Jen Panaro of WasteWell: “Tell people what you’re doing”

Tell people what you’re doing. Especially at the beginning, it can feel safer to keep your new and innovate idea to yourself. What if others don’t get it? Or think it’s silly? Or want to steal it? I’ve found that it’s helpful to tell people about the business when it’s new. While some people inevitably […]

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Tell people what you’re doing. Especially at the beginning, it can feel safer to keep your new and innovate idea to yourself. What if others don’t get it? Or think it’s silly? Or want to steal it? I’ve found that it’s helpful to tell people about the business when it’s new. While some people inevitably brush it off or don’t understand it, many more provide feedback, share related ideas, or connect me to others in the industry or related businesses. You never know when a valuable connection will land in your lap. But people must know about what you’re working on to offer the right suggestions and information.

As a part of our series about entrepreneurs who transformed something they did for fun into a full-time career, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jen Panaro.

Jen is the owner of WasteWell, a local curbside composting company, as well as writer and editor of Honestly Modern, an online space focused on eco-friendly living for modern families. After a 15 year career in public accounting, she set aside her CPA to focus her energy on making climate-friendly lifestyles more accessible to everyday families. Outside of work, she’s a wife, a mom to two boys, a baseball coach and hockey mom, and a member of the Board of Trustees of her local library.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?

I grew up in the suburbs of Minneapolis, Minnesota in a large family. I’m the oldest of five daughters, all of whom my parents chauffeured day after day to endless sports games and practices. I think we had a typical childhood: school, sports, homework, family dinners.

My parents always supported us in pursuing our hobbies and careers, whatever they were. I didn’t have any early exposure to sustainability, lots of time in nature, or other notable childhood experiences that might predispose me to writing about and advocating for eco-friendly living in between routes collecting food scraps from my neighbors.

What was the catalyst from transforming your hobby or something you love into a business? Can you share the story of your “ah ha” moment with us?

I was working a corporate job that was fine, but I didn’t love it for quite some time. I truly enjoyed learning about and sharing my knowledge of composting in the hopes of helping more people compost at home. I had been writing about how to compost at home on my blog, Honestly Modern, for a couple of years.

One day, I attended a meet-up with a few friends and one of the women ran a curbside composting company in another part of the Philadelphia suburbs. I had thought about starting something similar but felt overwhelmed not knowing where to start. Meeting this fellow composting queen, I knew I had someone of whom I could ask questions and could be a sounding board if I jumped into running my own similar business in my community.

I sat on the idea for a few months and was on vacation in California visiting family when I started to seriously consider starting a business of my own. During that trip, I discussed the idea with family and decided to start building a foundation for the business when I got home. And that’s what I did!

There are no shortage of good ideas out there, but people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How did you overcome this challenge?

I think I had a bit of an advantage seeing others run similar business models. I didn’t have to create a market from nothing or convince others the business could be viable.

However, I wanted the brand to speak to a different audience than many of the composting services I knew. Given the community in which I lived, I expected that the hyperlocal market would be more attracted to messaging of clean kitchens and simple waste reduction as opposed to the more Earthy and environmental benefits of the business.

Before landing on a name and a brand, I discussed the idea with many local friends, including one with an expertise in marketing, to garner interest in different types of potential branding and differentiation. Using family and friends with relevant skills as sounding boards really helped me develop direction and move forward.

What advice would you give someone who has a hobby or pastime that they absolutely love but is reluctant to do it for a living?

Start small. To the extent you can, start providing your potential business’ products or services in exchange for payment as a side hustle and in a way that doesn’t require significant capital exposure. This provides an opportunity to test the waters and see if the business strategy wears on your passion for the activity as a hobby. Provided you don’t take any immediate significant risks, it’s easier to ramp up business slowly and also turn back if it isn’t working out.

It’s said that the quickest way to take the fun out of doing something is to do it for a living. How do you keep from changing something you love into something you dread? How do you keep it fresh and enjoyable?

Some parts of the business I love, and those are most closely related to what I enjoyed when it was just a hobby. Other parts, I admittedly dread. Where possible, I’ve tried to either outsource or automate the pieces of running my curbside composting business that I don’t particularly love. This allows me to focus more time on the pieces I enjoy and let’s experts do other components of the business better than I would anyways.

