About the Entrepreneurs For Good Series
Through this series, we speak with Asia based entrepreneurs whose mission it is to bring solutions to the environmental, social, and economic challenges that are faced within the region to learn more about their vision, the opportunities they see, and challenges that they have had to overcome.
It is a series that we hope will not only engage and inspire you, but catalyze you and your organizations into action. To identify a challenge that is tangible, and build a business model (profit or non) that brings a solution to the market.
About Nissa Marion
Nissa Marion is a Hong Kong based environmentalist. Born and raised in Canada, she deeply loves nature and wild places, and believes that education, engagement, and collaboration are the keys to sustainability.
In 2003, Nissa’s passion for conservation led her to work with Ecovision, a fifteen-year established non-profit social enterprise specializing in environmental education and events. From there she went on to cofound and direct the well-loved Hong Kong Cleanup (HKcleanup.org), a large-scale community environmental event that has engaged more than 250,000 participants and cleaned up over 17 million pieces of trash. This successful initiative raises awareness of personal, community and corporate environmental responsibility as well as advocating for sustainable government policies regarding waste management.
Nissa was also the Cofounder, Editor in Chief and Event Director of Ecozine, Asia’s premiere guide to modern sustainable living, which produces a quarterly print magazine, a daily-updated website (Ecozine.com), a weekly e-newsletter and world-class events such as Hong Kong’s own Zero Waste Week, successfully launched in 2015. She is committed to using popular media to focus the world’s attention on environmental issues and inspire change for the better.
Driven by the belief that change begins with a single step, Richard Brubaker has spent the last 15 years in Asia working to engage, inspire, and equip those around him to take their first step. Acting as a catalyst to driving sustainability, Brubaker works with government, corporate, academic and non-profit stakeholders to bring together knowledge, teams, and tools that develop and execute their business case for sustainability.
Full Interview Transcript
My name is Nissa Marrion. I am the co-founder and editor in chief of Ecozine magazine and also the co-founder of an NGO called The Hong Kong Clean Up. My mission in life is to make the world a better place, no really. To be a contribution in my personal and professional life and I’ve been really lucky to create a career where actually my job is about that too.
I’ve always been an environmentalist. Like I grew up in Canada, camping, canoeing, all that wonderful stuff. And just communing with nature. I went to a pretty progressive high school, so hung out with a lot of hippie, dippie, fantastic people who just got it. That kind of planted the seed for me of wanting to make sure that I do my part in protecting the planet. And it sounds cheesy, but like I’m just a real tree hugger, ya know? I love nature. It makes me really sad the way that our development as a people has destroyed the planet in many ways and continues to do so. So honestly, I just wanna see people care about nature. So that’s one side of it.
Then, I’ve always been interested in the publishing world and one day, four years ago now, my best friend came to me and said hey I ‘ve got this idea. We know so many people in the environmental sector, and so many small startups and great companies and cool NGOs and fantastic campaigns that need a platform to reach the public. Why don’t we be that platform? Why don’t we start a magazine? It just made sense. I was like yeah, ok! I had no idea what it was gonna take. Like what that would actually entail. But, it sounded really cool and excited and right up my alley, so I said yes. And we co-founded Ecozine.
We have this NGO called the Hong Kong Clean Up and we’ve been running that since 2000. My best friend and business partner, Lisa, founded that. And through it, you know, we engage corporate, schools, community members and other NGOs, and government. So we were able to create this incredible community of companies, especially but also other sectors that were doing great things. I had great CSR profiles or launching cool eco products, or just you know, wanted to make the world a better place. At the same time we were seeing more and more sort of evidence that consumers, the evidence that consumers were interested in more than just a label on a product, or the price of a precut. That they really wanted to see products of province and responsibility from companies that they trusted. And wasn’t necessarily in Hong Kong a really strong publication that connected those two worlds. That brought, you know, the people with the great ideas and products and CSR initiatives to the consumers that wanted to buy from those companies.
So, we decided that we wanted to be that crossroads because we had such access to both sides of that. So at the same time, having always been passionate about magazines and publications and popular media as a means to convey important messages, it just made sense for us. To start a magazine.
We started by launching an online publication, Ecozine.com. That name came after a good 3 months of thinking about names. I mean this process was very much of a backburner, sort of passion project for us, in our spare time, late nights, mid night coffees, that kind of thing. Just creating what we thought would be cool. The website was the result of…(not noisy at all! (ha, start at midnight coffee’s. A lot of helicopters today)). And the website was a result of literally nights of just sketching and drawing what a cool website would look like and referencing hundreds of other websites and you know. We had no experience in this whatsoever in building websites, in developing media, in editorial and advertising. So it was a really fun, but challenging journey. A really steep learning curve and that was just for the website.
