How to Start a Green Business without Raising Money

When I had the chance to interview Beth Gerstein, co-founder of Brilliant Earth, I first wanted to ask her how they raised the money to start the company. I figured that retailing gold, platinum and diamond jewelry had to be a capital-intensive business and thought Beth could shed light on how a green entrepreneur can convince investors that there is a large market for products that are sustainably produced.

However, I got a very different story. Brilliant Earth has been entirely boot-strapped, although that adjective doesn’t seem apt for a company that sells beautiful products, has an elegant identity system, and does business via a beautiful website.BrillEarthLogo

Brilliant Earth sells conflict-free diamonds, which are mined in Canada in accordance with environmental laws as well as jewelry made of “renewed” gold and platinum, i.e., recycled metals.

Instead of investing in a large inventory up front, Gerstein and Eric Grossberg started Brilliant Earth by serving as a match-maker so to speak for people looking for conflict-free diamonds for engagement rings, as well as other jewelry pieces of ethical origins. Gerstein says, “Our philosophy was to start to build supplier relationships and then to get customers, growing organically.”

Given that the products are photographed beautifully and are shipped free with a 30-day return policy, it is not so surprising that consumers were willing to buy from BrilliantEarth.com, although I am sure no entrepreneur would want to hear me discount how much work it is to make the first first few sales.

What is surprising is that Gerstein and Grossberg had trouble finding suppliers willing to let Brilliant Earth sell their products. Gerstein explained, “[Fine jewelry] is a trust-driven business. There are lots of family businesses with relationships going back a very long time. You would think that if you want to retail their products companies would be happy to work with you.” However, Brilliant Earth wasn’t just a new company trying to break into an established industry, but, as Gerstein says, “We were asking questions that they weren’t used to. We have certain specs and parameters we want our suppliers to meet. We only want manufacturers that use recycled platinum and gold.” Plus Brilliant Earth wanted to change the business model. Instead of purchasing inventory, they wanted to take possession of the product when they had found customers.brillearthsm

Brilliant Earth’s story should be encouraging to entrepreneurs, since they are making it. Gerstein and Grossberg started the company in April of 2005 and made their first customer match within a few months. As you can see from this photo of Gerstein (left) at the Green Festival in San Francisco in November, the Company has working capital to invest in marketing, including sample inventory and booth space at shows, which can cost thousands of dollars per event.

About the Author

A strategy and marketing consultant, Leah enjoys highlighting the efforts of, and providing information for, social entrepreneurs. In her consulting practice, she works with cause-related businesses and enlightened investors--to see people succeed at doing good for the planet and local communities while doing good for themselves. Leah has a B.S. in business from UC Berkeley and an MBA and Certificate of Public Management from Stanford University. More information at www.leahedwards.com
  • Sharon

    My husband and I purchased our wedding bands, and engagement ring through Brilliant Earth. They make a fantastic product, and their customer service was fantastic. I would certainly recommend them to anyone in the market for jewelry, so I hope this kind of word-of-mouth buzz does them well!

  • Thanks Sharon, You bring up a good point. Green startups don’t have the marketing budgets of the established traditional retailers. Those of us who love having green options, need to help spread the word about our favorite products and services, so that these companies can thrive and that more will be encouraged to start up.

  • It’s encouraging to see that with persistence, a newer way to do business can thrive. I wish I knew about them when we were getting married! But I still love my ring.

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  • justin

    hello we are looking to start a green business doing water conservation. i am a 16 yr plumber and have watched so much waste through the years.now i am wanting to give back and help this wondeful planet.if you have any advice i would be so grateful.-justin

  • Hi Justin. Congratulations on your decision. It is hard to know where to begin with advice with so little information, but I can recommend Megan Prusynski’s posts on Ecopreneurist about her experience starting a green business. She is describing her process step-by-step:
    This is her sixth post, which has links to the previous posts:
    http://ecopreneurist.com/2008/03/28/sustainability-an-essential-part-of-business-planning/

    We also have discussion forums, with one on starting a green business: http://discuss.greenoptions.com/viewtopic.php?f=38&t=457

    Good luck!

  • Very inspirational post. Green businesses are possible!

  • Thanks for the feedback. As a group, those of us writing for Ecopreneurist, want to provide encouragement as well as practical advice about how you can start a green business, whether with VC funding, self-funding, money from another job or consulting engagement, etc. Creativity has a major role to play in starting a business.

  • nice article

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  • Ms. Edwards, great article. Very encouraging. As my wife and I are looking to start a small online and local eco-business we can take hope that it can be done. Thank you. best wishes to Brillant Earth too. They have a wonderful business.

    Harry
    http://www.squidoo.com/allnaturalcleaning

  • I started a green carpet cleaning and floor maintenance service several years ago for just about $1000. It has since gone nationwide. I explain how at http://www.carpet-cleaning-business.com.

  • We are looking for Serious Individuals that want to start a Green business that makes a difference in the lives of others while also helping our environment. This is not a get rich quick scheme.

    By helping convert bottled water drinkers to filtered tap water drinkers, you will also be helping our environment by preserving our precious oil reserves and helping to prevent millions of plastic water bottles from ending up in our landfills. All this while earning a significant income too.

    For more info, visit: http://purestdrinkingwater.com/businessopp.html

  • I write a lot about Green Startups on our blog. I think it’s really remarkable that she was able to get this started without any real investment.

    When you think gold and diamonds, it’s hard to imagine starting with nothing.

    I think it really speaks on the commitment of people to go after conflict-free diamond.

    I’ll definitely be including this one of my future posts.

  • Good day! Do you use Twitter? I’d like to follow you if that would be ok. I’m absolutely enjoying your
    blog and look forward to new posts.

  • Brilliant Earth’s story is a fantastic one indeed, and how they have grown. All the best to them onward into the future… As well as anyone else venturing off as a startup, work hard and stay the course, it will pay off!

    Regards,

    Gerry@
    https://twitter.com/PinkNorthOnline