With Amazonian ambitions, one Burlington-based internet company sees the virtual forest for the trees
If you wanted to create a fictional business that summed up Vermont’s prospects at the end of the century, it might look like a slightly off-beat, entrepreneurial enterprise based on tree-hugging and cyber-communications. You might call it something like, say, ForestWorld.com, and locate its corporate headquarters on the Burlington Waterfront. The chief executive officer would likely be a baby-boomer flatlander who expresses his love for his adoptive state with lines like, “There’s something magical about this environment. This is a place where people who don’t fit in find their place.” And you might fill the company’s ranks with a motley cast of characters, bringing together forest freaks, computer geeks, capitalists and artists whose mission would be to, say, change the way the world’s wood is grown, harvested, milled and sold.
It sounds like something out of Tom Wolfe, or maybe “Doonesbury,” but it’s not. Adventurous, virtuous and virtual, ForestWorld.com occupies real offices — above Mona’s Restaurant in the Cornerstone Building — and employs about 40 real people, most of them Vermonters. Just five months old, with the website at its heart still officially un-launched, the company is barely beyond the acorn stage. But its aspirations are as lofty as the mightiest oak: to define and dominate the as-yet-nonexistent international cyber-sylvaculture industry while promoting sustainable wood-management practices across the globe.
With a management team that includes a former Fortune 500 CEO and the woman who gave Ben & Jerry’s its spots, ForestWorld’s meat may one day match the motto painted on its office doors: “The Yahoo of the forest service industry.” Or, it may go the way of many a failed internet venture, in which case, like the proverbial tree that falls in the forest, it will barely make a sound.
ForestWorld founder and CEO Richard Miller makes no bones about his ambitions. “Someone will be the Yahoo or Amazon in forests. It’s going to be us,” he asserts. As he sits at his desk in an immaculate office — facing a luminous iMac, a slice of lake view and a calendar photo of a tree — Miller’s conversation is as sharp and quick as a power saw, but without all the noise. With a nose like Jerry Seinfeld’s and the carefully controlled, shoulder-length curls of the classic crunchy entrepreneur, 46-year-old Miller manages to paint equally compelling pictures of both the world’s ecological prospects and the internet’s economic promise.
“We’re heading down the road of ecological collapse,” Miller forecasts. “We’ve already cut half the world’s forests down. The Amazon rainforest will be gone in 80 years. As the world’s demand for wood increases, the supply for wood decreases. Some people think forests are on the verge of collapse.” Turning his thoughts to cyberspace, he observes, “Very few people understand the implications of the internet. It will be everywhere. It will be in people’s faces.”
Miller predicts that the internet will be, in fact, unavoidable. “It will change the way people do business, because it will be incredibly cheap, and incredibly convenient,” he says. “Every industry will be transformed, including forestry.”
The vision behind ForestWorld.com is to use the power of the Internet to mitigate the coming environmental apocalypse. How? By launching a website designed to bring together, efficiently and cost-effectively, buyers and sellers of responsibly grown and harvested wood products — that is, “green certified” wood.
Just 10 years old, the wood-certification movement relies on independent third parties to verify that individual wood producers are practicing careful forest management. Miller was a founding director of the Forest Stewardship Council, an umbrella organization for various independent third-party certifiers, including SmartWood of Richmond, Vt..
Certification is based on environmental, social and economic criteria. Environmentally, the goal is to preserve the forest’s natural character, Miller explains. “We don’t really understand what happens in forests. The best we can do is to try to maintain what’s already there. Clear-cutting doesn’t do that, and plantations don’t do that.”
Unlike the organic food or recycled paper movements, which required producers to adopt brand-new methods, plenty of foresters are already practicing sustainable management techniques, but Miller says they need to be identified. He also contends that, unlike organic food and recycled paper, sustainable wood doesn’t cost more than its non-sustainable counterpart. For one thing, sustainable wood is typically of higher quality, he notes, and there’s a market-share premium in being certified. In fact, Miller adds, some industry insiders believe in putting a higher price on certified wood in order to help convince consumers that it’s better.
