The Importance of Entrepreneurial Thinking for the Green Building Industry

Christopher Wedding, PhD
“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” - Einstein or Franklin or Twain (the jury is still out)

Are we all insane? Of course, not. This quotation is surely referring to somebody else. Not us in the green building world.

What is true, however, is that many of us, including me, expect and seek different outcomes to some of our biggest challenges in the built environment, but often we use similar means to achieve those ends, whether those goals be human health and productivity, higher net operating income or lower carbon emissions.

“How might we see more LEED buildings with higher performance and better economics if we approached things a little differently?

That’s where entrepreneurial thinking comes into play. Entrepreneurs think and act differently than the rest of the population. In doing so, they also see different results. For us, how might we see more LEED buildings with higher performance and better economics if we approached things a little differently?

First, what does it mean to be an entrepreneur?

Well, it does not mean that you have to go to work in your garage, invest your life savings and eat Ramen noodles. In fact, most of you reading this probably work for organizations. No problem. That just means you’re an “intrapreneur,” or you could be one.

Here are some sample traits that summarize entrepreneurs. Which describe you? How might these pertain to you in two weeks, two months, or two years?

  • A bias towards action: You can analyze, meet and discuss for months. Or you get to work now, or better yet, yesterday. As Peter Baskerville said, “Every project can be broken into two halves – making a start and all the other stuff.” What green building innovations can you get started on today, instead of sometime later when you have time?
  • Big thinking: Donald Trump said it well, “As long as you’re going to be thinking anyway, think big.” Can you expand beyond your current geographic scope, target customer group or improvement in, say, reducing red list toxins in the products you create, specify or use?
  • A positive attitude towards failure: Thomas Edison has the best quote for this approach: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” And Michael Jordan nailed it, too: “I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” Can you change your employees’ performance evaluation to include the concept of “productive failure” (coined by Eric Ries, author of Lean Startup)?
  • Extreme persistence: Steve Jobs inspired us on this front: “I’m convinced that about half of what separates successful entrepreneurs from the non-successful ones is pure perseverance.” Entrepreneurs are often called relentless, bulldogs, stubborn or even nagging. Consider them all compliments. (Or at least that’s what I tell myself.) On which high potential initiatives or cutting-edge green building projects have you turned down the fire? Might you be just one last push from the goal line?
  • Effectual Thinking: Managers use given means to arrive at given ends. Entrepreneurs use given, or created, means to arrive at imagined ends. How are you generating new means or resources in order to explore currently unimagined new goals for your current building projects or for your firm?
  • Great team building and motivational skills: Entrepreneurs do not exist in a vacuum; without an excellent team motivated by their leadership, they cannot achieve their vision. For me, it is important to share details with my teams on how the “sausage is made” as well as strategy and emerging opportunities that get me excited. We also use talent assessment tools like StandOut and Strengthsfinder so that we all know where we excel and add the most value. Could you win more high profile green building projects, or launch more successful green product lines, if you had the right people thriving in the functions that were most appropriate for them?

Over my years, I’ve seen many companies that exhibited these traits on their pathway to success.  Two examples come immediately to mind: The first is Interface, with its Mission Zero initiative has “fostered an entrepreneurial spirit inspiring innovative thinkers to imagine unique solutions,” such as its Entropy carpet tiles that apply biomimicry principles to reduce carpet waste.  The second is 3M, winner of the U.S. government’s highest award for innovation, the National Medal of Technology, accepts that 95% of its product ideas will fail. However, in doing so, it has averaged 51% gross margins over the last twenty years and consistently been highly ranked in Fortune magazine’s annual survey of “America’s Most Admired Corporations.” Its 2014 Environmental Solutions catalog includes dozens of products that contribute towards LEED points.

For me, being an entrepreneur did not happen intentionally. After getting one of the first PhDs in green building, and focusing on environmental science, policy and business, I was not equipped or trained to start a new venture. However, after about ten years  working with Cherokee Investment Partners, a private equity firm and startup investor and incubator, I got the bug. While still a Senior Advisor there, I now have two small businesses: (1) IronOak Innovations, a boutique strategy consulting firm, focused on finance and business development in the green building and solar power sectors; and (2) g-bit, a market intelligence company providing subscription services and custom research in green building, clean energy, corporate sustainability and related fields.

I moved in this direction because I wanted to see things done differently, to solve problems like information overload in the green economy and subpar green building and business decisions. And I’m constantly failing. I’m just trying to do it faster, to learn more each time, to persist in forward movement, and to be a stubborn, nagging, relentless bulldog. (How’s that for a pretty visual?)

Christopher Wedding, PhD
Dr. Christopher Wedding is an entrepreneur, adviser, and professor focused on investment, innovation, and strategy in clean energy, green real estate, and corporate sustainability. He has nearly 20 years of experience in private equity, startup incubation, green building innovation, solar power finance, business development, leadership training, teaching, and research. Dr. Wedding is the Co-Founder of IronOak Energy Insights, a clean energy market research platform supporting investment decisions with trend analysis, data curation, and collaboration software; a Senior Adviser at Cherokee Investment Partners, a private equity firm that has raised over $2 billion in private equity funds and, separately, founded or invested in 80 startups and venture funds; a faculty member with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) Kenan-Flagler Business School; a faculty member with the Institute for Defense and Business; a faculty member Duke Corporate Education; and a faculty member with the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University; a biomimicry expert trained as a Biologist at the Design Table by Biomimicry 3.8; and one of the earliest LEED Accredited Professionals with the US Green Building Council.