In 1998 I met Robert Johnson, who ran a small software company out of a dark office in Mesa Arizona. I think he had five employees.
The company, then called Environmental Support Solutions, was producing a diskette with software that helped businesses track their refrigerant emissions, and Robert had gone into this inglorious business because the EPA had just changed the laws about those emissions and forced people to keep track of them. What's more, the new laws were not consistent from state to state. And companies couldn't keep up with the changes.
It's only a slight exaggeration to say that one person in the company wrote the software, another one shrink-wrapped the software, another marketed it, and the last person went around to customers and trained them on the new regulations and told them why they should buy software to keep track of emissions.
But Robert Johnson had a white board, and on the white board was a vision. It was of an integrated platform of software tools that would help large companies track everything they had to track—not only refrigerant emissions, but also indoor air quality, waste management, health and safety, even toxic chemicals. You would access this platfom over the Internet. He explained the vision to me, and I fell in love with it, even though the world was still using modems. I had just left Intel, and I knew how big companies had begun to use the Internet.
The problem was, nobody really cared about the environment in 1998. Sales of ESS software were merely compliance-driven.
Fast forward ten years. Now the Internet has come into its own and so has concern for the environment. ESS has over a hundred employees, a global client base, and a web-based, fully integrated Enterprise Suite for managing governance, risk and compliance. In April, it will be hosting EXPO 2008, a best-practices conference for people in the enterprise who are responsible for sustainability initiatives.
These initiatives are no longer driven by compliance, but by stakeholders who care about sustainability and by CEOs who see it as an integral part of the bottom line, if not an actual business opportunity.
Robert is off to Asia today, helping developing nations avoid making costly environmental sacrifices as they industrialize. Still the visionary, he sees ESS's solutions being used in the future by companies on every continent. He still has the whiteboard.