As a kid, Sunday breakfasts were a time to hear my grandfather’s stories about the company he founded and ran for decades in Salt Lake City, Utah. They were always about the people, and it was clear he thought of them as a kind of extended family. It left a lasting impression.
In school, I developed a fascination with Asia, so after graduation I packed up and moved to Beijing. It was 1985 and China had only been open to the West for a few years. On a lucky break I got a job at the US-China Business Council, where I helped US businesses develop their presence in China. Years later, I witnessed firsthand the exciting first stirrings of democracy in Tiananmen. When they were crushed, I left China and went to business school.
I enrolled in a joint MA/MBA program in international business at Wharton. The school is a best known for finance, but I felt pulled toward marketing. After graduation, while most of my friends were heading off to investment banks and management consulting firms, I was packing my bags for a marketing position at a software company in Redmond, Washington.
I took my marketing skills to a highly entrepreneurial division in Microsoft that was publishing “multimedia” CD-ROM encyclopedias and other titles. By 1994, I’d focused on product planning and was leading the charge to move our publishing efforts online and to the web.
That’s when I hung up my marketing hat and started a product development team that built one of Microsoft’s first Internet services: an online car buying service called CarPoint. By the time I left the team in 1998, the site was serving several million people and generating over $600 million in automotive sales – every month.
Within a few short years, CarPoint (and our competitors) significantly shifted the way cars were sold in the United States and helped accelerate the collapse of the business model for local newspapers. That was my first experience with the transformative impact of technology – and clearly it could have unintended consequence that weren’t always good.
In 2001, I left Microsoft to run a mission-driven, not-for-profit technology consulting group that was then called ONE/Northwest. The organization, which I later renamed Groundwire, specialized in web communications, Customer Relationship Management databases, online advocacy tools and constituent engagement strategies for environmental organizations.
Groundwire had an innovative social enterprise business model. We were a technology and strategy shop that charged clients for our services. But we invested heavily in technology research and development, which was paid for by philanthropic dollars. It was a very effective model for disseminating innovation into a social change movement.
One of the hardest jobs I had at Groundwire was developing our ‘theory of change‘ – essentially the way our services translated into real change in the world. In our case, exactly how building a constituent engagement database translated into a more sustainable world. I came away convinced that the business world could learn a lot from the nonprofit sector when it comes to impact evaluation.
One of my other conclusions from my work at Groundwire was that the environmental movement was constantly getting outmaneuvered by the amount of money that flows into the US political system – and that the chief source of that money was business. So, by 2008, I was feeling a strong pull back to business, but this time with an eye to reforming it as a way to solve some of our toughest societal and ecological challenges.
The first time I realized I liked to write (and that others liked it when I wrote) was in 2004. I was still running Groundwire at the time and decided to publish an informal critique of some of the dysfunction I saw in the environmental movement. That paper ended up getting a surprising amount of attention (here’s a republished copy of that “Movement as Network” paper, in case you’re curious).
By 2010, the pull to writing had become overwhelming. After much soul-searching, I left Groundwire to strike out as a writer. My first project was a website called Alchemy of Change, a mix of musings about technology, business, social change and other topics. But the pull to focus on business continued to grow and by mid-2012, I decided to launch a new effort, 100% focused on painting a new vision for business and technology.
That vision eventually evolved into the Vital Edge.