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Sustainability-Focused Entrepreneurs Must Build Great Products In Order To Succeed

POST WRITTEN BY Alex Gold


Amid a massive shift in consumer demand toward more sustainable products, a very important caveat remains somewhat elusive for many manufacturers: The products still have to be good.


In early December 2019, I found myself at Art Basel in Miami Beach, Florida. A global art market-turned-glitterati gathering, Art Basel has turned into a brand activation nexus where large corporations can demonstrate how "woke" they still are. In the midst of this, one of the most popular events was Lonely Whale's Museum of Plastic — a pop-up museum, much like the lauded Museum of Ice Cream, dedicated to displaying the impact of single-use plastics on the environment.


The activation was engaging. However, as the former head of business development for a nonprofit that promotes sustainability and climate change focuses around the world, what struck me was how far off we still are from making sustainable and environmentally conscious consumption a part of our daily lives. Many of the products or sponsors on display at the museum were new market entrants. Opportunities to scale were elusive.


Over the past decade, many millennial and Generation Z consumers have started demanding that brands take into account sustainability goals in the production of products. Climate change is ranked as one of the most important issues for voters in this upcoming presidential election. The Green New Deal is gaining steam, while brands like Marriott and Disney have announced ambitious sustainability programs.


Yet products with sustainability front and center may still offer a poor user experience or not achieve utility value, as some stories of paper straw failure and toiletry dispensers demonstrate.


What manufacturers need to realize, first and foremost, is that their product needs to be good, useful and desirable, in addition to being sustainable. Consumers have an increasing expectation of sustainability, but it is not the core reason they are going to purchase your product. Fortunately, I believe there are some time-tested and easy ways to move toward these goals — namely, focusing on the value of your minimum viable product (MVP) and building something people want, and paying close attention to user experience and design goals.


Focus on the minimum viable product (MVP).


When the Toyota Prius first launched in 2001, the product's value proposition was not handling, comfort, storage space or even — and this is a stretch — styling. It was sustainability. The first advertisement for the product put fuel efficiency front and center while portraying "oil drills as monsters."


Although the Prius eventually became a watershed for sustainable and green products, its initial launch missed an important point: Focus on the fundamentals — specifically, the MVP.

Defined broadly, an MVP is the core product that allows your team to collect as much data as possible in order to build the product people want. Lacking bells and whistles, the MVP establishes, in fact, the fundamental need the target market has for your product and service. Building an MVP usually involves iterative testing, design changes, rebuilds, and multiple small user tests and launches before scaling to a broader market.


When focusing on building sustainable products, many entrepreneurs often avoid testing and iterating in MVP mode. Instead, they focus on the product's environmental benefits and assume consumers will just materialize.


I would highly advise against this approach.


Instead, the MVP structure allows entrepreneurs to A/B test to iterate their product toward eventual product-market fit and find the core users who absolutely love the utility value of the product.


This touches on an even broader theme: Build something people want. According to Y Combinator founder Paul Graham, some of the most advantageous and beneficial technology in the world can be wasted if it is not wrapped into a value proposition or product that core users want. A product consumers can use every day that makes their lives better is what entrepreneurs need to strive for.


User experience matters.


When Tesla first introduced the Model S, the biggest challenge to scale was the limited range of the car's electric battery. Termed "range anxiety," this referred to the sense of fear one would feel if a car's battery was running low and there was nowhere in close range to recharge. When compared against the near-ubiquity of gas stations every few miles, Tesla looked like a considerably challenging lifestyle and user experience change — even with its significant environmental benefits.


Rather than resting on this issue, Tesla doubled efforts to add charging stations around the country, lowered the cost of at-home chargers and even invented the supercharger to fully fill batteries in around 20 minutes.


Tesla's handling of range anxiety demonstrates a fundamental fact: The best sustainable products should not ask consumers to make a sacrifice for sustainability. They need to at least equal the user experience of existing products on the market — and, ideally, exceed them. Behavior change, especially in consideration of long-standing behaviors, is especially hard. When there are alternatives on the market that do not require a steep adoption curve, consumers are more likely to select those options.


In order to counteract this, sustainable product entrepreneurs and manufacturers need to strive to place a strong user experience and design ethic at the forefront of what they do and anticipate customer needs.


Focus on the product, not the externalities.


Previously, sustainability-focused products have often "missed the mark" because of inferior product quality at the expense of impact. Yet entrepreneurs do not have to trade off product utility for environmental impact, but rather just home in on building a great solution that people actually want. To do this, they need to refocus on the MVP and the quality of user experience.




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