So we got that launched in 2012. The model was sponsorship. Because that’s where we had experience from our NGO background. But it turned out to be more challenging than we expected to get companies here in Asia to sponsor a page in a website. It was a quite a new and innovative model that wasn’t…people weren’t ready to embrace it just yet in Asia. So we did some asking around and we thought about what to do and we decided that okay, a print magazine might be a good addition. And people thought we were crazy because so many publications are going from print to digital and cutting their print publications because of costs, because of change to the industry. But we found that here in Asia, although a lot of companies were saying they wanted to do more digital marketing and be online and take advantage of the digital world, actually when they saw a proposal with a full-page ad cost this much will be in this many issues and seen by this many people, they really got it and were able to say yes.
So the print magazine turned out to be a terrific thing for us in so many ways. One, it was self indulgent. I mean, so nice to hold a product in your hand and say I made this…every font, every page, every word, every photo, the size of the margin, the texture of the paper, it’s all…we created it. So that was pretty gratifying. Also, as a revenue stream, the online just wasn’t cutting it at that time so having a print edition gave us a way to bring in dollars and make this a real company and not just a side project. And also, a marketing tool. So now that the print magazines on shelves and in cafes and all over the place, we’re able to say hey, you like that? There’s more online, come visit us. Our online traffic has increased.
WHY HONG KONG?
We chose to do this in Hong Kong just exactly because this is Hong Kong and it is struggling with sustainability and it is behind in a lot of ways. There would be no point in launching a magazine like Ecozine in San Francisco. They get it. They’re there. Okay, the market has arrived. Whereas in Hong Kong, it’s such a huge opportunity. There is a niche for a thing like me, a magazine like Ecozine. There are people who, who really want this kind of content and aren’t able to access it easily. And also, we really embrace a challenge and so, we also we love Hong Kong.
Ecozine is created by two people who chosen Hong Kong as their home. We weren’t born here, we moved here. We chose to stay here because we love this place.
BRINGING GREEN MAINSTREAM
It’s easier to start by sharing what we didn’t want Ecozine to be. We didn’t want Ecozine to be a magazine for the deep greens, for environmentalist, for people who already, like me, love hugging trees. We wanted it to be a lifestyle magazine for the general public. The idea of Ecozine is to create a sleek, sexy, appealing, even aspirational package for sustainable living. So you know, we put celebrities in our covers. We talk about food, family, travel, cars, lifestyle, you know? We just slip in the sustainability angle, it’s trough a green lens.
But it’s not a magazine that’s pitched for people who consider themselves environmentalist. It’s actually designed to bring green mainstream, is one of our taglines. To brig it to the masses. To show that sustainable living can be aspirational and not just something that you have to give up some part of your life or attend protests or wear Birkenstocks or live in the forest. You can live more sustainably and have a terrific life. That was what we wanted to bring because Hong Kong is very much about consumptions. What can I buy next? Where can I go next? What can I see next? Whose coming to town…what celebrity? So we want to bring sustainability into that lifestyle aspect that Hong Kong embraces.
What we find actually is that there isn’t a consistent element between every story that needs to be maintained. There needs to be a thread, of which in our case is our voice. Our voice we maintain sort of light-hearted, layperson, friendly, slightly tongue-in-cheek lifestyle a voice. So we always try not to be too corporate, to use too much jargon, be too green, assume that the readers know everything there is to know about a certain topic. So that thread is our voice. But the subject matter and the way that we treat each topic varies widely. Because we have everything form you know, great advice from CSR professionals in really successful companies to taking great strides. To you know, top 5 veggie cafes to go to this weekend. So it really varies. That way we’re able to engage a wider audience because some people like the sort of….the top 5s, and the way’s to and the how to’s, and some people really like the meatier stuff. So we do offer a variety.
BECOMING AN ENTREPRENEUR
For me, one of the biggest challenges of becoming an entrepreneur was that I, I didn’t feel like I had an entrepreneurial spirit. Like I, I’m risk-averse. I’d rather just have stability, a steady income, I work hard, I take home my paycheck. At least that’s how I thought I was. So for me, just embracing the idea of being an entrepreneur was a big challenge to cover come. I think I have. It excites me now. But there’s still you know…I’m a natural worrier and so you know, that from time to time comes up for me.
