Expat entrepreneur: Jim Bowes is cleaning communications out of the dirt
With a simple, sustainable concept Jim Bowes proves that you can create profit with principals in a business "with a reputation for greed and short-sightedness": Advertising.
Name: Jim Bowes
Nationality: American/ Canadian
City of residence: Amsterdam
Name of company: GreenGraffiti®
Date of company launch: 14 February 2008
Can you give us a brief description of your business and how it is going?
GreenGraffiti® is a sustainable communications firm providing sustainable alternatives for outdoor advertising. We use an old form of street art called ‘reverse graffiti'. We create a template out of recycled metal, find a dirty sidewalk or bike path and, with a power-washer, we literally clean a message out of the dirt. There is no ink, no paper, and very little waste. Our operations have little impact on the environment. Our product can last from two weeks to several months. The ‘graffiti' goes away because the location gets dirty again. What is truly innovative isn't our technique but that we are operating based on a profits-with-principals philosophy. Our business is doing very well for a three-year old company. So far, 180 individuals and businesses in 65 countries have approached us to ask us for partnership opportunities. We are now in 12 countries.
What do you like about doing business in the Netherlands?
The Netherlands culture was a big reason for the inspiration behind GreenGraffiti®. I am American and was brought up in a capitalistic society. In the Netherlands I learned about being more social. GreenGraffiti® is a very social company and it is important to us to give something back to society. We are using our business as a tool for social and environmental improvement. For instance, we have established a water foundation called GreenAdsBlue, which allows us to compensate for our water usage, even though we use approximately one thirtieth of the amount of water it takes to create a piece of paper of a comparable size.
Also, there is some flexibility in the Netherlands as Dutch cities are pretty independent from one another. Some cities recognize that our alternatives fit well with their own sustainable ambitions while others are unsure if what we are doing is legal or illegal. Though we have tried to pay advertising fees, our services do not fall nicely into any boxes and this has made it difficult to determine what we need to pay. Our solution is to use what we would pay in fees to contribute positively to local communities whether that is supporting not-for-profit organizations, cleaning public spaces or donating campaigns to the local police department, it is important that we give back to the general public one way or another.
Another plus point is that the Dutch are very upfront and honest, so you always know where you stand. I also like the Dutch view that one should work to live and not live to work.
What do you find most frustrating about doing business in the Netherlands?
The arbeid (labour) rules. It's a big risk to hire people here. Workers have a tremendous amount of rights, which is great, but if you're an employer, the risk of hiring someone makes you think twice before doing so.
What hurdles did you encounter when setting up?
I think the biggest was that I was a buitenlander, an outsider. Even though the Netherlands is a very tolerant society and a melting pot of cultures, it is still a very ‘Dutch' culture. Operating as an American when I first arrived was much harder than now that I have Dutch partners. There is an ‘old boy's network' here. Either you are Dutch or allochtoon (alien/ immigrant), and there is very little in between.
Another obstacle is that the government seems to have no real decision-makers. What we are doing with GreenGraffiti® is undefined - neither legal nor illegal. But there isn't one person we can talk to who can make a ruling on whether we can or can't do what we do. In fact, it is left up to the 1600 ambtenaren (civil servants) in the Netherlands. Try getting a decision from 1600 people! Basically, we are going to ambtenaren to ask permission for something there are no rules or guidelines about. An ambtenaar is there to apply the law. Since there are no laws regarding our technique we are asking them to make a decision and that is not their role and creates a risk for them that many are not willing to take.
Another hurdle is that although the government and the general public are enthusiastic about sustainability, the rules in the Netherlands and the sustainable ambitions are in direct conflict with each other. We are now in a situation where even the most ambitious and sustainable companies are bumping up against rules that were written decades ago and are actually blocking progress on the very same sort of road that our political leaders are asking us to proceed on.
How has the economic crisis affected your business?
The economic crisis has probably been the best thing that has happened to our business. We are less expensive than traditional outdoor media with the added value of storytelling. Companies are very interested in continuing to do their marketing activities, but usually in a crisis the first thing that goes are the marketing, CSR, and advertising budgets. With GreenGraffiti ®we've created a company which actually allows advertisers to do far fewer advertisements, and those advertisements that they do create are much less expensive than traditional outdoor advertising and more targeted as we use public space that does not limit us to an abri or bus shelter poster. This highly targetable approach is more cost effective than the traditional ‘shotgun' method of blanketing a city hoping to reach prospective customers.
What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs setting up business in the Netherlands?
Team up with a Dutch partner. Even if you speak fluent Dutch, there is still the cultural element.
Secondly, make an effort to speak the language. You do not have to speak perfect Dutch in the Netherlands to get a huge amount of credit for at least trying.
Finally, you can try to use the governmental resources that are here--- there are some great instruments to help young entrepreneurs. Try agencies like Syntens (www.syntens.nl). These organizations are set up by the government to help you build your business.
How does running a business in the Netherlands compare to running a business in other countries that you have lived in?
An example of the challenges that we face in the Netherlands and other countries- is that some companies will only do a national campaign if we can get a permit. Since each city has its own rules and processes, the bureaucracy involved in accomplishing this makes it nearly impossible to do so. Advertisers don't want to break the law, and this discourages companies who are trying to act more responsibly from being using sustainable services.
Would you like to add anything?
Our true ambition is to work WITH cities to provide a solution to urban degradation.
Cities see their dirty public spaces as a large cost. We are trying to help cities look at their dirt from a different perspective, helping them to look at their dirt as a profit centre. We would be using CSR and advertising budgets to help fund public works. Take Amsterdam for instance. Pick 20 dirty public spaces that the city would like to have cleaned but have no budget for. We could take those spaces, lease them to an advertiser, put an advertising and communications message on that place for four weeks and using part of the fees that we charge the advertiser, come back and clean the area. It costs the city no money and improves the environment of the people living there and gives the advertisers a very unique way to communicate on a peer to peer level.
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