Don Mayer returned his draft card to the Selective Service with a letter, as an act of civil disobedience. He then called the FBI asking why they hadn’t come looking for him. Similarly, Don has always worked in the business world with an eye to how to make the world a better place. He continues to ask the hard questions about his company and the impact it can and should have.
Are there some lessons we can glean from Don that would apply to businesses switching mid-stream? Don would say, “Yes!”
Early on Don learned the “product is not the mission.” He lived with the Dreamers in North Wolcott, Vermont, a farm community that tried to grow 100% of their own food for a year. When the community moved to West Virginia, he stayed on the farm and started North Wind Power, a wind energy company. He and his co-founders hoped that windmills would solve the energy crisis of the 1970s.
One day he found himself in a room with uniformed Navy personnel, giving a presentation for North Wind Power Company, and had what he called an “out-of-body experience. I looked at myself and wondered what I would have thought of myself when I was a draft resister if I could have seen myself in that room. I realized I would have done ANYTHING to avoid being there and being a defense contractor.”
From this experience he took the lesson that the “product is not the mission. It’s more important that you build a company with a responsible social mission.” His current company, Small Dog Electronics, sells Apple gear out of Waitsfield, Vermont. Its mission is to “create amazing products to improve people’s lives.” The website says: “We are a socially responsible company, which means we have a multiple bottom line. The effect we have on our environment, community, customers, and employees is just as important as maintaining our profitability.”
Don believes you can and should measure all these parameters, not just profit, but Small Dog’s impact on people and the planet.
On the importance of how you treat the people that work for you, Don says that in every company he has run (up until a few years ago and the advent of direct deposit) he delivered paychecks by hand, with a handshake, and a thank you. “One day at North Wind Power Company, we couldn’t pay. There was still the handshake, still the ‘thank you’. All the employees worked another three weeks until we could pay them. It became apparent that respecting employees was a smart business strategy.”
Small Dog Electronics offers dog health insurance to its employees, allows dogs in the workplace, has exercise facilities and a book group.
The flip side to that, is the relationship with customers. At Small Dog Electronics, “We use a net promoter score to measure customer satisfaction. (We read a book on this together in our company book group). We survey every customer, every transaction. One question we ask is, ‘Based on this transaction, would you recommend Small Dog Electronics?’ There is a 10 point scale. 8,9,10 are promoters; 1,2,3 are detractors. By department, we inform staff how their total NPS score is doing.”
But how does a small company in rural Vermont make a difference in the environment? With respect to its own energy use, Small Dog has recently installed a large solar photovoltaic array that powers 100% of the electricity of the South Burlington Store and a good percentage of the Waitsfield location. They have also installed a FreeAire cooling system for the server that uses outside air to cool.
Beyond Vermont, Don says, “We partner with companies that have working conditions that we support. As we become a larger player, we have more influence. For example, we have leather cases for iPads being made in China. We ask about the content of the dye, the tanning process, the hours employees are working. The packaging on the paper had a PET coating (a polyester film) and we had them change it to oil, which is more environmentally benign. I said, ‘I want the most environmentally safe packaging you can come up with.’ We have a guy in China that teams up with the producers. Because we’re bigger, we get more attention now.”
Another initiative that has impact beyond Waitsfield are eWaste collection days. In 2006, Small Dog held a Free eWaste collection day on Earth Day. “We received 50 tons of computers, TVs, and other electronics. The next year, we took in 150 tons. Then 175. Now Apple completely funds both Small Dog’s four annual eWaste collection events in Vermont and New Hampshire and weekly pickups of eWaste at each of the company’s locations. And manufacturers are paying for recycling. We got a lot of publicity within Apple.” The collection of Ewaste is now free at all of Small Dog’s stores. In 2010 Small Dog lobbied and had the best eWaste law in the nation passed in Vermont.
So what about the bottom line? “You have to decide what kind of business you want to be. You can be a good corporate citizen. But you need to build a business focused on more than profit and have to figure out how to do this.” Granted, Don says, it’s easier for some businesses to do this than others. Many companies have low profit margins.
Small Dog has a wide array of ways in which it, as a business, draws its customers, employees, and suppliers in, and tries to make a positive impact on the world. “On our website, we list eight or nine charitable organizations, human rights, women, gay, dog welfare. If customers donate, we match customers donations to the maximum extent of our annual charitable giving budget. When Haiti had the earthquake in 2010, we raised $35,000 in 48 hours for Doctors Without Borders.”
He gives the most credit to companies that build a socially responsible business mid-stream. “I’m more impressed with the local gas station owner who wants to be sustainable. If you’re already in business, making the leap is difficult.”
Build the Business with a Socially Responsible Mission
What resonated in our interview with Don is that any business, with any product or service, can be run in a socially responsible manner. It is the mission of the business, rather than the product itself, that determines impact in the world. This impact beyond profit can be measured: employee commitment, customer satisfaction, dollars raised, clean manufacturing, tons recycled, etc. In fact, the many ways to measure how the “people” and “planet” missions are only growing.
Don exudes possibility. With Don it is clear that an ordinary product can have an extraordinary impact.
Ellen Meyer Shorb