Building up a business is hard work but things will work out in the end. Starting out by packing pencils in the backyard of my house with the help of the kids (Luckily it was summer and clear skies) was hard work but a great experience. You need to be prepared to do the hard work yourself, especially in the first few years.
As a part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Michael Stausholm.
Michael Stausholm is the founder of Sprout World — the company behind the first pencil in the world that can be planted and grown into herbs, vegetables and flowers.
Michael Stausholm began his career in the shipping industry, working for A.P. Møller/Mærsk. Withinterests including green entrepreneurship and sustainability, he worked for companies such as Nike and Walmart, helping them establish more sustainable and responsible textile production processes from 1996–2006. In 2013, he founded Sprout as a company and launched the Sprout pencil. Today, he owns all the patents to the company’s products, and is a a principal shareholder and chairman of the board.
Michael Stausholm is an experienced public speaker who has spoken on behalf of the United Nations, at the Sustainable Brands Conference and at a number of public and private events. He has provided commentary to CNN Money, Forbes, Fortune, Huffington Post, the Daily Mail and Business Insider, and a wide range of other international outlets. He also contributes to the Huffington Post.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you please tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
In the late 90’s / early 00’s I was based in Asia and working in the textile/garment industry. Back then, the industry consisted mainly of sweatshop-like production facilities. The working conditions were horrible (and in some instances probably still are). Human rights abuse were rampant in places like China, Indonesia and Thailand.
I was young and inexperienced but still it made me wonder every time I was in one of these “sweatshops”, how is it not possible to provide decent working conditions even if it cost a little extra?
Slowly companies started to demand better conditions because their customers (the consumer) started demanding it. This made me realize that change was possible even though it should not come from the consumer but from companies wanting to make a difference. Not because they were pressured but because of a management desire to do better. That has improved over the years, but still today, corporations often make sustainable changes reactively rather than proactively.
All of this gave me a deep interest in sustainability and how we can all be a part of the change, even with small everyday improvements.
Can you please share with us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
When I founded Sprout World in 2013, a lot of people including friends and even some entrepreneurs, told me that it would never work. After all, despite a patent, this was just a pencil and some seeds. I listened but my gut feeling told me that the Sprout pencil was so much more than just a pencil with seeds. To me it was about the message it could communicate. To use a product and instead of throwing away after use, give new life (literally) by planting it. The Sprout pencil was sustainability made easy to understand for all — children and adults alike.
It is common sense to listen to other people, although you should mostly listen to people who have experience within your field and have tried what you are doing (i.e. other entrepreneurs). However, in the end, listening to your gut beats everything.
Which principles or philosophies have guided your life? Your career?
Originally I started out with the global shipping conglomerate Maersk Line and the owner and CEO Mr. Maersk McKinney Moeller had a saying:
”Take care of today, actively prepare for tomorrow.” As a core value, this means, forward thinking, planning and execution. Being informed, innovative and seeking out new ideas. Looking for changes in the environment.
Ok thank you for that. Let’s now move to the main focus of our interview. Can you tell us about your “Big Idea That Might Change The World”? How do you think this will change the world?
A Sprout pencil is not going to save the world, however we believe our products can be part of inspiring people to think about their consumption and how products are used. And not only used, but also what happens to products after you are done using them. It is about reflecting on your daily needs and how you can make small positive and sustainable changes in your every day life. Even the small ones add up and can make a big impact on all of our lives.
No drawbacks at all. On the contrary, a Sprout pencil is also about taking time away from a very hectic life often consumed with smartphones and computers. It is so important to handwrite something and to draw and focus on slow living sometimes.
Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this idea? Can you tell us that story?
When I first came across the idea of the Sprout pencil in early 2013 I thought it was a great idea but I had no idea if there was a market for it. There was simply no existing market to compare to.
Quickly however, the innovation and the patent got a lot of media attention. By the first year, we started taking pre-orders of over 50,000 pieces from retailers, and the momentum never stopped. Before we knew it, we were selling in multiple countries and that is when I knew it was worth my full attention and established what is today SproutWorld.
What do you need to lead this idea to widespread adoption?
Almost since the beginning we have been fortunate to get receive positive media attention from all over the world, and still continue to receive. This is a tremendous help in spreading the idea.
This means we get hundreds of enquires every week from corporations all over the world wanting to purchase our products and to work with us. We also get messages every day from people who purchased, used and have now planted their Sprout pencil and are excited to see basil sprout in their window sill. I love that!
But most importantly, every time our message is spread and a company is sending Sprout pencils to their customers or employees, the idea is spread and sustainability is in focus.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Building up a business is hard work but things will work out in the end. Starting out by packing pencils in the backyard of my house with the help of the kids (Luckily it was summer and clear skies) was hard work but a great experience. You need to be prepared to do the hard work yourself, especially in the first few years.
- Don’t listen too much to the opinions of other people. A friend of mine told me in the early days that I should forget about those pencils and get a real job making money so that I could provide for my family. I had to think that over for a few days, as he was, and is, a successful entrepreneur and very old friend. But I decided not to listen and to forge ahead. Fast forward two years and the company was growing very fast, and that same friend invested close to 1 million dollars for a minor stake in the company.
- Prioritize time off to prevent stress. Something I’ve learned along the way is to take long walks during the day, exercise, and make sure to relax with friends and family and sometimes just yourself and a good book. I meditate every day and that helps me to abstract from things.
- Believe in yourself and your idea and other people will believe as well. It is too easy to be distracted from your goals if you listen to people with no actual knowledge of the journey you are on.
- Building a business is like sustainability. It is a journey, not a destination. Too many people are so focused on the goal, that they forget to enjoy the travel or to celebrate the many small and big successes along the way.
Can you share with our readers what you think are the most important “success habits” or “success mindsets”?
Success is never a straight path, but one of the most important points is to keep a positive mindset at all times, no matter the challenges you face.
As an example, a lot of people including entrepreneurs, have fallen to negative thoughts and even outrage during the pandemic because they feel governments are not doing what they should to help. While understandable, negative thinking gets you nowhere. Instead focus on what you can do something about and try your very best to ignore things you cannot.
Some very well known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
Sprout products like the Sprout pencil may be a simple yet very powerful product which importantly, is covered by a global patent. It is being sold in more than 80 countries around the world, and since founding the company in 2013, we have sold more than 35 million pieces of Sprout pencils to companies using it to communicate their own sustainable messages, as well as to individual consumers.
Customers such as Ikea, Disney, Bank of America, Porsche, to name a few, as well as Michelle Obama, Gordon Ramsey and Richard Branson, have all purchased Sprout pencils in bulk with their own logos/messages to communicate and promote their own sustainable projects.
There are many green companies out there, but none in the space which Sprout World owns — the combination of sustainability with communication and education
We are furthermore exciting to announce the launch of a new product to the market — -The Sprout Liner. The Sprout Line, also patented, is a makeup eyeliner you can plant after use. The makeup liner global market is huge and needs to change towards sustainability.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
On Linkedin or Facebook:
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.