In the fall of 2008, the global economy was beginning to show signs of distress. While most people were hunkering down, Geoff Chapin left a stable job in San Francisco and boarded a flight to Boston to take a stab at starting his own business. As the plane began to taxi towards the runway, Chapin noticed a man next to him reading the Wall Street Journal. Underneath the banner, in bold letters, were the words “Economy to Entrepreneurs: Turn Back.” “I was literally rumbling down the runway, there was no going back at that point.
For years after graduation, Chapin had searched for a risk worth taking and became increasingly aware of the threats of climate change. He had read scientific reports and seen films like Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. “I became driven by a sense of ‘I can’t believe this problem is happening, and we’re walking towards the destruction of the planet.’ I looked at a pie chart of where carbon emissions come from. Residential was 21% of the problem, and I hadn’t seen anyone address that holistically at scale.”
Landing in Boston, Chapin took his modest life savings and founded Next Step Living, a company designed to help homeowners retrofit their homes and reduce their energy use.
One of Chapin’s first calls was to Brian Greenfield, a longtime friend and former Williams soccer teammate. Since graduation, Greenfield had developed a passion for the day-to-day functions of successful companies. After beginning his career in investment banking, Greenfield took a job with the private equity firm Parthenon Capital. From there, he joined one of the group’s portfolio companies that provided money for student loans. Over the next four and a half years, he grew his business unit from 10 employees to over 100. “That gave me a lot of confidence and told me that I loved operations, building business, and creating enterprises that are sustainable. I wasn’t passionate about the student loan space, but I felt good about what I was building,” says Greenfield, now Next Step’s COO.
For the visionary Chapin, the detail-focused Greenfield was the perfect fit. “I always wanted to get in on the ground floor of a business that was going to make an impact.”
Chapin poured everything into the business, even sleeping in the office to save on rent. By mid-winter 2009, money was running short, and he began looking for investors. In late February, a former Williams teammate of Chapin’s made the first big investment. A few days later, a retired Navy officer pledged his savings to the company.
“That was a monumental step forward,” recalls Greenfield. “We had actually taken the venture from a crazy idea in Geoff’s head to the point where people were putting real money behind it. Geoff was looking for his passion and wanted to solve a meaningful chunk of the climate challenge problem. For me, that was a nice-to-have, but it started with a passion for building businesses of value.” Greenfield wanted to figure out the ins and outs of creating a viable business—the more difficult the setting, the better.
Now, six years later, the company has served more than 80,000 homeowners, grown to over 800 employees, and become a model for green job creation around the country. Next Step Living has become a household name in the green energy field with offices in Boston and New Haven, and plans to expand to Westchester, N.Y. The company’s one of a growing number that have helped push power prices down and added thousands of high-tech jobs to the Northeast economy. “I’ve been out in Iowa and Ohio telling these stories,” says Chapin, “and if that prompts them to adopt similar policies, that’s real success.”
While both Chapin and Greenfield began their careers in more traditional jobs, their stories speak to the value of risk taking and actively searching for a career. “One of the greatest struggles in life is to figure out what your passion is and how you’re going to do something with it,” says Chapin. “The biggest mistake is to go down a path that’s laid out for you and work your way up some ladder where you don’t believe in what you’re doing.”
The value of taking risks was a lesson gained from their Williams days, when two of their teammates — Matt Stauffer ’96 and Matt Godrick ’98 — passed away. “Matt Stauffer gave a great Class Day speech,” says Chapin. “He told us that ‘it’s easy for people to get caught in routines that are tolerable to them but not their ideal situation. What we must never lack is the courage to leave our comfort zones, to take risks and to make ourselves happier.’”
It’s a lesson Chapin and Greenfield learned well.
You can learn more about Next Step Living at: nextstepliving.com.