Interview of Margot Fraser, Founder of Birkenstock USA

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Deborah Nelson, Executive Director of the Social Venture Network, interviewed Margot Fraser, founder and former CEO of Birkenstock USA, as part of the Green America Green Business Conference about the latter’s success in business, and her new book, Dealing with the Tough Stuff.

Nelson’s first question was a great one, and right to the point for the current economic crisis:  what did you struggle with at the beginning?  Fraser responded by saying that she was naive when she went into business by thinking that business makes money.  While that got a pretty good laugh from the audience, her point was that they struggled for a long time to just pay the bills.  The followup question about the maturation of the business, and hoping that things will get easier prompted Fraser to warn of the siren call of ‘growth’.  Growth will come, but forcing it is playing with fire.

Her advice on the growth phase, with its numerous ups and downs, was to stick with what you know is true.  Their business took a big hit in the early 1980’s when ‘hippy’ went out and ‘dress for success’ came in.  But they stuck with their model and knew that people would still want beautiful, comfortable shoes.

When asked about the interesting corporate culture at Birkenstock, Fraser responded that she simply created a business that she herself would have wanted to work for.  The rest just took care of itself.

Fraser’s book covers some of the hardest parts of running a values-driven business.  It’s a very different approach from many of the inspiring books on the green business movement which focus on best practices and great successes.  It’s not simply a reality check, it’s inspiring in its own way because it is one of the few resources struggling small business owners can find that lets them know they’re not alone.

Fraser’s response to the question of what advice she would give to struggling eco-entrepreneurs in today’s economy was the best.  It boiled down to a piece of advice her mother had given her:  don’t spend more money than you have.  Going slowly, one step at a time is the best way forward.  If it doesn’t work out, be ready to give it up and go on to something else.

Scott Cooney is the author of Build a Green Small Business:  Profitable Ways to Become an Ecopreneur (McGraw-Hill), and is reporting live from the Green Business Conference in beautiful San Francisco, CA.

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