Fail fast. Fail early. Fail often. So goes the mantra of business innovation. More than ever before entrepreneurs, professors, authors and venture capitalists tout the merits of startups failing fast, numerous times before finally discovering the business concept that’s widely successful.
Coming to market and failing fast is not Jeff Golfman’s story. The co-founder of Prairie Paper Ventures Inc. dreamt up the idea of 100-percent-tree-free paper and the accompanying environmental impact more than 16 years ago.
After 14 years of research and development, the conscious company Step Forward Paper launched two years ago, with distribution through Staples and accounts with some of the largest companies in the world. The environmentally friendly business functions with conservation of trees at the forefront of its operations. Backed by celebrity environmental advocate and partner Woody Harrelson, the road to Step Forward Paper’s success was paved by unusual twists and turns, good old common sense and determination.
Made of wheat straw waste, this 80-percent-tree-free paper represents a paradigm shift in the conservation of trees movement and in terms of how we think of paper and environmental impact. But Golfman says it’s really a new old-idea. “We’re kind of back to the future. For thousands of years humans were making papers out of agricultural fiber. It’s been around forever. It’s only the past 140 years that people have been cutting down trees to make paper. So we’re giving an old idea new life,” he says.
Although natural fibers have been in the mix, this is the first time a company has produced paper that is tree-free, has eco-integrity and is of high quality — the “trifecta” as Golfman calls it. He says “we’re fully transparent and cost effective” and poised to make some serious money. The perfect combination of profit and environmental impact for a conscious company.
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Like most good ideas, the idea for Step Forward Paper was born out of a need to solve two Prairie problems.
The first was straw burning: Golfman could see farmland stubble burning from his home on a daily basis. “One day, the smoke was so thick I couldn’t see,” he recalls. “There’s 25 million acres of farmland in rural Manitoba and people are literally dying from asthma, allergies and respiratory problems due to air quality.”
The second ah-ha moment came when Golfman ran Manitoba’s first blue-box recycling program. “We have farmers burning all of this bio-mass and simultaneously we’re cutting down trees and reading newspapers and recycling them after,” he recalls thinking. “How can we combine those two — stop deforestation, help farmers and do good on the planet, while running a bonafide business?” Golfman wondered.
But the journey from a small idea to a profit-generating, environmentally friendly business with the potential to disrupt an entire industry has been a long, hard one, and is far from over for Prairie Paper.
“In the 16 years since we started, there were 100 times along the way where we could have, should have, given up,” Golfman says. “At one point 12 years ago, we’d run out of money and a report from an engineering firm came back saying ‘This is not viable.’ I’m a business guy and I had no tools to fight back against the engineers.
“But we stuck to our convictions and found a way to make it viable. We had to change our entire team — the science team, the engineering team, the entire team around us because no one believed what we were doing was possible. Today, we have a patent on Tree-Free paper and our sales are up 450 percent this year over last.”
With world consumption of paper growing by 400 percent in the past 40 years and approximately three billion to five billion trees being cut down to make paper each year, the need for the conservation of trees is apparent. The question isn’t why we need tree-less products that will have an environmental impact, but rather “why hasn’t someone done this already?”
“In 1996, I climbed San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge to protest against the logging of ancient redwoods in northern California, but ultimately came to realize that protests and high-profile actions do nothing to stop what the timber companies do. Even if successful, they merely shift the clear-cut to another forest. It became obvious to me that the real answer to deforestation is to change the way paper is made,” says co-founder and partner Harrelson, in a video posted on Prairie Paper’s website.
Even though the need was established, the conscious company faced business challenges. “With socially responsible investment, environment investment, the ROI [return on investment] is usually much longer term, in fact there might be a big loss at first and when you look at any publicly traded company, or politician, they are forced by law to think short term,” Golfman says. “They’re penalized for playing a long-term game.”
Although the long-term view isn’t as widely appreciated as “failing fast” in today’s world, if you’re a social enterprise, environmentally friendly business or any business looking to create long-term value, you might want to remember Step Forward Paper’s story. This conscious company is clearly moving in the right direction.
Phillip Haid is co-founder and chief executive of PUBLIC, a cause marketing agency and innovation lab designed to create large-scale social impact through the merger of profit and purpose.
This content was originally published on Financial Post.
Image courtesy of Robin Riat.