Eight months ago, while cycling across the Isle of Skye in pouring rain, I reached a sad but necessary conclusion: it was time to shut Do Nation down.
Over the last eight years I’ve put my blood, sweat, and tears into Do Nation. It’d be a vast understatement to say it’s been tough at times, but I’ve never doubted Do Nation’s potential to create a national — or even global — shift towards a more sustainable future. We’ve seen again and again how simple pledges, when done right, can lead to huge changes in behaviours, lifestyles, attitudes, and even careers. We’ve developed a model that has the potential to scale baked into it in a way that very few effective behaviour change initiatives have managed.
And having spent so much time in tech accelerators and incubators over the years, in the heart of the tech start-up ecosystem, that important word — scale — has always been an unquestionable goal. We must grow, and fast. Organic growth isn’t enough — it’s got to be rapid, exponential, hockey-stick-like growth.
That drive for fast growth comes at a cost. It creates great pressure, forcing you to constantly be searching for the next big growth hack instead of just focusing on the here and now. And it requires money — big money. As a result, growth is generally judged not on your impact or reach, but more on whether you’ve received Series A or B investment. And this comes with a whole host of issues.
Raising investment is more addictive than cocaine — one round is never enough. It’s all-consuming, taking the founders away from the day to day business (and in my case, as a sole founder, that was a big problem). And in closing a round, you give up control of your business and, all too often, your mission. No matter how much talk there is of impact investment, the bottom line is that for 99% of investors the top priority is just that: the bottom line.
I have a regular internal debate with myself about scale, why we’re all so transfixed by it; why investment-fuelled growth is just not sustainable — in any sense; but also why scale is also so darn important — climate change is a global problem that needs global solutions, now. While 16,000 people making pledges on Do Nation may be a great start, it’s not a scratch on what’s needed to tackle this beast. And so, despite it all, exponential growth has always been my ultimate goal for Do Nation.
But by mid 2017 the burden of trying to rapidly scale Do Nation was beginning to wear me down. I had had enough of the uncertainty that came from constantly striving for bigger and better; the loneliness was taking its toll on my mental health (I’d had to let almost all of the team go); and I had given up hope of ever reaching the scale that would make the slog worthwhile. We were on the brink of insolvency. I wanted the salary I deserved and a team of amazing colleagues who could teach me new things. Reflecting on this as I cycled through the Scottish rain, I resolved to wind up Do Nation.
But then three things happened.
Firstly, within days of returning from Skye, I found myself at the B Corp retreat, mingling with a whole host of clients past, present, and (as it turned out) future. The enthusiasm that radiated from them about Do Nation made me question my new resolve to shut it down. With so many great brands — from Ella’s Kitchen to Triodos Bank, Method / Ecover to Cook Food — all eager to sign up to Do Nation Pro over the coming months, I decided to postpone my plans by a few months.
Secondly, the following week we attended the BusinessGreen Leaders awards with our client Hill+Knowlton, where we picked up the Employee Engagement Campaign of the Year award. With this accolade freshly in our pocket, shutting down felt like an odd decision.
Thirdly, I realised that there was one big up-side to working alone: I could do it from anywhere. So I grabbed the opportunity while I could, upped sticks and left London, setting up office at the foot of Mont Blanc, in Chamonix, France.
Living away from the silicon roundabout rat race has given me a whole new perspective on things. I’ve realised that running a business doesn’t need to be all about accelerated scale, and that by putting future growth to one side and focusing instead on delivering a solid service today, you can actually build far more stable and healthy business.
Being away from the rush has made me realise how great what we have is. While the salary may be far from competitive, it’s enough, and more importantly — my job is hugely fulfilling: we’re actively involving people in tackling what’s undoubtedly the biggest challenge of our time; our clients are happy; our users are happy; and I can do it all from the luxury of the mountains, with a commute like this:
Sure, we’re not going to solve climate change single handedly, but we’re creating a meaningful impact in our own corner. We’ve helped almost 20,000 people to adopt healthier, more environmentally friendly habits, and in doing so, we’ve unlocked far greater changes within client organisations — from Pukka Herbs setting science based targets to Hill + Knowlton developing their Better Impact service.
What’s more, Do Nation is growing — we’ve already seen 92% year-on-year growth in pledges this quarter, and the quarter’s not even over. Completely organically. Why on earth would I bring that to an end?
So Do Nation lives on. We may not be able to make speedy progress on our ambitious wish list of new features. Strava integration; mobile apps; volunteering Do Actions — we’re going to have to park those ideas for now. But instead, my energy will be fully focused on building our community of Doers, honing and refining our client support, and on simply enjoying it for what it is.
And who knows what opportunities lie around the corner? I won’t force them, but if the right partnership for growth comes up, I’ll be ready to pounce.