Sustainability in Business

We frequently teach and meet with entrepreneurs who want to run sustainable and responsible businesses. For them, it’s not just about the bottom line but the triple bottom line – people, planet and profit. How do we care for our employees? What kind of impact are we having on the environment? Can we build a good business that is also profitable?

Financial sustainability is a must for any small business’ survival and long-term success. But socially and environmentally responsible business practices are also essential if we want our businesses and communities to thrive.

What does “sustainability” mean for a small business?

It could mean…
• Offering employees great working conditions, paying competitive wages, and/or providing educational options and opportunities for advancement.
• Creating and/or selling products produced in ways that minimize harm to the environment and preserve resources.
• Sourcing materials locally and supporting local industries.
• Operating transparently – sharing data and treating competitors as colleagues.
Giving back to the local community – donating profits to a charitable purpose, mentoring other small business owners, etc.

Sustainability has certainly become a buzzword in business. Yet when implemented in real ways, it not only benefits the wider community but can have positive benefits for your business directly – attracting new customers and committed employees and increasing efficiency and profit.

We asked some of our clients and colleagues about their sustainability practices. They shared their advice for other small business owners who want to incorporating sustainable practices into their businesses.

Rachel Lewin of RxOrganics

business sustainability

Sustainability is central to Rachel Lewin’s business RxOrganics, which locally manufactures “green” kitchen and medical garments. Rachel’s sustainable business practices give her a competitive edge by distinguishing her products in the uniform/professional wear marketplace.

For Rachel, sustainability is not just a marketing tool. She is always thinking about the environmental impact of every decision, from her supply chain to her end products. Tracking and measuring those practices is also central to her operation.

“It is integral to maintaining our “green” certification status with the city and various accrediting agencies to have all of our efforts clearly documented. We are constantly checking our systems to make sure that we can confidently sell our values to our customers and end users, and seeking additional certifications related to sustainable and socially responsible business practices. We are currently seeking a Higg Index score for our manufacturing practice.”

Rachel’s advice to other business owners: Be sustainable from the start and track what you do!

“It is much easier to scale responsibly if you build your foundation sustainably. Keep it simple and clear and document all your steps and actions — even the little unglamorous ones, like changing your toilets and water faucets to low flow. It all adds up! Ultimately the customers appreciate a mindful organization over a cheap one. You’ll see!”

Melissa Joy Manning of Melissa Joy Manning Jewelry

business sustainability

When jeweler Melissa Joy Manning started her business, Melissa Joy Manning Jewelry, in 1997 she wanted to create jobs for other artists: “I distinctly remember being told that I could never operate a business in such a competitive market with on-shore labor. Thankfully, I followed my heart and built a business around a local community. Now “American Made” is a driving marketing force in our industry and we lead the fashion industry in responsible practice.”

Sustainable practices are central to both jewelry production and packaging at Melissa Joy Manning. They use only 100% recycled metal sourced from a “green” certified US refiner, their precious stones follow the Kimberly Process, and they are buying more of their stones directly from mine owners to have true clarity on their gem chain of custody. Additionally all MJM packaging is recycled, jewelry pouches are made in the US from certified responsible felt, and MJM carbon offsets every box shipped to neutralize their carbon footprint.

For Melissa, though, the most important sustainable business practices relate to the reason why she went into business in the first place. All Melissa Joy Manning jewelry is hand made in her own studios in New York and Berkeley by artists earning a living working wage, with full benefits, competitive bonuses and retirement packages.

Melissa’s advice to other business owners: Start small!

“Make little changes that can be easily incorporated into your business practices. You can then add or change your practices to increase your sustainability. It can be incredibly intimidating to try and change everything at once. Starting small, however, leads to greater, more successful cumulative change that can be grown as the business can afford it. In the long run being responsible is not only more efficient and sustainable, it is cheaper and leads to greater profit and stronger ties to your market.”