I’ve also found it especially helpful to connect with others in my industry who are also running similar or related small businesses. Running a small business, especially at the beginning as a solopreneur, can feel lonely or isolating. While it might seem counterintuitive to befriend your competitors, I think it’s helpful to be sounding boards for each other and provide a sense of camaraderie. In my experience, we’ve been able to collaborate in ways that make both of our businesses better.

What is it that you enjoy most about running your own business? What are the downsides of running your own business? Can you share what you did to overcome these drawbacks?

I love that each day I get to decide what I will work on. The autonomy is perfect for my working style. However, I also don’t have colleagues who can run the business in my absence. So, when I go on vacation or life ties up my time, the business has to take a back seat.

I’ve tried to address some of these challenges through outsourcing and automation. I hired a virtual assistant recently and invested in a high-quality software system that we use for customer account and operational management. Although the outsourcing and automation are some of my most significant expenses, they are well worth the investment and enable me to enjoy running the business and make time to step away periodically.

Can you share what was the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

Despite transitioning away from a corporate compliance job, I didn’t anticipate the amount of regulatory research and understanding I would need. Legal experts and a network of others running similar small businesses have been hugely helpful in navigating this new territory.

Has there ever been a moment when you thought to yourself “I can’t take it anymore, I’m going to get a “real” job? If so, how did you overcome it?

There are days where I want to walk away. I haven’t yet felt the urge to return to a “real” job because I love the freedom and flexibility of working for myself. So far, I have overcome these moments of struggle by stepping back and reflecting on the elements causing me the most stress. To the extent possible, I’ve tried to reduce the amount of time I have to spend doing these laborious tasks. And at times, I’ve even shifted the business model to limit my commitment to the parts of the business that are most frustrating or exhausting for me.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Running a business leads to a wealth of funny stories, especially because we’re doing so many things for the first time. For me, the funniest story probably happened a few months ago while driving one of our regular compost pickup routes. Unbeknownst to me, one of the buckets tipped while driving and started leaking compost liquid onto the carpet of the vehicle. As a small business, I still use our family SUV for customer pickups. We tried several times to clean it on our own, but nothing worked. My family wasn’t thrilled that our car stunk like rotting food until we hired a professional detailing service.

Who has inspired or continues to inspire you to be a great leader? Why?

My kids inspire me the most to be an advocate for change and wander into uncharted territory for the sake of the future of our planet. Not only do I want them to have a thriving planet to call home well into old age, but I also want them to see me as a role model for taking important action even when it’s not easy.

When I tell people what I do, I get a lot of questions. Most people don’t understand what I do or why it matters. Some people don’t even agree that climate action matters at all. In our current world, pursuit of sustainable living habits often feels like swimming upstream. I want my boys to know that it’s ok and worthwhile to do what you believe is important even if it doesn’t always align with the status quo.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

As the business grows, I try to be mindful of which customers we’re serving and, more importantly, which potential customers we are not serving. In our case, the price of our subscription service may be a barrier to entry for people at different income levels.

While it’s not always viable to provide our service at a lower price in all circumstances, we try to make composting education available by hosting events at community organizations like the local library. We have also worked with municipalities to create partnerships through which we provide a certain number of significantly subsidized subscriptions to low-income households. We hope this helps make composting more accessible to a broader spectrum of our community.

Further, we believe that our presence in the community helps normalize composting and can encourage more people to advocate for community composting programs, municipal composting programs, and greater investment in environmentally friendly waste management systems that will benefit entire communities and not just our customers.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

Progress will feel slow. As the business grows, there are occasional days when I feel like I make big wins or see strong growth. But most often, days are filled with little steps that don’t feel significant or sometimes feel stagnant. It’s important to step back periodically and look at the big picture to see how much things have changed. While we may not accomplish much in one day, it’s amazing how much we can accomplish in 365 days. A little bit of progress each day, even with inevitable setbacks, really adds up over time.

