A “Bohemian’s” Escape From Traditional Marketing to Do-Gooding and the Tools She Carried

Nancy Goldstein took her skills and acumen developed from two decades with consumer packaged goods giants General Mills and Pillsbury and launched the brand strategy and marketing firm Compass (x) Strategy in June 2009 to help socially and environmentally responsible businesses reach their potential.  No longer in the business of marketing frozen toaster products, she helps companies and non-profits who are trying to do good in the world.

I spoke with Nancy about what skills she brings to her new endeavor, what’s surprised her most and who her fantasy employer is.

You have 15-20 years in traditional marketing working with General Mills and Pillsbury. What made you leave corporate consulting and launch a conscious consulting firm?

When I got out of business school, I really wanted to work for a food company. I found it fun, interesting and challenging. But the more successful I got, the less fun it was. I spent more time talking about accounting and less time doing the creative work that I enjoyed. I moved to a smaller company, the Zyman group, which is a brand strategy firm founded by Sergio Zyman, former CEO of Coca-Cola.

I enjoyed helping companies and their people, but as I much as I liked the work, I was getting less inspired selling these products. To paraphrase Google, I wanted to ‘use my skills for good, not evil.’ I felt the best way I could contribute was to break out on my own and start a consulting firm that would allow me to do what I knew how to do and to help companies who are trying to do good in the world.

Did you have one moment that caused you to make this shift and start your own firm?

Yes. There were two moments, actually. I was working for a chemical company and we were looking at which technology platforms they should focus on. In my research, I read an article by Thomas Friedman and it was the first time I realized that business could be the catalyst for change. Government is going to take too long as will individuals performing single actions. I was inspired by the fact that business could actually change the world.

The second urging came when I was working for a beverage company on a product that was high alcohol and high caffeine. The entire time I had this pit in my stomach. I couldn’t do it anymore. I had to do work that I was proud of. It was those two experiences that pushed me toward Compass (x) Strategy.

How did you build on your impetus to start a consultancy?

I tried to figure out if there was a business here. Are there enough clients and people interested in building responsible businesses that I can pay my mortgage and eat? So I researched green business and socially responsible businesses and was shocked to find out there was a lot more money in it than I initially thought. I was surprised by the size and wealth of the market. I also looked to see who else was out there. While there are certainly people working in this space, there weren’t a lot of people who came at it from my background, which is as a businessperson. I think if you can take your passion and idealism and commitment to make the world a better place, and combine that with very practical, rigorous processes, it’s an effective good combination.

Logistically, how did you get your business of the ground? Did you fundraise?

What’s great about doing a professional services type of business model is that your startup costs are low. A well functioning laptop, internet and a cell phone are all you need at first. I work from home and the coffee shop around the corner.  Initially, I was living off savings until I got the business up and running. Fortunately, I’ve been able to pay as I go through client work, so I’m in a positive place, which is encouraging since I launched only a couple of months ago.

I don’t have anyone on staff. I use freelancers based on what different clients need. If a client wants strategy and web design or PR, I can pull in a designer or publicist.

Who are your clients? Were they people you had met through your former jobs?

My first client was a company that a friend of mine worked for. After this, I’ve received projects through the networking I’ve done. I definitely believe in the power of your network, the people you know and your ability to leverage that.

How do you help companies grow responsibly?

Because my expertise is in branding and marketing rather than how to make a company greener or more responsible, my approach draws heavily on my background. I do a couple things for companies. The first is general business growth strategy. If an organization has a whole bunch of ideas, we need to strategically determine where to invest their limited resources and time. What should they do next? How do they react if there’s suddenly a lot of competition in their space? I also help companies with their positioning.  Once they figure out what they offer and communicate–in a compelling, meaningful and unique way–why someone should choose their products or services over a competitor’s, everything else becomes a lot easier. The second thing I do is brand communications; how does a company communicate its brand throughout everything it does.