Gwen Kaplan of Ace Mailing

business sustainability

Gwen Kaplan, CEO and founder of Ace Mailing, has been focused on sustainability since founding her direct mail business almost 40 years ago. When she was president of the Small Business Commission in the late 1980’s she started the Green Ribbon Panel which provided small businesses with sustainable or “green” solutions and recognized San Francisco green businesses. (This panel ultimately became the San Francisco Department of the Environment.) Ace Mailing was the first company in the US to sell recycled paper retail in bulk cartons for copy machines. Since 2007, Ace Mailing has been carbon neutral through TIST and the Institute for Environmental Innovation.

Gwen’s advice to other business owners: Evolve!

“Ace Mailing is continually living, breathing and changing to meet the needs of our clients.”. Sustainability requires strategic evolution of your business. Focus on your target market and meet their needs to achieve long-term sustainability.

Ultimately, it is important to remember that…

There are many ways to create a sustainable and responsible business. The sustainable practices that you decide to employ will be unique to your type of business and your style of doing business.

Instituting new business practices may not be easy or quick to implement. Changing how you operate takes commitment, and often time and money to get new ways of operating established.

Creating a more sustainable business is a process. As Mark Dwight, founder of Rickshaw Bagworks in San Francisco says in this Inc Magazine article, “Sustainability is a journey, not a destination.”

The first step is to just take a step! As Melissa says, choose one small way to improve your practices. Implement that practice into your business and see the results. (This is what business action planning is all about.) You will learn from it and build on it!

How is YOUR business embracing sustainable practices?

Small Businesses Giving Back

Since small businesses are so well connected with their communities, they are in a position to do a lot of good! Giving back doesn’t have to mean a large financial outlay or donating hours and hours of your time. By connecting how you give (and to whom) with your interests, skills, services or products, you can contribute in a meaningful way and have a large impact.

giving back

Here are some ways that you can contribute – and some San Francisco Bay Area business owners who are doing just that!

Mentor other small business owners

There is a strong possibility that your success is due in part to the people that helped you along the way. You, too, can help others be successful. Do you have business expertise that could be valuable to someone either inside or outside your industry? Heidi Gibson, owner of The American Grilled Cheese Kitchen has made mentorship a priority. She offers internships to new food entrepreneurs and volunteers her time to help small business entrepreneurs in Renaissance Entrepreneurship Center’s Business Planning Class with their business financials.

Organize a volunteer day for your employees

This can foster increased engagement and team-buildinghelp and also boost employee morale. You don’t have to have employees to volunteer. My volunteer experience with fellow Potrero Dogpatch Merchants Association members at the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank was a fun bonding activity for our local merchants association.

 giving back

Share your knowledge/skills with local organizations

Create a partnership with a local organization that is in alliance with your business and offer your expertise. Avital Food Tours offers unique culinary adventures in the Mission District, the Haight Ashbury, North Beach and Union Square. Owner Avital Ungar volunteers with the Legacy Bars and Restaurants Project run by SF Heritage. She has helped train tour guides for SF Heritage’s Haas-Lilienthal House and organized a pop-up speakeasy to raise money for the Project.

Create customer incentives

Commit to donating a certain percentage of each sale to an organization, offer discounts to customers who support particular causes, or create a contest to encourage customers to engage. Shivani Ganguly, owner of Bom Dia Market in San Francisco’s Noe Valley neighborhood supports the non-profit Kitchen Table Advisors. In February, she supported them by donating all proceeds from the sale of prepared foods on one day.

Donate products

Donating products or giving away samples at events can be a great way to reach new customers and support a cause that you believe in. Claire Keene of Clairesquares frequently donates delicious products to support organizations doing good work. She recently donated her treats to a silent auction supporting Techbridge, an organization that inspires girls to discover a passion for technology, science and engineering.

Donate to organizations in line with your values

Supporting organizations that you believe in shows your customers your business’ values. Keith Goldstein, founder of Everest Waterproofing and Restoration Inc. is committed to donating a minimum of 10% of pre-tax profits to charitable organizations, both local and international, He also sponsors Tibetan refugees for jobs, helping them create new lives for themselves and their families in the United States. Neal Gottlieb, founder of Three Twins Ice Cream launched an initiative called Ice Cream for Acres. Three Twins donates money to land preservation efforts every time they sell a cup or pint of ice cream.

