Tim Whitley – Founder of Carbon Offsets To Alleviate Poverty

[quote style=”boxed”]Prioritizing and qualifying out stuff not directly related to COTAP’s success and near-term needs.  Some entrepreneurs say we live and die by our ability to prioritize, others say be wary of help that you weren’t looking for and others say don’t go chasing shiny objects.  It’s all the same thing.[/quote]

Tim Whitley is the founder of Carbon Offsets To Alleviate Poverty (COTAP.org), a new 501(c)(3) nonprofit.  COTAP.org connects individuals’ personal CO2 emissions with forestry projects in some of the least developed countries, creating measurable wages for the poorest people in the world.  COTAP.org empowers individuals to address two major world problems–climate change and global poverty–with one tax-deductible donation.

Tim grew up in Virginia and studied business at University of Virginia.  After brief stints in consulting and dot-coms, he realized that he wasn’t satisfied with his business career and volunteer involvement being separate, so he embarked on a journey to combine the two. The first stop on that journey was managing labor and grant reporting for the Sierra Club. He learned about compliance and being a steward of other people’s money. He then managed subsidy compliance for a portfolio of 40 affordable housing properties at CAHI, a performance-based public-private partnership between CGI Inc., the Oakland Housing Authority and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). With NGO experience under his belt, Tim went back to school at University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, where he focused on sustainable enterprise and entrepreneurship.

At UNC, Tim Whitley was involved in Net Impact, was a Carolina Entrepreneurial Fellow consultant in the solar and LOHAS sectors, completed student projects for clients ranging from Durham bikesharing programs to Kenyan NGO’s and led his cohort into battle in pursuit of the Legacy Cup. Prior to graduation, he started thinking about launching the idea that has become COTAP.org.

When not working, Tim Whitley is likely enjoying being a new dad and plotting his next multi-day wilderness trek.

What are you working on right now?

I am getting the word out about COTAP through press and blogs like IdeaMensch and Grist.org and adding to COTAP’s current portfolio of projects in Nicaragua, Uganda and Mozambique.  With our proof-of-concept in hand, we’re crowd-funding from high-net-worth angel philanthropists, reaching out to corporate sponsors and forging strategic alliances with climate and poverty focused NGOs.  I’m also working on launching a COTAP.org cycling team.

Where did the idea for COTAP.org come from?

It started while I was in the MBA program at University of North Carolina.  The core inspiration came in 2008 when we had a guest speaker from The International Small Group and Tree Planting Program (www.TIST.org), which pays tens of thousands of rural farmers via cell phones for planting trees.  As I explored the space, I realized that TIST was one of many organizations doing this type of work and that it could go further faster with a partner that had a shared mission and marketing capabilities.

What does your typical day look like?

I don’t feel like there’s a typical day.  I feel like I work on everything all the time.  Lately, I have been getting the word out and working with COTAP’s excellent and committed volunteers on their wide-ranging projects that are moving us forward.  I am also reaching out to and following-up with journalists, bloggers and potential partners. I try to get a jog or bike ride in most days. I have also been spending lots of time with our 7-week-old son, Graham. Unfortunately, my wife and I have also gotten sucked into The Bachelor…again.

How do you bring ideas to life?

I’m a strong believer in the notion that ideas without execution aren’t worth anything.  I’ve brought COTAP to life through grit, following my gut, deciding what COTAP is and isn’t, through not quitting, embracing failure, seeking feedback, doing stuff outside my comfort zone and tackling things outside of my functional expertise and/or job description.

For me, bringing COTAP to life has been a challenge because I lacked experience in most areas related to the business: Internet, forestry, carbon markets and international development.  On the other hand, being a layperson in all these areas has helped me see various holes and interconnected market failures that COTAP is now addressing.

What’s one trend that really excites you?

There’s getting to be a very widespread connecting-of-the-dots among foundations and NGOs.  Climate adaptation.  Access to clean water.  Carbon emissions abatement.  Food security.  Energy efficiency.  Clean energy.  Extreme weather events.  Biodiversity.  Rural livelihoods.  They’re all related in some direct or indirect way.

What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?

I ran a student painting business the summer after my first year at University of Virginia.  It was small stakes, but it was still a startup and it was extremely hard because I was young and lacked the tolerance for failure and uncertainty that I now have. That said, it was challenging, fulfilling and exciting, which made up for the drawbacks.

If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

One of the key difficulties in entrepreneurship is that what’s a waste of time is most often only visible in hindsight.  You have to try so many approaches to everything–product, funding, marketing–through trial and error.  That’s why it’s so important to listen hard to those who’ve gone before you.  Even that is tricky, though because some lessons and experiences are transferable, some are not, and sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.

In hindsight, here are 3 examples of things I’ve wasted time on:

  1. Pursuing the wrong types of forestry project developers.
  2. Pursuing foundations that claim to fund nonprofit startups. Because COTAP’s a scale play with baked-in nonprofit earned income, by the time we prove we’re worthy of foundation startup funding, we won’t need it anymore.
  3. Trying to find a pro bono CTO co-founder to moonlight.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

Prioritizing and qualifying out stuff not directly related to COTAP’s success and near-term needs.  Some entrepreneurs say we live and die by our ability to prioritize, others say be wary of help that you weren’t looking for and others say don’t go chasing shiny objects.  It’s all the same thing.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

One day I was on a ferry in San Francisco Bay with a buddy. We wanted to play cards but didn’t have any. We had our smartphones and I thought it’d be great if there was an app that enables people to digitally play cards with each other on their smartphones via wifi or Bluetooth.

