January 25, 2021|By Jamie Christensen

Four Lessons Environmental Organizations Can Learn from Startup Culture

Since then, I have seen every cliché in the startup playbook, from Shark Tank-style venture capitalist pitches to late night coding sessions to dramatic meetings in the board room. Along the way, I have learned how startup culture is disrupting nearly every industry and how it has the potential to transform environmental organizations as well. Here are four key lessons that startup culture can teach environmental organizations:

(1) Start Small

At the beginning of a startup’s journey, having no customers is liberating (and terrifying). Starting from zero forces you to get your hands dirty with the problem you are solving, by starting fresh and building a customized product, one customer at a time. The same holds true for the work of environmental organizations, where there is value in pursuing projects that might seem small or unsustainable in the short run but offer big learnings in the long term. As part of a college internship at The Conservation Fund, which led to a job for the U.S. Forest Service, I helped develop a decision support tool at the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, located an hour south of Chicago. While building consensus on restoring small patches of dolomite prairie on a former Army TNT depot was not going to transform the Illinois landscape, the best practices established there for restoration have served as a literal seed bed for dozens of efforts in the region.

1 25 21 Midewin1The 20,000-acre Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie was a former Army TNT Depot, where The Conservation Fund helped launch an ambitious effort to turn back the clock on a unique landscape. Photo courtesy USDA Forest Service. 

(2) Iterate, Iterate, Iterate

Ecosystem management has traditionally taken a waterfall approach to developing conservation projects, where each stage of a plan is dependent on completion of the previous stage, with detailed documentation and design flowing into implementation timelines that often stretch into decades. In contrast, with limited resources and no clear competitors in the market, startups typically opt for an agile approach to managing projects. Breaking an effort into “sprints,” where technology can be adjusted to learnings along the way, lets startups release benefits iteratively, while they are still handcrafting the product. Where the typical environmental management plan is designed for an ideal end state, the iterative culture at startups leaves plenty of room for mistakes, adapts to changes on the ground in real time, and quickly responds to new learnings. In a world where climate change and loss of biodiversity is accelerating our need for action, there is an opportunity for conservation to embrace an agile mindset.

1 25 21 MembersAt Outdoor Access, we release new functionality to our web site in “sprints”, based on the feedback from our members, who are looking for unique places to enjoy the outdoors. Photo courtesy Outdoor Access.

(3) Predict the Future

The most successful startups have a thesis on where technology is heading. In 2003, Elon Musk realized advances in machine learning and hardware would accelerate a path to self-driving cars. Now, with Tesla valued more than all other U.S. automakers combined, the rest of the industry is playing catch up. The conservation community has the same opportunity to lean into future advances in technology, particularly as it relates to the use of geospatial data to analyze and predict management outcomes. For instance, when sensors are better at measuring and analyzing conditions on the ground than humans, eliminating the need for most field work, how will this transform the way environmental organizations develop policy and manage resources?

1 25 21 MalvernHill1Outdoor Access used remote sensing to locate old trails and property features on a historic 350-acre property just outside of Richmond, Virginia, which is owned by the Capital Region Land Conservancy. Photo courtesy Outdoor Access.

(4) Unbundle and Bundle

Jim Barksdale, the former CEO of Netscape, claimed there are only two ways to make money business: bundling and unbundling. An obvious example is Spotify: by unbundling every recorded song and then bundling them all back together in an app on your smart phone, the company has over 250 million users. This same opportunity is available for ecosystem services, which are the benefits we derive from the natural environment, like recreation, clean drinking water, energy, and agriculture. Today, these services are bundled so only the largest organizations can enjoy the most benefits from them. Instead, what if an heirs’ landowner in rural eastern North Carolina was given access to a bundle of management resources that was previously only available to large, institutional landowners? For the first time, they could generate meaningful income by tapping into a readily available network of sustainable land use opportunities, like hunting leases and conservation easements, making it more likely for her to pass the family’s land on to the next generation. Does this sound like a pipe dream? Creating this unbundled opportunity for landowners is exactly what we hope to accomplish at my startup, Outdoor Access.

1 25 21 LandownerRural landowners like Kay, who inherited her property in Chatham County, North Carolina, are working with Outdoor Access to keep this legacy in the family. Photo courtesy Outdoor Access.

What is most exciting about startup culture is the way each of these four lessons come together into a broader organizational philosophy. By starting small and building products that iterate and adapt, startups grow into future advances in technology, which can result in the unbundling and bundling of entire industries. To be successful, startups must hold two things in their minds at the same time: how to start fixing a big problem in small ways now, while using learnings from these first steps to fulfil a broader mission. With so much at stake and the issues coming at us faster than ever, the culture of startups and environmental organizations have more in common than you might think.

Written By

Jamie Christensen

Jamie Christensen is President and Co-Founder of Outdoor Access. He started his career as an intern at The Conservation Fund and then as a GIS specialist for the U.S. Forest Service and GeoDecisions. In 2000, he founded WorldView Solutions, a geospatial consulting and software firm focused on building tools for land and water resource management, which was acquired by Gannett Fleming, a global infrastructure firm, in 2018. In 2016, he co-founded Outdoor Access, a startup that gives outdoor enthusiasts exclusive short-term access to private land for hunting, fishing, hiking, and camping while helping landowners earn additional income from their property.