Interview with John Atcheson, Co-Founder and CEO of Circular Way on Sustainability, Circular Economy, Entrepreneurship, and More

Following our mission to share knowledge and foster entrepreneurship, we had the incredible opportunity to interview John Atcheson, the remarkable Co-Founder and CEO of Circular Way, a true trailblazer and visionary in his field. With his unwavering commitment to sustainability, environmental conservation, and a passion for entrepreneurship, John Atcheson stands at the helm of Circular Way, a social enterprise dedicated to ending consumer waste by making circularity the foundation of everything we buy. 

In this exclusive interview, we delve into John Atcheson's inspiring business journey, experiences, expertise, and his views on the circular economy and sustainability. We also gain insights into his background and motivations standing behind his work to shape a more responsible and sustainable future for people, businesses and the planet.

Interview with John Atcheson, Co-Founder/CEO of Circular Way on Sustainability, Circular Economy, Entrepreneurship, and More

This interview is a treasure trove of wisdom, advice, and inspiration for aspiring entrepreneurs, environmentally-conscious individuals, and anyone seeking to make a positive difference in the world and learn invaluable lessons on sustainability, circular economy, and entrepreneurship including the challenges of being an entrepreneur in a rapidly evolving world.

Justine Ilone Siporski: From your LinkedIn profile, I can infer that you are a serial entrepreneur. Can you tell us about your background and what led you to set up your first company and what did this experience teach you and how did it influence your career?

John Atcheson: I had been a musician when I got out of university and then got really enamored with renewable energy. I went back to graduate school to get into renewable energy. When I graduated, there was nothing happening in the United States around renewable energy so I had obviously been a musician and was really enamored with computers. There were several small companies popping up in the San Francisco Bay area that were doing computer music software. I joined one of those companies as the eighth employee, a little company called Digidesign. We then raised the first venture financing and began to grow the business. That was my first exposure to venture capital technology startups. It just caught. I thought this is great. From that, I launched my first company, a company called MusicNet. I've been working in tech-oriented venture startups ever since.

How do you find experience of starting and leading companies? What motivates you to continue pursuing entrepreneurship?

To me, there's just nothing more exciting than identifying a problem and then being able to go into a room with a big whiteboard, nothing on it, and just start figuring out how to solve that problem. What can you do? What could be done to address this? Usually, those questions come from my own curiosity. With my company Musicnet, I was out of university. I was having a difficult time finding music that I would like. I thought, well, there must be some way to address this. There must be some technology we can put into play so we came up with various algorithms that would link people's tastes and introduce them to things they weren't knowledgeable about. Then we got into multimedia so people could actually listen to things on computers. Ultimately, it led to the internet and being able to connect people over the internet with music they weren't familiar with. It usually starts with some problem that you feel directly. Then you just start building a whole business model around that and how you would address it. Then it's all about selling, basically, because you've got to sell investors, you have to sell prospective employees, you've got to sell customers, you've got to sell everybody on this idea. Being in a startup is just a constant sales effort. It's a constant effort to get everybody on board and excited. For me, it's bringing together a business and creativity. Since I've been a songwriter and musician beforehand, I really like being able to think creatively and not trying to just work within some defined confine. I want to be able to figure out how to approach things with everything wide open and how we go about doing that.

How did you first become interested in sustainability and environmentalism?

It's a great question where it all really began. The first time that it really took form was when I decided I wanted to go into renewable energy. I thought this is going to be important for the world. This is where things need to go. I'm trying to think how that got triggered. I'm not completely sure other than just this idea that we can't live the way we've been living. We can't support that. We've got to do things differently. Once I made that leap for renewable energy, I got a little distracted. In the first several years of my career, I was working in media technology, which really had nothing to do with sustainability. It wasn't until I was able to take some time off that I said, OK, I'm going to go relearn sustainability. I'm going to get back involved in this. I ended up working with a nonprofit in the U.S. called Sightline Institute and got really deeply involved with them. I became the board chair and spent several years working with them around core initiatives, and policies that would make the world more sustainable, essentially. That then brought me back in. Now, in the last several years, I've been really matching entrepreneurial pursuits with sustainability and trying to bring those two things together.

In your experience, what are some of the biggest challenges that entrepreneurs face when launching and growing sustainable startups? How do you navigate these challenges and what advice would you give to them?

