A Crucial Litmus Test for Every Entrepreneur, Forever
A Crucial Litmus Test for Every Entrepreneur, Forever
We all know ideas are a dime a dozen. So how do you know if your idea is worth pursuing?
My b-school friends say that a good vetting question is, "Does your idea solve a pain?" I completely agree but, as an entrepreneur who wants to change the world, I need much more than Advil.
Meet Paul Polizzotto, Innovator and Social Entrepreneur
Paul Polizzotto, Founder and President of CBS EcoMedia, has built a very successful career by discovering and developing great ideas. In the process, he's developed a 4-question litmus test that can help entrepreneurs evaluate the mettle, and the promise, of their latest business propositions.
Paul grew up in Southern California in the late 70s and early 80s, and spent much of his time surfing in the polluted waters of Santa Monica Bay. As a result, he suffered from chronic upper respiratory infections, sore throats, and cuts that wouldn't heal.
He realized that one source of the toxins was the contract cleaning industry. Operating illegally, contractors cleaned parking lots and industrial sites, disposing of the run-off and detergents in the storm drain system, thereby contaminating the river and ocean waters into which they feed.
With his first social enterprise, Property Prep, Paul developed and marketed a solution to the problem: Two innovative technologies - Zero Discharge and Urban Watershed Cleaning - that enable companies to accomplish their industrial cleaning in a compliant way, by capturing the run-off wash water and disposing of it in an environmentally responsible manner.
1) Ask Yourself, "Will It Improve the Lives of Others?"
Property Prep certainly did, legalizing the contract cleaning industry and earning Paul the EPA's "Environmental Hero" award, in the process. The company is still thriving, but in the late 1990s, Paul set his sights on new challenges.
When he launched his second venture, EcoMedia (the company was acquired by CBS in 2010), Paul captured his ongoing mission - to improve the lives of others - in its name. For Paul, the 'eco' came first.
The company uses a unique public-private partnership business model to direct millions of dollars from corporate advertising budgets to more than 65 of the nation's most effective non-profit organizations. In collaboration with EcoMedia, they, in turn, execute critical, yet underfunded,environmental, educational, and health and wellness projects, nationwide. EcoMedia creates an advertising campaign to share each story, thereby securing for its clients a brand legacy that's not a feature of traditional advertising.
"It's always been my belief that we can transform the conventional monologue from advertiser to consumer into a real conversation that will result in tangible, meaningful outcomes for local communities," said Paul.
11 years in, EcoMedia is the fastest growing division of CBS. But the team doesn't rest on its laurels, preferring to measure its impact in job creation, carbon footprint reduction, lowered energy consumption, better schools, more effective community health initiatives, and tax dollars saved.
And in answer to the question that drives them - "Does it improve the lives of others?" - they proudly respond with a resounding, "Yes!"
Disclaimer: Lindsay Brown, CBS EcoMedia's Communications and Business Development person, is a former Green Spacer, friend, and former managing editor of Eco-Chick, which has featured my business.
2) Ask Yourself, "Can It Go On Forever?"
Bad ideas have only short-term pay-offs.
By contrast, good ideas are sustainable.
The most effective business models promise continued financial return and competitive advantage, ad infinitum. The public-private partnership paradigm upon which EcoMedia is based is an excellent example:
Advertisers have an ongoing desire to put their brands in front of consumers in the most meaningful and powerful ways; thus, corporate advertising budgets provide a continuous source of fuel for EcoMedia's model. Nonprofits have a never-ending need for funding sources to help them solve the most critical social issues of our time.
The result? Sustainable advertising.
But, for Paul, it's not just about whether an idea has infinite promise. As a frequent guest lecturer at business schools throughout the country, he's often approached by students who are pitching their next Big Ideas.
Paul encourages them to evaluate their proposals from a new perspective.
"I ask them, 'Would we want your idea to go on forever?'"
For entrepreneurs, this is a critical step in the litmus test.
3.) When You Meet The Inevitable Devil's Advocate, Ask, "What Do You Like about this Idea?"
Paul is candid about the frustrations and risks inherent in a career in social entrepreneurship. "Frankly," he says, "If positive outcomes aren't your deepest motivation for starting a business, you should probably stay on the shore. Because there are easier ways to make money."
"Now that EcoAds and EducationAds and WellnessAds are airing in markets all over the country, it's easy to give the impression that our ducks moved into a neat little row without much time or effort," says Paul. "But I can assure you, it took us the better part of a decade to perfect our business model. It represented a fundamental and profound shift in traditional advertising, and systems and infrastructures don't shift quickly, or easily."
"Over the years, as I've pitched my ideas in hundreds of conference rooms, it's become clear to me that the human mind has a tendency to gravitate to the Devil's advocate position. I blow into the room, so enthusiastic about my latest concept or proposal, and the first response I get is why it won't work. "
In the corporate world, in particular, there's a risk-averse culture, and new ideas - good ideas! - can get shot down rather quickly.
So Paul developed the third step in his litmus test. When he's challenged,
"I say, 'Hold on a minute. You're making valid points, and we'll get to those in a minute. But first, what do you like about this idea?"
The question catches the naysayers and Devil's advocates off-guard...and it often motivates people to shift their thinking.
"More often than not," says Paul, "The folks with the loudest initial objections end up discovering the most reasons to get behind the idea.
And then, when we circle back to their original concerns, they tell me, 'You know, now that I really understand the concept, I don't feel that way anymore.'"
And when people stop resisting change and start embracing the parts of an idea that resonate...that's when things get really exciting!"
4.) Ask Yourself, "Will I Paddle Out to Make it Happen?"
Paul began surfing before the advent of the Internet, which enables today's surfers to predict the swell. As Paul tells it, "We'd take precious vacation time, drive all the way down into Mexico...and the ocean would be flat for a week."
"Now that doesn't happen. Thanks to technology, we can predict our swells weeks in advance, based on buoy readings and other data from as far away as New Zealand. And you don't take the time or make the effort unless you're assured that it's worth it."
He expands on his surfing metaphor:
"Not too long ago, a buddy of mine was online getting buoy readings. After drawing a very sophisticated graph, he knew that the biggest and best waves the next day would be hitting just north of LA.
We were all stoked and got up the next morning at 4am to drive through the dark to Oxnard.
And guess what? The technology gave us exactly what it had promised.
The surf was massive!
I jumped out of the car, grabbed my wetsuit and board, and headed to the water. But my friends weren't moving. 'We're not going out there!' they shouted.
'What are you talking about?' I yelled back. 'This is why we drove up here!'
I can't say I wasn't scared, because I was. And getting out there,I got thrown around like a rag doll. But once I'd turned around and got up,it was one of the most amazing surfing experiences of my life.
My point is that it's excitingandpetrifying to go after what you want. So the essential question every entrepreneur needs to include in his or her litmus test is, 'Will I paddle out?'
I ask business students and entrepreneurs, 'Are you prepared to reap what you'll sow? If you're fortunate enough to get exactly what your professors, business models, and the technological resources at your disposal prepare you to create, will you have the guts to embrace it?'"
Follow this serial social entrepreneur, surfer, and CBS intrapreneur@PaulPolizzotto.
What's your idea? #CanItGoOnForever?