Join a non-profit board

Ken Stram, owner of 2Bridge Communications is a board member of the Golden Gate Business Association, the city’s LGBT chamber of commerce. “I’m a bit introverted,” he says, “so being a board member gets me out of the office and keeps me engaged with the LGBT small business community. The board experience is sharpening my leadership and collaboration skills, too. The experience is also good for business—it positions me as a leader and puts me in front of an important audience on a regular basis.” The Volunteer Center helps to match Bay Area non-profits with individuals looking to give back and get involved at a deeper level. Check out their Board Match events.

A Circle of Giving

Your small business can also get a lot in return by giving. The causes and organizations you support will differentiate your business from competitors and can strengthen your ties to customers and clients. Giving back to your community can increase your visibility, increase customer or client loyalty and also increase employee morale. There is no reason NOT to give, and there are so many ways to make an impact!

How do YOU give back? Who are the small business owners that you know who are making a difference?

Are you ready for your encore?

The traditional idea of retirement is increasingly becoming an old notion—either because people need to keep working as a financial necessity or because they still want to work. Instead of retiring, many people are looking to do something on their own terms, and do work that really matters. Like any effective performer, they are ready for an encore!

encore career

The term “encore career” is being used to describe a new career later in life—one that is focused not just on making a living but on making a difference.—a San Francisco non-profit that helps people pursue “second acts for the greater good”—defines encore careers as jobs that combine personal meaning, continued income and social impact in the second half of life. And according to the organization, the idea is catching on. As many as 9 million people ages 44 to 70 are already in encore careers, with 31 million more interested in the idea but not sure how to make the transition.

For many, the encore career most appealing is starting a business. In 2012, nearly one quarter of all new businesses were started by people ages 55 to 64.  According to the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, business creation by older Americans grew more than 60% between 1996 and 2012.

So if you are interested in starting a business, where do you begin?

1. Follow your passion! Your business will only succeed if you love what you do. As Steve Jobs says, “The only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do.”

2. Know yourself well. Assess your strengths and weaknesses to determine if you have what it takes. Do you have some of the traits common to successful entrepreneurs? What are your existing skills?  Older entrepreneurs have an advantage — at this point you probably have a good sense of what you love to do and what you can do well. Now, instead of doing that work for an employer, you can do it for yourself.

3. Get out there to connect and learn. There is so much to learn from others in the field. Read, take classes, join small business groups of like-minded people, find organizations focused on the issues you are passionate about, as well as organizations focused on senior entrepreneurs. Starting a business can be a risky endeavor but much less so when you have relevant skills, a sense of the marketplace, and an understanding of what others have tried already and what has succeeded or failed. (Renaissance Marin offers a class called Encorepreneurs, based on The Encore Career Handbook by Marci Alboher.)

4. Don’t do it alone. Starting a new business can be a significant undertaking. You need a strong network to help you navigate through the rough patches and mentors who will share sound guidance. It is important to surround yourself with supportive and insightful people.  As someone with life and career experience, there is a good chance you have a strong network of contacts already — people you can turn to as a support system and people who might eventually be customers or clients.

5. Use all the business tools you can find. There are many non-profit organizations and government agencies committed to helping people start their own small businesses. In San Francisco, the Office of Small Business is a great resource, with a helpful step-by-step guide to starting a business and the San Francisco Business Portal for finding all the licenses and permits you’ll need. Check out our website for more resources.

6. Money, money, money. There are many small and home-based businesses that can be launched without much start-up capital. No matter your size, knowing the resources you have and projecting what you may be able to earn is critical. How much do you need to make each month to cover expenses and make a profit? What are your start-up costs and how will you fund your transition? There are many ways to fund your business, with crowdfunding platforms becoming an increasingly popular strategy.

