For our latest Startup Spotlight series, we’re thrilled to be speaking again to Thomas Panton.
Thomas was recently featured as one of the startup founders that have launched successful crowdfunding campaigns.
In this interview, Thomas shares his insights and personal journey in launching Canopey, an ethical online marketplace that integrates impact data onto every product page to mainstream sustainable shopping, which is scheduled to launch its platform and calculator in the Spring of 2023.
With over a decade of experience working in the climate sector and having worked for 5 years with the international NGO Greenpeace UK, Thomas launched his Canopey to tackle consumer product waste.
He is adamant that climate solutions need to be more accessible to more people. His experience dealing with multiple stakeholders, including investors, governments, consumers, and businesses, gives him great insight into how these solutions can exist in today’s society.
Before we dive in, our readers would love to get to know you better. So, can you tell us a bit of your “backstory” and how you got started?
I was never meant to be an entrepreneur. I spent my teenage years training for the Olympics as a swimmer, but unfortunately got injured at 16 and had to leave those ambitions behind. This is when I first got involved in the climate sector.
I went to university to read Politics and International Relations and started working for the world’s largest independent environmental and human rights organisation, Greenpeace. I became acquainted with local, national, and international government policy and corporate sustainability during my time there.
Whilst I valued my time with Greenpeace, I was frustrated with the red tape and bureaucracy of large governments and corporations; we were doing fantastic work, but it wasn’t moving fast enough. This is why I left to set up my first startup, Festovers, the first company in the UK to be paid by festivals and events to collect leftover consumer product waste specifically for reuse, repurposing, and recycling. It was successful, but after our pilot year, the pandemic came, and there were no events, no tents, and, therefore, no business. That’s when I decided to study an MSc in Climate Change and start the Canopey.com journey.
I’m forever grateful for my time swimming at the international level because it prepared me for founder life! Long days and nights, high pressure, learning from others but driven by my ambition. So many crossovers between competitive sports and finding a company!
What was the most exciting story that happened to you since you launched your startup?
I think for me. It’s the validation from the 350+ people who invested in our company as part of an early crowdfunding campaign. We’re prelaunch, pre-revenue, and yet people could see our vision, experience, and the value of our company proposition. Seeing so many people want to be a part of that was incredibly humbling.
No startup founder is immune from making mistakes, and it’s part of the “growing pains” they go through. Can you share one mistake you’ve made and the valuable lesson it taught you?
It needs to be more accurate in the time it takes to build complicated tech. As founders, we tend to want to get things out as soon as possible to test and learn from the feedback. Still, when building something as complicated as an impact calculator that quantifies carbon emissions, water waste, and plastic waste for every product inside a new multi-vendor marketplace, you’ve got to expect delays and a longer timeline than you perhaps want!
It’s taught us to trust the process – we know what we’re doing, and we can be patient in knowing we’re working as fast and hard as we can whilst being intelligent and efficient too!
There has been much talk about supporting diversity and inclusion among startup investors. This may be obvious to you, but can you share with our readers why it’s so important for investors to support startups with a diverse and inclusive executive team?
There’s a massive inequality across the world of startups. We need to rebalance the scales.
That’s not to say that you can’t invest in fantastic companies led by white men. Still, it’s about diversifying that portfolio and giving opportunities to those who have not had that over the previous periods.
As a company, we aren’t just talking about diversity and inclusion. We’re actively incorporating that – supporting black-owned businesses, female-owned businesses, or those led by people identifying as LGBTQIA+. We’re very aware of our founding team’s demographic, so we actively employ and give opportunities to those from other demographics.
Ultimately, every one of us has a part to play in making diversity and inclusion the norm, not the exception.
If you could inspire a movement that would bring a positive change within your community, what would that be and why?
It has to be shopping more ethically. It’s tough to do that and understand all the various nuances within it – you shouldn’t have to be a climate scientist to understand that one product is better than another. Consumer product materials significantly impact their lifecycle, but people want to live with a certain accessibility. If we can merge sustainability with accessibility, we’re making it easier for more people to have less of an impact on the planet and people.
Ultimately I’m a big believer in people living the way they want to live but with less impact – it’s up to businesses and governments to make that a reality.
If you had a chance to spend a day with someone and have the liberty to ask anything, who would that person be? What three questions would you ask?
This is a niche, but Dr Marina Fischer-Kowalski coined Social Metabolism.
I find the different eras of human impact so exciting, and I’d love to hear her thoughts on my theory that we’re entering a new generation of metabolism past industrial metabolism.
My three questions would be:
- Do you think we still live in the era of industrial social metabolism?
- In a world where technological advancement is more likely to solve the problems of climate change than a change in social consciousness, can we move quickly enough to limit and reduce our impact as a species?
- I believe we’re entering a new technological and social metabolism age. Without writing an essay here, I would like to know her thoughts on the direction of the way humans consume the earth’s resources and whether technological metabolism is less or more impactful than industrial metabolism.
Sorry, I geeked out there!
Can you share your favourite life quote with us and why this is so relevant to you?
“I love not Man the less, but Nature more.” – Byron. Part of the long poem, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.
I’m not any less interested in humans or have any less love for us as a species. Still, I’m so in awe of nature’s different connections and interactions that I am incredibly passionate about working with it rather than against it.
I also think this reflects my view on accessibility needing to work with sustainability to solve the climate crisis. Human want and need aren’t wrong, and how we fulfil those needs must be addressed.
Great! Thanks for that. Now, let’s go to the main focus of this interview. Can you share with us the story behind that “A-ha Moment” you had that led to the idea of creating and launching your startup?