For most startups, the biggest challenge is raising money, because if you don't have money, you can't usually execute what you're trying to do. You can bootstrap and just do things on your own for a while, but at some point, you're going to need employees, you're going to need resources and to do that, you've got to get someone to step forward and say, I believe in this. I'm going to put some money forward. That's just a constant challenge for any startup. It's always there. As soon as you raise money, you have a month, and then you've got to start thinking about the next money you're going to start raising. But beyond that, you're always meeting obstacles. You're always meeting things you weren't expecting and suddenly going, Oh my gosh, this is so different than I thought it would be. What are we going to do? How do we make that? To some extent, I love that. I love having to be resourceful, of having to look at things and thinking, Okay, that seems insurmountable. We're going to find some way to get around it and make this go. I like those challenges that come with being in a startup. Those are the two big things.

Can you explain the concept of a circular economy to our readers and describe its key principles, including a circular fashion and how they differ from a traditional linear economy?

There are really two answers to that. There's the academic answer of what circular economy is and how it operates, and then there's more of the consumer answer of what circular economy can mean to people in their day-to-day lives. On the more academic side, a circular economy is the fundamental principle of everything being regenerative by design, that products are made with the idea that they will be used again and repurposed. They're sold and used in a way that anticipates they're going to be repurposed, and then ultimately everything is brought back in and regenerated in some way. They're both biological cycles and technical cycles with that. A circular economy can involve agriculture and regenerative farming techniques and all that, or more on the side that we deal with, which is the technical side, where you're working with materials and processes that allow things to be remade and reused, and all the business models that go around that to see that they get reused. The world is so far from circularity today. As an example, you can walk down the street and see little solar walkway lights or something. You think, oh, that's great. That's so renewable and wonderful. Then you realize that that solar device was made without any thought about what would happen to it later. The only thing you can do with that when it finally stops working is to throw it out, because you can't disassemble it. You can't reuse parts. You can't reuse those materials in any way. In a perfectly circular economy, every single material that goes into production never leaves the system. It just gets used over and over again. It's used in its product form, and then it's broken down and used again in a new product. We really couldn't be farther from that ideal right now. In any case, that's kind of the academic definition of it.

The other definition of circularity is what it means to consumers. How does it affect people in their everyday lives? I think the principle behind my company Circular Way is that there is so much wasted value for people. Forget about the whole environmental side of it and what happens to these things and how damaging that is to the environment. It's just crazy that we spend all this money on things that we use for some period of time. In most cases, they're still perfectly usable when we're done using them, but there's nothing that can be done with them. So they end up going into a landfill, and they get buried somewhere. Even if it has been used all the way through, there's still value in those materials that could be recaptured and reapplied, but we don't capture any of that. As a consumer in a linear society, you're just throwing money to the wind. You've got all this value that you're literally throwing into the rubbish bin.

Your newest company, Circular Way, is based on this idea of circular economy. Can you tell us more about this project and what motivated you to co-found it?

The motivation is just an extension of what I've been doing for the last almost 10 years now, of trying to find business models that will actually bring circularity to life. In my view people will be able to engage with circularity in ways where they don't even know they're being circular per se, but they're behaving in ways that are different than they have traditionally. These products are being used more and repurposed and put back through. That's always been the motivation behind it. With Circular Way, we've really kind of evolved this idea from originally looking at how we could build some kind of technology platform that existing brands could use to enable their customers to sell things back. With Circular Way, we're really taking a leap to build the entire experience and then take it directly to consumers. We're creating a retail store that focuses on fashion, just sells fashion items, but it only sells fashion items that are made of materials that can be regenerated. We sell them in a fully circular way, so everything is sold with the idea that you're paying only for what you're going to use. As soon as you're done using it, just by tapping a button on a screen, you'll get the money that's still in that product and be able to apply that instantly to something you actually want at that point. That's the core idea of what we're doing in Circular Way.

Can you elaborate on the challenges you've encountered while promoting the concept of a circular economy and how you have overcome them?

Well, there is a constant string of challenges. We're always coming across things that don't work so well. I think the biggest challenge for us was that we took this original model of working with existing brands and doing that. We just found that the existing brands were not able to actually implement the changes necessary to get a fully circular experience. A lot of that comes down to just this whole notion of brands being built around the idea that everything is about selling more things, regardless of how much use those things get or what happens to them in the end, you just want to sell these things. Anything that would interfere with that process is viewed as a threat. That was a big challenge for us because we were trying to keep moving to where everything was getting repurposed and reused. When we realized the brands weren't willing to go there with us, we had to figure out what to do. How can we get further along on this? We ultimately made the decision that we were going to have to go build this whole thing ourselves. We still work with brands because the brands make the products. But they leave it to us now to sell them and to actually have the consumer interface that brings that to life.