7. Make a plan! Your plan doesn’t need to be lengthy but it’s helpful to give some thought to marketing, money and management before you begin. A business plan can force you to clarify your idea, understand the external conditions that might affect your business, and set realistic goals with benchmarks to track your progress. Doing the research, talking to people and creating realistic financial projections will give you confidence to get your business started and keep it going. Renaissance Entrepreneurship Center offers a 14-week business planning class to help you through the process.

Above all, what’s most important is to get out there and keep learning. Starting a small business is tough but it can be so rewarding both for the people you serve and the person you become. You are never too old to learn something new and make a difference.

Strength In Numbers

Raising money for an emerging or expanding small business is usually a necessity and “bootstrapping” (pulling yourself up from your personal resources only) is often not possible after the initial launch stage. Finding money has typically meant visiting banks, knocking on every friendly door you can think of, and asking your family for help.

In a recent post I mentioned some local funding resources and a couple of online tools for raising capital. These days, using internet tools to solicit funds from the community or find potential investors is a popular (and often quite successful) alternative to the traditional means of raising small business capital. New business owners can now secure start-up or expansion capital with a little bit of support from a lot of people. “Crowdfunding” is really a strength in numbers strategy.


There are many online crowdfunding platforms to choose from and sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo are just the tip of the iceberg. Each one is different and some may only be a good fit if you meet certain criteria.

Many of these platforms can’t be used to solicit loans or offer financial returns or equity to supporters. They are essentially tools to get “grants” from friends, family and your wider community. You can offer small thank you gifts or perks in exchange for their financial support (such as a t-shirt branded with your company logo or an invite to a “members-only” event related to your business). These little offerings can inspire people to give, even in small amounts.

With the Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act (JOBS Act), which President Obama signed into law last year, there may soon be changes to the crowd-funding landscape. The Securities and Exchange Commission is in the process of finalizing and implementing rules on a provision of the Act that could make it possible for people to use crowd-funding platforms to raise investment capital from “Main Street” investors.

In the meantime, there are a number of online sites that can be used to target accredited investors or to secure a loan. Fundable is geared toward small business start-ups who can choose to offer rewards to their backers or equity to accredited investors in exchange for funding. CircleUp is an equity-based crowd-funding platform that focuses on angel investments in consumer product and retail companies. EquityNet, which calls itself “the original crowd-funding platform,” is specifically designed for entrepreneurs seeking equity capital or who are looking for loans, grants and access to a network of business supporters. Prosper and more recently, Kiva Zip, make it possible for entrepreneurs and small business owners to secure peer-to-peer loans.

Pay-in-advance is another strategy for raising a little capital from a lot of people. Similar to the CSA concept where eaters pay a farmer in the spring for a season of vegetables, Slow Money has created a service called Credibles, specifically designed for small, sustainable food-related businesses, which enables supporters to pre-pay for goods and services.

With all of the crowdfunding sites out there (according to industry estimates there are currently over 500 active crowdfunding platforms!), how do you figure out the right option for you?  To start, Inc Magazine has a great flow chart to help you find the best fit among 22 crowdfunding platforms and this blog post gives a quick break-down on the pros and cons of the top six crowdfunding sites.

A crowd-funding campaign is not only about getting the money you need for a small business start-up or expansion, it’s about the opportunity to grow your customer or client base. Through the crowd-funding process you are developing a community of ambassadors for your business—people who like your business or business idea, who support your campaign, and who will spread the word to their friends.  The crowd-funding approach can strengthen your business in more ways than just your bottom line.

photo credit: Arkansas Community Foundation (

Show Me the Money


How do emerging and expanding business owners find the funding they need to start and expand?  It’s not easy and it takes time to prepare the “requests”, shop them to traditional sources and wait for approvals. For most people, it means using personal savings or credit cards. Others develop a simple promissory agreement and borrow funds from family and friends. As a new business or an emerging business without adequate capital, personal assets or a longer-term track record, it can be quite difficult to qualify for a traditional business loan.

