“We’ve cut down to one a month, with the compost,” says Isabelle Moncion, proudly stating how many garbage bags she and her boyfriend are producing, thanks to Compost Montreal. While many now take recycling for granted in Montreal, composting is still in its early stages. More and more, however, people are taking responsibility for the waste they produce and this is precisely the market that entrepreneur Stephen McLeod and Compost Montreal have stepped in to serve.
“It’s quite a grey area as far as doing business goes. It’s an environmental business and I don’t think there are a whole lot that are quite the same as we are,” says McLeod who started out in 2007 with a small-scale residential compost collection service powered by nothing more than a bicycle, a trailer, and a heavy duty garbage container.
McLeod had originally branched out as an entrepreneur in his previous field as a Montreal bike messenger, but quickly found that even an innovative approach was not enough to make it in the competitive bike messenger market. He would need to try something else. “We composted when I was kid,” says McLeod. “It was just normal for me and certainly I always wanted to do something that was going to be, you know, helpful.”
Sitting in the meeting room of an apartment turned office space in Saint-Henri, conversation is briefly interrupted by the sound of a freight train rumbling by. The goateed McLeod then turns in his chair to point out the areas on a Montreal map that his company has grown to serve, including Saint-Henri, the Plateau, Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, Rosemont, Outremont, Villeray, and Hochelaga.
“We just very recently celebrated our 1000th residential client,” says McLeod, which represents about 75 percent of the company’s business. And that client base has been growing fast mainly by means of the company’s website and word-of-mouth. “Within the second quarter of 2009 we were running about half the residential [clients] that we are now.”
At five dollars per week, this means Compost Montreal is taking in about $260,000 annually from the residential service. The company also offers a slightly discounted $60 for a 13-week full season commitment. The remaining 25 percent of the business lies with commercial and institutional clients. “We want to focus our efforts more on the diversification, developing the commercial, the institutional and then working with the cities as well to get more centralized plans of services up and running.”
McLeod didn’t really have a business strategy in the conventional sense when he started out. “I sort of went pretty intuitively,” he says. “A big advantage I had in being able to do that was that I didn’t really have any start up capital.”
“I think that’s a very valuable exercise, to start with nothing and see if you can actually generate something that’s going to allow you to arc and generate proper working capital,” says McLeod, “rather than starting with money from wherever and running the risk of messing up.”
Matthew Bruno, one of Compost Montreal’s eight employees is happy with the way the business is going. “I could not ask for a better job,” says Bruno. “Everyone here is easy going, enthusiastic, pretty knowledgeable and of course, super friendly. The work is never the same and the company is still young so things are changing quickly and evolving nicely. We are all building this business together.”
At one garbage bag per month, customers like Isabelle Moncion must be feeling pretty good about themselves, and even though Compost Montreal isn’t selling it, that feeling may just be the most valuable product they offer.
Sound: Listen to Stephen McLeod tell us about his favourite part of the job and about just what happens after you put your compost bucket on the doorstep (hint: it starts with “s” and ends with “ustainability”), enjoy!
Thanks to Nick Ward for the interview sounds.