Interview: Verde (2012)

2012 Interview with Jamie Johnson, Verde Sustainable Solutions

“We have a variety of display tools. The first is a full home energy audit app…from that, we’ve build a web-based widget that helps retailers better display their energy savings directly on product pages.” – Jamie Johnson, Verde Sustainable Solutions

Verde Sustainable Solutions uses technology and private sector products to drive dramatic changes in consumers’ behavior, leading to increased energy efficiency. They created the VERDE iPad app to help consumers reduce their electricity usage in homes and businesses through a home energy audit. The WJF’s Erin Jones checked in with Jamie Johnson about how Verde Sustainable Solutions is doing.

Where are you located?
We are located in Chicago, IL.

What problem are you trying to solve?
The lack of information about how much money in carbon new energy efficient products can save you over what’s currently in your home.

How did you become interested in this?
I’ve been fixated on the ways people can be more energy efficient in their homes over the past few years. It’s been through a series of steps—it stemmed from home energy audits and it’s now become an expansive database that looks at one product at a time, but continues to grow in its approach.

What is your solution?
We have a variety of display tools. The first one is a full home energy audit app, which I entered into the WJF competition. From that, we’ve built a web-based widget that helps retailers better display their energy savings directly on product pages. This summer, we’re building out a platform that is based on what we have learned from our first two experiences. It will be more of a mobile app experience for shoppers who can use a QR code or a barcode that people can use to look at different products.

Who are your customers?
Our customers are brands and retailers who make energy efficient products. We have two general consumer applications as well, but people don’t pay for those, so they are not technically my customers. 

What are some of your major challenges?
The biggest question for any startup unfortunately is funding. Getting grants is what’s helped me build more products, but at the same time, getting revenue too quickly has led me to make some bad decisions over the years. The biggest challenge I face as a social enterprise, where I’m trying to change the world and make it a better place, is how do I make money and how do I make money without compromising on my core values. I also think we are in this unique space where there is not a lot of connection between funders and the need. I’m looking to get traditional angel investment now and am planning to meet with some private equity funders. The way they’re going to tear apart my mission focus is real. Whereas the ability for a foundation to provide funding to someone who has shown some traction and keep them mission-focused is strong. I don’t think we’re there yet as a society, but I think foundations are pretty risk-averse. It takes a special group to start in that path, but it’s the right thing I think, the right path for social entrepreneurship personally.

What are your annual revenues?
Between $0 and $10k

How many people do you employ?
We employ 7 people.

Has the William James Foundation competition and mentoring program helped you on your way?
Of all the things I’ve applied for, the WJF’s process was the best. The trick was the feedback the judges gave—it was a 5 to 10 page document with really thorough criticism. As an L3C, which qualifies for program-related investments (PRIs), I’ve applied for hundreds of different foundations, projects, or programs, and I’ve never gotten thorough feedback. All the WJF judges gave a unique, thorough opinion about what my product was lacking, and that was really beneficial. The feedback led to some product design changes in the middle of what we were working on. I also reached out to all of the judges who read my business plan and I kept a relationship with at least one of them, which has been really helpful too.

What other resources have you found that are particularly useful for social entrepreneurs?
I’ve applied for Impact Enginean incubator in Chicago that is starting up this summer. It provides seed funding and consistent support, which could be really valuable. The mentors they have working for them are really solid. I’m also working out of a space called 1871, which is an entrepreneurial hub and a low-rent space. There are tons of resources and people nearby and it’s been really good for getting connected to funders. It’s not necessarily for social entrepreneurs—it’s just a really good resource for entrepreneurs. 

For readers who want to know more about what you’re up to, where can we send them?
Go to our website or follow us on Twitter @verdel3c! You can also check out write-ups about Verde published by TreehuggerHow To, and Life Hacker.