I’m a brand consultant. I’m an entrepreneur. But one thing that really revs me up is teaching. To that end, I do an entrepreneurial marketing class at the university level.

To make this course more relevant, I’ve teamed up my students with several tech startups. The goal: give the students real experience in marketing early stage companies, while providing some great free services to our nascent tech community.

I have to share an observation made by several students this week. To anyone who’s experienced in the startup space, it will seem comically obvious. To anyone venturing into a startup, it might prove to be venture-saving advice.

To paraphrase my students, it feels a bit like some of their clients are busy creating solutions to problems that don’t exist.

Yeah, I know. Seems like a pretty obvious trap to avoid. But when you’re in the moment, it’s everything but.

I know. I’ve been there. Thought I’d share some hard wisdom from that adventure. I wrote about it in my new book, so let’s skip the duplication, shall we?

Excerpt from Didn’t See It Coming

For about a year, I grew increasingly frustrated with the lack of real change in advertising. Then I discovered sustainability.

You laugh.

Seriously, back in 2005 sustainability simply wasn’t on the radar. Big brands didn’t talk about it. And if big brands didn’t want it, big agencies certainly weren’t going to waste resources pushing it.

I had relocated from Toronto to Vancouver with my big agency. As inevitably happens on the left coast, I met people who were building companies based on new ideas. In this case, sustainable products. I was intrigued.

No, I didn’t discover my inner environmentalist. I didn’t look for a tree to chain myself to. But I found that products innovated with “green” as one of their criteria simply looked and felt different.

I found that products innovated with “green” as one of their criteria simply looked and felt different. But did people want that?

And while many of them didn’t work as well as their mainstream counterparts did, I found their creators’ passion for big innovation refreshing. These were people who wanted to change the world, not create floor cleaner with seasonal scents. If version 1.0 didn’t nail it, they threw themselves completely into version 2.0.

For the first time in years, I felt excited about my career again. As a person used to marketing products that were indistinguishable from one another, I snapped to attention at the prospect of selling stuff with a whole new twist. These products were new. They didn’t just have New! in a starburst on the packaging.

One obstacle remained. As a successful marketer, I was a driver of unsustainability. How would I ever gain the trust of potential clients who were passionate about rethinking the system I had helped create? In simple English, wouldn’t they just tell me to go to hell?

They didn’t. As I was germinating how to make the leap, I met with several key leaders of the business sustainability movement in Vancouver—folks like Joel Solomon, Peter Ter Weeme, and Robert Safrata. They were genuinely excited at the prospect of me marketing green products. It was as if they’d been waiting for someone from the dark side to join them.

As they introduced me to more people in the movement, I began to feel like a lone saboteur who had befriended someone in the French Resistance. Suddenly, I saw a vast network of collaborators, each with a burning desire to create a better world. It was as if I were back on Frank Palmer’s pirate ship taking on the big agency navy.

I jumped in and started a green ad agency named Change. I had a terrific logo. I had a cool office. I didn’t have a clue how to run a company. When you spend your career ensconced in a big agency creative department, you become a specialist, not an all-rounder. I had to learn how to pitch, budget, bill, and schedule my accounts. Not to mention paying the rent and my employees, and emptying the garbage.

For five years, we rode the roller coaster. Winning accolades for our great work, chewing shoe leather when the money ran out, and everything in between. At the end of it all, I sold the company to an excellent innovation firm and walked out with my head held high.

When you’re paying the bills, cutting-edge is a lousy place to be.

I also walked out with some great learning on sustainability in business.

  • When I started Change, everyone congratulated me by saying, “Wow, you are so cutting-edge.” I later discovered that when you’re paying the bills, cutting-edge is a lousy place to be. Cutting-edge is fine if you’re working for NASA with a steady paycheck. Today, people congratulate me on my consulting work by saying, “Wow, you are so right place, right time.” Much better place to be.
  • Small clients are great when you’re in a big agency and frustrated with the timidity of your big clients. They’re the source of boundless fakie ads. In a small agency, though, edgy small clients aren’t great. They can’t pay the bills.
  • Big clients, much to my surprise, didn’t want to talk about sustainability in their ads. They recognized that putting Now More Sustainable! on the label or commercial was shorthand for Doesn’t work as well and costs more! Mainstream consumers were still wary of green for reasons I’ll dig into later. And big clients need mainstream consumers.