In practical terms, just learning how to do this business. It wasn’t like…I know I have expertise in something, I’ll start a business in it. It was, I’m passionate about something and I’ve zero expertise in it, I’ll start a business. So, learning about pagination and selecting paper and printing and the whole production cycle of a magazine and what kind of roles need to be filled, HR. I’m not an expert of running a business either. So not just a publication, but any type of business, you know? Steep seat learning curve, but exciting because I love learning so that was part of the appeal.
IT NEVER STOPS GETTING SCARY
It’s funny, because I was asked to give a talk a couple months ago on risk at an event called Creative Mornings. I was like, risk…I’m not really sure I’m qualified to talk about that because I’m risk-adverse. Then they were like, but you’re an entrepreneur right? So, okay, that’s like oh yeah! I should probably…I could come up with a couple of things.
It never stops getting scary for me. Like it’s always my hear plummets or my stomach gets tense, you know, when there something for example hiring people, you know? When it’s just you and your business partner and your own late nights and your own you know, tears and bloodshed and sometimes laughter at stake, that’s one thing. When it’s other peoples livelihoods at stake, it just feels like…it’s just such a huge responsibility for new entrepreneur and the there’s lots of us out there. Who’ve just been a one man or two man band for a while who suddenly take on staff . That was one of them, you know? It was and still is as we’re still growing and continue planning to grow….plan to continue growing our team, that was and still is you know, a terrifying thing in some ways. But, you can’t grow a successful business without hiring people. So the impetus, you know, is obvious. Like it’s do it or fail. Or work yourself to the bone and burn out. So you, know.
Oh my God. We have asked for so much advice over this journey and will continue to because we fully acknowledge that we don’t know crap about some of the things or didn’t know that we’re doing. So, for instance, when we decided we wanted to start a magazine. We reached out to a magazine publishers that we knew. Models that we knew that met modeled for magazines. People that we knew who wrote for magazines. Luckily, we have a really strong network and some incredible friends. And even you know, people who in some terms could end up being competitors, just giving just the most generous support and advice along the way.
I’m such a proponent of just ask. Ask for help. There’s nothing to lose. I don’t think I’ve ever been told no. I’ve been given weak advice or advice I didn’t take. Lisa and I, as business partners you know, from time to time we’re like…did that make sense to you? No, okay that’s fine, you know. But ask. Why not? I totally am all for hearing other people to have other people have to think. Especially people who know more than I do about a topic. Oh gosh yea.
GETTING GOOD ADVICE
So we’ve…the best advice we’ve been given, I think, are from two pools. Again, we’ve asked everyone we know, you know various points along the journey. But people who are already in the business we’re in. So in our case, publishers, editors, writers, people in the magazine business and then investors. Whether or not we’re seeking investment, investors know what companies need to have ready, need to look at, need to have in their business plan for success because that’s what investors look for.
So, people I have in my personal network, who are investors, angel investors or fund managers or whatever, tend to have terrific business advice for, for startups and entrepreneurs because they’re looking for other startups and entrepreneurs and they know what to look for in a successful, or in a successful business model.
PERSONAL RISK AND BUSINESS DECISIONS
So when you ask what my worst fear is, I don’t tend to give a lot of time of day to thinking about my worst fears because it’s really defeating. But if I were to give it a second, I’d probably say my fear is I’m on a persona l note, planning to you know I just got married last year. Planning to start a family and that needs to be a stable situation and the entrepreneurial world is always one with you know, instability and risk.
So, I guess my worst fear would be not being able to provide for my family because of a choice that I personally made or one of my staff not being able to provide for their family because of a choice I made with the business. I hope to god that never happens. You know, that’s a new fear for me. So I wasn’t driven by it before. Before my own personal life you know? Before I got married and decided I want to start a family, the only thing at risk,really was me. My time, my energy, my, my…maybe chance of dying younger. But there was no sort of other things at stake.
So as your, I realize now that as your life evolves and your priorities change, that can cause, that can be an impetus and a catalyst for making smarter decisions about your business. That’s where I’m at right now actually. Is knowing that I have something more at stake causing me to be…wanting to be wiser about how I approach the business.
So, practically I don’t think comes into it because we always have a practical hat on. You know, we always make sure that bills can get paid. And because you know the priorities that I mentioned are my future family, for instance, the main mission of the magazine is still the most important thing to me. Because I’m now talking about future generations and the planet we leave them. So for me, that aspect of the business is absolutely vital for my job satisfaction.
