Getting started today is all about asking the right questions. What problem are you solving? The bigger the problem you solve, the more the market rewards you.
At Rubicon, we were fortunate that we stumbled upon a very big problem: How to end waste. That is a monumental challenge. Even if we were just a little bit right, we could make a really sizable impact, because not a lot has changed in the waste industry. People have been burying their problems since the time of the Ancient Romans.
“Why are we doing this?” I asked, when I was just a student. That “why” was the catalyst. I learned that most revenue in the waste and recycling industry was generated by burying trash. The major players not only took your trash, but buried it in landfills they owned and then charged you rent.
The most powerful question to ask, as an entrepreneur, is “Why?” Because “how” a thing is done is infinitely less important than “why.” If you have a compelling enough “why” the “how” will come on its own.
What we recognized early on is the future power in the waste industry would be owning the customer relationship and owning the feed stock; owning the actual trash produced by those customers and determining where that trash goes.
We put ourselves in-between the customer (where the trash is created) and the landfill (where the trash went), and then we could determine what goes where. Some of the trash will still go to landfill. The rest, what can be recycled, will be creating value for the customer. They’re actually now making money on what they used to pay to bury.
We also knew we had to create a differentiation in the customer experience. Nail and scale. Create a compelling experience from start to finish, then expand that to include more customers, more relationships. The proof that we succeeded really is in the customers we have been able to win. We have some big names on our customer list. Companies like Wegman’s, and 7-Eleven. Companies with huge, global footprints.
Our next challenge was establishing our foundation and how we are perceived in the market. Waste is industrial. Where we wanted to go was technological, specifically Software as a Service (SaaS). It was hard to transition from industrial to SaaS. We had to appeal to not only the industrial side — the waste haulers — but the technological side — our investors and advisors.
If I had grown up in Silicon Valley or been a tech entrepreneur, the working class waste industry would not have responded to me. On the other hand, my own working class background, growing up in Kentucky, worked to my benefit in connecting with the waste industry, but created some challenges for me in Silicon Valley. That started to change when we brought on board some of our advisors from Silicon Valley. I was able to show we had Silicon Valley credibility and a working class ethos. It was the best of both worlds.
The final link in our chain was Environmental Social Governance (ESG). We wanted to focus on ESG — and this was way before it was called ESG. I believe we were fortunate enough to see ahead of the curve. We led with our ethos and our heart. ESG used to be a “nice to have.” A marketing item. No metrics or accountability. Now, looking for data on how companies are meeting their social responsibility, ESG has become a new religion in business and if you don’t have it you are going to cease to be in business.
Why start a business in the difficult waste and recycling sector? Because I knew we could help change it — and the world. There is garbage everywhere, throughout the world. A big demand means big opportunity, and that is the power of “Why.”