Apr 21, 2023

Founder Spotlight: Sanchali Pal of Commons

Commons founder Sanchali Pal wants you to green up your act. Her app, formerly known as Joro, helps users see the environmental impact of every dollar they spend and offers practical guidance to lower carbon footprints based on their lifestyles.

An approach to sustainability rooted in necessity

Pal grew up outside Boston, a child of immigrants. Trips to visit extended family in India — as well as a period during which she lived there and volunteered in a slum — ingrained in her the importance of living and using resources mindfully.

“My quality of life in the U.S. was so much better than the quality of life that I saw for people like me in the places that I would have grown up if my family hadn't moved,” Pal said. “And I think seeing that firsthand — literally, water and energy were just not available for folks —  made me realize even more how lucky I was.”

While managing a dining hall at Princeton University, where she was studying economics, Pal had a revelation. After seeing the documentary Food, Inc., she was struck by how personal choices could drive environmental and social impact.

“I was interested in economics intellectually and was studying the economies of developing countries,” Pal said. “But then I was also making these choices as an individual — like, how much meat am I going to eat? — and I started realizing those personal choices were connected to the collective economic systems that I wanted to change.”

Intent on finding if there was a throughline between personal choices and economic systems, Pal began tracking her own carbon outputs in an Excel spreadsheet. Through her tracking project, she found that some choices are significantly more consequential than others.

For example, prior to starting this project she had been eating, on average, 12 meals containing meat each week.

“If I cut my meat consumption from 12 meals a week to one or two meals a week, I was having a carbon impact like taking half a car off the road in a year,” Pal said.

By diving into her own data, Pal was able to organize personal emissions into five categories: home energy, food & drink, travel, goods & services, and finances. Dividing her emissions in this way allowed her to approach carbon cutting in much the same way one might approach budgeting — reducing activity in one area means you can still live large in others.

The Commons concept

The idea of incorporating an intuition for carbon into financial decisions is the bedrock on which Commons is based. Notably, the app doesn’t offer everyone the same unrealistic edicts. In other words, it won’t tell everybody to adopt a vegan diet, install solar panels, and trade in their cars for e-bikes.

“It’s the intersection of what's highest impact and what people are willing to do,” Pal said.

By combining third-party data sets with individual user data, Commons can provide an accurate picture of a person’s actual carbon footprint for a single day, week, or month. Adding oomph to the app’s eco analysis is the option to sync one’sspending data to their activity tracking. This means you can actually compare the emissions of your tank of gas to that midweek Instacart delivery, and identify measurable areas for impact.

“In terms of what that allows us to do for recommendations, I think we're just at the tip of the iceberg,” Pal said. “We're starting to give people truly personalized recommendations with content and actions that are specifically relevant for them.”

For example, someone shopping for new clothes at H&M or Zara might receive a notification encouraging them to shop secondhand at an online consignment like ThredUP or The Real Real.

Smarter carbon offsets

A carbon offset is generated when someone pays for emissions to be avoided or absorbed somewhere else in the world to compensate for their own emissions.

But offsets can be difficult to guarantee.

“You might pay for a tree to be planted, and estimate that over 60 years, it's going to absorb one ton of carbon. But in reality, maybe a couple of years from now, there could be a forest fire and then that carbon wasn't actually avoided in the way you thought it was going to be,” Pal said.

There also are risks associated with the carbon offset market itself. The company selling the offsets might not be acting in good faith and sell the same certificate to two different buyers, meaning the credit is double counted.

To ensure carbon credits purchased through the app truly offset their intended tonnage, Commons uses 17% of subscription fees to monitor and report on offset projects every few months.

“We’re in touch with project developers every quarter to get updates on the impact of those projects,” Pal said. “If a project doesn’t continue to meet our criteria, we’ll swap it out in our portfolio for a higher-impact project.”

Learning from fundraising hardship

Pal’s first attempt at fundraising fell flat. Although she’d interviewed people within her target market to develop her idea for a personal emissions management tool, an idea was all she had.

“Before I could raise money, especially as a first-time founder, it was important to prove that I could actually build a prototype, get real people to use it, and learn from them,” Pal said.

She also learned that the right investors for her concept weren’t the most obvious ones.

“I initially picked investors who were clean tech-focused or impact investors, but I found that most of those investors had never invested in a business model like mine,” Pal said. “I wanted to build a mobile app, direct-to-consumer, and that was a pretty different risk and business model than most of those investors had seen, so they didn't know how to evaluate it.”

So she went back to the drawing board. While recalibrating her approach to pitching, she quietly raised a little bit of money through grants and worked with some friends to build a prototype, which she then offered to 30 beta users via TestFlight. She then used that feedback to further iterate the prototype.

“I refined my pitch and my conviction in the consumer business model, and then I found consumer-focused investors to get feedback from instead of just asking for money right away,” Pal said.

From there she was able to raise a $1 million pre-seed, with participation from Sequoia, which she used to hire her first full-time employees.

“That was really when I felt like I was able to start on the company in earnest,” Pal said.

The app launched publicly in April 2020. That same year, Pal raised $2.5 million in seed funding, this time with Sequoia leading and Expa participating. That funding helped the company triple its number of monthly active users, eventually hitting a 25% average compound monthly growth rate.

Then in 2022, Commons raised a $10 million Series A led by Sequoia Capital and Amasia with participation from Expa, Nest co-founder Matt Rogers’ Incite, Jay-Z’s Arrive, Norrsken, and Incubus lead guitarist Mike Einziger.

Flying — or, you know, riding the bus — solo

Pal didn’t set out to be a solo founder, but three years after launch she remains the sole decision maker. That’s a challenge, she said, because she’s certainly not an expert on every aspect of running a tech company.

Still, making strong hires early on has meant there are people in place to fulfill that role when the need arises. CTO Nick Reavill, for example, brings 20 years of experience to the table. Notably, Reavill served as engineering director at Stitch Fix and played a big part in seeing the company through to IPO.

And there are some definite pros to being a solo act. Not having a cofounder means she’s able to make decisions faster and with more conviction.

“That’s helped us move more quickly as a company,” Pal said.

Learn more about Commons here, and how you can use your spending choices to help build a more sustainable world.

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