THE BLOG
11/19/2010 02:40 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Purpose of Even a Green Business Is Profit

Yes, I know about the evils of profit, and I'm obviously not arguing that you elevate it over all ethical concerns. But if you wish to be in business -- which I believe is a valid personal and activist strategy, as the world needs more green businesses -- then you need to focus on profit. Even businesses operating on enlightened "triple bottom line" principles focus on a Profit metric alongside People and Planet.

A business is a "machine" for generating profit. The machine's parts include marketing, sales, financial management, customer service, product/service provision, etc. When they are all operating correctly, the machine hums along and you extract more money from the economy than you put in. That's your profit.

What do you call a commercial endeavor that you invest lots of time and money in, but that doesn't generate a profit? If you're lucky: a hobby. If you're unlucky: a heartbreak. I take a strong line here because I've experienced that heartbreak myself, and have seen others experience it. I want to save you from it. (I also know it's easy to fool yourself.)

Don't settle for a faux business, either: one that looks profitable but doesn't pay you a decent salary (a "donut" business with an empty hole in the center); or one with an unreasonable number of ups and downs, and that perpetually teeters on the edge of profitability without ever growing to a sustainable level (a "trundler").

Never think that green businesses are somehow special and exempt from the ordinary rules of business operation and growth. They aren't: the green rules are added to the business rules, which makes the whole endeavor quite a challenge. Green retailers, for instance, often weigh considerations such as fair trade, fair labor practices, and organic/sustainable provision when deciding what to sell. None of that absolves them from having to make the most basic business calculation: "Can I sell it, and at a profit?" And after you do all that, some customers will still complain or refuse to do business with you.

That brings me to a final point: that in business, the entrepreneur's vision is inevitably compromised. You enter your business with a passion, and your customers share some of it -- but it is your obligation to acknowledge the part they don't share and accommodate it to the greatest extent possible. (Or, put another way: it is not the customers' job to accommodate your needs and viewpoints, but your job to accommodate theirs, thus making it as easy and attractive as possible for them to buy.) You shouldn't compromise your key values, but you also shouldn't have so many uncompromisable values that you can't run a profitable business.

This activist-seeming quandary is far from unique to green businesses: professional artists frequently chafe at the need to compromise their creative vision around the needs of "unreasonable" customers, as do many programmers, building contractors, and others. Of course, those who chafe too much are unlikely to remain in business. I have found that the hardest part of business, for most people, is setting aside their ego and seeing things from the standpoint of the customer.

Profit isn't easy, which is why most small businesses fail. Maximize your odds of success by (1) getting training; (2) enlisting mentors and (3) doing an apprenticeship by working in a business of the type you want to start. Most people who fail at business do so not because they are not smart or dedicated enough, but because they didn't lay a proper foundation or ask for help.

Hillary is an activist, coach and workshop leader who helps businesspeople, activists, artists and others overcome procrastination, use their time better, and reach their goals. She is author of The Lifelong Activist (Lantern Books, 2006) and the forthcoming Secrets of the Prolific. Visit www.hillaryrettig.com for more info and free downloads, and email her at hillaryrettig@yahoo.com .