Each month, the MA in Sustainable Design program invites a special guest for our Town Hall series where students, faculty, and alumni get to meet and chat with a leader in the field of sustainability or sustainable design.
This month’s guest was Olivia Pedersen (MASD 2019), Founder and CEO of Sustaio. Below are excerpts from our conversation.
Tell us about the origins of Sustaio.
During my MASD program I came up with all these ideas to create some sort of hub for sustainability for certain groups of people. I realized that there are all these great resources and products out there, but there’s not a hub or a great place for people to build their sustainable living journey. I wondered why it’s so hard to live a sustainable lifestyle, even for someone like me who studies this stuff and is completely passionate about it. I wanted to make that easier. That was the very beginning idea for Sustaio.
Sustaio has now turned into not only a hub, but an easier way for people to create an action plan for lowering their impact and then work to improve it so that they can actually achieve their sustainability goals with our ‘Action Items’. The approach is much like how they would build habits for an exercise routine or a certain diet. They’re trying to better their lives.
Sustaio is still in the very early stages of its creation and we’re iterating the product to get it to a point where it’s delivering on that value of helping people start their sustainable journey, and then customize it and guide them through the experience.
What were some of the discoveries you made in your thesis work that led to this approach?
There are a lot of great carbon calculators, footprint calculators, and ecological calculators out there, but these are really hard concepts to wrap your brain around. We don’t think in carbon. We think in time and money. If you do your carbon footprint, it might tell you that you generate 4.9 metric tons of carbon a year. Somebody like me who studies sustainability might think that’s cool, but it doesn’t really mean anything to me moving on with my life, to the important things I actually understand. These calculators are amazing and important, but Sustaio is building something that will pick up where those calculators leave off.
Because not everybody can do everything, we help people focus on areas of their life that they care about. You can start with what you want to focus on, build habits, and then we can help you grow into other things. Just like running a marathon, you’re not going to be a 10k runner the day you want to start running. You’re going to have to start by running to the end of the block and back. That’s what we’re doing with sustainable living.
How are you going to get people to kind of take these steps?
From our user testing, what we’ve found is that people really want to do this but it’s hard because it’s not built into our everyday infrastructure, and it’s not inherent in our current mindset. We’re trying to find ways to integrate into people’s lives so it’s natural and they appreciate the reminders — instead of it being a nuisance and then turning off the reminders and then nothing gets off. So it’s this tricky balance of being that support and a comprehensive tool, but not crossing the threshold of being invasive and nagging.
Another way that we do that is through our language. We make sure that we’re always speaking with encouragement and empowerment, and not leading with general scare tactics that have been used in the past to get people to act on climate change. We’re trying to just make it a baby step process that is fun and empowering.
What’s an example of a small step somebody could take?
Checking the tire pressure on your car. Checking your tire pressure can extend the lifespan of your tires, which saves money on tires in the long run, and will improve fuel economy, which saves money and reduces your emissions by using less gas in the short run. So it’s little things like that, that are easy and cost no money that actually help you lead a more sustainable lifestyle, lower your emissions, etc. Through our research, there’s been these really cool nuggets.
One that we get a lot of feedback on is idling. For example, if you’re going to idle for 10 seconds or longer, you’ll actually use more fuel idling than turning the vehicle off and then back on. So that’s a big one for people that really like sticks. And we’ve had people who have seen it on our Instagram or see it on the app and told us that they no longer idle their vehicle. It’s something really easy that isn’t invasive or inconvenient.
What were some of your takeaways from going from a thesis to a product launch?
One of the big things is taking it from academia to industry. It was a big learning curve. You have to take it out of academia, put it into the industry and then fine tune it in a way to speak to whoever you’re talking to — whether it’s investors, your consumers, or your partners. Whoever it is, you have to see which notes hit different groups, and then find the value for those different groups.
One thing that’s really helpful about building an idea in your thesis is that you can go wherever you want to. You don’t have the market pressures of investors or anything like that weighing on you. One thing I’d really suggest is don’t be afraid to take it wherever you think it might lead. Because you don’t have those market pressures on you. Once you get out of the program, there are all these pressures that can dampen or skew the idea from what it wasn’t originally.
Are there any other lessons that you’d like to share?
If you’re going to start a business based on your thesis work, start by building your minimum viable product in a way that best suits your skill set. Be very resourceful. Ask yourself, what can I do myself? I spent six months just building out the brand, go-to market plan, and then the second six months, until now, acting on the plan.
Thank you Olivia!