Learn to be comfortable with uncertainty. It is alright to not know the answer or know what will happen next. Much of the stress we experience comes from worrying about things that haven’t happened yet, and the life of an entrepreneur is filled with enough uncertainty that it will harm you if you can’t let it go.
As part of my series about companies who are helping to battle climate change, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mark Madsen.
Mark is CTO/Co-Founder at WattIQ, manufacturer of sensors and makers of a service to help businesses improve their asset efficiency and drive towards sustainable procurement. A serial entrepreneur, he was a cofounder at AllRecipes.com, and helped start Internap Network Services, Realnetworks, Network Clarity, GridNetworks, and worked briefly at Microsoft. Mark also serves on the board of an electrical utility company, a regional library district, a food cooperative, and has served on the boards of numerous nonprofit, economic development, and arts organizations. He has a PhD from the University of Washington, and an MS from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and is affiliated with the Environmental Studies program at Binghamton University as a research scholar.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
My background is actually in anthropology and human evolution. I was working on a Ph.D. and several of us co founded the company that became AllRecipes while working our way through graduate school, back in the prehistory of the commercial internet. Over time I’ve moved from doing media and network engineering to working on issues surrounding sustainability: energy conservation, waste reduction, and efficiency in our technologies. Too many of the design decisions we made along the way in building this world-spanning internet ended up making us less sustainable, not more, and our generation must fix that. For example, one of my early projects was building a targeted advertising algorithm and server. I remember that none of us had a clue that building an advertising-supported business model for the Internet might have far-reaching side effects on, well, everything.
What is the mission of your company? What problems are you aiming to solve?
WattIQ is based on the idea that large organizations cannot be sustainable in their purchasing and managing their assets without data-driven insight: how assets are used, when they need maintenance, whether it’s really necessary to buy more. The decisions we make when we lack data tend to be wasteful — we over buy, we throw away things that are still useful, etc. At WattIQ we try to think about the entire lifecycle of the things we buy and use. Even when a company discards a piece of equipment, it may be valuable to others — especially if you know what its condition is and how it has been used.
Can you tell our readers about the initiatives that you or your company are taking to address climate change or sustainability? Can you give an example for each?
We are focused on helping customers understand the true carbon footprint of their operations. As we strive towards building a more sustainable economy, we have to keep in mind that we can’t get there without reducing our consumption and waste. From the individual consumer to the enterprise, we have limited information on the carbon footprint of our choices. While access to this data will disrupt many industries that have been built on a business model that relies on over consumption, it will also create new industries that will have a more beneficial impact on the environment and humanity.
How would you articulate how a business can become more profitable by being more sustainable and more environmentally conscious? Can you share a story or example?
A number of our customers are rethinking sustainability at a more fundamental level and working to understand their true carbon footprint. In that process, they are discovering that they have huge inefficiencies in how they are managing their assets and resources simply because they have no visibility — they lack the data to make decisions.
By removing these data blind spots, one of the customers realized that nearly 30% of their equipment was idle for months at a time and these underutilized assets could be redeployed to another department or site instead of buying more.
The youth led climate strikes of September 2019 showed an impressive degree of activism and initiative by young people on behalf of climate change. This was great, and there is still plenty that needs to be done. In your opinion what are 5 things parents should do to inspire the next generation to become engaged in sustainability and the environmental movement? Please give a story or an example for each.
I think the first and most important thing is to model good practices ourselves, but in a way that doesn’t involve deprivation. If something has to be painful to be virtuous, it’s hard to make it stick. Growing up in the 1970’s, eating healthy organic food meant tasteless things from the coop like carob chips. It doesn’t have to be that way, of course. Second, we need to inspire our children to buy less and keep things longer than our generation did. Third, we should demonstrate and instill the idea that eating seasonally is not a trend or a fad or affectation — it really matters to our long term survival that we stop flying food halfway around the world daily just because it’s winter in North America. Fourth, I see a lot of people encouraging their children to volunteer for a gap year, and I think that is a terrific idea to get everyone engaged and involved. Fifth, I think we should raise our kids to expect change, but know that change doesn’t mean they don’t have stable families and homes. We will need to be more adaptable than we’ve ever been, and I fear we’re not ready for it.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?
- Changing a practice or industry is painfully slow on a monthly and annual time scale, but 5–10 years out, things can be barely recognizable. Entrepreneurs often expect things to move more quickly than they really do at first, but then it snowballs. You just have to be able to make it until the snowball effect happens.
- Hire generalists. Sure, you need some folks with specific knowledge, but when you’re starting out, the more people on your team that can handle many issues, the faster you’ll be able to move.
- Don’t beat yourself up about never getting to every item or feature on your todo list. In reality, you’re lucky to keep up with what customers really need, and make them happy. There will always be a mountain of things you simply cannot do, and that’s alright — as long as you do the things people really need.
- Learn to be comfortable with uncertainty. It is alright to not know the answer or know what will happen next. Much of the stress we experience comes from worrying about things that haven’t happened yet, and the life of an entrepreneur is filled with enough uncertainty that it will harm you if you can’t let it go.
- Carve out time for family and friends. I spent way too much of my 20’s and 30’s working all the time — no breaks. I went back to a startup in my 50’s and I make more time for things, and guess what? Things still get done, customers still get helped, we still innovate.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
My first professional job in technology was at Realnetworks (then Progressive Networks) back in 1995 (after doing a variety of consulting and university IT jobs prior to that). I had a boss that first year that recognized that I had a very eclectic skill set and he let me get involved in a great variety of projects — everything from writing server code to building networks and systems to creating our first ecommerce system (which was not simple in the days before online payment systems). Eventually each of these areas got their own specialized teams, but I was able to experience all of it, at a formative stage of my career. In two years I got an amazing breadth of experience and was able to tackle any role in a tech startup. I’ve remembered that and tried to give my own teams the opportunity for as much breadth as they can handle. Several of my employees and colleagues went on to great things at Google, and two were integral to the founding of Amazon Web Services. Breadth pays off!
You are a person of great influence and doing some great things for the world! If you could inspire a movement that would bring the greatest amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
If I could have a movement to spread one idea, it’s that being selfish isn’t a virtue. I think we’ve come to believe that, especially in America, and it has led to our inability to meaningfully address climate change, but it touches nearly every aspect of our culture. We would be so much better off if we looked up to people for what they give, not what they take.
Do you have a favorite life lesson quote? Can you tell us how that was relevant to you in your own life?
I love this quote from the poet Mary Oliver:
“Instructions for living a life. Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.”
What is the best way for people to follow you on social media?
LinkedIn is probably best. I am busy enough that I do not have time to post often, but that’s where you’ll find me. I reserve Facebook for actual friends and family, and for projects in my community.
This was so inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!