Our advertisers for the most part are not just , are not bad companies doing a couple good things, but good companies. I mean we’re…and there’s more and more of them. Like I said we’re very fortunate working with companies that are, that I genuinely…that I buy from, that I admire. I mean, those are the first people I reach out to ever issue. I put my sales pipeline together to reach out to advertisers and the people top of that list are people, are companies that I genuinely respect and admire.
It turns out that the companies that I genuinely respect and admire happen to be the company often times that want to reach the audience that we have. So, we haven’t had to really give up anything in terms of our morals and ethics and mission. We’ve been able to meet that, that requirement. So, far anyway and I can’t imagine this changing, our advertiser pool matches the, you know, aligns with what we want to create for the planet.
TELLING THE RIGHT STORY
Where the challenge lies, is that companies we think are doing good things, but that have been burned by accusations of green washing or that you know 100% of their business isn’t sustainable. Like maybe they’re…maybe they’re saving millions of liters of water, but they still haven’t figured out their dyeing process exactly yet. Or, they’re a luggage company that makes products for life for the lifetime guarantee, which is think is very sustainable instead of like fast fashion. But, they don’t market themselves as eco luggage, they market themselves as luxury luggage so they don’t see the fit.
So that’s one of the challenges that we see, is you know, convincing these companies. Or even like, let’s say a fast-fashion company like H&M that is taking huge strides to try and be a sustainable business. When you’re a business that big, it is challenging to do and they’ve been burned by green groups telling them that they’re doing it wrong and they have done things wrong. But they’re really making efforts in this journey. So at what point along the way can they say, yes we’re doing good things and feel comfortable about it, you know? And even that applies even more so for the companies who’ve never tried to say anything about doing anything green, but that we perceive as a business that we perceive are doing something right. So sometimes it’s about convincing the advertisers that they deserve to be in your magazine.
So, we’re lucky that we have quite a bit of flexibility in our content. I mean luckily because we….we’re lucky that we have flexibility in our content because we can then, you know. Some of our content is, its consumer facing in the sense that it’s not even about the story of the companies, it’s just about what you can do as a consumer to be more sustainable in terms of you know, seeking products with less packaging or saying no to straws or not even you know recommending certain businesses to work with, just lifestyle options.
Then when it comes to telling the states the sustainability story of a given company or organization, every company’s story is so different I don’t think there’s any formula you can use. Some of them are you know really making great strides in work life balance for their employees. Others are just doing incredible things to the environment or the production or this you know the supply chain. Others are making great social strides providing clean water, looking at water waste. There’s so many different ways a company can approach the sustainability that there’s an equal number of ways that we can tell the sustainability story for them. So it you know it really is so case-by-case.
One of the things that we…this has been a part of our evolution over the development of our publication, is the definition of sustainability that we adhere to. Because it is such, I mean just every throws the word around now right? It’s the new eco or green, it’s sustainability. For us, it’s about, and this is sometimes hard to convey because the name of our magazine is Ecozine, but it’s not just about ecology and environment for us. It’s about overall sustainability.
So personal sustainability, wellness is a big part of what we talk about. Social sustainability, you know. People doing good for people, looking after themselves and each other. Social issues and of course economic sustainability too. So, that you know, conveying to people that we’re not just about trees and animals, but about actually the wider, broader definition of just being a more responsible creature on this planet, towards ourselves, others and the planet itself is something that we often have to bring up in conversation.
Yeah, it’s pretty easy to say what in spires me actually. I’m just, I love getting out in nature. I mean maybe it’s cheesy, like yes, nature inspires me. Nature inspires everybody, but after a long week or three weeks in a row without a break, let’s say a work…one hour in the forest, one hike, one afternoon at the beach is just enough to revive me incredibly. So and that’s exactly what we’re working to protect you know? In a broader sense, so I really need to get in nature on a regular basis or I start to feel defeated by just the vanity of urban life.
In terms of the business itself, the other thing that’s really inspiring is when we get emails from people saying you know. I just discovered this product or I sign this petition or I had no idea that my X action had Y impact. I will never do that again. Even when we get emails from people asking for advice, you know. Where can I get, where can I recycle this? Where can I buy vintage clothes? Sometimes I like, go buy the magazine!! But then you know I feel it’s really gratifying that people are confident that there’s a resource. That somebody will answer them. That they don’t have to wonder. So that’s also inspiring that people look to us as some place with answers for that kind of question. So when we get individual human responses from people, it’s just incredibly gratifying and it gives us that drive to continue.
For more interviews from the “Entrepreneurs for Good” series, check out the playlist here.
Stay tuned for more clips and full interviews in the coming weeks.