How have your experiences with Getaround and Stuffstr influenced your approach to Circular Way and how you run this company?

Well, you're always picking up lessons. You're observing things and consumer behaviors. From those behaviors, you're adapting and making new decisions about how to approach things. I guess a good example of that would be from my time at Getaround. Getaround was all about people renting their cars, kind of Airbnb style. I have a car. I don't use it all the time. You can drive it. Just pay me this money.

One of the things we found was that people would start by putting into the system their old Toyota. They would rent out that Toyota and make a few dollars an hour. But they very quickly realized that it didn't really make sense to be renting this old beat-up Toyota because if they had a much nicer car, they could rent it out for a lot more, and then they'd be able to drive this nicer car. Without any prompting from us, we started noticing that people were actually selling these old cars. They were getting new, much better-built, longer-lasting cars. Then making more money and having these greater cars on the road. That dynamic stuck with me. The idea is that if you give consumers an option that is clearly better for them, you don't have to explain all the underpinnings of that. They just figure it out. They understand that, oh, I could make more money if I do this. If you just create that framework, then people will naturally go in that direction and move there. That's absolutely a big part of how we think at Circular Way. For example, if we give people the option to use their clothes as currency - one of the core concepts of Circular Way - then they'll begin to see and treat their clothes differently without us having to explain it to them, oh, this is all about circularity. They don't care about that. It's just giving people incentives that result in them going, oh, wow, I should do this. It's much better for me.

Another lesson we learned, mostly from the Stuffstr experience, is that what people say they’ll do and what they actually do are two very different things. People will tell you that if you make something easier they’ll do it, but if there's still work involved, no matter what they say they still won’t do it. Oh, I really care about the environment. I'll absolutely do these more sustainable behaviors. If it's any more effort for them, in the end, they don't actually do it. That's another underpinning of Circular Way. You have to make it so easy for people to do things differently. It's got to be at least as easy, and ideally easier, to do something more sustainably than to do it the same old way. You can't rely on people making any effort to change behavior. You have to take the friction out. You have to do everything for them.

What advice would you give to someone who is interested in entrepreneurship?

In terms of entrepreneurship, ultimately there are three primary motivators. The first is to make a lot of money, to be the next Jeff Bezos. The second is to be the boss, to not work for anybody else. And the third is to change the world, and ideally be noted for having made this enormous change. Every entrepreneur I've ever known has those three motivations going on, but every entrepreneur weighs them differently. Some people are very focused on just making as much money as they can. As an entrepreneur, it's really, really important that you understand how you rank those three motivations and that you build everything around you from people who share your prioritization. For example, if your primary motivation is to change the world and your investors’ motivation is primarily to make as much money as possible, you’re going to have problems.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to start a startup focused on sustainability?

Sustainability is the future. It's where things are going because they have to. We can't continue to live the way we're living. Pursuing a startup based on sustainability can be a belief set – I want to be part of the solution and not part of the problem – but it’s also just the natural opportunity that's coming in now. If you can be a real superstar in sustainability and be really knowledgeable and effective, then you're going to have all kinds of choices about what job you want and what kind of career you can pursue because those jobs are accelerating so quickly right now, even in the very specific realm of the circular economy. When I started working on Stuffstr years ago, companies didn't have circular economy people. Now, most major companies have at least one and sometimes full teams of people that are focused specifically on circular economy. It's all happening in real time. It's all growing really quickly. To me, it's not just living your values. It's going after the best opportunities where the real excitement is.

Looking ahead, what are your goals for Circular Way and broader sustainability movement? What do you think will happen in this area?

I think with Circular Way, we're really looking at the broad landscape. We're launching in fashion. We're very focused on fashion. But our fundamental belief is that the whole nature of retail, the whole interaction between retailers and customers, is going to change. In some ways, it has to change because of regulations that are coming down that are going to force it to change. But it also makes sense to change because the way that business has been getting done, as I mentioned earlier, is leaving so much value or throwing away so much value that ultimately consumers really aren't going to accept that anymore. The whole basis of retail, as it's always been, is where you sell someone a product and then you literally stand at the door and wave goodbye. There's no post-sale interaction about what you've bought. All the post-sale interactions are about encouraging people to come and buy another thing, about buying something else. It's not about helping you with the product you bought. That's not going to work in the future. Consumers are getting more demanding. They both want to be served better and get better value from things. They also want to feel like they're solving problems and not contributing to problems. Retailers have got to figure that out and step it up. When I look at Circular Way, I think we're trying to essentially create that model.

