Helping green business Sprout

Directory aims to be an online destination for
eco-conscious consumers

LINDEN HILLS — Going green should be easy.

That’s the idea driving the Linden Hill start-up company Sprout (sprout.mn), an online directory to local green businesses with a social networking twist.

“So many of the Minneapolis and St. Paul consumers are, I think, progressive consumers,” said Casey Collins, who started Sprout with his wife, Megan, and father-in-law, Rick Kaplan. “There are a lot of people here that are looking for better product alternatives, more eco-friendly alternatives … and a lot of [the products] are in these local businesses.”

Sprout, Collins hopes, will be the venue where those businesses and consumers connect. An innovative paperless coupon system that sends promotions straight to shoppers’ cell phones is just one way Sprout aims to encourage greener spending.

Sprout isn’t the first company to bring the green directory concept online. Portland, Ore.-based EcoMetro runs six regional directories, including one of the Twin Cities, and Do It Green! Minnesota offers a Minnesota Green Pages Directory. But Sprout’s founders say their service offers something more: a social media component that gets users invested in the site.

By the end of November, about 1,300 Sprouters had joined the site to access online deals, and many had uploaded photos, completed personal profiles and contributed reviews.

Four months after its mid-summer launch, Sprout listed about 550 local businesses and organizations offering at least some green products or services. To be listed, shops and restaurants state a commitment to sell more green products and to shrink their businesses’ carbon footprints.

Several Southwest-area merchants contacted around that time said it was too early to tell if the website would bring many new customers through theirs doors. Still, all said they were excited to have a new, local player in the online directory business.

Jeanne Lakso, marketing and manager services director for the Linden Hills Co-op, said she’d seen little evidence of online reviews or the store’s own Twitter feed boosting business. But Lakso suggested a local site, with employees who know and visit the businesses, might have a greater impact.

“[Sprout] is local, it’s people I know, and the other businesses are ones I easily relate to,” she said.

Twin Cities Green owner Ryan North also appreciated the “hands-on” approach of the Sprout staff.

“It’s not like they put up a website with a directory and there it is,” North said. “… They get out into the community and have a presence.”

Clancey’s Meats and Fish owner Kristen Tombers expected she would benefit from the association with other green businesses. Although the store specializes in local and sustainable products, that may not be apparent to new customers.

“I don’t have big signs or anything that says what we’re about, and I don’t have my own website,” Tombers said. “So, until that happens, it’s very, very helpful to have [Sprout] getting that word out there.”

Megan and Casey Collins said they were not green experts, just a couple who are slowly adding green habits into their lives.

Some of those changes occurred after Megan, who grew up in St. Paul, and Casey, a North Dakota native, returned to the Midwest from Manhattan in 2005. They settled in the Linden Hills neighborhood, not realizing it was a veritable compost heap of green activity.

The signed up for the city’s organics recycling program — launched first in Linden Hills — and later joined a community supported agriculture group when they saw box of fresh produce delivered to a neighbor’s doorstep.

“I think the neighborhood fueled our interest in greening our lives a bit more,” Megan Collins said.

Sprout could work in the same way, they said, not only by directing consumers to deals, but also by building an online community. They pointed to the “Compost” section of their website, where Sprouters exchange tips and ideas on gardening, green travel, public transportation and other topics.

Casey Collins said they hoped to break even on Sprout in 2010, and maybe bring in a profit by 2011. Even if that doesn’t happen, Megan Collins said she felt like the process of running a start-up was equivalent to earning an M.B.A.

Whether or not Sprout really sprouts, they’ll end up a little smarter, certainly, a probably a little greener, too.