In the SF Bay Area, there are a few non-profit organizations that can help small businesses and microenterprises. Working Solutions provides micro loans for small businesses from $5,000 to $50,000 and provides 5 years of post-loan support and advice. Opportunity Fund is a non-profit social enterprise that provides micro-loans for small businesses. They have a strong focus on supporting minority-owned small businesses. MEDA (Mission Economic Development Agency) is focused on the Mission and Excelsior Districts of San Francisco and works hard to make small loans more accessible to local businesses. The Mission Asset Fund is a non-profit based in SF that uses a Lending Circle Model to facilitate loans to members at little or no cost.

The City of San Francisco has also recently launched the Emerging Business Loan Fund. Eligible entrepreneurs can borrow up to $1,000,000 for a variety of needs, including equipment, working capital, physical improvements, real estate and expansion opportunities.

It is becoming more and more common for small businesses to use online tools to find and secure capital from their friends and the wider community. Kickstarter, the most well known, is a platform for funding creative projects, Indiegogo can be used to raise money for all types of campaigns, and there are a whole host of other crowdfunding platforms out there that entrepreneurs can use when looking for funds. For more information on the organizations and companies listed here (and many more), check out the Resources page of my website.

And don’t forget… for any business seeking capital, a business plan will be critical!  Paul Terry & Associates can help review funder proposals and business model assumptions, and can also help you develop an action plan—an essential step in securing the funding you’ll need.

Good Food Dot Com

When I owned a cheese store in San Francisco in the 1980’s I felt like we were in the middle of a food revolution—there was so much energy around “back to the land”, natural gourmet food, vegetarianism, food buying clubs and food cooperatives.  We are now in the midst of another food revolution. This time it’s a food and technology revolution. There is a resurgence of small food businesses that are focused on craft, sustainability and supporting their communities, and at the same time the internet is completely changing the way food is being distributed and sold.

cupcake from Black Jet Bakery

There are many new internet tools to support small businesses and many are being created specifically for food businesses.  This includes a search engine for food industry jobs (Good Food Jobs), a new entrepreneurial education and online community for mentoring food start-ups (Local Food Lab), an online wholesale service (Buyer’s Best Friend), and a new portal to market and distribute food products directly to consumers (Good Eggs). It is an exciting time to be starting and running a food business!

soup from Mama Tong

Many of my students at Renaissance Entrepreneurship Center (graduates of the 14-week Business Planning Class) are taking advantage of these tools. Black Jet Bakery, Mama Tong, Ruby’s Oats, Peas of Mind, and Sow Juice, as well as two of my clients, Starter Bakery and Suite Foods, are all Good Eggs producers.

For new food businesses, this type of publicity and connection to potential customers is invaluable. Access to markets is key for any small or micro business. Setting up an online store or trying to get into a local retail outlet can be a daunting or competitive proposition.

juice from Sow Juice

But if you can prove there is a market, satisfy the marketplace with good services, and build a following through these new online platforms, you just might prove your business model, make it into the mainstream, and develop a sustainable business.

These new internet tools are making it easier for small food businesses to get support, find community and connect with the markets they need to be successful. May they take root and flourish!

New business ideas popping up all over town

A golf course in downtown San Francisco? 

pop upHow is this possible?  Well, there is a new concept for mini golf being tested that just might work. Steve Fox displayed his idea for a mini-golf course in San Francisco on September 21st as a pop-up in a San Francisco parklet, right outside of SPUR in downtown San Francisco.  The course was designed as a mini version of Golden Gate Park. He got exposure, lots of great press and an affiliation with SPUR.

This is a great example of how San Francisco parklets are not just gathering spaces but testing grounds for new entrepreneurial ideas. Check out this map of parklets and other public space projects from Pavement to Parks, the collaboration between the San Francisco Planning Department, the Department of Public Works, the Municipal Transportation Agency, and the Mayor’s Office.

What’s the next step for Urban Putt? Perhaps a hole in one if he can get the space and funding for a permanent home. The business plan has been drafted (with help from Renaissance Entrepreneurship Center) and interest and support is being explored.

