Jacob Radloff is a serial entrepreneur and founder of Munich-based oekom research AG, a leading rating agency that has established environmental sustainability reporting in the global financial markets. Ashoka’s Felix Oldenburg caught up with Jacob recently to hear more about starting early, the challenges of growth and what it takes to keep innovating.
Ashoka: Jacob, your career began when you were not even ten years old and you started a journal for your “Anti-Chemical Club”. Forty years later, your publishing house is a key to Germany’s emergence as an environmental world leader. Are you done?
Jacob Radloff: On the contrary! In fact, we’re just getting to an interesting moment where we have created demand for the changes needed and can now help our communities move more quickly from knowledge to action. Now that we’ve proven there is a market that works for the good of all, traditional service providers and rating agencies are moving in – and with resources far bigger than ours. The questions we face now with oekom research are: Do we consider the takeover bids? Can we stay true to our mission and survive on our own? How do we continue to lead the next wave of innovation by bringing more collaborators to accelerate impact?
Ashoka: Your experience sounds similar to many social entrepreneurs whose success has attracted commercial players. How can you innovate your way out?
Radloff: How did Apple come back after Microsoft dominated the PC market? My thinking is to go back to the way Ashoka describes our mission: To provide information that allows everyone to make wiser decisions for the future of our planet. In a sense, everything we’ve built anticipated the world that is now here, a world where everyone can contribute to broad change and increasingly wants to. We also have a uniquely deep knowledge of companies’ social and environmental performance. This is knowledge that we want to make available to everyone, everywhere, in order to help many players see how to act with the goal of reaching a more sustainable planet.
Ashoka: Sounds great. What are the challenges?
Radloff: The world is changing so quickly now, with the pace of change increasingly exponentially. Only four years ago, it was sufficient to update our company ratings once a year. Today, we have to do it several times each year and will ultimately need to move to something closer to real-time. Automated technology is, therefore, critical. And packaging the data needs to be completely different for a new user base. Data innovation will be at the heart of what we do next.
Ashoka: You have done it before, have you not? You grew oekom research out of oekom publishing before it.
Radloff: Yes, at that juncture we started an allied organization to contain new skills and a new culture. It’s difficult to stay nimble once you hit a certain size. Indeed, many large companies are looking to entrepreneurial start-ups for management lessons and principles. Was it Churchill who said: “First, we shape our buildings. Then they shape us”? Well, I guess the same is true for organizations, and I’m looking forward to starting the next one.