We're trying to define that in a way that creates a platform that people can build upon. They can see how that works, see why it's really advantageous, see how consumers respond to it, and then begin to move in that direction. In the world right now, you've got durable goods like clothes and furniture and stuff like that. Eight or nine trillion dollars are being sold right now. All of that ultimately needs to be converted from a linear to a circular model. There's really no end to where that can go. Circular, more broadly, comes down to the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals. It comes down to the global mandate that we have to move in this direction. We have to do everything from the food systems to our manufacturing processes to our energy supply. All of that needs to be more sustainable. It comes back to Kate Raworth and Doughnut Economics and living within our needs. Giving prosperity, but not extending to where we're eating away at the prosperity of future generations.

How do you balance the need to grow a business with the need to minimize its environmental impact?

There's all this stuff about degrowth and things like that. I would say a couple of things. The first is that the way we define growth is really problematic. Essentially, everything is ultimately geared towards GDP and GDP is such a completely failing way of measuring prosperity and success. You could drop a bomb on London and the GDP would go up because you have all this construction and medical services and all this kind of thing. It's crazy, but that's how GDP works. We've got a fundamentally flawed way of measuring economic growth right now that has led to some really bad outcomes. It's channeled resources in really negative ways. You've got to start there. Let's figure out how to measure things correctly so that we're actually trying to solve the right problems and move things in the right direction.

Coming back to this issue of degrowth, we view circularity as being an incredible growth opportunity. We think that there's an amazing ability to take this money that's being thrown away. Just in fashion alone, every year about $500 billion worth of wearable fashion goes to landfills. Nobody's benefitting from that. It's just a complete waste. You're not having to stop growing. You're just finding ways to get more value out of everything that's available and already there.

What role do innovation and technology play in enabling sustainable growth? Are there any emerging technologies that you believe will be particularly important in this regard?

I've been in tech startups my whole career, so naturally, I believe a lot in tech innovation. I've seen up close how tech innovation can really change lives and change the world. I'm a huge believer in the ability of technology to do that. Obviously, technology can also go off the rails and do things that are really not that beneficial. When you talk about what technologies could really make a difference in sustainability, there's no question that AI could play a major role in sustainability. But it's also a great example of a technology that could go off the rails very easily and very disastrously if it's left to its own devices. I think technology needs to be channeled. It needs to be focused. But it has the power to make enormous differences.

How can companies effectively communicate their sustainability initiatives to customers and stakeholders? What are some best practices for doing so?

I guess my overall view is that people don't do things for sustainability. This goes back to my lessons learned from Stuffstr. Just because people say, I want to be sustainable, I'll only buy from sustainable suppliers, they don't actually behave that way. A few people do, but most people don't. If you give them something that's as good or better than what they have today, and it's sustainable, they'll love you. They're like, oh, I feel great. I feel wonderful doing this. I guess that's to say, sustainability in my experience is not a motivator. It's not a driver of action for people, which is too bad. I wish it were. I wish people would behave that way and respond in the ways they say they would like to. But I haven't seen things operate that way. I think you've got to figure out how to have a solution for people that by its very nature is more sustainable. If you can do that, they're all over it. They love it. They're going to go for it. People prefer to be sustainable, but they're not going to make their decisions based on that sustainability.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions about sustainable growth? How can we address these misconceptions and promote better understanding of the importance of sustainability in business?

It's interesting you put it in business at the end of that question. From a consumer standpoint, I don't think consumers really care about that. It's just where you lead them based on this. In business, it actually does matter. I'll just take Circular Way as an example. I think Circular Way is defining a fundamentally better business model for retail to operate in. It's doing that at several different levels. It's doing it first off from the standpoint of customer loyalty and customer acquisition. You can look at any business right now, certainly on the consumer side, and the cost of customer acquisition and the decline of customer lifetime value are just squeezing margins everywhere. It's becoming incredibly expensive as people just bounce around. They go from place to place. With the average e-commerce retailer today, only 30% of customers every month are return customers. You've got to attract 70% of your customers as new customers every single month. That is enormously expensive. Circularity is the best antidote to that because people are buying things with the idea that they're going to continue to work with you to sell these things back, and get the next thing, and the next thing, and all the different services you're rolling into it, and everything else. We'll find out with Circular Way, but our hypothesis is that we're going to have dramatically lower customer acquisition costs, customer retention costs, and better customer lifetime value, just by the nature of how the relationship is managed.

