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Monday, March 4, 2024

Energizers: GreenPlaces helps make sustainability dreams happen

Alex Lassiter, founder and CEO, GreenPlaces

When other kids were dreaming of being superheroes or astronauts, Alex Lassiter could never pick one career — he wanted to do everything.

“Doing just one thing is like my idea of hell,” says Lassiter. Fresh out of UNC Chapel Hill with a business degree in 2010, he worked at a Seattle start-up, followed by a couple of years at consultants Bain & Co. in Atlanta. Then, he had a “life-altering” interview at a venture capital firm in San Francisco.  

“The VC partner told me, ‘Your whole career has been around taking the least risky choice,’ and that’s when I realized I had to do something irrational. I had to get off of the path I was on and explore.”

In early 2012, he and a buddy, Nicholas Miller, founded their first company, Frequentr, a software project that didn’t take off. “We would have an idea, run with it, and get absolutely zero traction,” he recalls. “It reached this point where I’d say: ‘I don’t know what success looks like, but I definitely know what success doesn’t look like.’”

Fortunately, some of the ideas coalesced into Gather Technologies, which he co-founded in 2013 with Miller and Tom Merrihew, another UNC Chapel Hill alum. Gather was a customer relationship management platform that enabled restaurants, hotels and hospitality spaces to book wedding receptions, corporate events, reunions and other large parties. It also provided operators with the tools to manage large events.

When the partners sold majority control of Gather to Austin, Texas-based Vista Equity Partners in 2017, it was on track to top $1 billion in reservations booked at about 3,500 venues. In 2020, Vista Equity bought Concord, Massachusetts-based Tripleseat, merging the two platforms into a company with $2.6 billion in bookings. 

Earlier this year, the New York-based General Atlantic PE firm invested $500 million in Tripleseat, which included acquiring the remaining stake held by Lassiter and Miller. Merrihew continues as a vice president of engineering at Tripleseat. 

Now, Lassiter knew what success looked like. After Gather, he took various projects, including consulting with utilities and lumberyards, raising an investment fund, and working on a personal-protective equipment project during the pandemic.

“It was all fun, but I didn’t want to be a retired 33-year-old, I wanted to get back to actually building something,” Lassiter says. 

Seeking to make more of a social impact, he started GreenPlaces, an open-source platform that wants to “democratize” access to sustainability. It followed conversations with Jesse Lipson, founder of ShareFile (now part of Citrix Systems), along with support from noted Triangle entrepreneurs such as Scot Wingo of Spiffy, Todd Olson of Pendo and Tom Darden of Cherokee Investments. Lassiter officially launched the platform in January 2022.

Now, GreenPlaces has more than 2,000 integrations in a wide variety of enterprises including giant companies and small employers. The platform helps companies aggregate data about their “carbon footprint,” which is the amount of carbon compounds emitted due to consumption of fossil fuels. The program syncs with a company’s energy and water use and suggests how to make changes and prioritize improvements.

“We can make climate something that is aligned with business,” Lassiter says. “If we’re going to be honest about sustainability, we’ve all got to [work at] it. But there’s also the practicality side … there’s no possible way of aligning a business interest without also aligning profits and business objectives.”

Barcelona Wine Bar has saved $75,000 at its tapas restaurants because the platform identified ways to save energy, says CEO Adam Halberg. The company, which started in Norwalk, Connecticut, has 20 restaurants in 10 states, including sites in Charlotte and Raleigh. It is owned by Connecticut-based private equity firm L. Catterton. 

Barcelona Wine Bar’s experience epitomizes what Lassiter envisions for GreenPlaces: companies that want to address environmental issues, but are not necessarily early adopters and sustainability is not essential to their core brand. 

“It is less about the size and more about the preparedness for being able to do this,” Lassiter says. “We might work with a relatively large company that only has one person working in sustainability.” 

GreenPlaces  has raised more than $17 million, including $13 million in June from a group that included California-based private-equity groups Redpoint Ventures and Felicis Ventures; New York-based Tishman Speyer Ventures; and Durham-based Bull City
Venture Partners. 

Lassiter says revenue is on track to double in the fiscal year that ends on Jan. 31, declining to be more specific. “It’s been a remarkably fast-growing business,” he says, noting that it is cash-flow positive.

The work more than satisfies his cravings for being that “everything guy,” as GreenPlaces seeks business from restaurant and hospitality groups, retailers, law firms and other professional services, software companies, financial institutions, franchise operators and educational institutions.

Lassiter says measuring climate impact has become a requirement for businesses. “You’re going to lose contracts if you don’t do it, I don’t care if you’re a law firm, bank, hotel or software company.”

About 92% of S&P 500 companies and 70% of the firms in the Russell 1000 published corporate sustainability reports in 2020. Hotels tell Lassiter they’ve lost out on conferences because they lack needed detail, while executive search firms tell him candidates decline job offers with companies that don’t have a sustainability plan. 

GreenPlaces is positioning itself to provide answers for how to develop sustainability plans that can evolve effectively.

Wilmington-based Live Oak Bank  is planning to launch the GreenPlaces platform by early 2024. Live Oak serves clients nationally without operating brick-and-mortar branches. That creates unusual challenges in measuring the environmental impact.

Lillian Graning, Live Oak Bank

“We’re a relationship-driven bank and we meet every single customer we make a loan to, so that means we have distributed teams and a lot of air travel for our lenders,” says Lillian Graning, head of corporate social responsibility. The challenge is to simplify the complex data into meaningful action item, which she says means answering pragmatic questions such as,  “how much reporting capability is going to be required? What insight helps us actually be better environmental stewards? Where is it overkill?” 

Lassiter is passionate about GreenPlaces’ plans and its scope of clients, who range from Redwood City, California-based software firm Zuora to Durham Academy, a private school with about 1,200 students from pre-K to 12th grade. “There’s no possibility that we ever actually get to our climate goals without involving everybody.”

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