How Small Businesses Can Solve Big Problems
Entrepreneur|March 2021
Entrepreneurs are a big-thinking bunch—but how can startups help tackle the world’s largest issues? Planet FWD’s Julia Collins has an answer: Start small.
By Stephanie Schomer

"Software and snacks seems like a crazy combination,” Julia Collins admits.

But in truth, it’s just the beginning of a crazy-big idea.

Collins is the founder and CEO of Planet FWD. Its focus on software and snacks can be seen in two ways—the practical, and the philosophical. The practical is straightforward: Planet FWD sells a line of climate-friendly crackers and is developing software to connect farmers and suppliers with food brands.

Philosophically, “software and snacks” is a strategy for how a tiny startup can scale up to massive change. Collins has built big ideas before—she helped grow a big, buzzy startup that raised $375 million in capital and achieved a valuation of more than $1 billion. It was supposed to revolutionize the food industry. Instead, after Collins’ departure, it burned through that capital and burned out on its original goals, too. It’s a lesson that even with the best intentions and a powerful network of support, creating change is very hard—and it must be approached with delicate precision.

Now she’s building that lesson into Planet FWD, the actual goal of which is to revolutionize agriculture and food production to help stop climate change. But with a goal that big, where do you even begin? It’s too much. So Collins approaches problems with patience— she baby-steps her way up the mountain.

“One thing that makes it easy for me to digest huge issues,” she says, “is to start with something tangible that I can build around.”

And so, she started out with what’s reasonable: software that helps create more ecofriendly foods, and a snack to prove that it’s possible. Software and snacks.

Now, as Collins sets out to build this company in a methodical way, Planet FWD serves as a test case for big-thinking entrepreneurs. Is slow and steady the right way forward?

“The first thing for us is imagining one climate- friendly snack,” Collins says. “From there we can multiply—and multiply impact.”

Planet FWD began with a problem: Globally, nearly 30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions come from food production. At the current rate of soil degradation, caused by reliance on fertilizers, scientists suggest that we could actually run out of topsoil in the next 60 years.

Collins became interested in a potential solution called regenerative agriculture, a practice that’s gaining increasing attention from scientists and activists. In simplest terms, it describes a farming system that prioritizes soil health and water management, and can actually sequester carbon. But of the 930 million acres of farmland in America, just about 5 percent is managed this way.

As Collins dug into why that might be, she learned that communication played a big role. Murky, varying definitions of regenerative agriculture had left growers without any finite guidelines or metrics to track.

“It wasn’t only hard to understand what was already available from suppliers, but what might be available,” she says. “The information just wasn’t there.”

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