Alex Smith is co-founder partner of The Sustainability Group. Alex co-leads the development of the consultancy practice and FuturePlus, a business sustainability management platform that makes managing social and environmental impact accessible, affordable, achievable and trackable for every business. Alex is a trustee of the Better Coffee Foundation set up by Grind Coffee, and is a TEDx speaker.
Can you tell us a little about your background and the company?
Before I formed The Sustainability Group and FuturePlus with co-founder Mike Penrose, I worked across commercial, social, and environmental impact projects with brands, rights holders, organisations, and governments across the globe as Commercial Director of Clipper Round the World Yacht Race. With FuturePlus and The Sustainability Group, I work with brands as diverse as Soho House and the law firm DLA Piper as well as numerous SMBs on how to be profitable, sustainable and ethical.
How did the idea come to you for the company?
FuturePlus is the answer to the question: How do you know if your business is sustainable?
Mike and I realised through our work in previous roles that sustainability had become, at worst, a badge of honour for the already super sustainable and, at best, a world of complex terms, confusing information and something prohibitively expensive to implement. Working on a commercial project together, we found our beliefs on what the world of sustainability should look like were aligned. The FuturePlus platform is designed to help businesses understand and prove their sustainability credentials, and tell the right people – whilst showcasing all their ambitions to become better, and of course be held accountable for those goals.
How did you achieve awareness?
We are still scaling and growing, but from the beginning we focused heavily on our brand look and feel and how we portray ourselves. PR has been extremely important for us and we committed early on to taking part in thought leadership opportunities, interviews, talks and panels. Speaker slots at events such as Sustainability Live and TedX have been great for building our profile and driving interest in the platform.
We’re grateful to have some incredible clients who really believe in the change we are effecting, and have recommended us to others through their communications and reporting. In 2023, we are increasing our investment in marketing and PR, and we have been building an exciting plan that should propel awareness in FuturePlus in the next 12 months.
How have you been able to gain funding and grow?
We are venture capital backed, raising our first seed funding in February 2021. We were fortunate to meet a venture capital firm early on that was focused on sustainable investments, but also wanted to measure and track the improvement of its current and future portfolio companies. Our experience with investors has been that because FuturePlus meets a very real need within their own organisations, they buy into it.
We have since gone through further rounds and now have an incredible mix of high net worth and institutional investors. The initial funding allowed us to build the platform and we are now focused on development, talent and PR and marketing to rapidly scale the company. Fundraising is incredibly time consuming and resource heavy, so we enlisted an advisor recently to help us navigate the investment journey, which has been hugely helpful.
What are the key successes?
FuturePlus launched in early 2022 with global clients including DLA Piper, Soho House, Oxwash, Grind Coffee, and With Intelligence. Since then the business has gained hockeystick growth. I’m proud to say that our team is 66% female, an achievement for any technology company when you consider Deloitte’s global tech benchmark of 33%.
We’re also excited to see real enthusiasm and uptake from companies who have not been traditionally focused on sustainability, such as financial and facilities management firms. Because we built FuturePlus to enable all businesses to improve their sustainability credentials, that has been great to see.
What were/are the challenges and how have you overcome these?
In the early days, because we were building something genuinely new, the team and I had to build the confidence required to say that what we’re doing is the best solution to a variety of sustainability challenges. You really have to grow into that role through your successes as a team, making robust decisions that pay off and engaging with a variety of diverse points of view – especially as the business grows, and client perspectives shift as you begin to deal with a wider variety of organisations with different priorities.
I think that the way you present yourself in those environments as a woman can also involve some very specific tripwires. There have been numerous studies, many cited in the excellent book The Authority Gap by Mary Ann Sieghart, into the ways in which women are expected to navigate the vanishingly fine line between perceived confidence and perceived arrogance. You have to showcase your ability carefully.
What are your plans now/for the future?
We’re excited by the possibilities of using machine learning, data visualisation and other analytical technology to bring deep intelligence to ESG data, to enable businesses to understand not just the what, but also the why and how of building a sustainable organisation.
We’re also looking at further international expansion, particularly in regions such as the Middle East where ESG is relatively nascent, but there is huge appetite and opportunity for what we are doing.
What would you like to share with others to encourage them to start their own entrepreneurship journey?
Always be open to new opportunities. There is never a perfect time to jump into becoming an entrepreneur – but if there’s something you strongly believe in then there will be a way to make it happen. That said, while we certainly don’t all have the same 24 hours a day, building and running a business does require elements of compromise – as my family can attest!
What are your favourite inspirational /motivational quotes?
“I couldn’t wait for success, so I went ahead without it.” – Jonathan Winters
“Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the little voice at the end of the day that says I’ll try again tomorrow.” – Mary Ann Radmacher
What are your Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn social handles and also website links so our readers can connect with you?
Alex LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/alexandra-smith-ab788779/
FuturePlus LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/company/future-plus/
FuturePlus Twitter: https://twitter.com/Future_Plus_
FuturePlus Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/future_plus.co.uk/
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