Starting a business has many challenges, so as James Young tells Nicola Slawson, there’s no harm in making the most of green credentials
Each fortnight, the Good Business column catches up with people who are leading social change. It’s hosted by Impact Hub Islington, an incubation space in London for socially minded entrepreneurs.
Nicola: Hi James, tell us about your business
James: We sell and install waterless ‘off-grid’ toilets for clients without access to mains sewerage such as country parks, camp sites, National Trust properties, golf courses, beaches and allotments.
How do they work?
They are evaporating and dehydrating toilets. They harness the power of wind and sun. There’s a rotating wind cowl that catches the wind and sucks air through the system. The sun heats the unit up and accelerates airflow. It goes over the waste and then out. The liquids drain through to the bottom and the solids are collected in a basket. The air dries this out and it’s also channeled underneath to evaporate the liquids.
People are always a bit astonished that it actually works. You don’t really think that airflow and passive solar gain would be that effective, but it is. Airflow is amazingly good at taking moisture out of things. It’s an elegantly simple concept.
Why did you decide to start selling these toilets?
I found them in South Africa when I was out there doing another project. I actually just recommended it to a friend for another project he was doing in the south of France. Then I came back to the UK and decided that I wanted to start a business, so I thought I’d start selling these toilets that by then my friend was importing into France.
Why do your clients choose your toilets?
The environmental side of things is important to us, but we don’t necessarily push it too hard on that. What our customers see is that it’s a relatively low-budget way of putting a wheelchair-accessible cabin in a site that you can’t connect to the mains sewerage system.
I genuinely think that we make areas accessible for people who wouldn’t necessarily be able to use them previously. It’s not just wheelchair users – older people can stay longer on the allotments, children can stay there all day and women don’t have to feel uncomfortable going in the bushes. That’s the way we look at it. And our clients really like them. That they’re environmentally friendly is really an added bonus.
Do you have any advice for budding green entrepreneurs?
Green business is actually easier than normal business. It’s more difficult because you’re operating on the fringe, but it’s easier in the sense that it’s not so competitive, so it’s a good place to learn how to do business.
My advice is you’ve just got to get on with it. I think people mess about too much when they’re thinking about starting a business by trying to find the perfect this or the perfect that. It’s really about just getting stuck into it. Like many other different things in life, you have to accept that it might not even work out. There’s no point waiting for the perfect opportunity, you’ve just got to get some experience.
What have you learned about business in general in the last six years?
Business is full of problems and failures and people learn that way. You don’t really know how things are going to work out until you try them. I still get valuable information from that.
When you’re an employee, you’re constantly wondering: why isn’t this situation perfect? Why isn’t my job perfect? Why can’t we do that? When you’re the boss, you realise you have to accept compromise and imperfection all the time. What you need is forward momentum and, quite literally, cash flow. And sometimes little bits and pieces fall off along the way, but you’ve just got to get on with it.