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An Interview with Linda Welch
Linda Welch has helped dozens of great ideas turn into full-fledged businesses. Her philosophy is straightforward: if youâ€™re not giving back to the community and the planet, whatâ€™s the point? Today, Linda runs five businesses, all with a commitment to being green. Four of the five are located in the Logan Circle neighborhood of Washington, DC, where Linda has found her ideal green business community.
Live Green talked with Linda to learn more about her diverse enterprises and how sheâ€™s using a cutting-edge â€œbeta communityâ€ to make sure her next venture, Elements, a restaurant, will be made to order for her neighbors.
Live Green: Letâ€™s start by talking about your businesses. What are they and how did you come to start them?
Linda: Sure! We have Dogs by Day and Nite, which is the one we started first, in 1999. And as an offshoot of that we started Green Pets â€“ so we had dog supplies and dog day care.
Those two launched and grew rapidly and then we added on Big Monkey Comics â€“ we bought a comic book store and moved it down here -- and then we added on MidCity Embroidery, just out of a need for a business to serve all of the other businesses in the area with embroidery and silk screening. And now, of course, I am developing Elements [Lindaâ€™s new restaurant].
On top of all of that, we are starting some nonprofits that work with inner city kids. Weâ€™ve always done that, but never formally. We are formalizing everything. â€œWeâ€ are a group of people who own and manage for-profit businesses so we can do nonprofit and philanthropic work. Thatâ€™s PLA â€“ the organizing group â€“ Prosperity League of America.
The motivation behind getting it all started was my sisterâ€™s love of dogs. She moved up to DC with her three dogs. When she came into town she said, â€œI need something to do.â€ I said, â€œWhat?â€ And she said, â€œSomething I can take my dogs to!â€ And that led to Dogs by Day. And we are really shocked at how big it is! Itâ€™s now got the distinction of being the largest single location dog day care in the country. We have 1,800 active clients and we see around 100 a day on average. I donâ€™t know what we would do if they all came on the same day! Weâ€™d have a big problem!
Green Pets was formerly called Pet Essentials. Iâ€™m shocked at how rapidly it has grown â€“ thatâ€™s why we are moving into a bigger location. It started with my sister and I being involved in the natural health craze and just very, very much believing in that. So, when we opened Green Pets we wanted it all to be organic and natural foods from the get-go. Nothing in the store has any chemicals or dye. Honestly, at the start it was tough. There were maybe three foods and a couple of toys at that time, and it was really hard to stay true to our values and intent.
LG: So in the time since youâ€™ve opened Green Pets, the suppliers have really changed?
LW: Oh, yes! In a big way. Theyâ€™ve caught up with what we see is happening: the whole country is going in that direction. We now take care of our pets better than we take care of ourselves! There are great foods and the toys that are out there to support our pets. I always tell my people that if I ate as well as I feed my St. Bernards I would live forever. !
LG: What does it mean to you to be a green business? What elements go into owning a green business?
I equate â€œgreenâ€ with triple-bottom-line. They may be different in some respects, but our businesses have always tried to be that.
So, we put our employees first. Weâ€™ve always paid higher than the going rate. This is an industry with huge turnover and we have many of the same staff that we started with nine years ago, so thatâ€™s a good thing.
We believe in giving to the planet. Some of our net profits go to the Heifer Foundation or World Wildlife Fund or local organizations like the Washington Humane Society or Alley Cat Allies.. Green Pets does a monthly donation drive and at Dogs by Day and Nite we do a yearly donation drive. And then, with Big Monkey, weâ€™re beginning to work with the DC Literacy Council to promote a reading program that will give comic books to schools. So, weâ€™ve always incorporated giving into our business model.
And, of course, thereâ€™s profit -- to make it sustainable. So thatâ€™s the triple bottom line. People, Planet and Profit.
About ten years ago, â€œgreenâ€ meant eating better and being healthier. As time has passed, there have been new elements that we could incorporate into the business, like the recycled tire flooring, low-VOC paints, multi use water systems and different kinds of lighting.
We use programs that support wind power and weâ€™ve tried to green up the space as much as we can. At this physical location itâ€™s not as green as we would like it to be. So, weâ€™re moving to a new location and making the building LEED certified. We donâ€™t know what class of LEED yet, but thatâ€™s our intent. We hope we can get silver at the very least.
In addition, weâ€™ve instituted a recycling program and we encourage the staff to use public transportation when possible. We give out bus vouchers if they need them. On the inside of our building we have a place for people to put their bikes. And we really look at our power usage. Weâ€™re considering greening up our roof for more insulation. Through a Washington, DC city program we were able to re-insulate and thatâ€™s really helped us reduce our use of electricity.
When we first started our businesses we had an overall vision. How are we investing the community? What are we giving back to the planet? How do we support our employees? And then, of course, how do we keep that sustainable?
LG: Why is being green important to you?
LW: On a personal level, I think that treating people fairly is paramount. Iâ€™ve been involved in dozens and dozens of businesses and you have to treat oneâ€™s employees as the essential key to running a business. No matter how good the business model is, it doesnâ€™t matter unless the people there, working the job, are enthusiastic about being there. We try to create an environment that they are excited about coming to, so they feel good about it and at the end of the week they have a paycheck that reflects that. It is so important.
If business of the future doesnâ€™t have a heart, itâ€™s not going to survive. If itâ€™s not giving back to the community and making the world a better place, even just a little bit, people arenâ€™t going to want to go to that business unless there is no other alternative. I think that most people and especially those who are financially able will look to independent businesses that support their community before going to a big box.