Over my time working at Greenpeace and running my first startup, I have spoken with 10s of 1000s of people and 1000s of founders. It was painfully clear that people wanted to live more sustainably but genuinely found it too complicated with the vast amounts of information and different areas/sectors to tackle. Businesses were trying to provide better products and services, but there needed to be more connection between the mainstream population and those companies.
I’ve worked long enough in the industry to see the most successful solutions, often the ones that are simple to adopt. I wanted to give that same accessibility to the consumer industry.
What do you think makes your startup stand out? Can you share with us examples to show this?
There are three things that we’re proud of.
Firstly, it’s our focus on making it accessible to more people than ever before; it can’t be complicated, and it needs to be as smooth as going on somewhere like Amazon. This is why we built multiple ways for people to shop on the platform to accommodate different types of shoppers. An excellent example of this is integrating the Pinterest model of interactive images into everyday spaces in your household – it makes it relatable and easy to click through and view the info.
Secondly, it’s all about transparency.
The new regulation is coming, and companies need to be prepared for it; Amazon has just been caught out for greenwashing (misleading people about sustainability claims). So we don’t just talk the talk. We walk the walk.
This starts with rigorous vetting, so people know we’ve done the work for them to check companies’ credentials. This is then complemented by our impact data which shows the carbon emissions, water waste, and plastic waste saved per product compared to the mainstream alternative – simple, understandable data to make it easier to shop sustainably.
Finally, it’s all about putting our money where our mouth is. Not just charity partnerships and tree planting, but getting ourselves certified and holding ourselves accountable too!
What are some “myths” or misconceptions people have when launching a startup that you’ve debunked throughout your journey?
Two main ones pop into my head.
Firstly, you know everything – no one does, and too many people think they do. A great founder will take advice from other people. We can stay confident in our knowledge but also take direction. They’re not mutually exclusive.
Secondly, is that you need to keep everything secret.
It’s scarce that someone will “steal” your idea, and the fact of the matter is that if they do it and succeed, then they were probably the right person for that idea, and we should be happy to see an idea we also had do well. Most people are willing to help, so speak to as many people as possible and get feedback early in the journey.
If there’s one significant difference between launching a startup and launching a small business, what would that be and why?
There’s a different pace. Startups need to show growth and movement consistently. Small businesses can stay small without the pressure or expectation of growing quicker.
There’s nothing wrong with either, but it’s super important that you know exactly what you’re getting yourself into.
What are the top three traits that entrepreneurs must possess to launch a startup successfully? Can you expound on why you chose these three traits?
To be a visionary, you must be creative, and you have to be able to imagine a world different from the one we live in today. As you build this vision, you’re going to need to be creative in your execution and your strategy.
Ambition and drive are the things which will make people laugh, scoff, or back you to the very end – sometimes a mix of all three. The world-changing companies of tomorrow aren’t built by people who play it safe. This, of course, depends on the type of company you want to build.
Empathy makes you truly understand a problem and allows you to be better at coming up with solutions. Empathy makes you a better leader, a better person, and ultimately a better founder.
Let’s flip things around: What do you believe are the three things that can cause a startup founder not to become successful, and why?
You must kill the ego and keep the confidence. Ego will get you far, but if you continue to act entitled and arrogant, people will see through it and turn away from you. A successful founder will be surrounded by company supporters and a leader – you can’t have that if your ego gets in the way.
In the same way empathy makes someone a great leader and founder, apathy stunts that growth. You need help understanding problems to the same degree, and you cannot lead people in a positive culture. In the past, we have seen apathy make some people very successful. We now live in a world where loyalty makes household brands – you won’t create loyalty if you’re apathetic to your customers’ / team’s / community’s problems.
You need to be flexible as a founder, and sometimes that means pivoting or accepting you were wrong and moving forward. If you stay rigid and “set in your ways,” you cannot keep up with progress.
As a parting gift to our readers, what are the top three pieces of advice that you can give to them about launching a startup and why? Please share a story for each.
Speak to as many people as possible.
The best way to get feedback on your idea is to speak with people, and it will also put you in the room with the right people. In my first company, I was pretty adamant I could do it alone, which is one of the reasons we weren’t prepared for the pandemic. So, with Canopey, my co-founders and I started speaking to people as early as possible – friends, families, communities, work colleagues, and anyone who would listen. It gave us the feedback and insight we needed to avoid making bad decisions early on. That’s not to say we haven’t made mistakes, but it has made us better at building an adaptable solution efficiently.
Create a personal brand in your sector.
This is becoming more and more important. People want a face, and people want a leader. I started using LinkedIn about a year ago, and I’ve grown my following to over 10k, have spoken at 15 events/conferences, been invited to speak on multiple podcasts, have been featured in over 30 articles, and even asked to talk by the BBC as an expert in my field. More importantly, this has meant our company, Canopey.com, has raised a pre-seed round as a pre-launch pre-revenue company, we’ve had 100s of companies sign up to sell on our platform, and 1000s of people join our journey as part of our community. Building authority personally gives confidence to those other stakeholders and entities.
Understand the boring stuff.
It’s never said because it’s never sexy, but understanding the legal, financial, and HR is so important and will make your life much easier. One of our biggest mistakes was spending money on making some legal changes, which was not relevant or the best decision at the time. Therefore we never implemented the changes to the documents and wasted capital in making those edits. If we had spent time learning and understanding the world of share option schemes better, we might have been in a better place to make smarter decisions. Ultimately, it wasn’t a huge hurdle to overcome, but I urge anyone starting a company to take time to understand those structures before they start.
Thank you for these fantastic insights and for your time. We truly appreciate it and wish you all the best on your journey.
Canopey is Raising!
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