The second thing is that often circularity can create protections for a business. For example, in Circular Way's framework, we sell new and used items side by side. Those are very different markets, actually. Generally speaking, when the economy's doing well, sales of new items tend to go up. When the economy's doing poorly, sales of used items tend to go up. If you've got both those things to offer, you're stabilized in a way that you're not in your traditional business. That's a huge advantage. You've got these counterbalances for downturns and bad economic cycles.

Finally, I think that there's so much trouble within many industries, certainly the fashion industry, around the supply chain. In a purely circular world, your customers are your supply chain. Your customers have these products, all the materials in those products, and if you need more materials, you simply turn to your customers and incentivise them to return the items to you. You're working within a closed loop. All the materials you need are in that ecosystem. You just work that ecosystem. You don't have all these external variables going on that you don't control. This seems like a strange thing to say, but I liken circular economy from this standpoint to riding a bicycle. I stopped driving a car years ago and started riding a bike. For the first six months, I thought, oh my god, it's raining, or oh my god, I've got to go up this hill. It's like, wow, I wish I could just jump in a car. After about six months, I realized that every single time I rode my bike, I would get from point A to point B in exactly the same amount of time every single time. It didn't matter if there was traffic, construction, or anything like that. Within a year, I couldn't stand getting in a car because it was like, oh my god, it's so unpredictable. It's just these things I can't control that are going on. Whereas if I'm riding my bike, I'm completely in control all the time. I think true sustainability is very similar for business. If you're really sustainable and if you're actually circular, you are in control of what's going on all the time. I think once business tastes that, they will think, why in the world did we ever do things the old way?

Can you describe a time when you had to pivot or adjust your strategy for a company you were leading? Was this decision difficult, challenging sometimes?

Having to pivot is always difficult because you set yourself on a course and you've got to go, oh my gosh, this isn't working. What are we going to do? For me, the key element of that is that pivoting is totally fine and natural. Good companies know how to pivot. They know how to make those changes. But the pivot needs to be anchored in the core values and mission of the business. If you pivot in a way that's actually changing that mission or changing the values, or you're fundamentally now solving a different problem than what you had set out to solve, that's when companies get in trouble. That's when things start to fall apart because you've got people who bought into the whole program, be it employees or investors or suppliers or whoever, and suddenly you're a different company. You're doing something that's a very different thing, and people start to go, hey, I didn't sign up for this. And things start to fall apart very quickly. But if a company stays anchored, it can make changes very, very quickly. Probably one of the greatest examples is Microsoft. When the web came along, I don't know if you remember how that went, but when the web came along, Microsoft got caught off guard.

They had their operating system and their software, and suddenly these new companies came in with a browser where it didn't really matter what the operating system was, or what software you had sitting on your computer. Everything you did on your computer was going through the World Wide Web, and you were using all these services and programs and everything across the network, and Microsoft was basically disintermediated in that environment. Bill Gates was still in charge of Microsoft at that time, and he got that enormous company to just completely pivot and say, we are going to be the world leader in browser software, and we are going to change everything we're doing. We're going to start putting our programs up on the cloud. We're going to do all these things totally differently. And he was able to pull that off because it stayed true to the mission of Microsoft, which was basically a computer on every desktop. And this was the same thing. It was all about people being more productive in their lives using computers. So it was completely in line with why everyone worked for Microsoft and why everyone had invested in Microsoft. They just had to change the way they were doing things and what they were focusing on. And so you can pull off great feats of magical shifting if you're just staying anchored to what the core of the business is. And pivots are just, that's part of the game. That happens in business all the time.

How do you balance your passion for sustainability with practical realities of running a successful business and making a profit?

Well, I mean, I think if the business is truly designed well, then the business is the sustainability, right? I mean, everything is, there is no conflict there. It's not about, oh, we're going to have to take on these extra costs to do things this way. It's your whole business operating on the basis of that sustainability. I think a lot of companies view sustainability and circularity as being a threat, when in fact it could be this enormous asset for them if you just tweak your business to operate in that way. And so as soon as someone starts seeing sustainability as a sacrifice, usually nine times out of ten it's because they're not actually looking at the problem the right way.

