Going solo: Nature called, he listened

joel_babbit.top.jpgJoel Babbit went from being the president of PR firm GCI Group, and advertising executive to CEO and co-founder of the website, the Mother Nature Network.By Beth Kowitt, writer-reporter


(Fortune) -- In a service business, your clients can also be your teachers. Joel Babbit, the Atlanta-based president of PR firm GCI Group, realized that after Dell (DELL, Fortune 500) -- a client -- started spending big to promote its environmental-responsibility programs. To bone up on the green world, Babbit went online, only to find academic websites and tiny operations that left him confused. There was nothing for mainstream consumers.

And so it goes: the chance discovery of a gap in the market just waiting to be filled. But Babbit, 56, wasn't sure he was the right person to fill it. His world was advertising: Before heading to GCI (now Cohn & Wolfe), he had built and sold two ad companies, Babbit & Reiman and 360. He could retire comfortably one day from GCI -- or he could take a risk.

He ended up choosing the latter when he had lunch in March 2008 with his friend and client Tom Bell, former chairman of Young & Rubicam.

Babbit offhandedly explained that general interest in the environment had skyrocketed, and that corporations were spending more than $5 billion to tout environmental responsibility. But there was no single site for the average person.

The accidental pitch went over big. Bell funded 20% of the venture on the spot; within 24 hours Babbit had raised nearly $10 million, including a chunk from Rolling Stones keyboardist and environmentalist Chuck Leavell, a fellow Georgian. He gave notice the next morning at GCI, and the Mother Nature Network website (MNN) launched in January 2009.

Babbit's timing was both great and awful. He'd raised the money just before the market crashed, but now naysayers were telling him MNN's model would no longer work. "The biggest challenge was not paying attention [to them]," he says.

One advantage was Babbit's background, which helped him come up with creative pitches for MNN's advertisers. The site has about 35 categories, such as computers and energy, and companies like Coca-Cola (KO, Fortune 500), AT&T (T, Fortune 500), and P&G (PG, Fortune 500) pay to be the exclusive advertiser on a segment.

Despite the crisis, MNN turned a tiny profit in its first year on revenue approaching $5 million. The lesson: Leverage your expertise -- but follow your heart.

Going solo

Reputation matters. Babbit couldn't have started MNN without the ties that come from a history of impressing clients. Some later became his investors. "You spend your life doing a good job for people," he says. "It builds credibility."

Beginner's advantage. As a fresh face, MNN didn't have to follow existing rules. Babbit was free to come up with new models, like its advertising structure.

Ignore the critics. Everybody has 10 reasons you shouldn't start your own business. Babbit says you'll never do it if you listen to them. To top of page

Frontline troops push for solar energy
The U.S. Marines are testing renewable energy technologies like solar to reduce costs and casualties associated with fossil fuels. Play
25 Best Places to find rich singles
Looking for Mr. or Ms. Moneybags? Hunt down the perfect mate in these wealthy cities, which are brimming with unattached professionals. More
Fun festivals: Twins to mustard to pirates!
You'll see double in Twinsburg, Ohio, and Ketchup lovers should beware in Middleton, WI. Here's some of the best and strangest town festivals. Play
Company Price Change % Change
Facebook Inc 75.19 0.21 0.28%
Bank of America Corp... 15.59 -0.03 -0.19%
Ford Motor Co 17.62 -0.22 -1.23%
Applied Materials In... 21.23 -0.52 -2.41%
Intel Corp 34.25 0.00 0.00%
Data as of Jul 25
Index Last Change % Change
Dow 16,960.57 -123.23 -0.72%
Nasdaq 4,449.56 -22.54 -0.50%
S&P 500 1,978.34 -9.64 -0.48%
Treasuries 2.47 -0.04 -1.59%
Data as of 4:19am ET

Sections

The food processing company accused of mishandling meat at its Shanghai, China plant says it will suspend sales and recall all food processed there. More

Is the economy back on track after a weak first quarter or about to get blown away? Investors will find out when the curtain is drawn on jobs and GDP data. There's also a Federal Reserve meeting. More

Louisiana is now the top location for motion picture filming, supporting thousands of new jobs and small businesses. More

Americans with disabilities face huge financial hurdles and it starts early on, according to a recent report. More

Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.