As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Michael Stausholm.
Michael Stausholm is the founder of Sprout — the company behind the first pencil in the world that can be planted and grown into herbs, vegetables and flowers.
Michael Stausholm began his career in the shipping industry, working for A.P. Møller/Mærsk. Withinterests including green entrepreneurship and sustainability, he worked for companies such as Nike and Walmart, helping them establish more sustainable and responsible textile production processes from 1996–2006. In 2013, he founded Sprout as a company and launched the Sprout pencil. Today, he owns all the patents to the company’s products, and is a a principal shareholder and chairman of the board.
Michael Stausholm is an experienced public speaker who has spoken on behalf of the United Nations, at the Sustainable Brands Conference and at a number of public and private events. He has provided commentary to CNN Money, Forbes, Fortune, Huffington Post, the Daily Mail and Business Insider, and a wide range of other international outlets. He also contributes to the Huffington Post.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I was born in Denmark but left when I was 22 years old for Asia, after finishing a traineeship with Danish shipping company “Maersk”, I spent the next 14 years in Asia. First in shipping, but after a few years I joined an apparel company and in 2002 I launched my first business in Asia helping apparel brands with marketing, development and production. When I returned to Europe, I began working with companies, advising them on how to make their supply chains more sustainable, in terms of materials, production and worker’s conditions.
Around 2010, sustainability became a hot term in the business world, but there were still many questions. For instance, how do you illustrate a sustainable life cycle of a given product? How does a company tell their clients and partners about their green initiatives without boring them to death? How do we teach the next generations about what we can do to protect the environment in a fun and easy way?
And this is where the Sprout pencil came along in 2013.
Several MIT students had invented a pencil you can plant by taking a patent out on seed pencils. It was called Sprout and they launched on Kickstarter to fund the project. I was immediately intrigued, reached out and made an agreement to sell and distribute in Europe. However, sales grew very quickly and I made a deal to purchase and acquire the global rights, as well as the patent and IP from them in 2014. Now, six years later, we have sales in over 80 countries, offices in Europe and the USA, and more than 30 million Sprout pencils have been sold to both companies and consumers thus far.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
The MIT students had been selling the Sprout pencils in the US, but I decided to try and launch the product in Denmark as the first country in the world back in the spring of 2013.
In no time, I had sold over 50,000 pencils to both companies, with their logo engraved, and to retailers.
We had a manufacturer in the USA (which is still one of our production sites), but they did not have the capacity to do so many orders in such a short time — -Mistake number 1! I had to go back to all of our clients and delay the delivery by 2 months.
Then I asked them to ship all 50,000 Sprout pencils to my house, as we were in a hurry — -Mistake number 2! When they arrived we had pencils all over the house, including the living room and kitchen. And, they needed to be packed in display boxes and smaller cartons so we had to hire local children and for a week they spent hours packing pencils. Luckily, it was school holiday and they had a blast while making some extra money. However, lesson learned!
Selling can sometimes be the easy part, but people forget all the logistics and production that must be well planned and executed to support the sales.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
I read a lot, especially when I travel, but I don’t think I can say that any of those really helped my career. I read a mixture of fiction and books on history. I will sometimes read biographies on inspiring business leaders. I also find it important to read as many articles from the global business media as well. It’s important to stay in the know.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
Purpose is very important within any business, as long as you are authentic about it. Walk the talk or the consumer of today will quickly call you on it.
Originally the purpose of Sprout was to make it easier for people to understand sustainability. Use a product for one thing, and once you are finished with it, use it for something entirely different. In this case literally give it new life by planting it. That illustrates sustainability in a way that both adults and children understand.
Today we have expanded on this. Our vision is to inspire people to make small changes in their everyday life, which when you add them all up, will actually make a difference. Too often sustainability is about making people feel guilty. I believe its important to use your business and your actions to inspire, not to make things more difficult.
Making plantable pencils does not save the world, but if it can inspire others to make the small changes that can actually change the world!
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
There is a saying, ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast’, but the fact is that culture eats everything!
How you treat the people working in your company and how you manage is the difference between a great company and a good company. Benefits, flexible hours, working from home, etc. are all important, but today, I find people want to be part of a company that tries to make a difference to the world.
Surround yourself with people who are smarter, who are dedicated, and feel part of something bigger than themselves, and they will make sure the business succeeds.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
I live in Denmark which has not been as impacted as so many other countries have been. Our government shut down the country very early, which meant we worked from home for almost 3 months from early March to late May. It meant not seeing friends and family during a time when it was probably most needed, and it made me aware of how important this is. It was a reminder not only to take more care of (by staying away) our elders, (in this case by staying at a safe distance), but also that I should spend more time with loved ones and not take things for granted.
I travel extensively, and the pandemic was a reminder that perhaps it is not always necessary. There are plenty of things to take care of at home, and most business travel can easily be replaced by video.
