Tom Szaky, 29, is the founder and CEO of TerraCycle, Inc. After getting its start in 2001 with organic fertilizers made from worm castings, TerraCycle has become one of the fastest growing eco-friendly manufacturers in the world, with $13.5 million in revenue last year and $20 million projected this year.
“If I could boil down all I know into one piece of advice it would be to always stick to your guns – but be flexible. Contradictory? Perhaps. Effective? Definitely. Allow me to explain.You as a company founder clearly had a driving passion, vision, goal in mind when you started. For my company, TerraCycle, it was, and will always be, to eliminate waste. But I can guarantee that your investors, advisers, supporters (and even family and friends) will always want to offer their two cents. Whether it’s changing how you do business, what your goal, mission, or business model might be, or a million other comments, suggestions, or demands, the fact of the matter is people are going to tell you to do it differently at some point. Your job is to know when to move, and when to hold steady.
When we were first starting, TerraCycle, with maybe $500 in the bank, won a business plan competition. $1,000,000 in funding and services from a VC was ours! This sounds like a godsend, but I quickly figured out that it wasn’t, and turned it down. Why? They wanted me to become an eco mascot and to turn TerraCycle into strictly a fertilizer company. This would clearly stray too far from why I began this company, and limit it catastrophically, in my mind. Everyone told me I was crazy, but in the end I was right (even if that fact took a few years to become evident.)
And yet, it’s important to listen effectively and always be ready to realize when an opportunity presents itself. Sure, a sudden change in direction may upset your investors or board members, but it is your vision and often you know what is best or merely what is necessary. If you read my piece in the New York Times, our business model has changed 4-5 times since we began. From eco-minded waste collection to plant food icon to upcycled products innovator to sponsored waste, licensed product purveyor — our business has changed dramatically over the years. Often this change has been despite great internal and external resistance. These changes have repeatedly saved or simply helped to grow my company.
And yet, as different as we may be from where we started, the underlying purpose, and results, have remained the same, while our impact (and our revenue) has increased exponentially. So as an entrepreneur it is your job to know to stick to your guns and when to change course!”