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'Listening to your customers' and other great clichés

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Throughout my 27-year career in b-to-b and tech media, I've often thought the greatest ideas were the simple ones. This may be because I am profoundly brilliant, a master at reducing things to their essence or it may be because I lack the attention span or technical expertise to understand great, complex ideas. Or it may be a bit of both. Greener World Media, the company I cofounded in 2007, is built on three simple tenets. First, that it made sense to build a company on an existing brand (GreenBiz.com, which by 2006 had been around for six years as a nonprofit but had built substantial content and b-to-b traffic) and a brand champion (my cofounder, green business guru and Executive Editor Joel Makower) than to try to build a company from scratch. It would make for more truly original, intellectual property and would alleviate the need for heavy investment. Second, that a constant theme would run through all our products—websites, research and events—that environmental sustainability was not only good for the planet but was a significant and undervalued business opportunity. Third, that the topic of environmental sustainability was most interesting when applied not just to small, pure-play green companies but to a wide swath of mainstream businesses, such as banks, retailers, manufacturers and tech companies. As we built the company in the hot-but-crowded green business space, we happened upon another simple concept: “What if you could build a new product line that was premised on listening to your key customers and allowing them to listen to one another?” The genesis for us was hiring John Davies to run a new service called the GreenBiz Executive Network (GBEN). Leveraging John's experience as an entrepreneur, analyst and facilitator, along with Joel's network and GreenBiz.com's trusted brand, the group's mandate was simple: Create a paid, member network where peers from large companies could come and share insights and best practices—what worked and what didn't—in this emerging field. We would bring the group together, face-to-face and, via regular conference calls, ply them with unique research and other valuable information. We launched the group in 2009 and now have more than 30 members, including some of the business world's most storied brands, from b-to-c brands such as Frito-Lay, Wells Fargo and MillerCoors, to tech companies like Dell Inc. and Microsoft Corp., to b-to-b mainstays like CH2MHill and Diversey Inc. [formerly JohnsonDiversey], plus FedEx Corp., Waste Management and other blue-chip firms. A couple things surprised us along with the way. First, the dialogue has been surprisingly candid. Practicing the Chatham House Rule (nothing comes out of the meetings with attribution) with a closed-door membership that excludes service providers, consultants, NGOs and media (other than ourselves, operating off-the-record), we found there was much more genuine sharing than chest-thumping, hype or mind-numbing slide decks. We were also surprised that a cross-industry group had so much in common. We have b-to-b and b-to-c companies forming new partnerships, members coming away with actionable ideas and a strong community being formed that we believe will be enduring. We also have had great success letting member companies make the group their own. Meetings are always held at a member's headquarters. Our last meeting, at FedEx in Memphis, featured eight hours of great interchange at the company's headquarters as well as a midnight tour of its million-packages-a-day Memphis Hub. And in between, a barbecue and a trip to Sun Studio. GBEN is a small but growing and increasingly profitable part of our business. We will no doubt face challenges as we scale the business, but it's a great incubator for us to hear what's on our clients' minds and come up with new ideas to serve them that might stretch across our sites, paid content, events and research. Obviously, the idea of stacking a corporate executive board-style business on top of a great media and information services business is not novel, and our Executive Network will certainly need to add value as it grows. But it's working out great so far. Simple, right? Pete May is president and publisher of Greener World Media. He can be reached at pete@greenerworldmedia.com.
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