Interview: Jack Bruner, co-founder of Carbon Neutral Club
Employee-engaged climate action
I’m excited to share this conversation with Jack Bruner, co-founder of Carbon Neutral Club (CNC), a platform that empowers employees and business leaders to understand and reduce their carbon footprint. We cover:
The origins of Carbon Neutral Club
The role carbon footprints play in meaningful climate action
What’s resonating with users
Their newly announced $1.4M Seed raise
This was a fun conversation to have and I’m stoked to share Jack’s story with you. Let’s go!
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Based in Toronto, Carbon Neutral Club describes itself as a Sustainable Behaviours Employee Engagement platform, with the goal of empowering workforces to understand their carbon footprint and incentivizing them to reduce it.
Employees calculate their work-related emissions from sources like business travel, work-from-home energy use, meals, and more. CNC then serves up personalized challenges and insights for employees and business leaders to reduce their emissions, while sustainability teams and execs can use dashboards with aggregated data about the nature of their organization’s footprint to identify emissions reduction opportunities and run employee challenges.
CNC also partners with sustainable brands like Guests on Earth, Kotn, and SAMARA to offer employees exclusive discounts that help shift their remaining consumption towards low-impact brands.
Where it all began
“I've been a product manager for the better part of a decade prior to this. And I always felt this gap between the work I was doing - the interesting problem solving - but disconnected entirely from purpose-driven problem solving. I'd always been poking around in climate, thinking “how do I connect tech with climate impact?”
Jack started tinkering with an idea that would become the seed of Carbon Neutral Club while working as a Product Manager in Toronto: “How do we do what Wealthsimple did for ETFs but for carbon offsetting?” After some early exploration, however, it was clear that offering offsets alone wouldn’t be enough.
“The value chain was incomplete,” said Jack, “It was effectively a charitable donation for individuals and therefore I didn't see there being real long term retention of these users.” It wasn’t until a conversation with his future business partner, Jeff Packer, that the final piece of the puzzle came together: measure and offset personal emissions + access to discounts with sustainable brands.
Jack, Jeff, and their third co-founder Roee Eidan worked on Carbon Neutral Club off the sides of their desks over the following months, including during the start of the pandemic. After a few months juggling the emotional load of lockdown, a full time job plus a side hustle, Jack knew it wasn’t sustainable to keep working on the idea part time. Making a pros and cons list on the back of a pizza box with his wife one night, the decision was clear: “there was so much more impact to be had and good to be done taking this leap … we decided, hell yeah, let's do it.”
What does growth look like today?
“We drive new B2B customers in large part through the network effect of Carbon Neutral Club. We have individual members, and those individual members also have employers and they're empowered to pitch this concept up internally into their sustainability teams and leaders.
“We also have our sustainable brand partners (e.g. Kotn) as part of the network, and they are looking for opportunities to engage their community and employees in climate action. So many of them are also clients of ours.
“We also do some really targeted outreach to organizations who have thoughtful climate strategies in place. We know that 99.9% of companies who have a thoughtful climate strategy have yet to figure out employee engagement. Because in all fairness, it is a really tough nut to crack.”
What resonates when you speak with customers?
“Our customers know that they have a gap in their net zero strategy with employee engagement, but aren’t aware of the solutions available to them. Especially with this work from home reality. So a lot of companies have employee engagement on the back burner or are afraid of getting into it.
“The light bulb goes on for customers when they hear that Carbon Neutral Club makes climate action accessible from a language and content perspective, gives everyone the tools to take part and then offers a real reward and incentive model to drive those reductions and changes. The response is like ‘Oh, this is the foundational layer of our net zero strategy. This is how we bring employees along for the journey and not tow them along in a boat behind us’.”
The value prop is also resonating with the partner brands that offer discounts for CNC’s members:
“They're constantly looking for opportunities to speak to a climate-aligned demographic of consumers. They want to speak to our member base, and we are actively looking to connect our member base with companies like theirs who can reduce the impact of specific decisions they need to make.
“This is like a very direct alternative to running a Facebook Ad or Google Ad that they're pretty sick of running. It’s saying ‘here are the people that you're looking for. We got 'em. And they're looking for you too’.”
There’s often skepticism around the effectiveness of offsets - how do you think about them?
“First thing I'll say is, there are many offset projects that deserve the flack that they get. We need to be super cautious about the permanence and the additionality of projects that come to market. And yeah, without a doubt, there is risk in investing in carbon offsets.
“They are, though, one of the most, and one of very few, effective carbon financing solutions. We do need them. There are projects out there that are either effective today or have very promising future potential that require carbon financing.
“Our team thinks about investing in carbon offsets very similarly to investing in a personal financial investment portfolio. The key is diversification. We've got projects that are traditional, highly accredited VCS or Gold Standard verified projects in wind, solar, forestry, and land based projects. And then we're also investing in frontier carbon removal projects like carbon-injected concrete and kelp farming that maybe have less of an impact potential immediately, but have huge potential long term.
