5 simple actions early-stage founders can do to build startups with sustainability mindset

Illai Gescheit
Zerofirst Ventures
Published in
4 min readJan 7, 2021


We see entire industries now committing to make themselves net-zero or in other words to decarbonize themselves. Carbon emissions are very common in any industry from the internet industry where big server farms have large footprint to the mobility industry where vehicles have footprint for their manufacturing and also have long term accumulated footprint for their operations.

Amazon for example committed to become net zero by 2040 and Google by 2030. Startup founders wish they would become the next Google or Amazon in 10 or 20 years from now — successful businesses with hundreds of millions of users and outstanding valuations. With the size of a company comes the size of your carbon footprint. Instead of scaling the company and then spending millions to decarbonize it (like companies have done up until this very days), early stage and scale-ups need to build better and in a more responsible way. They need to think, plan and lead their startups to scale while minimizing their footprint. They need to scale sustainably.

Here are 5 simple ways startup leaders could use early to build a more sustainable and responsible venture, team and company culture:

  1. Add sustainability to your company values/principles — Your company values and principles will determine how your company culture will be shaped and who are the people will you will hire. If you make net-zero, climate and sustainability a part of your values you will hire people who care about the planet and your impact. If you make it a part of your values this will be part of your daily discussions and will be a part of who you are as a company.
  2. Measure your impact — Measuring impact (social or environmental) is one of the most difficult thing founders and impact investors deal with. What are the metrics? do you use the UN Sustainable goals? your own metrics? Here is something important for all of you starting measuring impact. It doesn’t matter at the early days— just choose a metric to start with and iterate as you grow — learn as you grow and see what fits you best as you scale. The notion that the company is measuring something like the company’s carbon footprint and sharing it with the employees will help you get the right people onboard and will help build a culture that will grow your impact organically.
  3. Add sustainability to the hiring process — by no means do I encourage you to test people about climate change or about how to reduce your server’s footprint during their interviews. I would encourage founders to ask what candidates think about climate change, what do they think they could do to fix it and how they think they can help the company become more sustainable. Like many of the questions you would ask in the evaluation process it’s about understanding how they think and also discuss their values and see if there’s a fit to your company culture. Try with experimenting by adding your climate values to the job description and see if you receive different profiles.
  4. Invest in climate education for your team — I believe that great leaders are using their businesses to help create a more responsible society. People come to the office and spend 60%–70% (some even more) of their time at work. Therefore, leaders have to think of time at work as a platform to make good through their business and to help people become a better version of themselves. No matter if you bring a guest speaker to talk about climate, or allowing them time to take an online course or just give them a book as a gift, adding a layer of climate education will help people understand and act both personally and for your business to become more sustainable.
  5. Lead the pack and become a role model for your team, customers and investors— My advice to you is try to be a realistic role model. You will have to fly to meetings and maybe a lot and you will have to use cloud computing to run your product live. Try to fly economy for example or do some meetings remotely, and try to design your cloud architecture to optimize your footprint. Talk about climate and be honest about how you could do better in your personal life and in the office. Finally, don’t obsess about it or force anything like other companies I know that force everyone to eat vegan — instead inspire your team to improve in a way that fits them as individual and as a team.

Any change starts with leaders that inspire and empower others to think, learn and act. Building a team is a great responsibility and opportunity to build something unforgettable. Your ability to impact as a team is greater and therefore building your team with a zerofirst mindset might have much more impact than you would think.

There are many other ways you can help your company become more sustainable and if you do please share in the comments — we would love to learn from you.

In the future, we will share more mechanisms to help startups to build better such as how to compute your cloud computing carbon footprint and how to design sustainable products.