Can you talk about the project or initiative that you worked on early in your career that helped shape your approach to sustainability and entrepreneurship at the same time?

Well, this came in different phases for me, but in the last few years, they've been very aligned. They're working together. As I mentioned before, I only got into entrepreneurship because none of the big companies doing renewable energy were hiring when I got out of school. And so that was, you know, just kind of happenstance. I was like, oh, okay, I'll do this, right? And then I liked it and I got hooked on it. Sustainability was much more conscious and that was a decision I made that I wanted to do sustainability. But, yeah, the more I got into sustainability, the better I understood it, the more I began to see that this is about opportunity, it's not about sacrifice, it's not about, you know, de-growth or, you know, creating these negatives within our society and economy. It can all be for the benefit of everyone.

As an entrepreneur and leader in sustainability space, what skills or qualities do you think are most important for success and how do you cultivate those skills?

The biggest thing for me in entrepreneurship is always grit. I mean, you have to be willing to just gut it out and do whatever is necessary to make things go. Whenever I'm talking to an entrepreneur and they say to me, you know, hey, I'm keeping my job right now because I'm not sure if this new company is going to work, I know that the company is going nowhere. I know that the company is never going to launch and be successful. If the entrepreneur is not willing to say, I'm going for it, this is what I'm going to do and I'm throwing everything I've got into it, it will never happen. So that is the number one thing by far. It's just you've got to have grit. You're going to hit walls and you're going to bump into challenges, and if your response to that is just oh shucks, well you're never going to get there. You've got to go, oh, okay, well, let's try this, right? And so it also gets into resourcefulness, right? You've got to be able to think resourcefully about how do we get around that, how do we make that happen? It's all based on grit and just, no, I'm not going to accept no as an answer, I'm going to find a way to make it work.

How do you approach team building and company culture when starting and growing a startup and what values do you prioritize in your team?

Well, one of the great things about starting a company is you get to define the culture. And I think the important thing for any entrepreneur is to put a set of corporate values in place really explicitly right up front, then hold true to them no matter what and communicate them on a regular basis. So your recruiting, your hiring, your compensation programs, everything about your organization stays true to those values. There have been studies on this, and they found that the specific values you choose can be almost anything, but what matters is that you state them clearly up front and reinforce them in everything you do. I remember reading about a tobacco company where the values were all about individual freedom, and the result was you go into the conference room and everybody's smoking and people are like, oh my God. But that was the company's value and they stuck to it. And they hired people who believed in that and were going to fight for it, and it was an enormously successful company. It’s the companies that never write their values down or really place any core values into their framework (or, even worse, change them over time) that aren’t very successful. Because you have people that are like, why are we here? What's going on? And so the values, it's not what they are, it's that you diligently put them in place early and you communicate them clearly, constantly and you uphold them no matter what. That's what matters.

Have you ever faced resistance or scepticism from stakeholders or investors about the viability or potential impact of a sustainability-focused business? And how did you address those concerns?

You always get scepticism, right? That's just part of it. You throw things out there and people are like, oh, that's never going to work. That's the craziest thing I've ever heard. And it kind of goes back to what I was saying about salesmanship, right? You've got to sell them. You've got to get them to believe that this is going to work and this is the right way to approach it. And if you can't convince them, then ultimately it's on you. I mean, if you can't get them over the hump, then that's your failing. Maybe it's because it is a stupid idea or maybe it's because you're just not figuring out how to communicate it clearly or get that point across or whatever. But you've got to get everybody to believe in what you're doing.

What advice would you give to someone who is interested in starting a sustainable startup?

Well, the first thing is always to follow your passions. Don't go into anything, including sustainable startups, because you think, oh, that's a great opportunity. I mean, if you just want to take a job somewhere, you can compromise your passions for what you think is a great opportunity. But if you're going to be an entrepreneur, then you've got to be passionate about it because you're going to have to make so many sacrifices. If you aren't really passionate about what you're doing, you just won't stick it out, right? You won't see it through. So that's the first thing - don't pursue anything that you aren't really passionate about. And if you find something that fits your passion, then get out and research it. See what the story is because there are very few ideas anybody can have that somebody else hasn't had before, right? Someone's thought of some aspect of what you're doing. I guarantee it. You need to find out, I mean, they may be a competitor that's moving in the same direction, or they may have failed for reasons that can be really helpful for you to understand. And so from that, you begin to formulate how you want to approach it or how you put it together, and then you can figure out if that is viable. Does that work as a business? Could I get people to believe and fund it? So it's really, it's kind of doing the legwork upfront to understand what you're getting yourself into, but it starts with pursuing something that you really, really, you just love. And it could be, it doesn't have to be sustainability, it could be dancing, it could be anything. It's just something you really, really want to do.

