Which online social networks do you use? Facebook? MySpace? LinkedIn? How much time do you spend there? Is it time well spent? Your mileage may vary, but I find I get more return on time invested on networks that focus on a specific professional niche or interest. These are places where I can do some like-minded linking to connect and collaborate on topics of shared interest. A growing number of online networks are taking this niche approach – bringing together peer networks of professionals working in comparable job functions.
Would you use a professional online network focused on green collar workers? Furqan Nazeeri, CEO of Viridus, is betting you will. He launched Viridus in January of this year to create an online forum for green professionals. But it’s about more than just connecting; it’s about collaboration and impact – Viridus aims to take the professional network beyond just networking to provide members a forum to share solutions “where collective knowledge helps members create a meaningful impact – for the environment, their employer and themselves.”
I recently spoke with Furqan at his office in the Boston area.
Triple Pundit: Can a social network really have an impact on environmental issues and sustainability?
Furqan Nazeeri: First, let me address the “purpose.” McKinsey did a revealing analysis of potential greenhouse gas emissions abatement opportunities. One of their key findings is that there is no “silver bullet.” Put another way, we need many people to make a lot of small improvements to achieve our emissions abatement goals. We believe an online network of sustainability-minded professionals is a key part of the solution.
Second, I’m pretty sure a social network will not be effective in advancing corporate sustainability. Facebook is not our model. Rather, our model is to offer a private, professional network that provides expert advice, quality content and practical tools. We admire services like Sermo (medical doctors), INmobile (wireless industry) and TheFunded (startups).
3P: How did you determine what kinds of features to include? Did you do any user or usability studies?
FN: In developing Viridus, we interviewed scores of professionals involved in sustainability. We launched our site in beta earlier this year and have been working with hundreds of professionals to optimize and refine Viridus. We’ve done a lot but we still have much to do. Right now I’m most interested in obtaining the best quality content, tools and experts for our membership.
3P: What about total addressable market? How many green collar workers do you need to attract to reach a critical mass?
FN: Ultimately, everyone has a green collar job. Consider this: It’s not just the good folks who install solar panels that have “green collar jobs,” as some would have you believe. It is how you do your job that makes it green or not. If you’re an IT professional managing a data center, you have a green collar job. If you are a vehicle fleet manager, you have a green collar job. If you are a purchasing professional, you have a green collar job. So basically the total potential audience is large — millions.
However, our mission is not to convince people and their organizations to take action (or that they have a green collar job). Others are much more effective at that than we would ever be. So our addressable market is those who are looking to take action. When someone says, “Great, I’m bought in. Now how do I make this happen?” that’s where we come in. Our mission is to empower these employees to create sustainable companies. While it’s a small number today, our bet is that it will grow to include almost everyone.
3P: Many employers are beginning to block access to social network sites from inside their firewall. How do you overcome this issue?
FN: Regarding the blocking of social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace, it hasn’t shown up as a significant problem for professional networking sites. By the way, a much bigger problem is dealing with IE6 (a really old browser) that about one third of companies still use!
Coming this Fall
Viridus plans an official launch for November 2008, while rolling out additional features in phases over the course of 2009. A free membership level will always be offered, but future plans include adding fee-based memberships that provide access to premium features. Other ideas for generating revenue include offering limited paid sponsorships allowing interested parties to ask questions of, or learn from, the community. Viridus is also developing tools and services to bring transparency to the emissions markets for members interested in carbon trading.
Key to the networking value is the “gated access” member model. Interested professionals can apply for membership via the website, but a detailed screening process ensures prospects meet the desired professional profile. Viridus currently excludes vendors, advertisers, marketers, regulators, media, and NGOs.
Early feedback from the community suggests successful connections are already happening. If you had a place to collaborate online with other green professionals, would you use it?
Jim Witkin is a marketing consultant and blogger focusing on ICT4D and social enterprise. He is also pursuing an MBA in Sustainable Management. You can reach him at jameswitkin at yahoo dot com