July 29, 2011
Joseph Schaffer, PE, Green Environmental Associates, Metuchen, NJ
What did your life look like before you started Green Environmental Associates?
Prior to deciding to work for myself, I was doing site civil engineering for commercial developers, projects like big box retail and mega subdivisions. My work has always revolved around design and engineering in land development. This type of work requires the ability to balance hardcore science and site specific conditions in the field with fuzzier disciplines, like urban planning theory, construction tolerance, and environmental concerns.
Describe your “Eureka!” moment that shaped your decision to start your own company.
To make a real impact, I believe that a professional must really understand the existing approach to development and work to change that approach from the inside the system. However, that desire for change must be integrated into the mission of the company. I met my business partners while working on a corporate advisory board and we found that common ground. So we started Green Environmental Associates to reflect a mission of bringing change from the inside. We’re not just consultants, but partners in shaping our client’s future.
How did you transition?
The transition was gradual. I’m still a land development engineer; it’s what I love to do. The transition was partially motivated by a shift in the market from the perception of engineering as a commodity to the role of engineering as applied science and consultancy. Today, the marketplace is responding positively to the engineers who can analyze problems and combine technological principles with creative problem solving; a little more like an architect’s vision. It’s a very exciting time, but it’s also risky in that I have to constantly evolve as an engineer to cover new ground.
My work with rainwater harvesting is a good illustration of that risk. The rainwater harvesting projects are aimed at mitigating the impact of development as well as saving money for my clients and the city. However, because it requires some creative thinking and engineering design, not all of my approaches are already part of the building code and rote environmental regulations. Here is where it becomes necessary to understand the “spirit of the law” versus its letter: if I can present my solution in a way that would satisfy the intention of that the law, then I could obtain the permit to get the project built. My clients understand that this requires more effort and that a permit for an innovative system, or any variance for that matter, could be denied, but they are willing to take that chance to be innovators and early adopters.
What was your biggest fear before striking out on your own?
Before I started working for myself, I was worried that I would have trouble getting clients who are willing to listen to me and entertain unorthodox solutions. Could I really compete with bigger firms? However, I found that the fear was unfounded. Someone like myself who has fresh ideas really can make a positive impact.
What have you learned from the experience?
My company was founded a year ago, so there have been many lessons. I learned that having great business partners is essential to stability. We cross-sell our services, so we meet frequently and it gives us all a structure to keep us going. There is also an opportunity to test the waters with our forward-thinking clients; sometimes the details we fill in for a client turn into the biggest part of the project for us.
What do you love most about what you do?
It’s got to be the thrill of the chase of a project! Because of my business model and visionary ideas, I found that I am able to secure certain clients I could not have previously done, even while supported by a massive brain trust.
I also love being involved in an industry that is trying to grow in a new direction. Over the last twenty to thirty years, the philosophies championed by the USGBC and permaculture advocates are finally taking hold on a larger scale. Civil engineering still emulates ancient Roman times to a certain extent. However, I believe that my green approach helps provide a vision for a better future. I see every problem as a potential opportunity. For example, stormwater management is a problem for every municipality; for me, rainwater harvesting is a means to mitigate it as well as an opportunity to offer a new approach to an ancient problem: water supply.
What have you accomplished that that makes you most proud?
When I started my company, I had set a reasonable goal for myself: to find one client who was funded and willing to pay me within two months. I met this goal. My first client has been applauded by his competitors for his accomplishments. He is also someone who can see the principles behind the regulations and embraces the value of interdisciplinary and unconventional thinking.
My first goal was modest but very important. It taught me the value of setting reasonable goals and working systematically towards accomplishing them. It also taught me not only that I can’t become a $40 million company overnight, but also that I might not want to. Forthcoming projects will help me decide if I want to grow bigger or stay small and flexible.
In your mind, who would be a great fit for your company?
I’m an idea guy and like thinking outside the box. The people that I work for and who work with me need to be able to appreciate the place of “the box” in the universe in order to appreciate the power of this kind of thinking. However, I also understand that not everyone can think like that and might be fearful of this kind of approach. I like to start projects by understanding the vision and removing the technical limitations from my initial thinking. It’s much easier to start at the top of the mountain, get a wide view, and walk down to a solution, rather than climbing up to it, wouldn’t you agree?
As far as people who work for me go, I really appreciate loyalty to the company and to the goals of the project, not just to the financial limits but also to realizing the client’s vision. In my opinion, it’s OK to spend a few extra hours figuring something out that adds both to yourself as a professional and to accomplishing the goals of the project. My approach to potential employees is fair, honest, and equitable; if I like working with you, I’ll be your biggest cheerleader.
What advice would you give to GreenHomeNYC readers who want to transition into a green career?
My experience has taught me that in the “green” industry, there’s very little room for the “I just want a salary” attitude. “Bread and butter” is a particular type of work that might or might not be green. You must compare the risks and rewards, and hopefully come out seeing the risks as opportunities. For that, you must find your entrepreneurial spirit. Many of us are not taught entrepreneurship in school, and I strongly believe that is something that we need to bring into high school, if not middle school. The lemonade stand is a great example that can be used for nearly every lesson in business, including life cycle and environmental wake analysis.
Taking myself as an example: today’s engineers are trained to be employees, not entrepreneurs. I was fortunate because my father had his own business and I was involved in running it from high school onward. That experience, and mentoring by a fellow engineer who held an MBA, helped me develop my business model and start my company. Engineering services are my product, but my vision of myself as an entrepreneur pushes me to always think more creatively than I would just as an engineer. I believe that drive makes me more attentive to a client’s needs and a better consultant.