The only solution was to start all over somewhere in the world where we could build up something new without the system pressure… and so we tossed a coin to choose between UK and Denmark… and the country of Vikings and Little Mermaid became our new home. It took 3 months from deciding to close down to when we landed in Copenhagen to start all over with just 2 suitcases of luggage, lots of experience and even more hope. It was not easy starting all over again, but our path was paved with wonderful people, great opportunities, and with very important sprinkles of luck. -- Mia Negru, co-Founder 2030 Builders
As we embark on the beginning of a new decade, it feels right to share a startup that is focused firmly on the next ten years. 2030 Builders is a B2B startup using gamification to help firms measure their impact and support progress on the UN's Sustainable Development Goals. But it's not only their business model that makes 2030 Builders a compelling tech story. It's the incredible journey that this team has taken and the obstacles they've overcome, that makes their story such an inspiring one.
Founded by sisters Mia and Gabriela Negru in 2018, 2030 Builders shows how business models can be transformed more sustainably. Importantly, they show how building an impact-driven company is not about charity, but about how business models can successfully address some of the world's most considerable challenges and make a profit.
Based in Copenhagen, the team includes Ciprian Lupu, CTO, Rares Pasca, Web developer, Raluca Papoi UX, Amandeep Midha, Technical Advisor and +12 interns and volunteers helping in the Sustainability, Marketing and design teams. I connected with co-Founder Mia Negru to learn more about how 2030 Builders is helping companies work towards building more impact with their business practices.
Hi Mia! Can you tell us a little bit about 2030 Builders? Who is the product for, and how did the company get started? What makes your solution unique?
2030 Builders started from the idea of a board game that had to help companies work with the 17 Sustainable Development Goals… it evolved into a digital tool and a software in order to use technology and an enabler of human interaction and serve remote teams. Me and my co-founder dreamed of a game that will engage all employees into sustainable decision making and give them the infrastructure to build sustainable strategies. The product serves any company size that has at least a team of minimum 6 people as our process is a gamified co-creation experience and not an individual e-learning process. The uniqueness of our product is bringing the “serious play” in a software shape, and we hope teams would be looking forward to go back at the Impact Play and draft implementable sustainable solutions while having a lot of fun.
You were a serial entrepreneur back in Romania before coming to Denmark and starting 2030 Builders. Can you tell us a little bit about that process, what you’ve learned about running companies in different fields and how you’ve been able to apply those lessons into this venture?
Me and Gabriela co-founded our first business, an event planning company when we were 21 and 19, in our early university years and we learned how to run a business by doing it and not from books. We both studied law and we found it challenging to run a business besides studies, but we learned how to get help by attracting talent and sell them our mission and vision, a thing that is very helpful today in forming our 2030 Builders team. In the 7 years that we did event coordination we have managed to grow the company to 20 employees and cover a market of 8 million, equivalent of a 3rd of Romania and 1,5 bigger than Denmark. In 2008 we decided to diversify our business and expand our services in complementary fields and we opened a beauty salon and a porcelain shop, financing our expansion also with a bank loan… and that’s when the fall began. The financial crisis in Romania affected especially the service industry… prices went down and in the same time people could not afford anymore to spend on anything else than housing and food. For 2 years we struggled and we have tried different strategies, like scaling down, changing business model, even taking a side jobs to be able to sustain salaries of employees… nothing worked. The pressure from authorities with fines ( the government was desperate to collect money for the budget), the bank loan and the employees, was too hard on our entrepreneurial journey, so we decided to close down. It was a tough and hurtful decision, we had to bury everything we build up in the past 7 years, but we couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, plus we had a gruesome bank loan over our heads, meant to take away our parents house. The only solution was to start all over somewhere in the world where we could build up something new without the system pressure… and so we tossed a coin to choose between UK and Denmark… and the country of Vikings and Little Mermaid became our new home. It took 3 months from deciding to close down to when we landed in Copenhagen to start all over with just 2 suitcases of luggage, lots of experience and even more hope.
It was not easy starting all over again, but our path was paved with wonderful people, great opportunities, and with very important sprinkles of luck. In Denmark we failed again 2 times but the culture of failure is a little different than in Romania. It’s definitely not a celebration time as in the US, but you are not a disgrace like back home, in Denmark, if you fail you are a step closer to success and you are definitely appreciated for trying. And so we kept trying and overcome the language and culture barrier, the market limitations and the lack of early stage financing. At our 3rd venture, the startup ecosystem is more mature, with more opportunities and more experienced actors. Besides our tech venture, our involvement in the startup ecosystem has promoted us in the list of 50 Women in tech in Denmark in 2019. Not giving up and following your dreams pays off eventually, and when it does you forget all the storms you’ve been through and you only remember the valuable lessons you should be grateful for.