Can you share a personal failure or setback in your entrepreneurial journey, and what you learned from that experience?

I think the most surprising for me was I had a business, and I won't go into all the details of it, but it was a business that was so well positioned, and so it just, it was, we'd set it up in a way that it was just a certain success. And right around the time that we needed to raise the next round of funding, there was this huge downturn in the market, and I had this very astute lawyer I was working with, and he said, you know, I know you won't believe me, but I'm telling you, this is a really, really bad situation, and if I were you, I would lower your burn rate and give yourself another 12 months of runway, and just slow your business down and wait this out. And I was like, well, I can't do that. We're just about to take off, right? Everything is in place. We're going to go. And, of course, he was right. And we got out there, and everyone was like, you know, hey, we're not investing right now. The times are too tough. We're going to sit on the sideline. And ultimately, I had to close down that business. And literally, like three or four months later, the market started coming back, and I started getting all these calls from people saying, yours is the best thing I've seen. You know, is it still available? And it was like, well, no, it's gone, right? We blew it. That was a very painful lesson.

How would you describe your leadership style? What is important to you as a leader?

Well, it's interesting. I mean, we all have different strengths and weaknesses and ways we approach something. And I think for leadership, the most important thing is not really how you lead, but understanding yourself. It's almost a kind of self-awareness. It's recognizing where your flaws are. I tend to be really good at kind of grand visions. I've been really, really fortunate in seeing a lot of the ideas that I've come up with come to fruition. They weren't always through me, but I've rarely been wrong about where I think the world's going and what needs to happen. And I'm usually very, very good at getting people to be excited about it and to build partnerships and to get people involved and all those kinds of things. I'm not a kind of rah-rah, rally-the-team communicator type of leader. And I've come to recognize that. And so I need to get people around me who do that, who really are just excellent kind of day-to-day, minute-by-minute communicators and motivators and people like that because I'm always kind of off in my head and looking at these big pictures. And people get inspired by big pictures sometimes. But you've got to be able to have the other aspects of getting people there. I know people who are kind of the opposite. They're just innately talented at getting people to feel great and be super productive, but they aren't really able to sell them on any big idea or come up with a big idea of where the business needs to go. So either can be a really great leader, but you've got to complement your lackings to make it all whole.

How do you approach decision-making? Is it difficult for you to make decisions? How does it look like?

You'll often hit decisions you don't want to make. I mean, sometimes you're like, oh, great, should I have chocolate or a strawberry, right? But generally, decisions come up at bad times. It's like, oh, I've got to fire this person or we've got to pivot or we've got to do something that's not very palatable. It's not something you really want to do. But one of the greatest pieces of business wisdom I've heard is there was a big CEO of General Electric back in the day, and one of his core principles was to change before you have to. And I think that is how I think about decisions. Sometimes things come out of the blue, but you're not really doing your job if you're not constantly trying to predict where things are heading and making the decisions before you get there. Because once you're there, it's always a lot harder to make those decisions. So it's anticipating what's coming.

What is the most rewarding and most challenging part of your job?

The most rewarding is clearly seeing something come to fruition, having some vision of something, and then actually seeing it in operation. That's a real high. In general, for any entrepreneur, the most challenging is finding the funding to see an idea through and going through those periods when you can't get the funding and you've just got to gut it out.

Those are almost always the hardest times because not only are you, you know, not only is the stress level super high, but also it's no fun because you can't do what you want to do. Your whole life is absorbed with trying to get that funding together. And so you can't be realizing any of your vision. You can't be building towards the future. You're just trying to survive and get things going. But that is a part of startup life.

What was the most insightful and inspiring experience in your career?

