Gordon Renouf founder of Otter

Gordon Renouf is the co-founder of consumer information services Otter and Checking it Twice, both provided under the umbrella of social enterprise start-up Ethical Consumers Australia. ECA works for a fairer and more sustainable world by developing tools to make it easier for people to choose products and services that match their values.

Gordon previously worked for access to justice and consumer rights at community legal services and consumer organisaitons, including as Director of Campaigns at consumer organisation CHOICE. He’s on the board of three great not for profit organisations – the eco-labelling program Good Environmental Choice Australia, the pro bono legal service Justice Connect, and the Consumers Federation of Australia.

We’re trying to capture the potential power of consumers’ choices to influence business for good.

Gordon studied philosophy at Sydney University and law at UNSW. More recently he’s taken the AsiaLink leaders program at the Centre for Social Innovation at UNSW.

otter.org.au @smart_otter @gordonrenouf facebook

Tell us a little bit about your idea and what made you decide to take the plunge and make it happen?

The idea is to make it as easy as possible for people who want to make consumer choices that match their values to do so.

There’s maybe 80-90% of the population who have some level of interest in making consumer choices that are better for the environment and animals, or choices that make a positive social impact through fair trade or by avoiding human rights abuses. But in the cold hard reality of everyday life, a majority of us rarely make those choices – instead we make trade-offs about price, convenience, performance, or let social concerns override our better intentions. A good slice of the population – we think around 40% – are not happy about those trade offs; they feel bad that they’re not more often making choices that are consistent with values that are important to them.

So our task is to make it easier for them to do what they actually really want to do – by reducing the barriers and problems that push them towards the trade offs they are unhappy with.

Please explain your business model.

Right now we’re a social start-up and we’re not making any money!   We currently publish the free Otter newsletter and offer our ethical gift advice service Checking it Twice, also a free service.

Ultimately, we plan to build a large online community of people interested in making consumer choices that are better for people, the planet and animals. We’re confident if we are responding to a real problem for the user we will be able make that pay for itself in the end. But right now we’re still doing customer development – searching for ‘product/market fit’ in lean startup talk. There’s no point obsessing about the business plan until we know we are meeting enough people’s needs to be sure it we have a viable project that will also have a strong positive social impact. We have a few ideas about how the project can derive enough money to gain the size it needs to achieve its goal, but we’re still testing them.

My personal business model is that, at least for the moment, I do other work including facilitation and consulting, to bring in some income.

What are you working on right now and what are you most excited about in the next three months?

We’ve just launched Checking it Twice, an ethical gift advice service.

Checking it Twice aims to help people overcome the dilemmas they often face at Christmas time – how to buy the right gift for a friend or family member; how to choose a gift that the recipient will love, but that is also better for the environment and animal welfare, or one that has a strong positive social impact.

You can browse hundreds of ‘gift stories’, each with an idea for a gift choice that is better for the planet, people and/or animals. But what makes Checking it Twice unique is that it offers personalised advice for that friend or family member who is hard to buy for. You give us a small amount of information about who the gift is for, your budget, the values that are important, and the Checking it Twice team will get back to your with 2-3 gift ideas.

As well as being a great service, this is an experiment to learn what users want as a basis for building a larger platform that will have more user engagement.

How do you make ideas happen?

Great question! Enthusiasm and optimism to start with, then some reality testing. I always run ideas past other people. If I can’t persuade someone I trust that it’s a great idea then either the idea is not right or I’m not describing it well. But if some of them get why the idea would be great – especially once it’s improved with their feedback  – then that’s a start.

But starting is not even half the battle.  Like many people I have a lot of ideas that come to nothing. I’m now much more OK with that than I used to be. Scott Belsky insists in Making Ideas Happen that you have to kill ideas “often and early” so you’ve got the space and focus to make your best idea work. I read Belsky’s book a couple of years ago and parts of it really resonated.

What does your typical day look like?

There is no typical day. On a great day I’d ride to work (about 6 k each way), I’d spend some time with one or more of my colleagues renewing our focus on key priorities, I’d complete a task that was important but not urgent and then I’d let myself spend a couple of hours on what ever was coming up. I’d also make sure to do something to help someone else, spend some time learning something, and take some time out in the evening. In reality, I’m lucky to tick off much of that in a week let alone a day!

In practical terms my daily work tasks vary enormously. I work with the team to devise ways to find out about what our users and potential users are looking for. I look over ideas for the next issue of Otter with its curator. I find and get in touch with people, organisations and businesses interested in the issues we work on. I check our budgets and look for, and sometimes talk to, potential funders and social investors.

What challenges have you faced when starting or growing a business/organisation in Australia?

The most significant challenges I’ve faced in leading organisations are to do with their culture. A couple of times I’ve been asked to play a leadership role in an organisation that was in serious trouble. Getting them back on their feet financially was generally do-able, but getting the culture right required much more work, and we didn’t always achieve it. If an organisation wants to make a real difference, it has to have a great culture. I would say the leadership teams I have been part of have not always done enough on this, in part because we didn’t know enough about ‘taking people with you’.