“Carbon offsets are not the strategy. The strategy is reduction and they go hand in hand, so you can't dismiss them. But you need to be thoughtful about where you're investing.”
What else do you think people tend to get wrong about this space?
“Many people have asked us ‘why even do the personal footprinting anymore if your business is going toward B2B?’ We think about it very similarly to training on personal finance. You need the tools to see this story at a personal level.
“We use personal footprinting as a way to connect the abstract concept of emissions to your daily life. And I think it's really effective to do that, on top of the fact that you do have real power as an educated consumer to reduce the impact of your life by making thoughtful decisions. I push back on anyone who knocks personal carbon footprinting because it's an incomplete thought in my opinion.
“One other thing I would say is that in the climate community specifically, there is an assumed understanding of the ‘climate basics’. Most people who are deeply entrenched understand the nature of corporate emission measurement frameworks, science based targets, etc. But these are not generally understood concepts by most people. We have so much investment to do around education.”
What are some of the biggest challenges that you’ve faced so far?
“With any startup you struggle with focus. How do we block out the noise and identify what the noise is and what is insightful market feedback? We had a B2C offering, we had a B2B offering, we’ve got all these sustainable brand partners and so many great ideas came to us and from us about what CNC could become. We struggled early on to pick a niche and really focus on it.
“We had a hypothesis that the key would be employees and workforces. We fought it in favour of the natural organic growth we were seeing in B2C, which, in fairness, was notable. We could have pivoted faster to a really tight focus on B2B.
“The second thing that we struggle with is telling a story across all of our content and channels in a way that satisfies people on all points in their climate journey. We have some members who arrive at Carbon Neutral Club and don't even understand greenhouse gases and are at the beginning … and we have others who are so far progressed and really just need tinkering and details. So we are working to speak to both in a way that resonates.”
Looking ahead, what are the main goals for Carbon Neutral Club over the next few years?
“We have a market that's relatively nascent. There are some forward thinking companies like Capital One and Kraft Heinz that we are working with already who understand the nature of, ‘I've got a net zero target, but my employees are the ones who will get us there or not’.
“That epiphany is still being had again and again. So we're focused on evolving a product for a world where we have a very educated market, as well as telling this story as loudly and as often as we can to help create the market since we're at the forefront of our space with what we’re doing.”
How have you thought about funding and what’s that experience been like?
“We're in an interesting moment in time on this front. We started fundraising last January, and little did we know it would end up being the worst year in the past 15 years to raise venture capital. We didn't know that at the time, but our fundraise started out very focused on finding traditional SaaS VC investors, and we had great traction.
“When the stock market collapsed in March, those traditional SaaS VC investors put a pause and said, “Hey, we're gonna wait this storm out, but good luck to you!” Everyone that we were speaking to who were climate VCs, climate tech focused, though, they didn't miss a beat. They were undeterred by the nature of the global economy and said the problem that we're solving isn't changing based on the ups and downs of the economy.”
Carbon Neutral Club just announced their $1.4M Seed round backed by Vancouver’s Emend Vision Fund, Blue Vision Capital (Montreal, QC), and Good News Ventures (Markham, ON). The raise sets the CNC team up for several years of growth, and Jack is already looking ahead at what’s next:
“We're focused on preserving cash and we do have intentions of doing a Series A in the near future, but don’t need to rush. The reason for that is we have so much baked-in growth already in our pipeline with active accounts as well as folks who are coming aboard that we can see into the future in an exciting way that other industries don't have.”
What role has the wider tech ecosystem played?
“We took part in two traditionally tech focused accelerators. We participated in Mastercard's Start Path program, which is typically a very fintech focused program. But we have a climate fintech intersection that's been absolutely huge for our product development, connections to major enterprises, and as you can imagine, there's lots of exciting stuff that Mastercard's also working on. We also took part in Highline Beta, which historically is very tech focused, but had a climate lean this year.
“We did a pre-seed financing round that was largely driven by angels that come from the tech space. They've been incredible connectors. They understand the nature of CNC’s growth model that we're trying to build. Again, it's been a huge point of strength for us to have this background in tech versus coming from traditional climate.”
“I think the provincial and federal governments are doing amazing things. Investing in and giving small tech startups and businesses access to grants and growth opportunities. I would love to see more investment in startup grants for climate companies that define climate tech outside of the traditional boundaries of hardware, climate, and technology and into sustainable living, circular economy, wider technology platforms. We struggled to apply for some grants that we would love to have gotten.”
Any final words or call to action for readers?
“We work with dozens of small- and medium-sized tech, agency, consulting, and finance companies because the nature of these organizations’ footprints are so dominated by employee behaviour. You'd be staggered to see a typical tech company's emissions footprint be so heavily derived from employee commuting, business travel, and employee related behaviours.
“If you're looking for a way to measure and build a net zero strategy for your organization, but historically have found it hard to find a tool that fits, Carbon Neutral Club is designed to help you measure employee-related emissions, as well as emissions outside of those employee-related categories, offset them, and most importantly drive a reduction strategy.”
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