That's a really interesting question. I've been involved in several transitions, kind of technology-led innovation transitions where it was really fun to be on the inside. So these aren't even relating to me necessarily directly. It's just being in that ecosystem and being with the players. Certainly, the biggest for me probably was back when the Web started and I just happened to be right in the middle of that. I was in Silicon Valley and my lead investor was the lead investor in Amazon and Google and Netscape and all those big companies. And so I knew all those players and I was watching that whole thing explode and just start to take off and to be in the private meetings and all the private decisions being made and everything. At the time, it was so crazy that you're just kind of exhausted, but you had this sense that there are big things happening here. And I've subsequently been in some other similar types of things in terms of the sharing economy and now the circular economy and seeing some of those things happen. But that was the one that, you know, was probably the biggest, most direct because you had so many businesses that just became multibillion-dollar businesses overnight.

What have you learned about yourself while building your businesses?

I think the most important thing is just realizing where your holes are. Really becoming more and more self-aware and recognizing, OK, I do this really, really well but I don't do that other thing very well at all. How do I compensate? How do I bring those pieces together? And I think that's something that some people are more aware of than others. It's just, something happens and you ask why it didn't work out. When you realize that there seems to be a pattern, then you need to start addressing it. So I think that's the biggest thing that I've picked up over the years.

What are some of the key goals that you have set for yourself, your company for the next five years, even 10 years?

For Circular Way, we have really grand ambitions. We want to fundamentally change retail. And so we're going to be focused on fashion for the next three or four years. And once we actually feel like we've got that working and going correctly, then we want to begin to expand into other things. And ultimately, we'd like to be able to be involved across the whole spectrum of consumer products. So we can just see that growing infinitely. There's no end. What I mean is there's so much transformation that has to take place. It's going to be a long, long road. And I think, as an individual entrepreneur, I don't necessarily feel like I have to be at the helm of that whole journey. I want to get it where it needs to be going. And at some point, I'd like to step out of day-to-day. And there are other things and other ideas that I'd like to go pursue and put in place. I don't necessarily feel like I have to be running this for the next 10 or 20 years. I can step back very happily and get involved in some other things.

So last but not least, what do you think, what key trends are emerging right now or will emerge over the next few years?

Well, I absolutely see the circular economy as being a huge, huge trend that's going to be accelerating for the next several years. It has so far to go and it's so necessary and it's so advantageous for everyone involved that it is going to grow and be a really, really big deal. But from a technology standpoint, I do think A.I., for better or worse, is going to be a big part of our lives over the next several years and drive a lot of change and a lot of disruption. A lot of jobs will be shifted and changed and it'll be fascinating to see how that plays out. I just hope it kind of goes in more good directions than bad directions. Climate change adaptation in general is going to be a very, very big issue. And circular economy addresses a big chunk of that, actually, 45 percent according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. But, you know, the whole energy transition and all the different opportunities that come out of that are fascinating.

And I think some of what we're seeing today as solutions in that area will ultimately end up not being the ultimate solution. To pick one example, I think electric cars are, you know, they're wildly better than internal combustion cars and what we've done for all these years. But the problem with electric cars is they're still cars. Ultimately, transportation is not going to be solved by everybody driving electric cars. It's going to be solved by getting smarter about transportation, urban planning, and where people live and how they live. So we don't need to move around as much. And if we do move around, we do it in different ways. We do it through, you know, autonomous Uber-like transport or best yet, really well-designed public transport. It ties everything together. So this huge emphasis on electric cars, it's way better than what's there today, but I think ultimately that's not going to be the solution. So I think the perception of that will change over the next five or ten years.

John, thank you for all invaluable advice, insights, and practical tips. 

John Atcheson is Co-Founder/CEO of Circular Way, a social enterprise dedicated to ending consumer waste by making circularity the foundation of everything we buy. Prior to Circular Way and its predecessor company, Stuffstr, John helped to launch Getaround, the world's leading peer-to-peer car sharing company, and served as Founder/CEO of several media-related startups, including MusicNet, the first interactive music service. Additionally, John has served as board chair of Sightline Institute, a leading sustainability think-tank based in Seattle. 

Interviewer: Justine Ilone Siporski is the founder, CEO and Editor-in-Chief of BUSINESS POWERHOUSE, the founder and CEO of LANGUAGE EMPIRE, coach, trainer, investor and columnist dedicated to the advancement of entrepreneurs, investors and the C-suite (CMOs, CEOs, CFOs, CIOs). Her key mission is to support leaders, business professionals and investors in achieving their highest potential, making the right business and investing decisions, and expanding their horizons. 

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