How to Raise Money for your Sustainability-Oriented Venture

October 2, 2017

This piece was co-authored by Jason Jay, Director of the Sustainability Initiative at MIT Sloan. A similar version appeared in GreenBiz here.

Social entrepreneurs, with their flexibility and disruptive potential, are well positioned to bring about positive change in today’s volatile and social media-enabled world. But realizing change at a scale that can truly move the needle on critical global issues requires capital. And raising capital, especially for sustainability-oriented entrepreneurs who have to manage both real and perceived tradeoffs between “doing good” and “doing well”, is far from simple.

Here at MIT’s Sustainability Initiative, we have been researching the power of sustainability-oriented innovations to solve global challenges and enable societies to thrive on a planet with finite resources. Through our review of the academic literature on sustainability and entrepreneurship, combined with interviews and workshops with over 75 investors and entrepreneurs in cleantech, agtech, and foodtech, we have identified three key lessons to help sustainability-oriented entrepreneurs raise capital.

Cool technology is not enough

Blockchain. IoT. Artificial intelligence. Supercapacitors. These technologies are sexy and continue to tempt many experienced and aspiring entrepreneurs with their potential. But investors (and customers!) are looking for more than a cool technology, no matter how novel.

The recent explosion and then sputter of funding in the food e-commerce space is a timely example. In 2015, food e-commerce startups raised 1.65 billion, more than a 300% increase from 2014. But then in 2016, funding fell by 25% to 1.35 billion, according to AgFunder. The promise of healthy, ethical food delivered to the doorstep seemed compelling to techies and investors. Unfortunately, the technology alone was not enough to make unit economics work in this logistics-heavy sector.

Good Eggs, an online grocery delivery company with a focus on organic, local and fresh products, learned this lesson the hard way. In 2015, Good Eggs closed down operations in all cities but San Francisco, and had to lay off nearly 140 employees as they were losing money on each order, and scaling up was hurting rather than helping.

To sort out the unit economics, regain customer trust, and raise the capital it needed to continue to realize its mission, Good Eggs added domain expertise to their team. In late 2015, Good Eggs hired a new CEO with experience in the operations and finance of food businesses such as Cliff Bar and Plum Organics. Investors, excited by Bentley’s expertise and discipline, were sold: Good Eggs raised $15 million in 2016.

Technologies, especially defensible ones, can indeed be compelling to investors. But a truly compelling strategy will center on a rock star team that has the complementary capabilities and expertise to deliver a product or service that solves a real problem for paying customers.

Excite your customers with stories

Storytelling is the latest must-have business skill for entrepreneurs. Books, online courses, startup gurus, and accelerator programs tout the benefits, especially when it comes to pitching investors. But our research indicates that sustainability-oriented entrepreneurs must avoid the temptation of exclusively telling stories about the positive environmental and social benefits, and instead focus on stories about how the product or service meets customer needs.

Boston-based Sense Labs provides a great example with their Sense Home Energy Monitor. This great-looking, easy-to-install device and associated app comprise a sustainability-oriented innovation that was designed with humans in mind. And their marketing language is on point: rather than tout the benefits of a reduced carbon footprint, Sense Labs paints a picture of a smart home where life is convenient, comfortable, and — of course — more affordable. This customer-focused storytelling is working for Sense: they have over 400 million users and have launched over 50 products.

Sustainability-oriented entrepreneurs care deeply about the positive impact their business is making on the world. In the best cases, customers and investors will share these values, too. But either way, compelling storytelling based on customer needs and pain points communicates to all stakeholders that the business understands their customers and is able to solve their problems.

Pitch sustainability as a side dish

Investors invest to make money. It may sound obvious, but this fact is all-too-often overlooked, especially by sustainability-oriented entrepreneurs who themselves are motivated by the positive impact they hope to make on the world. Even for impact investors, financial returns are expected alongside positive environmental and social benefits.

For the sustainability-oriented entrepreneur pitching potential investors, it is critical to focus on the upside for investors: how, when, and why will they make money?

The plant-based protein movement exploding in today’s food system highlights the need to pitch sustainability as a side dish, not the main course. Beyond Meat, a leader in this movement with a commercially available plant-based burger that cooks like a hamburger, and $17 million raised to date, recently added Tyson Foods to their list of investors. Yes, the same Tyson foods that produces chicken and beef for KFC, Taco Bell, and McDonalds.

How did Beyond Meat and Tyson find enough alignment to get this deal done? In a letter published on the Beyond Meat blog, CEO Ethan Brown explained how he focused on a goal that both companies can agree on: meeting consumer demands for alternative proteins.

The specific sustainability benefits of a plant-based burger remained a side dish to the commercial opportunity for both businesses.

Entrepreneurs are already building balanced teams, telling compelling stories, and pitching financials-first to solve critical issues in our food and energy systems, and make money for themselves and their investors in the process. The challenges are big and the capital is out there- now go and get it.

Visit Sloan Sustainability for the full guide, including 7 tips for sustainability-oriented entrepreneurs.