Right now, a miniscule 1 percent of domestic wood — or about $500 million worth — is green-certified. Some shining examples of sustainable forestry include Maine’s Seven Islands; work being done by the Menominee Indians in Wisconsin; and here in Vermont, at Shelburne Farms. But these well-known models represent just a fraction of the nation’s sustainable foresters, Miller adds. Many of those who practice sustainable forestry are owners of small, non-industrial wood lots, like the 31 members of the Vermont Family Forests — see sidebar.
“If we identified all the wood products out there that could be certified,” Miller says, “we estimate that it would amount to 15 percent of the supply, worth somewhere between five and 10 billion dollars.”
Globally, the World Bank hopes to certify half the world’s commercial forests within the next 10 years. Once certified wood producers have been identified, the next hurdle will be to help buyers locate environmentally correct products. The idea behind ForestWorld.com is to post a database of certified suppliers, a place where a home renovator looking for sustainable maple flooring, for instance, could run a search and find all the companies providing that kind of product.
Miller understands what it means to search out these sources. In the early ’90s, he helped Wal-Mart acquire green-certified wood products for an “eco-store” in Kansas. More recently, he delivered certified, locally grown wood to finish the entire interior of Middlebury College’s Bicentennial Hall, a $47 million science facility that opens this week.
Born in the heart of the “borscht belt,” Miller was fresh out of the University of Vermont when he got his first taste for trees, back in 1973. Convinced that the world was “ready to collapse,” he headed for the Northeast Kingdom to build himself a log cabin beside a beaver pond. “I went to Ames and bought a chainsaw,” he recalls. “I cut down my first tree and fell in love. It’s awe-inspiring to cut down a tree that’s been growing for 200 years. Once you’ve done it, they don’t come back.”
Since making that first cut, Miller has turned over many a new leaf, starting up no fewer than nine different companies — all of them, in one way or another, “trying to help protect the world’s forests while we still have them.” In addition to his work with the Forest Stewardship Council and his experience in certified wood sourcing, the entrepreneur has produced a multi-media, updateable CD called Woods of the World, which provides data about the global distribution, environmental needs and economic value of trees.
As well versed as Miller may be in making money from trees, he knows as well as the next CEO that the green stuff doesn’t actually grow on them. Enter Charlie Olcott, ForestWorld’s director and chief operating officer. With a large frame and full head of boyishly styled white hair, the 52-year-old financial analyst looks a little bit like Newt Gingrich. His credentials are impressive, including a gig at Pillsbury as treasurer, followed by five years with Burger King, where he ended up as president and CEO. “He’s doing miracles here,” avows Miller.
Olcott, who has been working with seedling businesses for the last seven years, sees his role at ForestWorld as helping the company remain rooted in reality.
Entrepreneurs, he explains, typically start out with a clear vision of what a business should be and how it should run. The problem, however, is that the vision may not be fundable. “You have to have someone who understands what the market is feeding back,” Olcott says, “and how to apply that feedback.”
In more practical terms, Olcott’s main mission has been fundraising — a task he’s apparently been accomplishing admirably. “We go through a lot of money here, and we’re raising a lot,” comments Miller.
ForestWorld is growing like a weed, with plans to double its staff by the end of the year and relocate to larger digs, most likely outside Burlington. But actually making money remains a long-range goal. Asked if he’s turned a profit yet, Miller guffaws, aghast, “God, no! Our story is the story of most well-known internet companies,” the CEO says. “We’re raising as much money as we need to dominate the industry.”
By conventional business standards, ForestWorld and other virtual ventures seem to have their heads screwed on backwards. Rather than making an initial profit and then using it to generate growth, Miller and his crew plan to do all their growing first and make their profits later. The end, according to Olcott, “is to become a ruthlessly big business.” The means? “We believe that content drives traffic and traffic drives business.”
Like almost everything else at ForestWorld, the website is also still in the early construction stages. Today, its estimated 400,000 monthly visitors have to make do with admiring its ambitious scaffolding. By the time the site is officially launched — presumably in December — it promises to provide, among other things, a daily forestry news service, a children’s area, a forestry internet directory, the largest forestry jobs and events listing in the world, original feature articles, forest photography, full-text forestry statutes from all 50 states and databases listing loggers, foresters and sawmills.