For WasteWell, we’ve relied primarily on organic growth for new customers. While we haven’t had a windfall of new customers on any given day, one or two new customers each day or each week led us to recent start a second collection route. No particular day made the difference in growth, but we’ve come a long way since starting business less than a year ago.

There are new challenges each day, and as a business owner, your role is a little bit of everything. I worked for a large company for a long time, so there were experts in all sorts of areas of the business. I could focus on doing my part really well. Now, I have to understand enough of everything to wade through new business areas and know when to hire outside help.

After 15 years of accounting work, I now have to understand website building and data privacy laws, regulatory frameworks for solid waste management, and vehicle specifications like payload. These are all new areas where I’ve had to learn enough to navigate and know when to use a professional.

Invest in automation. Although it can be expensive, we have some amazing automation tools available to our businesses. WasteWell transitioned from a standard e-commerce platform and invested in a software program built specifically for waste haulers. Using the right tools that integrated proper automation specific to our business model made such a difference. It saves lots of time so we can focus our efforts on growing the business, and it’s a much better user experience for our customers.

Invest in good experts. Although we must know a little bit of everything, good experts are well worth their cost. At the very least, they tend to keep us out of trouble. For me, they make running a business much less stressful as well. The first expert we hired for WasteWell was an attorney. It took a handful of meetings to find the right one, but our attorney gives me so much peace of mind that we have out ducks in a row and are addressing many of the business risks we might encounter.

Tell people what you’re doing. Especially at the beginning, it can feel safer to keep your new and innovate idea to yourself. What if others don’t get it? Or think it’s silly? Or want to steal it? I’ve found that it’s helpful to tell people about the business when it’s new. While some people inevitably brush it off or don’t understand it, many more provide feedback, share related ideas, or connect me to others in the industry or related businesses. You never know when a valuable connection will land in your lap. But people must know about what you’re working on to offer the right suggestions and information.

What person wouldn’t want to work doing something they absolutely love. You are an incredible inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I’d love to see broader support of more sustainable food systems. Our food systems are broken, causing a lot of environmental damage, cultural breakdowns, and negative health outcomes. I would really like to see people willing to make changes to transition our diets to more whole foods using regenerative production methods.

These types of changes range from small to larger. For example, I’d love to see individuals shop more frequently at farmers markets and other local food producers to support local economies and decentralization of our food system.

On a much larger scale, I would like to see the United States government transition a portion of its massive Farm Bill budget to more regenerative and local food production. For example, I would like to see more funding allocated to smaller producers growing a larger variety of crops (particularly fresh fruits and vegetables) to make them more affordable and accessible. I’d like to see funding allocation prioritize farming methods that are regenerative for our planet and not degenerative to our soil and ecosystems.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

In our house, we often repeat that “different families have different rules”. We use this to remind our kids that their friends may have different rules or expectations, but that doesn’t mean we will follow suit. It’s a simple reminder that different rules among different families doesn’t make one wrong and one right, but that we will all make different choices that are right for our own families.

I think this mantra applies to life more broadly as well. When it comes to sustainable living, for example, different people and communities will approach it in different ways. We need to understand and accept that there isn’t one “right way” and we need lots of iterations or variations of regenerative lifestyle choices to make sustainable living work for the masses.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

I’d love to meet with Bill Gates. While Microsoft was the first stock I ever invested in (thanks to my dad buying me a couple of shares when I was maybe 12 years old), I’m much more interested now in his growing dedication to climate action.

I’ve read his recent book How To Avoid A Climate Disaster. I appreciate his perspective, but it left me a bit disappointed. He focuses very heavily on technology-based solutions. This makes sense given his background. To me, however, he seems to minimize lifestyle and cultural solutions that could be effective if we spent more energy convincing people why they could work instead of emphasizing why they are too hard to be worth pursuing.

I’d love to talk to him specifically about investing in more regenerative climate solutions. Given he is such a large landowner, I am curious to hear more about his perspective on regenerative agriculture and how it might be a significant piece of the climate action solution. His reputation and his financial assets afford him great influence, and I would really like to see him use that influence to transform our agriculture systems, among other regenerative systematic solutions.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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