Picking Tyler Steele’s Brain

These days, it seems everyone is seeing “green.” Interest in designing, constructing, working, and living in environmentally-friendly buildings has increased considerably and shows little chance of letting up.

As owner/principal at Greenovate, Tyler Steele, for one, is capitalizing on those desires. Greenovate offers green building materials, including flooring, countertops, paint, insulation and sheet goods, as well as project management and consultation services for commercial and residential clients. Greenovate −whose offices and showroom are in the Short North− also provides indoor health evaluations and action plans to businesses, homeowners, and renters.

Herewith, Steele, 32, shares the questions he is asked most frequently about his small business (and his answers, of course).

Question: How did you get into your particular line of work?

Answer: I grew up in homes that were in constant states of renovation. My folks were into buying old historic houses and turning them into modern family homes. Through this process, especially as a child and young adult, one looks at houses in a different way and I built an early appreciation for architecture and the systems that make up a building.

The newest house I have ever lived in was the first house I had in Columbus− a 1956 ranch in a historic district. I have a deep appreciation for the integrity of historical buildings and renovating them was a hobby.

Starting in 2000 or so, in my travels I started noticing interesting green concepts and materials being used in new green construction on the East and West coasts, and really wanted to deploy these things in my own projects. When I called the manufacturers or suppliers, they would often set me up as a dealer because there was no other in Ohio or even the Midwest. This lead to a lot of relationships with manufacturers.

In 2006, after completing a condo project with some friends, I was taking stock and found myself surrounded by really great materials that no one in Ohio had access to. That was when I decided to set up a dealership for green building materials. From there, we have added dozens of manufacturers and grown our capacity to include residential, institutional, and commercial customers.

Q: Who are your customers?

A: Primarily, Greenovate is a supplier of green building materials and knowledge. We sell materials and consultation to every kind of green building project imaginable. We deal a lot with the trades. Architects, builders, remodelers, and subcontractors are all good customers, but the ideal customer is the owner. Because we deal with materials that are often going into projects that have a high level of environmental integrity, we find that educating the owner will set the pace. From there, they bring the other players along for the ride.

Greenovate’s customers are really anyone engaged in the building process. We deal with everyone− ranging from the homeowner concerned with the toxicity of her bathroom paint to small businesses opening another location to the largest [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design] buildings being built by titans of industry.

Q: Is Greenovate a chain, franchise, or a national company?

A: This [question] is very flattering and surprisingly common. I usually laugh and respond with, “No, we just have great branding.” Branding is important, but I should also mention that we fight for our intellectual property and have worked hard to position the company in a favorable light, despite the negative impacts of the recent economy.

Q: Can I buy a franchise or licensure to open a Greenovate store?

A: Yes, we’ve entertained such requests from others around Ohio and are always open to exciting collaborations. This is one of the most interesting parts of my little world− figuring out what’s next for the business. It’s an enormous challenge and tremendous opportunity all at once. Because I’ve seen the green building market grow to meet the business, I feel like I have to stay one step ahead, or at least be ready to move when the market is ready.

Q: How do you compete with the big box retail stores?

A: First, we don’t have much product overlap with other retailers in Ohio. Maybe a brand or two, but because we are founded on being the resource for materials that there was no resource for, we stand out. Second, the big boxes wish that they could compete with us. We run circles around them in terms of knowledge and customer service.

The vast majority of our customers appreciate that we are bringing more to the project and understand that there is value in the equation. Value, not price, is often the metric by which people are shopping, even if they don’t know it. No, we can’t stock cork flooring to the ceiling like a big box would. But we can tell you exactly where ours was made, how to install it, and how it will perform in your home. Can the big box do that? We get calls all the time from people trying to dig out from a problem with some other retailer. Most of the time, we try to help.

Q: How can I express my interest in eco-friendly issues and build a business?

A: Find a reason you want to make a difference, share it with people who know what you are talking about, and plan for the worst. Just because a couple dozen soccer moms think your recycling idea is cool doesn’t mean that it’s a good business plan.

There are plenty of topic experts out there and most of us got here by digging in deeper than everyone else. I meet several times a month with people who are kicking around new business ideas and I love it. Some work, some are straight up wrong, but the community building and the exploration is valuable for all of us. And just when your numbers look good and the plan is working out nicely, the economy takes a s— and you have to regroup. You never know what might hit you. It gets too easy to want to quit; that’s why you have to be super committed to the initial cause.

Q: Don’t you get annoyed with people who waste time with ideas like “Wouldn’t it be cool if we all had solar panels on our roofs?”

A: Yes, there is a certain disdain for blue sky dreamers in our eco-capitalist society. But deep down, I agree with them and want to dream big. Being a bootstrapped business owner, I can’t afford to spend much time dreaming and talking about the latest wacked out technology that will finally be the game changer. Accountability is huge for small business. I personally have to be very careful about time spent and being accountable for my time investment.

We live in Ohio; Ohioans are not early adopters and those who build their businesses to cater to the bleeding edge start with deeper pockets than I. We’ve spent the last six years trying to bring the costs of green building down to the market construction average. I still hear from home builders who don’t want to build green because it could add one percent to their costs, even if it saves them ten-fold in the first year.

Lots of people don’t “get it” and those are the ones I’m going after. The masses need to see the impact of their actions and the benefits of change. It’s not all about the environment, or health, or money; it’s about how all of these things intersect. It’s about the bigger picture.

Q: Where do you see green building going and how can my small business grow to support that market?

A: Green building is becoming the norm. The Ohio State University, Ohio K-12 schools, many progressive businesses, and the federal government have required that all new projects be built to green building standards.

LEED −the predominate green building rating system− is becoming par for any building project. For years, I’ve been telling educators, contractors, and designers that if you’re not learning about LEED and embracing the language, you’re being left behind. LEED enforces a tertiary review of, and sets certain benchmarks for, the entire building process.

The importance of my statement is the education component. Learning is lifelong and no two projects are identical. We’re dealing with a hospital project right now where the owner desperately wants a LEED Platinum −the highest rating− building, but they almost refuse to change how they’ve always done business. This just doesn’t work. So instead of talking about solar panels and gray water, we’re talking about what roles the architects and builders should take on.

Many of our customers and colleagues are small business owners. My suggestion to anyone looking to step off the edge into green building, or any eco-friendly business venture, is to do your homework and know that you can never rest, especially when applying the triple bottom line to a business; it ratchets the operational demands up a notch.

I often describe the material manufacturers Greenovate deals with as companies that just do more. Whether it means they make flooring from recycled materials, paint that’s non-toxic, or they monitor and manage their total global environmental and social impact, these companies are doing more and that takes effort and nerves. It’s people, planet, and profit; not just profit, profit, profit. My 88-year-old grandfather doesn’t understand this because of how he grew up. We have to talk about it these days. We have to be prepared to do more.

I often reflect upon other business models and how they can just do whatever they like, as if there is no social, political, or environmental consequence. Ideas like outsourcing it all to China.

“Who cares where the wood comes from.”

“It was fine for my generation; it’ll be fine for the kids.”

It’s true, making a buck −or a billion− is not that difficult in America today. The real challenge is doing it in a transparent way with integrity, honesty, and in a manner that leaves the place better than you found it. That’s all we’re doing here− trying to leave the place better than we found it.

To learn more about Greenovate, visit Greenovate.com.