Advertising on the site will yield some revenue. But Barry Simms, a former forester who turned in his hiking boots to become a forestry “content manager,” points out that internet pitches aren’t proving as profitable as many originally predicted. The goal of ads on the Web, Simms explains, is to establish “click-throughs” — enticing banners that lead browsers directly to a company’s site. There, knock on wood, they’ll do some shopping, like pedestrians pulled into a storefront by an attractive window display. So far, however, most internet users have adopted a more passive approach to ads — looking but not linking.
ForestWorld hopes to harvest most of its profits not through on-site advertising, but from business-to-business interactions. For a fee, ForestWorld will host Web pages and provide other cyber services. More significantly, the company plans to present itself as a worldwide forestry marketplace where large and small landowners, loggers, sawmills, builders and others in the wood-based enterprises can buy, sell and trade — with ForestWorld skimming a tidy commission from each transaction.
Today, Miller says, most forestry deals are still being made over the phone — a system that is cumbersome and time-consuming by today’s quick-as-a-click cyber-business standards. Though a number of wood-based enterprises do business on the Web, so far, ForestWorld is “the only portal site in the timber forestry and wood industry that we know of,” says Aziz Hirji, owner of Timber Resources International, a wood exchange company based in New York City.
Hirji discovered ForestWorld when he was looking for an internet timber industry to purchase. When he was told that the company wasn’t for sale, he went out on a limb to become its first private investor.
While Olcott cultivates investors like Hirji on an individual basis, an aggressive ad campaign — with full-color ads currently appearing in all the major trade publications — is announcing ForestWorld’s arrival to the forestry industry.
Meanwhile, creative director Lyn Severance is responsible for designing the corporate personality that will be ForestWorld’s face to the rest of the world. “Lyn’s job,” says Miller “is to create a brand.” That is, “developing a logo, tooling the advertising and designing the look of the website.” Miller defines branding as “the story you tell, the culture you convey.” Severance adds that the idea of branding “is to make an emotional connection with the consumer, so the thing you’re selling becomes more than just a product.”
Now 46, Severance grew up in Vermont, received her training at the Parsons School of Design and returned to her home state to launch her career. She joined Ben & Jerry’s three months after they opened, and crafted the ice cream makers’ funky, folksy, homemade image and conveyed it through the design of their scoop shops, trucks and packaging. More than a decade later, Severance helped Gateway Computers design a new logo that reflected that firm’s quirky personality.
Lanky and bespectacled, Severance has an easy smile and a self-deprecating style that suggests Diane Keaton. When she decided to join ForestWorld earlier this summer, one of the job’s selling points, she jokes, was that it wouldn’t involve any big black spots.
ForestWorld may not be Holstein territory, but at first glimpse, the company’s evolving culture does exude a hip, quirky quality not unlike Gateway’s — everyone seems to be on a first-name basis and data-entering drudges are periodically released from their Dilbert-style cubicles to take “field trips” to help them remember what real trees look like. And the firm’s community conscience is reminiscent of Ben & Jerry’s.
“I hate to use the term ‘social mission’” Severance hedges, “but Richard has a sense of a greater good that he’s bringing to this industry. That’s something people will think is a good thing.”
Though ForestWorld is dedicated to environmental responsibility, the site won’t work if it’s simply perceived as a front for the Green Party. Rather, Severance explains, ForestWorld hopes to appeal to — and create common ground between — all the constituents within an industry that’s as split as this year’s cordwood. “We want to represent everyone in the industry, from radical environmentalists to very conservative forest people. We’re trying to offer up a way for there to be middle ground, a safe place.”
If ForestWorld were fiction, the CEO’s vision wouldn’t stop at dominating its sector of the internet, sustaining the world’s forests or finding common ground between tree-huggers and clear-cutters. And it doesn’t. “We have some pretty intense plans,” Miller enigmatically divulges. What sort of plans? Plans that could result in another 10,000 jobs — all related to sustainable forestry — in small towns throughout the state. “This could be the salvation of rural communities,” Miller confides.
But before any of that can happen, ForestWorld.com must grow beyond its cyber-seedling stage.