Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hello, my name is Auste and I am a co-founder of Sustain Academy.
Sustain Academy is an online sustainability academy for professionals wishing to enhance their sustainability journey. We offer a 10-week LIVE online sustainability course followed by 1:1 mentorship, taught by the world’s best field experts.
So far, more than 100 companies from more than 10 different countries have trained their employees with us.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I met my partner Ieva in London in 2019 at a Zero Waste conference where we were drawn together by our passion for sustainability. A couple of years later whilst still employed full-time we founded Sustain Academy and have been very close friends since.
I was working in a renewable energy sector while Ieva worked in an FMCG sector developing sustainable brands and helping foreign brands enter the UK market.
We both realized that the people we worked with lacked the green skills and sustainability knowledge to perform well. At the same time, the demand for sustainability positions started to rise globally. We then started talking with various reputable organizations, taking sustainability courses, and working with consultants, and quickly realized that none of them provide the tools and practical resources to educate sustainability professionals in a way that is actionable and measurable - that’s where we spotted the opportunity.
We both also have a background in sustainability consultancy (in the areas of GRI reporting and auditing, sustainability strategy creation, and B-Corp certification); and are a part of various national and international business associations in the field.
We spoke with 100+ field experts to get a better understanding of what skills and content are needed before putting together a curriculum.
We know people need it because the course has been in high demand since we started. However, we first tested and validated the concept for the Lithuanian market (that’s where we both are from) before working on it further.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
When we started we knew nothing about edtech. Apart from that, there were also no direct competitors to take a look at so we had to do everything from scratch.
For that reason, we spoke with 100+ field experts to get a better understanding of what skills and content are needed before putting together a curriculum. Moreover, since the first edition, the program evolved as we gathered more feedback from the participants and speakers.
As it was just the two of us in the beginning - we had to do everything by ourselves during the first 6 months - from finding speakers and shaping the program to designing the logo and even creating a website.
I remember we talked to around 150 different field experts before deciding who was going to speak. We did our research before inviting them for a coffee to talk about Sustain Academy. We did not know them but we used our network and (LinkedIn skills) to get to the ones we admired. Since our academy concept was seen as fresh and inspiring it was not hard to convince them even though we did not have a huge initial budget.
Describe the process of launching the business.
Our journey was pretty quick - it took us 3 months to bring our idea to reality. We started our pre-work in the summer and launched our first course in September which was ideal as most of the people were back to work/study mode at that time.
During the preparation phase we had a small marketing budget and mostly used paid social media, and ran Google and Facebook ads. Since the field was still very new there were not a lot of positions that would directly be called ''sustainability manager'' (which would have been our ideal customer). For that reason, we had to target a more broad audience including marketing and communications professionals, health and safety specialists, and similar. Therefore, our marketing budget costs were also higher in the beginning.
The first group was a classroom size group consisting of around 25 professionals from different industries. After the demo version we collected feedback to make improvements and this provided us with an opportunity to add some additional material and topics.
No matter how frustrating, tiring or intense your business journey is - you’re working amongst other professionals so BE KIND (to others but also yourself).
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
For us, it’s a combination of PR, paid and organic social media, email marketing, Google Ads, influencers, offline media, and last but not least personal branding. In the beginning, social media (both organic and paid) was (and still is actually) the number one channel. As we grew, we started experimenting with other channels and they increased our brand awareness but social media and B2B sales are currently our top 2 channels bringing us most of the leads. Over 70% of the revenue comes from these channels.
Also, thanks to our broad speaker network a lot of people have discovered Sustain Academy via their shared posts or word of mouth. We usually encourage speakers to share their participation before every course - however, this is of course completely up to them whether they want to share the information or not.
One thing that we still have to work better on is industry partnerships - this has a lot of potential that we still have not fully utilized.
We also tried direct sales but this method seemed to be the least successful (or maybe we just need to give it another try.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
We are currently preparing for the 5th sustainability training and mentorship course in Lithuania and the 2nd version of the English one. Currently, we offer 2 courses per year - people can join spring or autumn groups. We are also in the development stages of courses for different business sectors and green skill sets.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
One of the things that I’ve reminded myself of many times along the way is that it’s a journey and I can make a choice to enjoy the process. Your mental health matters in this game so it’s very important to keep balance in everything you do.
Another thing that helped us greatly in the beginning (and still does!) was utilizing our network to get where we needed/wanted to go. For that, we are extremely grateful. One should never be afraid to initiate the conversation, raise questions and ask for help when needed - this could help you go to great lengths.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
- Wix, WordPress - for basic www creation
- Monday.com, Asana - for daily tasks and projects
- Canva - for visuals
- Miro - for brainstorming and ideas
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
- Forget Mars: Circular Economy, The Next Big Business Opportunity - Stephen J. Wright
- Doughnut Economy - Kate Raworth
- An Inconvenient Truth
- The true cost
- Before the flood
- A plastic ocean
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Most of the people to whom we were talking were skeptical about the launch as starting a business during COVID-19 seemed almost impossible. However, the best advice I can give is to test your ideas but trust your gut!
Also, I like the quote: ‘’Those who think they can and those who think they can’t are both rights.’’ A lot in business depends on your ability to learn, move forward and start over so a can-do attitude is always helpful.
And most of all - no matter how frustrating, tiring or intense your business journey is - you’re working amongst other professionals so BE KIND (to others but also to yourself:)
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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