LG: Do you advertise your retail businesses?
LW: We do minimally, but mostly special promotions. Itâ€™s word of mouth. We have quite a following here. We advertise a little more for Big Monkey since itâ€™s new to the community. Green Pets and Dogs by Day and Nite are really customer driven. That has upsides and downsides. If you make a mistake, watch out! Itâ€™s everywhere in a nano second.
Thereâ€™s no place we could advertise that would get us any better draw than when our customers are happy!
LG: What is your biggest challenge as you try to maintain your standards for yourself and your business?
Itâ€™s this growth rate! All of the businesses are in some kind of growth model.
The rising cost of power is always challenging. So, weâ€™re having to look at new ways of doing things. Thatâ€™s good and bad. It allows us to reconnect with what weâ€™ve done in the past and keep thinking of creative ways to keep doing it in the future.
I was talking to a friend the other day about the gas crunch. I kinda hate to say it but I love it! Iâ€™m close by, so I could ride a bike here. And Iâ€™m thinking about all the gas emissions that arenâ€™t going into the atmosphere because people are thinking twice about using their car for errands. Many are choosing public transportation or car pooling
The biggest concern in this city is the high cost of retail space and the real estate taxes being passed through. Those are the issues that we are facing, more than issues of being green.
LG: What about the community here? Are these people who are particularly interested in these issues?
LW: I LOVE this neighborhood! Where do I begin?!
The folks who either live here or are coming into this community are so smart and savvy. They can be choosy and support the small business. They are not interested in big boxes at all.
This neighborhood is very aware and they do look for green practices. They look for those who give to the community and are triple bottom line. I donâ€™t know about the rest of the city, because, honestly, this is my world, right here! Small business owners support one another, they get together to co-sponsor events and advertise together. I think itâ€™s just a remarkable place to be.
And being in Washington, DC we are a little bit protected. Weâ€™re not recession-proof, but our business is getting better and better and better. How fortunate is that?
LG: What would you say to someone starting out with a green business? Where do they start in their thinking about all this?
LW: I would say to use the beta community model. Hands down, itâ€™s hugely successful.
Yes, you have a great idea, but how well is it going to fit into the community? Crowd sourcing is a spectacular way of finding our what your potential customers need and want. They are involved in all aspects of growing the business from the name to the manifesto to the overall design.
That would be my recommendation. With that kind of feedback the business owners can make really sound decisions.
LG: Tell us more about the Beta-communities.
LW: Theyâ€™re wonderful! This beta community process is the first Iâ€™ve been involved in.
You get a group of dedicated, like-minded people together, who are interested in nothing more than having a place they can go and feel proud of, and listen to everything they have to say. Many of the ideas or concepts they come up with I would have never thought of. These are incredibly talented and interesting people.
Itâ€™s remarkable and the process is so easy because the business is building itself. Iâ€™ve had very little involvement. I get to read online posts and hold monthly meetings.
I go and they say:
â€œWe want a green roof.â€
â€œAnd we want a bike-through window where we can get juice and coffee.â€
â€œWe want entertainmentâ€¦and a vegan bakery.â€
â€œWe want it to be open at 6am!â€
The only contribution I made is this: I want a pancake bar! I want a full-on pancake bar, anytime of day, with like 30 different toppings.
I just go to these meeting and hear all these incredible ideas. If things come up that donâ€™t really apply, no one gets offended, since theyâ€™ve had their say, we heard it, we discussed and we decided not to go that direction.
Iâ€™ve been to 14 meetings and everyone supports everyone else. I go to those meetings to get filled up with energy.
People worry about design by committee, weâ€™ve all heard that, but I made it very clear from day one that I would listen to absolutely everything that everyone has to say and I will incorporate as much as possible, but itâ€™s not a democracy and I make the final decisions. Thereâ€™s never been an issue.
Even with the research that needs to be done, finding local dairies and farmers, we have a whole team of people who love the process and go for it! Theyâ€™ve named it, theyâ€™ve designed the logo, theyâ€™re branding it, they wrote the manifesto. I couldnâ€™t do it as well as they are doing it. The place I would have designed would have been good. The place they are designing is magnificent.
LG: So, basically, you have your clientele, without advertising.
LW: We will have 500 people when the doors open. And thatâ€™s just the community â€¦not their family and friends. Just with the people we have now we could keep it filled all the time.
LG: How did you get started with the beta community?
Two words: Neil Takemoto. Heâ€™s amazing. He works with Cool Town Studios, developing neighborhoods and he really pioneered the model.
The day after I purchased a liquor license and a business license for a restaurant I called Neil and said, â€œSo, what do I do with it?â€ And he said, â€œLetâ€™s start a beta-community.â€
He put up the site and told people about it and from that it just grew.
Elements is one of the first singly-owned businesses thatâ€™s used this process. Itâ€™s been used for live-work space around the country â€“ in Syracuse and New Orleans â€“ but rarely if at all for a single business or a restaurant..
I had a stunning idea ten years ago. I made environmentally friendly outwear â€“ hand-painted murals on umbrellas -- and I sold them on the Internet and through home shopping network. It didnâ€™t catch on like I thought it would.
If I had had the opportunity to do it with a beta community I might not have done it or maybe I would have done it in a different way. I spent $100,000 to find out that it wasnâ€™t going to work. So this is a great way of going to the public and asking whatâ€™s necessary, what do we need here?
LG: When are the doors opening for Elements?
March 28, 2009, if not sooner, which is two years from the day we started.
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