ForestPlanet: Growth Through Partnership and Small-Business Automation

9 min read
Sep 20, 2021

Learn why automation and integration should be a priority for new business owners.

Laurie McCabe

Many small-business owners start out because they want to do something they love, and they want to be their own boss. But getting a small business off the ground is no small feat. It’s easy to get swept up in the daily grind—and to put off the task of automating key business functions that will streamline operations and help the business grow. 

In fact, “lack of" problems—lack of time, money, and expertise—lead many to try to manage their business with a disjointed mix of spreadsheets, email, contact managers, and other productivity apps.

While this approach may work when the business is very small, it becomes increasingly difficult to manage things effectively as it grows. Information falls through the cracks, things take too long to do, and customers may start to question whether the business can meet their needs in a timely, professional manner.

ForestPlanet’s story highlights business process automation benefits—how automating key functions and workflows early on can help young companies prepare for and manage growth.

ForestPlanet: Creating a scalable business model for reforestation

Hank Dearden III, Founder of ForestPlanet

Hank Dearden III, Founder of ForestPlanet (Source)

Climate change is one of the most significant global issues of our time. Of its many causes, deforestation is particularly devastating to the environment. Billions of trees have been clear-cut during the past few decades, leaving soils exposed, depleted, and incapable of supporting land-based or marine habitat.

Reforestation replaces trees, which controls soil degradation, restores nutrients, and stimulates microbial diversity in the soil.

ForestPlanet is a nonprofit organization that supports large-scale, low-cost-per-tree reforestation efforts worldwide. It helps businesses, individuals, and foundations plant trees that support wildlife habitat restoration, soil remediation, carbon sequestration, and community development.

The seeds for ForestPlanet were planted when Hank Dearden III, ForestPlanet's founder, served as COO at another NGO with a similar mission. But while Dearden believed in the cause, he also envisioned a more cost-effective, automated approach to funding and managing reforestation projects.

Dearden's former organization raised money to aid reforestation efforts by offering donors a relatively easy way to help. Instead of writing a big check at the end of each year, donors could contribute every time they sold something—from a bottle of wine to a software application—and factor the cost of planting a tree into the cost of the goods sold.

Dearden wanted to build on this model but with more efficient business processes. He decided to establish as a connector organization. ForestPlanet contracts out the actual tree planting to organizations with proven track records.  He initially contracted with organizations in Madagascar and Tanzania that have built successful forest restoration programs. In time, ForestPlanet plans to support programs all over the world.

Small-business automation from the ground up

To grow ForestPlanet, Dearden recognized the importance of automation, even when his organization was still in its early stages.

As Dearden notes, "Early on, I knew I wouldn't be able to keep track of all the information about potential and existing customers and donors in my head, or on a bunch of spreadsheets and documents."  

The first area Dearden wanted to automate was customer relationship management (CRM).

He selected a popular CRM brand, but experienced sticker shock when he found out that skilled developers typically charge upwards of $25,000 to customize the fields, build integrations with web forms, and set up required workflows.

Dearden started shopping around online and discovered Zoho CRM. "It had 90% of the functionality of the other solution, but at a much lower cost—about $5,000—to develop the workflows that I need. Tagging is also critical—I need to know whether someone is an existing donor, or a potential corporate partner, and schedule the appropriate action item. Tagging leads and tracking conversions allows me to perform the return-on-investment analysis to see what's working and what's not in my outreach campaigns."

A selling point for Dearden for this CRM tool is that it can be purchased as part of a complete package that would give him access to an integrated suite of over 50 productivity, collaboration, and business applications for a flat monthly fee, as well as integrations for many third-party apps, such as GSuite, Office 365, and Zoom.

Dearden is using additional apps from the suite to automate and manage other core functions of his business, including:

  • Accounting: Dearden categorizes all of his transactions in the accounting application, which automatically syncs with his account to easily generate the financial reports he needs.  

  • Email: "The integration with email marketing and the CRM was a bit tricky because of different naming conventions for some of the fields. But they helped me fix this… they've always provided pretty good support." 

  • Project management: Dearden uses the project management functionality to help manage ForestPlanet events.

When working at events, ForestPlanet uses a tablet computer and form tool to capture contact information. When Dearden meets a prospect, he enters their information into his form creator on his tablet, which automatically flows into the CRM to create a record of who, where and when he met that contact. Dearden has also set up an auto responder in CRM to immediately send an email back to the contact to thank them for subscribing.

Looking ahead

ForestPlanet's in-house list has grown to over 5,000 donors and prospects worldwide through creativity, grit, and automation of functions such as workflows, tagging, follow-up notifications, auto responders, and integrations with other tools, as discussed above. 

Dearden intends to do more outreach via social media, and is evaluating solutions for this now. He’s also considering replacing his event management software with Zoho’s event management solution because it is pre-integrated with the CRM tool and will reduce redundant data entry 

As ForestPlanet continually updates its CRM structure, he plans to look for a monthly retainer with a CRM consultant. "I'd like to get more help with this so I can focus more on building the business—being the captain of the ship. While I need to understand how everything works, I don't need to run the engine."

Dearden will have plenty on his plate, as he plans to work with satellite monitoring firms in order to verify tree plantings and the impact on vegetation and water. Satellite measurement data helps prominent sponsors and donors justify their partnership with ForestPlanet, and helps everyone tell more convincing stories of positive environmental impact.

Making automation a priority instead of an afterthought

Many small businesses put off automating core aspects of their companies, adding new solutions on an ad hoc basis. This can interrupt workflows as a company grows and employees must pull information from multiple systems; at this point, the process gaps become glaring.

As ForestPlanet's story illustrates, automating core business functions and workflows from the outset can help a business to prepare for and manage growth.

Dearden notes, "Every organization is now in the information management business, regardless of industry. The ability to manage, track and use information effectively is make or break for any business. Information is power, and execution wins."

About the author

Laurie McCabe

Laurie McCabe brings more than 25 years of experience in the IT industry to her current role as Co-founder and Partner at SMB Group. Laurie is a six-time Small Business Influencer Awards winner; she has been recognized as one of the 50 Most Influential People in small-business marketing by AllBusiness.

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