The TH Interview: Dan Siegel, CEO of EVO
Dan Siegel is the CEO of EVO, a new company dedicated to helping consumers find greener options for all their purchases; we introduced them yesterday. TreeHugger caught up with Dan between work, surfing, hiking and telemark skiing to chat about green business, growing the green marketplace, avoiding greenwashing, and where green consumption fits in to a greener lifestyle.
TreeHugger: We've seen lots of "flash-in-the-pan" businesses and sites that promise to help inform people and make it easy for them to go green. What makes EVO different? Why will it survive?
Dan Siegel: Well, I've been incubating this concept for three or four years now, and probably have seen a lot of the same sites that you're referring to come and go. I think there's a few things that we've looked at in terms of our strategy that differentiate EVO from some of those that have come and gone.One is part of the value proposition in terms of what we're focusing on. So, a lot of the sites that we've seen have been focused on offering tips and information; ours is really on making a marketplace between the millions of interested green buyers and the thousands of interested green sellers. We haven't yet seen an effective, mainstream portal that bridges the gap between that large community of folks that want to buy green services and products and the sellers that are trying to reach them. So that's one thing: a little bit of a different focus in terms of what we're offering.
Another piece is -- and this gets to your question of how we're going to survive, and stick around, long-term, as a business -- is our business model. I think a "content model" is relatively difficult and very expensive for a lot of folks to build; ours is focused on affiliate revenue, so we only get paid when we make a successful connection between buyers and sellers. So it provides a tremendous amount of focus for us to offer the best products and services out there, and not necessarily have to rely on advertising to make ends meet.
The other piece of that, on the business model, is that we offer a lot of value to local merchants. So, if you think about the number of local businesses -- the $1 to $10 million dollar range, green products and service companies -- that don't necessarily have big ad budgets, that can't go out and buy huge amounts of marketing on Google and other places, it's very tough for them to compete with some of the larger companies. EVO offers essentially a level playing field for these smaller merchants because they can effectively reach a target audience and get the same exposure that a large company would on our site.
There are a couple other pieces to why I think we're well positioned in the market. One is our technology; we built a way that we can scale from our current offerings -- when we launched in July, with our limited beta testing, we had about 20,000 products and services on the site. When we open up the site on Thursday, we'll have over 100,000 products and services. [Ed. note: this interview was conducted earlier this week; the site is now live.] Essentially, our technology allows us to screen -- and we've already screened -- through millions and millions of products that are out there on the web, and have the rated and sorted and posted in a fashion that's very scalable and very inexpensive for us to do that.
The last piece is our team. I've had experience, with Student Advantage, in aggregating a very large marketplace -- we had 2 million student members and 20,000 business partners -- and my business partner, Mark, has done the same thing in the property rental business, with Rent.com; they attracted 40 million people to the site. So, we know and have had experience with taking large and very disaggregated communities and putting some sense around them.
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TH: You rely on green attributes and information that comes from manufacturers or retailers. As the whole green movement continues to gain momentum, how will you combat greenwashing? Are you concerned that as companies get more savvy about marketing "green," that you'll be overrun with greenwashing?
DS: It's definitely a concern. As marketers get more savvy, I think it's going to be harder and harder for consumers to differentiate between good products and good marketing. I think that one of the things that we've got inherently built into the foundation of what EVO represents is a couple of screening mechanisms and ways that we can try to safeguard the community. The first one is, at least initially, is that every single product that gets published and gets put through our green screen, our green filter, actually gets touched by human hands, before it gets published on the site. So, we do have a very strict level of quality control at the initial phase.
The second piece is that we've actually built in, to our technology, the ability -- it's almost like an automated fraud detector, and my partner, Mark, had to deal with this issue back at Rent.com, in terms of the property management stuff, so he's got experience in building this piece -- but the basic idea is that we have a baseline from where our company is starting from, based on those published attributes, and if that changes dramatically, or if things start to disappear because they're getting negative attributes, say because it's made in China, and then they pull that off, that'll actually get a worse score if they don't publish the source of where it's made vs. if they publish that it's made in China or made internationally. We can measure these deviations, so if a company starts to game the system, we can always turn the seller off. We have technology on our side, as well, to help manage that system.
The third piece, which I actually think is probably the most important piece of it all, is the community. We've gone out and filled the shelves and the warehouse with 100,000 products, and now we're opening it up and inviting the community to come in and essentially participate on two fronts: one is to add more products to the mix; the other is to make sure that the stuff up on the site is genuine and authentic, that the published attributes are truly transparent and what they say they are. If they're not, then we expect and have mechanisms for the community to participate and let us know about it.
TH: How do you respond to folks who might say that EVO is just encouraging more consumption, and that "green consumerism" is at best a green band-aid over the planet's real problems?
