Pete Gombert was CEO of Balihoo, a successful startup, when he decided to chuck it all and travel the world with his family for a year. He came back from his global walkabout recharged—retaining a tie to Balihoo as its chairman, but ready to start a new day-to-day gig as founder and managing director of GoodWell, a new public benefit corporation whose mission is to make it easy for consumers to identify good corporate citizens.
A little over a year ago, you chucked it all and traveled the globe with your family. What prompted your big adventure?
For most of my 20 years in the startup world I’ve lived my life out of balance. It’s hard to find balance when you’re trying to create something from scratch, and that’s the definition of a true startup.
I have an amazing wife and kids who support me in every way and always have. However, as my kids got older it became apparent I needed to gain some balance. We wanted to spend a year together where all we had was each other, and we hatched the idea of traveling around the world. It took a couple years to plan, but in August of 2014 we hit the road for the most amazing adventure of our lives.
Travel can challenge established conventions. Any lessons from your trip you’d care to share?
A couple big ones:
- We need a lot less than we think. Each of us lived for a year out of a 55-liter backpack. When we came home we were overwhelmed by the amount of stuff we had and how much time we spend maintaining it.
- The world is not a scary place. Even though we went to some dangerous places during a dangerous time we were rarely even uncomfortable. 99.9999 percent of the world is filled with good people just trying to get by.
From your trip: Favorite place, memorable experience, or unforeseen obstacle?
I had four incredible stays on our trip:
- Safari in Tanzania was the most mind-blowing experience of the trip and easily the most memorable.
- Chamonix, France was the most fun because I got to ski every day for five weeks in one of the most incredible landscapes on the planet.
- Working with an amazing nonprofit in Cambodia was the most humbling and insightful part of the trip, and probably changed me the most.
- Japan was far and away my favorite cultural stop. The people, gardens, art, and food were all off the charts. If I could go back to one place for a year it would be Japan.
You’re launching a new startup, GoodWell, which will help consumers make educated decisions around supporting good, responsible companies. A tall and worthy order—what’s your plan?
GoodWell is a consumer-driven organization with a mission to change the world by enabling businesses to act with a basic level of humanity. As you say, no small task. However, the plan is very simple and has two basic parts:
- Create a system where we can determine if a company is acting with basic humanity
- Create consumer awareness and have them demand this behavior from the companies they spend their money with
Your goal of enlisting one million members with a collective purchasing power of $50 billion is pretty audacious. What makes you think you can achieve this?
It’s massively audacious, but massive goals have driven my entire life. Achieving the goal is actually not the important part; if all GoodWell achieves is to make a few people more aware of the power of their daily choices, we’ll have done something worthwhile.
GoodWell intends to certify companies through a code of conduct and an audit system. How is your system different from others?
There are four characteristics of GoodWell that make us unique:
- Philosophy of good vs. best: We’re focused on eliminating the worst behavior in business while most others are focused on certifying the best behavior. The result is that our standards can be thought of as the floor and others might be the top of the stairs.
- Universal applicability: Most certifications are specific to an industry or issue such as non-GMO, Fair Trade, Forest Stewardship Council, etc. Our certification metrics are applicable to any size business in any industry worldwide. We view the wide range of certifications as beneficial because most can become GoodWell partners. For example, if a company is a member of 1% for the Planet, they immediately meet our charitable giving metric.
- Third-party audit: Corporate behavior is too important to be left to a self-attestation. That’s why our system requires annual third-party verification. You need look no further than the recent Volkswagen scandal to understand the lengths companies will go to in order to portray a good image but behave differently.
- Supply chain: It’s too easy for companies to outsource bad behavior. Cleaning up the supply chain is absolutely essential to solving the really complicated problems. GoodWell requires supply-chain adherence, and we have a unique and achievable method which makes it accessible to multinational corporations in a way other certifications do not.
Is your biggest challenge on the consumer or corporate side?
Probably the consumer side. The people I speak with generally love the idea, but getting individuals to change behavior is incredibly difficult. If consumers adopt GoodWell as a way to buy, the free market will take care of the business side of the equation.
Being 'good' can be a tricky and evolving proposition for companies. From your career as a technology executive and your current vantage point at GoodWell, do you have any words of wisdom to share?
- Be authentic: There’s nothing worse than implementing changes you don’t believe in. Being genuine in the ones you chose will shine through and create the momentum you need to succeed.
- Keep it simple: The more complicated we make things, the harder they get to implement.
- Take it slow: When we rush, we make careless mistakes.
- Build it to last: Novelty kills, so when you make a commitment, make sure you’re in it for the long haul and build it in a way that’s sustainable.
What’s your biggest frustration with change making?
Control. I’ve spent the bulk of my career at technology companies where I had control over what we were doing everyday. At GoodWell we’re not building a product for sale, we’re selling an idea, so I feel like I have no control over how things unfold. All I can do is keep telling the story and hoping it resonates.
If you could change one thing in the world right now, what would it be?
I would have 100 percent of companies worldwide be GoodWell certified. The positive change on our people and planet would be unprecedented.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
I’m a classic introvert and that’s not the best characteristic for someone trying to inspire a movement.
What’s the best thing about your current job?
I get to work all day on a problem that’s near to my heart and interact with amazing people who want to leave the world better than we found it.
What scares you?
This used to be an easy answer—failure. Over the past few years this has changed. I no longer focus on outcomes, just the process. It’s removed fear from my life almost entirely.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
By the time I was 16 I knew I wanted to be a CEO. Prior to that I wanted to be a catcher for the Cubs, but that dream fizzled with my weak throw to second.
What’s your secret vice?
Ben and Jerry’s—I’ve never hated and loved anything so much in my life.
What are you reading right now?
I usually read two books at once, one fiction and one non-fiction. Right now I’m reading The English Spy by Daniel Silva—I love smart spy novels like this and Ludlum. On the non-fiction side I’m re-reading Deep Economy by Bill McKibbon—it’s an incredible read and creates tremendous awareness in me.
Houndmouth—nonstop. I tend to wear music out.
Vikings—I love history and this show is really well done.
Who inspires you?
Yvon Chouinard. He created something incredible and somehow stayed true to his principles and values when most people would have sold out.
Gray. It’s somewhere between black and white, and that’s where almost everything lies.
Who’s the most progressive nonprofit or business leader you know?
Paul Polman. What he’s doing with one of the largest companies in the world (Unilever) should be an inspiration to every business leader. The scale of the impact and the entrenched notions he’s combating at his level are staggering.
What’s one question you’d like to ask yourself—and answer?
Why not tackle something easier? Answer: Nothing else seems important enough for me to put my energy into. Once I woke up to the power we all have to make a difference, I knew I had to do this.