And finally, I help companies with insight development–understanding what drives their consumers to choose them. Depending on the client’s budget, this can range from undertaking a large research product to conducting a couple of interviews. Really understanding what your customers need and want is critical.

How do you sell your expertise to companies?

My value proposition–in addition to having an interest in responsible business, which all the people who play in this space do, is the career I’ve built out of creating, growing and managing businesses. I think the fact that I’ve run businesses and launched new products sets me apart.

Can you share a project you are working on now?

Field Trip Factory is a for-profit organization that engages people in learning by providing free field trips. They did not lack from cool ideas. Their problem was execution. What had happened with Field Trip Factory, which is common, is that as they grew from a company of five employees to one of 20, the processes they had in place no longer worked.  They were having a hard time running an office of 20 people. We needed to get them to have the right conversations at the right time so they could develop really terrific projects.

How did you facilitate these discussions and the communication between the employees there?

I started with not very radical thinking. I talked to everyone who worked there, across all functions and all levels, to understand from their perspective what issues they were experiencing. Where was the communication breaking down and what information were people not getting? From there, we were able to figure out what types of information people needed and at what point to allow them to do their jobs well. Now they are able to execute the really powerful ideas they have. It wasn’t so much about giving them new tools but more about making the tools they had more effective.

How do you select the for-profit companies with whom you work? Do you employ personal guidelines?

Social and environmental responsible can have squishy definitions. For me, it’s about working with companies who are trying to do something good in the world and make it a better place through business. So the Field Trip Factory, for example, is working to fill the gap of experimental education, which kids aren’t getting through schools anymore because of lack of funding.  So the Field Trip Factory is a for-profit, and yes they work with big companies, but they are working to make a difference by teaching kids and working with seniors to build more engaged and knowledgeable citizens. Their mission and approach was compelling for me.

Do your client companies view themselves as social enterprises?

Absolutely. They view themselves through a socially or environmentally responsible lens.

What’s the biggest surprise you’ve encountered since starting Compass (x) Strategy?

I think it’s the receptivity I’ve gotten. Coming out of the corporate world and telling people what I wanted to do, I was called a hippie and a bohemian and things like that. But once I started sharing my story and my goals, I was amazed by how many people got it and how many wanted to get it even if they didn’t fully understand how responsible business works. They really wanted to engage in this conversation.  So this was surprising, exciting, vindicating and validating.

Why do you think more people are aware of, and excited, about business as a tool for social good?

I think in part it’s due to the recession and the loss of retirement funds for many people. For so long we have been on a steady growth trajectory of higher salaries and bigger houses. Now we’re realizing that these things can go away and we’re waking up to the idea that there is more than just salary and things to acquire.

I also think people are realizing that they can bring their passions to business, that they can do both something that matters to them and earn a living from it.

Who is your fantasy company to work for?

One of them is Seventh Generation. I love this company. I’m frustrated because they originated an environmentally friendly, socially responsible, toxin-free cleaning product, but I feel like this product category is being taken over by the Clorox’s of the world. While I think it’s great that big CPG companies realize this is important, I feel Seventh Generation went out on a limb and initiated the idea that you can clean your house in an environmentally responsible way. And now Seventh Generation is loosing ground in this market. These are the kind of clients I want to work with to help them reclaim their identity as a pioneer. People should know about these companies.

How would you do it? Do you have a dream scenario in your head?

I don’t know that I have the dream tactics worked out yet. To give you a boring answer, I think it’s about understanding who their consumers are. I think it has something to do with helping consumers understanding product terms and the choices they are making.  Another thing is just not letting the big guys push you around. As a smaller company with less money, you have to be scrappier and more innovative and you need to write your own rules.



Leave a comment
  1. ethan austin January 9, 2010 at 10:52 am #

    What a great interview. Nancy is an inspiration to us all!

  2. admin January 9, 2010 at 2:26 pm #

    Thanks for reading, Ethan. Agree, Nancy brings an interesting and important perspective to what she does.