The week after many fellow agencies proudly (and rightly) found a place on the FD Gazellen list, my partner and I were high-fiving that we were not on it again.
Yes, really! When we first started philosophizing about entrepreneurship about 10 years ago, we had one very clear vision in mind: we were going to do things differently. Based on our firm belief that sustainability isn’t just a ‘proposition’ that fits the current economic system, but rather a concept that requires a different economic system, we saw (and still see) ourselves as an experiment for how things can be done differently. A very important part of this is an experiment for ‘degrowth’.
Our inspiration came from our experience. Back then, we saw our bosses struggle with their ambition for growth; to this day, I don’t know whether it was their own ambitions or the expectations of their environment they were tackling. I saw the organization grow from 8 to 35, and with that growth, the identity, mission and personal attention faded. Growth became a goal rather than a consequence of doing something right. And the growth had to be maintained, or it would collapse like a failed soufflé as soon as it came out of the oven.
We did things differently with Copper8 from the very beginning. Growth is allowed, only as a consequence of doing something right, and it’s limited – we will never exceed 15 advisors. We work four days a week: the day off is intended to be a moment of reflection, focused on the well-being of the employees. We believe that, as advisors, we have an important role as ‘levers’ in the transition, but our hope is that we will be dispensable in the long term. Based on this conviction, we work towards our own dispensability with the principle of ‘represent, imitate, do yourself’. We do not want to develop a co-dependent relationship with the parties with whom we work. We prefer to actively transfer our knowledge: in assignments, by providing training and by publishing our knowledge so that everyone can become smarter.
People often call us crazy – our clients, fellow agencies, and not least our accountant. The response we’ve probably heard most often is: “But you can achieve more impact with more people, right?”
Well, it really depends on the definition of impact.
Of course we could help more clients with more people. But to what extent would we then have an incentive to keep innovating and make our clients independent of us? The transition requires progress, and progress requires us as consultants to push the boundaries every time. The real challenge is to grow in impact with a limited number of people: that’s our aim. In fact, we’re not talking about growth, but about development.
Of course I am happy that the ‘green’ transition is slowly taking over the FD Gazellen. It’s a sign that the demand for sustainable services is growing, and we desperately need that. Yet there’s still something niggling. Why? Today’s biggest challenge is not green growth, but rather outgrowth. As Jason Hickel said: “I don’t have a problem with green, but I do have a problem with growth… Every form of growth in Western countries is ecologically destructive. That’s why green growth makes no sense; it’s like going up on the down escalator.”
In that respect, the real impact lies not in what we do, but how we do it. This reminds me a bit of Sebastien Kopp, co-founder and creative director of sustainable sneaker manufacturer VEJA. When Primark copied their signature shoe, he said: “…they should not copy the style of our shoes, they should copy the way we do them.” In that respect, I hope to follow suit – and I’m happy to drink cups of coffee for inspiration.