From small ripples to giant waves: 5 entrepreneurial lessons from circular pioneers

Cécile van Oppen By Cécile,
on 06 March 2018

It was a cold winter’s day. Outside, a cold wind was blowing, and people were getting ready for the Christmas of 2012. I was unhappy in my new job, and I decided to swim some lengths to structure my thoughts and get away from them in an old-fashioned way.

I believe coincidence doesn’t exist.

After my hour of training, Noor Huitema walked into the pool, heavily pregnant. We were at the edge of the pool together; we had become a strong team in the three years before – yin and yang, completely complementary. Both Noor and myself could feel each other’s emptiness.

“When we grow up, we’ll go into business together,” we would say. We weren’t much older, but at that moment we decided to take a scary leap into the deep.

Now we’re looking back on five beautiful years full of lessons. In celebration of our birthday, here we look back on five of those lessons.

1. “You are what you do, not what you say you are.” – Yvon Chouinard
We started with two clear objectives: (1) to realize visible impact in our physical environment that contributes to the circular economy, and (2) to set a good example as a consultancy. With our second goal, we wanted to completely overturn our organization and business model, to ensure that as an agency we wouldn’t hinder the achievement of the circular economy – something we believe in. The result is challenging… because even now I’m still averse to advice.

Building an organization based on trust instead of fear means setting up an agency by rewriting the laws of traditional consultancy. Those around us reacted in bafflement at the start, but this has now turned into awe – fortunately, because everything we do is born of authenticity and a sincere commitment to a better world. As a certified B-Corp, we set a good example and lead the way.

2. Sustainable business requires patience.
‘Sustainable’ – the word itself suggests that something is long term, and after five years, we can certainly confirm that. Our vision on entrepreneurship is not self-evident, and we’re not on a ‘highway’ to success; instead, we’re cycling along a path that’s winding, with a lot of steep climbs and, unfortunately, some stressful sections.

Fortunately, as fanatic cyclists, we’re used to the journey – we know that there is a valuable lesson around every bend. We know that there are people who invest in ‘better material’, but we also know that better material doesn’t get you to the top of the mountain any faster: it’s about our own content and endurance. We are front runners in the peloton, providing a slipstream for others so we can make the circular economy a reality together.

We know that on a descent you have to keep control of your steering and build up energy for the inevitable climb that will follow. And, of course, we know how important it is to enjoy yourself when you’re at the top, knowing you won’t stay there forever and that there are always more beautiful mountains to climb.

3. There is beauty in our temporariness.
At our incorporation, we decided we would evaluate Copper8’s existence after seven years. With the motto “demonstrate it, imitate it, do it yourself” (“voordoen, nadoen, zelf doen”), we want to make ourselves dispensible for the customer. We actively share knowledge by providing training and writing books. Since the very beginning, it has been clear to everyone that we are a temporary vehicle for impact.

Where are we now? Unfortunately, it would seem we’ll be celebrating Copper8’s symbolic 8th birthday in 3 years, but luckily we still enjoy what we’re doing every day.

4. Feeling is the best compass.
We are regularly told that we clearly have ‘female leadership’ within Copper8. We’re not driven by money, to the great unrest of our accountant. Even in our early years, we kept our heads above water by making choices based on feeling, and staying very close to our principles and mission.

We choose the projects that suit us best by paying attention to what we’re feeling. That’s important, since an iconic project revolves around good commissioning.

Realizing the circular economy is more than a technical challenge, as we’ve been shouting for decades; it’s a challenge that requires collaboration. Getting people to work together on our projects is precisely why we have to use our feeling as a guiding principle: we dare to discuss a problem if something doesn’t feel right, therefore making ourselves vulnerable. There is strength in vulnerability, as Brené Brown has seen!

5 Dare to swim against the current.
How do you swim against the current as a small, startup agency? How do you convince clients that the current revenue model should be different? How do you design a business model based on trust, knowing that it’s occasionally misused? And how do you build a healthy organization by saying no to tasks that “just don’t feel good” or don’t fit in your chosen path?

Our experience after five years is that it’s not always easy to swim against the flow as a pioneer or to build a business model based on principles that are at odds with traditional consultancy. But that way of thinking is exactly where our strength lies. With a strong, mission-driven team around you, you can overcome the biggest setbacks. Apparently only dead fish swim with the flow; we are alive and kicking!

We’re looking back on five wonderful and instructive years as entrepreneurs. What started as a small ripple in the pond has become a giant wave in the pool.

And even now you can occasionally find us where it all started: the pool is still the place we go to reset and rethink, only now we do it with the full conviction that we’re fulfilled doing what we’re doing. So we “just keep swimming” – and we’ll continue to do so for the next three years!

 

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