Keith Forbes - Integrated Sustainability Solutions
Community meeting with Karen village members in Northern Thailand. Photo credit: Courtesy of Integrated Sustainability Solutions
What would you do if your business has an international focus and typically requires a lot of travel? And due to COVID-19, you won’t be able to travel to faraway places like Indonesia, Thailand, or Ecuador?
Such was the case with Keith Forbes. Keith is the founder and principal consultant of Integrated Sustainability Solutions (ISS), which provides project and program evaluation and technical implementation of projects in conservation, climate change, and sustainability.
We sat down with Keith to discuss how he’s adapting his consulting business in this new world, homing into the strengths of being a company of one, and the future of his line of work:
The Azlo Moment
In 2007, Forbes’ wife accepted a position at a university in upstate New York, so his family uprooted. At the time, he worked remotely as a consultant for a government contractor based in the Washington, D.C. area. After seven years of working remotely, he decided to give going into business for himself a shot.
ISS emerged from these initial ponderings. And while it was formed on paper in 2012, Keith officially launched his business and gave it an entrepreneurial push in 2015.
The Strength in Being a Company of One
Interestingly enough, operating as a company of one has offered Keith an advantage. Why’s that? International development projects and programs that are financed by the U.S., E.U., and multinational bodies such as the GEF (Global Environment Facility) require independent third-party evaluations.
These third-parties need to show there’s no institutional conflict of interest (COI). In turn, a small independent consulting company, such as ISS, enjoys a competitive advantage. What’s more, as ISS doesn’t have the capacity to directly pursue large programs and projects, it doesn’t have any biases or existing relationships with large development contractors that could raise COI-related concerns.
“As I’m never going to be involved in running a whole project by myself because I’m too small, that turns size into an advantage,” says Keith. “That’s because it’s very easy to show no conflict of interest, whereas large companies can’t do that because maybe they also want to do the follow-up project.”
The ability to be nimble. As business has slowed down a little bit because of the pandemic, Keith doesn’t have to worry about employees, about maintaining payrolls or having to cut his employees to part-time as necessary. He’s able to hire independent consultants on an as-needed, short-term basis to help with different tasks at varying stages.
Homing in on your niche. Being an army of one has helped Keith zero in on his niche. Instead of competing with larger companies, he eventually landed on a sweet spot and usually bids on projects from government organizations, non-profits, and the private sector in the $50,000 to $200,000 range. These companies are looking for companies just like ISS — made up of independent consultants who do most of the work themselves.
The freedom to incorporate his mission into his business values. Now that he’s launched his own consulting firm, Keith can pursue work closest to his personal beliefs: Supporting the neediest countries in pursuing their climate change and conservation goals.
Chiapas, Mexico, with village members who created nursery of saplings for reforestation. Photo credit: Courtesy of Integrated Sustainability Solutions
Adapting to a New World
As one might imagine, some of the projects Keith is involved with are in a state of limbo. They’re working on adapting to a new world, he explains. And as they aren’t sending their staff off to different countries, these organizations are figuring out how to redo their RFPs and solicitations. Keith has since adapted ISS in the following ways:
Pivoting to working 100% remotely. Keith’s work typically entails traveling to the field to survey the sites and conduct in-person interviews. He’s developed methodologies and protocols to collect data using remote means of communication. For instance, he’s tapped into tools such as Skype, WhatsApp, Microsoft Teams, or Jitsi — basically whatever is most convenient to the interviewees.
Adopting a hybrid model. Depending on the stage of opening of the particular country, some scenarios include Keith working with a national consultant who can conduct data collection in-person, co-interview participants remotely, or with a national consultant. He also uses carefully designed remote surveys using Google Forms or SurveyMonkey.
Working in tandem with international colleagues. To work around travel bans and restrictions, Keith has developed methodologies to work with national consultants to conduct in-person interviews in the respective countries.
Some modalities also include Keith working with a national consultant who can conduct data collection in-person (depending on the stage of opening of the particular country), or co-interview participants remotely, with a national consultant who works on-site.
The Case for Working with Smaller Banks
Keith was able to land a small PPP loan through a local bank near his home. And he attributes working with the help he’s received from an SBA Small Business Development Center’s (SBDC) at a nearby university, which helped him answer questions he had about obtaining a PPP loan and how to go about applying for forgiveness.
Making the switch to Azlo. When Keith applied for a PPP loan, he initially went with a different financial institution, where he held a business checking account. But they botched the whole process to the point where Keith was obliged to withdraw his application and apply through a small, local bank, with whom he did not have an existing business relationship.
