Michael Stausholm, Founder & CEO, Sprout
It all started with an idea from a group of students at MIT in Boston back in 2012. When they got the challenge of developing ”the sustainable office article of the future”, they came up with the idea of a plantable pencil with a capsule of seeds in the end. When the pencil is planted, the capsule dissolves and sprout into herbs, vegetables or flowers.
When I saw the idea on the crowdfundingsite Kickstarter.com, I thought it was a fun idea but I also saw an invention with great potential because of its uniqueness and simple way of illustrating what sustainability is about. The idea is that you write down your pencil and then you give it a new life by planting it instead of throwing it away.
Today I am the main shareholder of Sprout and I own all the patents and rights of the Sprout pencils and color pencils. We have offices in Copenhagen and Boston, and we sell more than 500,000 pencils a month to over 60 countries. The major part of our clients are businesses and organizations that get their logo engraved and use the pencils as green giveaways for customers and business partners. The Sprout pencil has shown to be a perfect icebreaker when it comes to telling the world about what you do in terms of environment and CSR.
As CEO and founder of Sprout, I would like to share my learnings from the last three years; from the startup until today where Sprout is a million dollar business with a team of 18 people, not counting the production and packaging teams in both Europe and the US.
Looking back and summarizing what has led to our success, I would like to point out these five tips that I hope can inspire others with dreams about taking their idea or business to the next level.
1. The team – not the idea
People often think that the good idea is the main reason why a company has success. But this is not true. You can have lots of good ideas, but if you don´t have a team to back them up and execute in a smart manner, then the ideas are worth nothing. One of the things that I have spent hours on when Sprout started to grow is hiring people. Finding the right candidates with the right attitude and skills has been vital in the initial phase of building up a startup. I have read through all the resumés and personally interviewed all the candidates for a given job in Sprout. The most important thing when finding the right person is the mindset. Since we are a startup with a passion for recycling and sustainability, you must show some interest in these topics. But more importantly; you must be a team player and willing to help across the board at all times. I have been packaging pencils myself for our webshop at Christmas and so has everyone else in the team. Having a supportive team around you is crucial and my job is to make sure that everyone feels some kind of ownership of the success that we are experiencing in Sprout. If your employees are successful, so is your business. Most important is the sentence I learned from another Danish entrepreneur : ”Always hire slow, but fire fast”. Meaning you should always be careful when hiring, but never hesitate if you realise you have made a mistake.
2. Passion – not money
This sounds like a cliché, but in my experience money alone cannot drive you to success. Of course making money motivates and makes you go that extra mile to achieve your goals. But if it had not been for my passion, then I would have given up more than once; especially in the beginning when times were tough and I worked for months and months without getting paid. My passion has always been in the fields of corporate sustainability. From 1993 to 2006 I lived 14 years in Indonesia where I worked most of my time as a consultant helping big companies like Nike and Wal-Mart towards a more sustainable apparel production. I have always felt great satisfaction when I could see that I made a difference, even if it was just a humble contribution to make this planet a better place. The passion for taking care of our environment and thinking in more ecofriendly ways is still what motivates me when I wake up in the morning. And no, we cannot save the planet just by planting pencil stubs, but we CAN make people a bit more conscious about how and what they consume. So; never let money be the driver, always go with your passion. Then the money will follow
3. Believe – don´t listen
When I first started up Sprout, everyone around me was saying: “oh what a neat idea, but it can never be big business”. Even my best friend told me to give it up and find me a paid job after the first six months when I had no salary and was struggling to provide for my self and my son. At that moment it felt tempting to listen, but I had an inner belief in this project that I just could not ignore. So I decided to carry on and give everything I could for a period of another six months and fortunately things started to work out really well. If you believe in something then go ahead and don’t let people stop you no matter how realistic or convincing they might sound. That friend is today an investor and invested millions in the business. Always believe in yourself and what you do. If you don’t, no one else will.
4. Storytelling – not product
Today it is hard to stick out on products and prices – the competition in most markets is very tough. Instead try to focus on your storytelling. People buy dreams, stories and feelings – not only products. At Sprout we don´t just sell pencils. We sell symbols of sustainability. We sell the good feeling that you get when you buy something that you know is 100% biodegradable and produced under decent working conditions. We sell the pride of giving a product a new life and growing your own plants. Storytelling has been a number one tool for us since the very beginning and it is because of all the good stories we tell that thousands of bloggers and media around the world have written about us.
5. Go international
Think international, not just local. We started out in Denmark where I come from and where our main office is located. Denmark is a rich country but it has a very small population with only 5,5 million people thus the market is very limited. I soon realized that Denmark would be a test market in order to go international. If something works out really well in one country, it can often work out in other markets too. Today only 5 percent of our sales has to do with Denmark; our biggest markets are Italy, US, Germany, UK and France. In the US we opened up an office in Boston where we currently have 4 people. To successfully enter the American market, it is important for us to have a local team with the right contacts and a knowledge about how Americans think and act which can be quite different from Europeans.
About the Author
Key areas of experience, passion and expertise :
Sustainable, green and environmentally friendly business and products
Sustainable sourcing and procurement
Sales & marketing of sustainable consumer products
Independent consultant from 2006-2013 focus on responsible production and sustainable sourcing
Working and living in Asia from 1993 – 2006
Started out at AP Moller / Maersk Line as a shipping trainee.
Speaking engagements incl as example UNDP in Belorussia, and corporate speaks in Denmark
Sprout is a startup founded in 2013. It is best known for its innovative plantable pencils and color pencils but it also makes plantable cards and small window boxes, Tasty Gardens, with hemp mats instead of soil to grow microgreens all year round. Sprout has clients like Disney, Bacardi, Bank of America, WWF, Marriott, Coca Cola that all get their logos engraved on the pencils and use them for green giveaways.
Sprout has offices in Copenhagen and Boston and sells more than 500.000 pencils a month to over 60 countries. See more on www.sproutworld.com
[Image courtesy of Sira Anamwong at FreeDigitalPhotos.net]