At Otter our number one challenge is finding the right kind of funding to build and scale a large online community around ethical consumer choices. The kind of support needed by start-up social enterprises and social businesses seems much more readily available in places like the US and the UK than in Australia. There’s money around for social enterprises and social businesses who have a demonstrated business model and a need to scale, but less seed funding for social venture ideas at an early stage. That said, there are a few people and organisations aware of this problem and working on it, like The Difference Incubator, Social Traders and the Centre for Social Impact.

What is one idea you are willing to give away for free? 

Learn to listen. This is partly “Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood” but its also about leaving space for other people’s ideas to blossom. They’re often better than yours. It’s just as useful to recognise and promote a good idea as to have one yourself.

What people/companies/organisations do you think are doing really cool stuff in your industry at the moment?

There’s some great social enterprises established or getting going in Australia – the Bread and Butter project bakes bread while training asylum seekers to become bakers, Bare Hand is just getting going as a social enterprise that will provide training, employment and economic development for Aboriginal people by offering cultural tourism, Soft Landings is now a decent size business that diverts waste mattresses from landfill and recovers the components for reuse – while offering employment opportunities for people who experience barriers entering the open labour market (because of disability or prison record, for example).

What about internationally?

TOM’s marketplace – makes it easier for products produced by social enterprises to reach an audience.
The Pro Planet eco label in Germany is one of the most innovative – it has a strong focus on not just whether a product meets standards but what it is doing to get even better. [site in German]
Ethical Consumers UK ‎publish tips on ethical buying and comparisons between brands in major sectors.
Good Guide helps people in North America “find  safe, green and ethical products based on scientific ratings”.

What role do you think business can play in affecting social change?

The most important thing businesses can do is make sure that their core activities truly add value to the world. That they solve a real problem for their customers and that the value they add is created in the most sustainable and ethical way possible. Depending on your business there’s different ways to look at this – cradle to cradle or life cycle approaches, closed loop production and shared value are some of the tools.

I’m cynical about a lot of things that are touted as business doing good. Sending a few staff to clean up the neighbourhood is nice, but it’s irrelevant compared to the impact of your core activities. The same with cause marketing – like putting a pink badge on a water bottle that is otherwise unsustainable. That’s pretty shoddy most of the time.

As an advocate in the NGO sector I’ve spent a lot of my life working for organisations calling businesses to account for contributing to social problems; for example, irresponsible finance companies that prey on low income people with unfair credit products, or food companies that don’t want to face up to their role in the obesity crisis.

That said, when business does the right thing, it has an enormous impact, for example when an international brand looks at how much forestry it uses, and finds a way to cut it by half, and then decides that all the rest will be sourced sustainably.

Companies need to work hard to truly understand their impact – that includes looking at the data that they have or can easily get, but also talking to the workers far down their supply chains, or NGOs that have called them to account. Working with well-accredited certification schemes that research problems and set high standards – like Good Environmental Choice Australia –  is another way to do it.

But business needs incentives to act. Sometimes doing the more sustainable or ethical thing is the most profitable, but often not in the short term. This is where consumer demand is so important. And that’s where Otter and Checking it Twice come in – we’re trying to capture the potential power of consumers’ choices to influence business for good.

Speaking of affecting social change, we’ve teamed up with Shout for Good to encourage readers to ‘shout a coffee’ to charity by clicking the button below. Is there a particular charity you’d like to support? (follow link for complete list)

That’s a hard call. I don’t want to choose between environment, fair trade or animal welfare charities, so as a cyclist I’m going to plump for the Amy Gillett Foundation. Getting more people on bikes, and making roads safer for them is great for the environment and great for people’s physical and mental health. And it’s great for car drivers too – less traffic.

Name 3 websites you would recommend to our readers. 

Shop Ethical – for advice on the ethical performance of brands.

Green Villages – for news and tips on sustainable living, produced by the City of Sydney but mostly relevant beyond.

Good Environmental Choice Australia – Australia’s non profit whole of life ecolabelling scheme – an ecolabel allows business and household purchasers to reward businesses that have bothered to get their product’s sustainability credentials independently certified.

Are there opportunities for people to get involved with your idea (e.g. are you looking for funding, interns, marketing help)?

Funding is number one. We need a bit more support to develop a minimum viable version of our big idea, and to establish ‘proof of concept’.

In the meantime we always welcome contributions to Otter on topics relevant to our audience, and feedback on what people would like us to cover in Otter and with other tools like Checking it Twice.

We’re also open to another person who is passionate about joining the team, especially someone who is outstanding in communications and/or building and supporting online communities.

What’s your favourite bar/café/restaurant?

Bread and Circuses in Alexandria (Sydney) does really great food with a generally  sustainable approach. It’s not all that close but I wish I could get there more often …

We thought it would be cool to crowdsource an annual prize to award to the interviewee’s choice (each person interviewed gets one vote) winner for the year’s best interview. Are you willing to kick in a prize?

Sure. What I’m best at – outside of Otter – is workshop facilitation, especially where you’re trying to get diverse stakeholders to better understand each other and build a way forward. So I could do a couple of hours of that.

Get serious about making ideas happen!

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