DS: Yeah, it's a great question, and I've thought a lot about this, too, on the personal front. My feeling is, and our philosophy internally, is that, to begin with, we need to meet people where they are. It's all about incremental change. There's a couple of ways that you can look at affecting a large movement. One is to be more of an outlier and set a standard for which you hope that everyone else can aspire to, but, personally, I think that, particularly in the green movement, it has a feeling of being a little bit binary; sort of like you're either "green" or you're "not green." For the people that, whether they're green or not, if they feel like they're not, or can't aspire to be green, because it's out of reach, or out of touch with their day-to-day, then I think you lose them. I think that one of the things that we're looking at doing is being more of an infiltrating device, that can go in to the mainstream, and actually meet people where they are, and shed some green light, in a sense, on the products and services they're already buying, and affect their green moment.
I like this idea of the green moment, because I see it all the time, when I talk to people about what we're doing. The light bulb kind of goes off in their eyes, and they go, "Oh, yeah, a place where I can actually do the right thing without having to put a lot of time and energy in to sorting through and understand what green means; you've done all this work for me." That's why we've set out to organize the marketplace, with the sense of raising awareness about what goes in to the products and services. The reality is that people shop; if we could stop shopping tomorrow, then that would certainly be a part of what we'd love to do. I don't think, at this time, that it's realistic; given the reality of where we are, we would rather, if people where going to shop, to focus them on the right kinds of products and services that lead to an elevated awareness, which ultimately leads to less consumption. I've seen it in myself and I've seen it in the people that have been in and around the green community for the last three or four years; once you start thinking more about what goes in to the manufacturing process, where things come from, and how they effect our environment, and our kids, then you start to put a different kind of filter on all of your consumption. That's really our goal: to meet people where they are now, raise awareness, and ultimately transition them into purchasing less.
TH: Okay, so let's say three or four years from now, if you're able to affect that sort of change, how will you measure your success, and what would it take for you to consider the business a success?
DS: Our ultimate goal -- our mission -- is to create this massive green marketplace, where consumers are coming to evo.com first, before they buy anything -- and many of the products and services already on the site were intentionally derived from the basic elements that people need to sustain their lives -- so, food, clothing, shelter, transportation; really, where people are spending their money and essentially need those products and services to survive. I think, from a success metric, for us to have a thriving community, of millions of engaged users, that are using EVO as a resource to analyze their shopping and purchasing decisions before they make them, so they can do research, they can do comparative shopping based on two products and see that one has a higher green rating than another, they can get educated around what goes in to those products and services.
The ultimate goal is to affect the business community; as we organize millions and millions of shoppers and provide a collective point to harness and aggregate their buying power, we can go out as a community and start to affect change with businesses. There's two ways that that can happen; there's both the carrot and the stick. With the stick side, it's like, "We're not going to buy your products unless you're more responsible about how they're produced," but on the carrot side, it's more like, "Hey, there's a huge opportunity now, if you're a responsible business, to market your products and services on EVO."
One of the things that's been interesting to see on the business community side, is that there are a lot of both smaller and large sellers that have desperately been looking for a platform and a way to get their green products and services out there, and not feel -- particularly the genuine ones -- that they're not caught up in the consumer weariness about greenwashing. I think having a genuine, authentic platform, also provides a lot of value on the business side, to say, "Okay, good, we're rewarding the things you're doing well" and providing you a very cost-effective outlet to reach a massive consumer base."
TH: What's the most pressing environmental problem facing the world, in your estimation, and how will EVO help combat that?
DS: I look at that question in both a macro and a micro level; from a macro perspective, I think we're all pretty aware of the global warming crisis. Although it's clearly probably our most pressing environmental problem, I also think that for many people, at the individual level, it's kind of hard to wrap your head around and make sense of it and affect change at the personal, day-to-day level.
So, while that's a big issue, I do think that people like to know, "What's in it for me?" or "What can I do?" At a more local level, there's a related issue, but we've pretty much poisoned our food systems, our groundwater, our air, and, I think that as EVO helps raise awareness around the relevance of what goes in to the products we consume, and as we facilitate better access to responsibly-produced products and services, we can help people re-think what they buy and where they buy it from. Again, from that ultimate goal of reducing consumption of any products that might have dangerous chemical additives or that are sourced from thousands of miles away, I think that's going to be a huge step towards lowering the toxicity of our planet in general.
TH: Along the lines of individual actions, if there was one action that you could convince everyone to do every day to create a greener, healthier planet, what would that be?
DS: Take a hike. Very simply, you know? Not everyone has access to do that, but take a hike or take a walk every day, to me is the most important action that I personally take. I'm lucky; I have a couple of big dogs that keep me walking an hour a day, and I can walk to work since my office is close to home. I think, from an environmental standpoint, it obviously has benefits -- driving less and reducing pollution and greenhouse gases -- but on the community element as well, I get to actually interact with my neighbors, which is a pretty rare thing in the LA car culture, and I get exercise, but, ultimately, I just get to slow everything down, which allows me to think more clearly, and really connect to what's important to me in my life.
Dan Siegel is CEO of EVO.