During lock down when exercise was difficult, I made sure to walk everyday, which helped me sort through some of the chaos surrounding us. It helped me think more clearly, and it was often during walks I would have a great brainstorming session.
Can you share a few of the biggest work related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
With 25+ employees all over Europe and USA, those employees were used to working from home, but the head office in Copenhagen, where most of us work, it was different. Suddenly we had to send everyone home to work and quickly pivot to a home office. We also have a lot of employees with small children and they were faced with the challenge of juggling work and personal life all at once.
People however quickly adapted and worked flexible hours. We made sure our employees understood that family was first, and to make their children were well cared for. And, it worked — -we had no decrease in productivity, and many were even more productive as they did not have to commute.
As with many other companies, Zoom meetings became the norm and had their own sets of challenges with spouses and children often popping into the video. Kids tend to not care whether mum or dad is on a video call. When they are hungry or bored, they need attention.
So, a lot of my job was to tell people to take it easy and do things as best as they could under the circumstances.
The key is trust, and if you don’t trust people working in your company to do their jobs and sometimes more, pandemic or no pandemic, it is your fault. Not theirs.
Fortunately, Sprout entered Covid-19 financially strong and profitable with a strong cashflow, so I did sleep well during the whole period. However, one of the first things I did following the shut down was to call my bank and tell them that I need to double the credit we had, which they did, almost no questions asked. We have been fortunate that we have not had to draw on any of these loans, but to me it is all about planning ahead and sometimes for the worst. If you wait until you actually need the loan, then chances are your bank (or investors) will turn you down. Cash is king, and even more so during uncertain times, and by tackling this issue early on, it gave me a sense of calm, which ensured I could focus on other important issues.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
Fear is contagious and counter-productive. What was most important to me was to communicate to my team that although this is bad, and we don’t have all of the answers, especially during the early days of the pandemic, we must still remain calm.
I also decided early on that the most important thing for the business was to keep all employees and not have to let anyone go. The logic behind that being that your employees are the most important asset of your company, and if you start to let people go, you not only create more uncertainty which is a killer for any business, but it would also put us in a position where we would re-start the business without those who would be key to do so.
Of course, this was not easy. Fortunately, we were able to retain our staff, and in the past month, we have actually started to hire more employees as we see an increase in our export markets.
Generally, I try to tell people that as bad as Covid-19 is, it is also a wakeup call on how to live our lives and especially, how to do business. A lot of companies (and people) have been deeply impacted by the pandemic, but it is important to try to use this opportunity to look at things a little differently. For instance, perhaps we don’t need to travel as much for business. Shopping online saves us a lot of time. Working from home at least a few days a week saves time on commuting. All of this leads to time much better spent with our loved ones or being productive in other ways.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
I see digitalization coming happening much faster with things like eCommerce, AI and robot technology in production. Everything is about ease of use and convenience. Whether you are a private consumer or a business, you want to be able to place your orders with 1–2 clicks and receive your right away.
Sustainability is no longer just a trend. I have spoken to a lot of executives and the message is that the demand for sustainability is now coming from the top down, and if you don’t integrate sustainability in your company now, you will soon be left behind on the platform when the train leaves. That is one train that will not wait.
Finally, supply chains are evolving very quickly. Companies can no longer rely on only China or India or Mexico to produce your products. Production MUST move closer to where you sell. Although pre-pandemic, it was better for the environment, now companies have realized that the risk, on so many levels of producing far away from home, is just too big. You must control your materials and your production closely and make sure all is as sustainable and environmentally friendly as possible
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
Part of me worries that down the line nothing will have changed and we will just revert to the way things were. History shows that we are very good at that. However, I sincerely believe that this time is different. There will be permanent changes, some of which I have listed above.
I also believe that despite our digitalized world, we will at least in our personal lives make some moves away from being online all the time. The pandemic has shown us that being on our own and only communicating digitally is not what most of us want. We need to take time away from all of our gadgets and be more present in our relations.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
We are hiring and strengthening the organization towards building an even stronger Sprout brand. A global brand of not only plantable products, but other inspirational and commercially driven products. With the increased focus on sustainability, Sprout needs to be top of mind for both companies and consumers when looking to inspiration for sustainability.
One example is our Sprout makeup pencil/liner, which is also patented, and is being launched soon, and I see great potential for change in the makeup and cosmetic business
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
I would encourage others to look at their business and carefully consider whether this is where they want to be. Are you really making an impact or are you just running another web shop with cheap items from China? How can you distinguish yourself from others? And when you do, make sure you truly do so. The world is full of people talking, we need more people doing.
That goes for sustainability too. Greenwashing is everywhere. Companies saying one thing but in reality doing nothing.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Danish Philospoher Soeren Kirkegaard said :
“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”
What it means to me is that we should learn from our mistakes, but never dwell on them. Always be looking ahead.
How can our readers further follow your work?
I am on Linkedin. The readers should feel free to connect or follow.