If you could change one thing in the world, what would it be and how would you go about it?

I would take the vast surplus of CO2 that’s going into the sky and pay the poorest people in the world for pulling it out. I’d do this by paying them to plant trees through the instrument and system of accredited forestry carbon offsets.  I’d do it by launching a new nonprofit called Carbon Offsets To Alleviate Poverty.

Tell us a secret.

COTAP is a compelling donation even for those who are turning a blind eye to the climate change problem.

In terms of reforestation and improved livelihoods for the poorest among us, COTAP is a donation which dollar-for-dollar is competitive with any other donation one might make.  Sixty percent of the funds that go to our current portfolio will reach the rural communities doing the reforestation.

Most Americans are in the middle on climate change. COTAP can win their hearts and minds and complements the noble battle being fought by the likes of 350.org and The Climate Reality Project.

What are your three favorite online tools and what do you love about them?

  • Google Grants because it gives free adwords budgets and free donation processing to nonprofits, both of which are HUGE.
  • LinkedIn for revealing completely random and critical connections that have produced or might produce make-or-break results.
  • A cool recent discovery is HubSpot’s free Marketing Grader. It shows you where your marketing funnel needs work, how to address it and how your competitors are performing against the same metrics.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

As a reader of books, I have a terrible track record.  Before The Black Swan got too repetitive and I put it down, I found in it some good passages that resonated with me as an entrepreneur.  One passage was about how when someone is trying to break ground on something new, he/she is often misunderstood, quietly pitied and/or shunned by folks who have a more traditional perspective. Then the thing they’re working on goes from nothing to being huge.

Steve Case spoke at Stanford about how AOL was an overnight sensation many years in the making.  Similarly, Steve Jobs talked about how people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.  I consider all 3 to be the same general theme.  Surviving the desert when there’s no positive feedback or reassurance is hard, especially when what you are doing doesn’t follow conventional wisdom.  I’m obviously biased, but I strongly feel that COTAP is one of those huge concepts.

What’s on your playlist?

The Finest Worksong by R.E.M., Mushaboom by Feist, Bulbs by Van Morrison, La Pêcheuse by Rupa & The April Fishes, Wild Flower by The Cult and Rebellious Love by Gogol Bordello.

Three people we should follow on Twitter and why?

  • @StephenAtHome because Stephen Colbert is my hero.
  • @bhorowitz because he’s always got great management and startup insights and he starts each blog post with a reference to some hideously cheesy gangster song.
  • @NickKristof for his coverage of world issues. He gets bonus points for being a wilderness trekker. I do sometimes wonder, though, if he’s ever considered how the carbon emissions from his travels are directly contributing to the destruction of the nature he enjoys.

When was the last time you laughed out loud? What caused it?

There was an angel philanthropist who gave $500K to a nonprofit that was similar to COTAP. It would take a long time, maybe forever to get a proper introduction, so I just successfully guessed his email address and sent him a humble and thoughtful email.  He responded instantaneously with “NO THANKS!”

I just laughed. No matter how aligned people are or how much capacity they have, the “automatic no” and being repulsed by direct outreach are sometimes just reflexes.  I’ve learned to find humor in failure and just say “FML” and then “NEXT!”

Who is your hero?

Two-way tie between John Muir, who founded the Sierra Club and Stephen Colbert, the comedian and host of The Colbert Report.

Why did you choose to make COTAP a non-profit?

Multiple social and environmental benefits stem from an individual’s contribution to a COTAP project.  Many nonprofits pursue only half of COTAP’s mission and with less transparency, but are tax-deductible 501(c)(3)s.  So, from an individual’s standpoint there would be something seriously wrong if a COTAP contribution wasn’t tax-deductible, too. I felt that lack of 501(c)(3) status would hurt traction and result in a false negative with the proof-of-concept.  It was a tough call because that meant I had to find a pro bono firm and it took 8 months to get 501(c)(3) status.

Don’t get me wrong, COTAP is in many ways non-profit in name only.  I want to ruthlessly corner the forestry carbon market just like a for-profit would, but for the purpose of benefiting the world’s poorest people instead of return-seeking investors. A tonne of CO2 contracted through COTAP deprives the 1% from making money off the backs of impoverished rural farmers. So, yes there’s some “Occupy” activism in COTAP, but aligning with that movement is a liability because everyone’s trying to do it and the movement itself is annoying, whiny and lacking in solution.

What’s your favorite beer?

Currently it’s the house Blonde Belgian Ale at Southern Pacific Brewing in San Francisco’s Mission District. That’s also my new favorite spot.


COTAP’s in-house “Kickstarter” page at:
COTAP on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Carbon-Offsets-To-Alleviate-Poverty-COTAP/107834255906729
COTAP on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/carbonpoverty
COTAP on Google+: https://plus.google.com/b/107613577427333421652/
Tim Whitley on LinkedIn: http://www.linkedin.com/in/timwhitley