Can you walk us through the innovation tool? What does the process look like? How did you settle on using gamification as a way to help companies work towards achieving the SDGs?
In 2030 Builders we designed a co-creation sprint to help company departments understand and use strategically the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Working strategically with the SDGs means to innovate incrementally and transform business process into sustainable ones or innovate disruptively, by looking into how to change the business models into green ones or inclusive ones to serve the developing countries. Our experience’s goal is to provide the teams with implementable solutions that are business proof and not philanthropic projects, as sustainability needs to cater to the 3 pillars in the same time: environmental, social and economic. We use gamification because we wanted to make the experience more, fun and engaging, but also because we want to transfer the Danish serious play into very serious global challenges that we all face regardless of where we live. We use characters, in a journey around the world and a wise narrator that guides the teams through their quests in gathering “greencoinz”. Role playing is challenging mindsets and makes even the more skeptical finance manager think as an environmentalist or a customer.
When thinking about the SDGs, what are some of the unique business potentials that stand out to you, and are waiting to be unlocked? How have companies used 2030 Builders to find and develop new areas of impact?
Addressing the world’s biggest challenges means also tapping into the biggest business opportunities, as the SDGs are pointing out where are we behind and where we need more innovation to speed up development and to avoid further capital loss. Every SDG shows where, by solving the problem behind it, we will reduce enormous costs for humanity, money and human lives and in the same time acquire new markets.
By connecting global challenges with company challenges, many of our customers came up with solutions that tapped in more than 1 SDG. For example a medical components company looked into how they can retain their employees in the manufacturing facilities, and by designing a health check program for employees and their families, the solution tapped both in SDG 3, Good Health and Well-being and SDG 8 Decent Work and Economic Growth. And we have more examples like this where starting from one SDG and one challenge we manage to build up solutions that cover more areas of impact. One of our biggest contributions is engaging the employees in analysing the challenges, connecting them with the business and finding solutions that are feasible and sustainable and getting their buy-in into implementing them. Going through this process 2 or 3 times is wiring their thinking into a challenge - opportunity - sustainability- feasibility in any future decision making.
How does 2030 Builders measure impact?
With every action plan that our customers take to implementation we take another step further and follow the impact made. For starters the impact of SDG knowledge with every employee getting accustomed with the global challenges and their importance is spread on a minimum 3 times. We account the impact on all stakeholders levels, on the 3 pillars of sustainability and of course the primary and secondary contribution to the SDGs based on their targets.
What’s next for 2030 Builders? Is there anything on the horizon that we should be looking out for?
We are very customer centric in building our product and we take feedback very seriously, as to develop a tool that really serves businesses in their contribution to the betterment of our world. So we are always looking at filling a need, by following our vision also of always delivering gamified co-creation. The next step is to deliver an AI powered tool that matches the puzzle of big companies in partnership with researchers, startups or NGOs in the solution implementation. We have been selected also in the spring batch of Accelerace Program, and that’s a big step in the preparation for raising funds and in our development.
2030 Builders is based in Copenhagen. What are some of the best things about the startup scene there?
The Copenhagen startup scene has many amazing opportunities and the ecosystem is build on supporting any stage startup in their needs. In our case, we have been very lucky to grab the attention of organisations that are backing up impact startups, like Copenhagen Business Hub, a governmental agency that guides us with a dedicated business advisors network, Creative Business Network that invited us to the World Entrepreneurs Investment Forum in Bahrain, Gladsaxe Municipality that gave us office space in the SDG House and KIB, Women in Boards, that provided us with an Advisory Board. Besides that we also get voluntary advisory help from other professionals that are amazing in guiding our journey. We attend many events specially created for startups by PreSeed Academy, The Digital Hub and we benefit a lot from the startups membership package from the IT Trade Union ( IT-Branchen) and The Confederation of Danish Industries ( DI), both organisations with a big focus on SDGs.
If you had to give one piece of advice for new founders, or those at the start of their entrepreneurial journeys, what would that be?
For the new founders I have an important piece of advice: keep close your support group, family, friends, fellow entrepreneurs, as they are the ones you need the most when it will get hard. And it will get hard, or at least you will have that feeling sometimes, but the fulfillment and satisfaction of building something of your own it’s so amazing and uplifting that it will always stick with you. Once you are on your journey, be persistent but also agile in accepting change fast, keep your team happy, they are the ones that buy in on your dream and contribute to it. Get all the help you can and even more, people want to help people with dreams and not lastly, if you fail, give up on the startup idea but don’t give up on wanting to be an entrepreneur. We need more of us to achieve the SDGs, Solve global challenges and build the world we want to live in!