage was that I understood much better than almost all my fellow marketers that the symptoms of climate change we were seeing in 2007 were nothing compared to what we would be seeing, say, a half dozen years later in 2013. I was enough of a weather geek to figure out exactly what the trend lines looked like and to know that, in terms of our weather-weirding, we were still at the very start of an incredibly steep, hockey-stick-shaped curve. So if the worst (or most bizarre) was yet to come, then it was safe to conclude that we were actually at the very beginning of a brand-new marketing megatrend.
I started to think about how I could build a big, new idea, a new kind of business that would be designed to grow along with this emerging megatrend, instead of just trying to ride a short-term wave. I felt both fascinated by my little theoretical niche and grateful that my lifelong obsession with weather and climate had not been extinguished along the way.
Through my years in marketing and a consulting stint at Canada's main frequent flyer rewards program, I had gotten to know the incentives and loyalty marketplace quite well. I understood why consumers were so responsive to smart incentives and particularly how popular and effective reward points were in a society like ours. So, in my scramble to invent the next big, long-term "green" thing, I came up with the idea of the world's first "green points" program.
I did a quick scan and confirmed that nobody in any of the leading markets in the world had yet created any kind of an eco-rewards program, one that would reward consumers only when they made environmentally responsible purchasing choices. The idea was so simple and the void so obvious that I actually began to worry a bit: Was I missing something? Could it be that nobody had come up with this before because, somehow, the economics would never work or the impact on consumer behavior would be negligible? And then, after I dug even deeper and convinced myself that there were no simple or obvious showstoppers and that I just happened to be the first weird, climate-aware business guy to think of such an idea.
I began to worry about the length of my runway: With the market so obsessed with green, what if someone, somewhere else, was thinking of the same idea at the same time? What if they had more money and connections or much more of an existing platform to turn the idea into a real thing? What if I had just come so close to being an inventor of something, for the first and only time in my life, but wasn't quite going to make it?
So the tempo and the excitement went up rapidly. I began to sketch out a program, to try to figure out the real money and the opportunity behind it, the mechanics of it, and, of course, the market. Canada seemed like both the best and the worst place to try to do this. Best, because no country in the world appeared to be more points-happy than mine; Canadians were known to drive across town for a double-points special at the grocery store, and the consumer loyalty industry in our country was worth many billions of dollars per year. Worst, because all this success had created amazing entrenchment and consolidation among the leading players in this industry in Canada, so the prospect of being a tiny niche entrant in a space of very strong and wealthy giants was intimidating in the extreme. Plus, truth be told, although I may have always played and behaved and thought like an entrepreneur, I had never imagined myself as one -- in fact, I was terrified of the idea. Me, on my own, building on such a big fantasy of an idea, starting a company, chasing billion-dollar customers and fighting off billion-dollar competitors? I couldn't fathom it.
But I certainly could imagine someone else doing something with my idea. The one thing I knew with total confidence was that my idea was hot, it was unique, it was perfectly current, and someone, somewhere needed to do something with it. I spoke with my husband Joe about approaching the president of my old marketing company (a friend); or the president of Aeroplan, the frequent flyer program where I had consulted (an acquaintance); or the president of AIR MILES, the biggest points program in my country (also an acquaintance); and somehow figuring out a way to sell them my idea and have them nurture it and build it on top of their powerful platforms. I also spoke with some of my venture capital friends.
No conclusive recommendations anywhere. Lots of fascination with the concept of a national eco-points program, lots of very smart questions, but no specific ideas on what to do with it next.
So, in the middle of a very casual lunch in the home of a business acquaintance, having interrogated him for quite a while about his work, suddenly it was my turn to talk. He knew that I had recently tried to buy my old company and failed, so his question had a bit more of a forward-leaning tone: "What are you working on?"
Five hours later I was still at the table with him. It had been quite an afternoon. We had gone deeper and deeper into my idea; he had tried, very creatively but unsuccessfully, to punch all sorts of holes into it from every possible angle; I had thoroughly enjoyed the grilling; our tones and temperatures had gone way up at times; and in the end, here we were, doing something I would never have imagined as I was cycling up to his house earlier that day: We were actually shaking hands and agreeing to chase a wild new business idea together! In some mysterious and very special way, I had found my weird match: another misfit, another passionate nonconformist, another hyper-energized and energizing dreamer.
He knew nothing about my world, my work, my successes and failures before, and I knew nothing about his -- but, in a totally heretical way that would have made every conventional business leader's skin crawl, we were shaking hands on a downright crazy and fun new partnership. We would do this on our own: We wouldn't partner with the big boys, we wouldn't look to sell the idea--we would simply go and build a brand-new points program for Canada, and we'd do it in the most disruptive way possible. In a space filled with money and very wealthy competitors, we would pick the loudest and most visible David- versus-Goliath fights, on purpose, in order to quickly draw attention to our very cool idea. So, on the 31st of May, 2007, magically and completely unexpectedly, Green Rewards was born.
Tomorrow: The birth is nearly a miscarriage...