He knew he needed a business account, as it’s good practice to have a separate bank account for his business. So he closed his previous bank account and, after considerable research, chose to open one through Azlo. “I just needed something with minimal costs and hassle,” he says. “Because when you’re a small business and have to look for new business development, do the technical work, and look for consultants, having your banking questions resolved with a quick email is a quick godsend.”
Inspecting mangrove rehabilitation by Creole community in Mauritius. Photo credit: Courtesy of Integrated Sustainability Solutions
Taking a Step Back to Re-Strategize
A silver lining of the pandemic is that Keith has had a little more time to look at his business plan and strategy and plan accordingly. For the last few years, he’s had multiple back-to-back projects. Now, he can take a breather and has had time to work on the following:
Broadening his customer base. One of the downsides of being a company of one is that it’s hard to build a pipeline of work while you’re knee-deep in existing projects. “Ideally, you always have a pipeline, and you’re thinking three, six months ahead,” says Keith. “But it’s hard to be writing proposals while working on existing client work at the same time.”
In the last few months, Keith has written proposals, reached out to potential clients, and had time to look beyond LinkedIn and Indeed to hunt for prospects. He also revamped his entire website, making it easier for prospective clients to understand his particular strengths and provide ample examples of past work through an extensive portfolio, uniquely expressed as a chronological timeline.
This enables clients to appreciate the progressive complexity and independent analysis of Keith’s project deliverables.
Restoring faith in science. Beyond his business, Keith is hopeful that the pandemic will restore people’s confidence in science and not undermine scientists’ opinions.
“I hope the public will realize that these experts who say we need to take urgent action on COVID-19 or climate change base their findings on neutral scientific inquiry,” says Keith, “and that they have nothing to gain from spreading false information — which isn’t the same for those who oppose the action,” says Keith.
“Along the same lines, we need to realize that scientific expertise is critical to dealing with problems that are essentially science-based. And they can provide important input to policymakers. Some of our political leaders, such as in my home state of N.Y., are letting credentialed experts provide the foundation for public policy, and it has been demonstrated to work. I’m hoping that this carries over to climate change, and we, as a society value scientists, just as we routinely do with doctors, lawyers, and engineers.”
The pandemic has also improved the air quality in densely populated cities around the world. As Keith explains, it’s lowered the amount of human activity in cities like Mumbai or Shanghai, which are typically places with dangerously elevated air pollution, but now have clear skies. “You can see the sky, there’s no smog,” says Keith. “Maybe that creates a greater appreciation of our impact in the environment, and how things can be if we take measures to clean up our act.”
Planning for the Long-Term
Keith sees for the near future a more flexible approach to his line of work, as well as where people are funding and procuring the work. “Now that people have had a little more time,” says Keith, “I’m looking forward to the fact that future solicitations will be very clear about what’s expected.” Beyond that, here’s how he’s strategizing for the business:
Building and maintaining relationships. As a consultant, Keith focuses on developing rapport, building long-term relationships, and getting to know an organization’s ins and outs. “I prefer working relationships where they know your work, they know you over time, and you become friends with some of your clients,” he says.
As he explains, he’s much rather a stellar reputation and an excellent track record with a particular client. That way, they feel comfortable doing several shorter-term projects regularly for the next five years, rather than one long project one year, and then nothing for the next five years.”
Looking at multiple horizons. When it comes to looking ahead, Keith’s business strategy entails looking at the short-term goals, medium-term goals, and long-term ones. “We all need income, obviously,” he says. “But I’m not sacrificing the short term for the long game. I’m thinking of multiple horizons at the same time.”
Keith explains that you’ve got to have short-term gains to be competitive and stay in business, and long-term gains to pursue meaningful work that’s aligned with your mission.
Building a Mission-Based Business
Keith’s mission is to contribute to finding realistic climate solutions, especially in more impoverished communities that are dependent on healthy ecosystems for their livelihoods, whether fishers, farmers, or the harvesting of high-value forest products. These are the places that need them the most support, where there are fewer resources, the expertise is sometimes spread thin, and the people are most feeling the greatest direct impact.
That’s a big part of why he keeps his consulting rates flexible and offers some flexibility depending on the potential for future business, the nature of the work, and whether they’re mission-driven or profit-driven.
“Maybe it’s just a new kind of work that you haven’t done before that opens up new possibilities,” says Keith. “And the investment is then in getting experience to develop new business lines.”
Dinner in Northern Thailand Karen community village. Photo credit: Courtesy of Integrated Sustainability Solutions
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