Tasty crowd-sourcing

It used to be that finding capital to start or expand your business meant asking your family and friends for funds, applying for a small business loan, or saving your money for months or years. These days many people are turning to crowd-sourcing technology like Kickstarter and Indiegogo to convince a wider community to contribute to their business idea or project. For instance, Paul Terry & Associates client, Blue Chair Fruit Company, used a Kickstarter campaign this year to raise money to buy a jam jar filling machine in order to expand their business.

crowd sourcing

jam from Blue Chair Fruit Company

There is now a new crowd-sourcing platform in development specifically for food ventures called yumspring. It is being billed as a place where chefs, bakers, brewers, canners and all other sorts of anti-hunger innovators can connect with people who have an appetite to support new, local, adventurous food entrepreneurs. Check out this 5-minute pitch from yumspring’s founder on food and tech connect, a new blog about the growing food and information technology movement.

Eating Well from Street to Street

On Saturday I joined the crowds in San Francisco’s Mission District to experience La Cocina’s fourth annual Street Food Festival.

The sunny streets were full of happy people enjoying tasty delights from 85 vendors—including from some of my former students: Gail Lillian of LIBA Falafel, Claire Keane of Clairesquares, Antoinette Sanchez of Endless Summer Sweets, and Neal Gottlieb of Three Twins Ice Cream.  What a treat!

food festival

Neal and Paul at SF Street Food Festival

As a small, start-up food business it is a challenge to break into the industry and be successful. Food entrepreneurs can have great ideas and delicious recipes but they also need to afford legal kitchen space and the start-up costs to open their businesses, find a niche, compete for shelf space and break into a crowded marketplace. Motivated entrepreneurs like Gail, Claire, Antoinette and Neal are making it work by renting kitchen space and/or selling out of a food truck. (Neil started very small over 6 years ago and now sells ice cream in almost every state.)

Luckily, food businesses don’t have to jump into business ownership without some support. La Cocina’s non-profit kitchen incubator and programs for low-income, immigrant and women-owned food businesses and Renaissance Entrepreneurship Center’s programs and small business incubator provide valuable training and support. There are other non-profits and businesses sprouting up around the city to help food entrepreneurs and strengthen the local food movement—from the Underground Market and Forage Kitchen, to the new Good Food Merchants Guild and Good Eggs.

City government is also helping to make the climate easier for food start-ups, such as easing regulations for street food vendors and even passing an ordinance to allow community gardeners and city farmers to sell their produce directly to the public on site. And we’re all waiting to see what transpires with the California Homemade Food Act.

It was great to see the success of small street merchants and so many supporters of the Bay Area’s local food movement this weekend. Let’s keep up the support for sustainable food businesses!

Food for Thought

Food as a small business and the business of food.  Taste and preferences have radically changed and there are so many new businesses that are popping up in the Bay Area.  In fact, “pop-up” defines many new neighborhood food businesses.  You do not have to “go to them”…they will come to your neighborhood – farmer’s markets, food carts, food trucks, or food events at an abandoned cafe once a month.  You go online and hear about it all from a tweet, a whistle or a hoot.  So many opportunities for cooks to get their ideas out there and be tasted.

food for thought

Do you support your local food vendors, confirm they are local and legal and see that they are there next week and the week after?  They are passionate about their wraps, their salsa, their falafel and their cupcakes.  And they are a business…they need to be supported and sustained.  You buy from them and stay loyal.  They are confident to stay in business, track costs and hire people to help them out.

Tiny micro businesses are popping up and sticking to the wall.  They are launched with the passion of the cook and helped by the curiosity of the crowd  – having fun, being out and eating the organic, sustainable goodies.  This is everyone’s business.  Help your favorites run like businesses, give feedback, check for quality and service and be supportive with positive word of mouth.  Perhaps most will stay in business if they have fun, love what they are doing and become profitable.  Wow… making a profit doing what you love…over and over again.  Now that is a thought that we can all relish and support.