5 questions for Nate Morris on entrepreneurship, innovation, and environmentalism
What is it like to start a business in America today? How can innovations in the waste management industry benefit the environment? Does environmentalism need to be a divisive political issue? I recently explored these questions, and more, with entrepreneur and CEO Nate Morris.
Nate is the founder and CEO of Rubicon, a software company dedicated to modernizing the waste-management business. Nate has been featured on Fortune Magazine’s 40 Under 40 list and has been recognized as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum.
Pethokoukis: How hard is it to start a business in America today, especially if it’s one where you have very high aspirations and want to do important things?
Morris: The idea is usually the easy part, and the execution — having the courage to get the business going — is hard. In particular, there’s the reputational risk. It’s telling friends, family, colleagues, and even your boss, “I’m going to go do something else. I’m starting out on my own.” For a lot of people, it makes them feel uncomfortable. They think, “Well, maybe I should be doing that.” Or, “How do they get to do that?”
Beyond that, getting started today is all about asking: What problem are you solving? Because the bigger the problem you solve, the more the market rewards you. We were fortunate at Rubicon to stumble upon the waste management industry, which has not changed from its landfill model for thousands of years. We were fortunate that we stumbled upon a very big challenge: getting off our landfill model. Even if we were just a little bit right, we could make a really sizable impact.
When people think of the environment, a lot of their focus is on climate change rather than excess waste. So what don’t people understand about your industry?
Think about the garbage that you throw away every day. The carbon emissions that are associated with that waste is significant. And aside from climate change, how long can you continue to bury garbage in the ground and not think that it doesn’t have a big impact on water or air quality? Everything we bury in the ground gets into the soil, which ultimately gets into our food and into our bodies. So common sense shows that burying garbage at scale doesn’t make a lot of sense.
Waste is a design flaw. If we’re producing a lot of waste, that means our manufacturing could be run better and the products that we’re producing could improve as well. And there are economic benefits to making these changes. So if we waste less, we’re going to have better environmental outcomes. We’re going to save money, and we’re going to run better businesses as a whole.
How can we do better? What does Rubicon do to make that happen?
The three big waste management industry players own the landfills. So when they pick up your trash, they’re trying to put it into the landfill they own and then charge rent on that garbage every month. They get paid to bury garbage in the ground. At Rubicon, we don’t own trucks or landfills, so we can be agnostic about environmental solutions. We can actually partner with recycling plants and incentivize more recycling solutions to get built into local economies, for instance.
We also saw a big technology gap. Most of the waste industry today is light years behind the rest of the economy when it comes to collecting data. So we set out to build a great platform for the industry that could collect metrics, so that waste could tell the story about the efficiency and environmental impact of businesses. Waste leaves clues, which gives us the information we need to make adjustments up the supply chain to stop waste before it begins.
This is a data business in large part. Are you generating data that cities didn’t have before, or are you using data cities had but didn’t know how to use?
A little bit of both. In some cases, cities don’t have any data. Waste is one of the most overlooked categories in any operating business. In these cities, we have the opportunity to really put cities on a path to being smart and resilient. The products that we install at the city level immediately provide savings to the taxpayer through better routing, better efficiency, and more driver engagement.
Also, the trash truck goes to every home and business, which is an opportunity to collect data about road conditions, weather, even things like graffiti — things that are happening inside the city that the garbage truck can detect while it’s driving. After all, it has such a great purview of so many of the cities’ roads, because it goes so many different places. The staggering amount of data that we collect around a city helps us inform city supervisors about how to improve their city from an infrastructure perspective or even a crime perspective.
People tend to associate environmentalists with the left, but it seems weird that the environment is such a politically divisive issue. What are your thoughts on that?
It’s an interesting question. I’ve always loved the environment and never thought that politics had anything to do with it. And now we’re seeing a generational shift: This is not a passive issue for millennials and below. If you don’t have an environmental message as a company or institution, you’re going to be left behind. So I think both parties have to think about how they’re going to be relevant on this issue.
I believe the fundamentals of sustainability have to start with economics. It’s all well and good that we have the right intentions, but if our initiatives don’t make sense for business, they’re not going to be viable for anyone in the long term. So business has to lead the way, and we’re doing our part at Rubicon. Just because you’re in business doesn’t mean you can’t make big moves and have a big impact on this issue.
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