Purposeful Q+A: Jason Ballard of TreeHouse

When tackling the world’s ecological and human health issues, Jason Ballard says “All the roads lead back to buildings and especially back to homes.”  

Jason founded his company TreeHouse to solve those problems: "We believe that it's urgent that homes become healthy and sustainable as fast as possible.” The Austin, Texas, company is “built upon the idea that all homes should be sustainable, beautiful, and healthy. We bring progressive products, great design, human-centered services, and leading edge technology under one roof.

What I mean by that is homes, by sector, are the largest user of energy. They are the second largest user of water behind agriculture. They are the largest user of renewable and non-renewable resources. Construction and maintenance of the buildings are the largest producers of waste. In America most of the toxins you’ll be exposed to in your own lifetime happens in your own home. I can keep going on, but I think you get the idea. It’s not like this is a problem here and there. It is existentially urgent that we find a way to shelter ourselves without ruining the world around us and ourselves.
Bald cyprus trees at Big Thicket National Preserve.

Bald cyprus trees at Big Thicket National Preserve.

Jason had what he calls a “Huckleberry Finn childhood” in the biodiverse Big Thicket of southeast Texas. “I would go out in canoes. I went hunting and fishing and walking around in the woods. I played outside a lot, and I fell deeply in love with the miracle that is life.

But the other thing I grew up near, and probably what Southeast Texas is most known for, is the highest concentration of tetra chemical refineries in America in an area that, not affectionately, I refer to as Mordor.

“So I grew up with this real dissonance in front of me: this profound sublime natural beauty but, right next to it, the most profound desecration of that beauty you can imagine.

At the time, Jason was young. He didn’t know about biodiversity or carbon. But he did sense something was wrong. So, he studied conservation biology in college, and at the same time, he pursued a path to be a priest. At just about the same time he was accepted into seminary, TreeHouse secured funding. Unsure which path to take, Jason met with his bishop to ask for his advice. He said: “Don't think about [TreeHouse] as something separate from your calling but try to live into that work as if this is what you were supposed to do, as if this is your best way to love and serve the world.”

So, Jason became the purposeful leader and CEO of TreeHouse. Though he was building a company, he modeled it on his morals, on “what animates my care for the world,” he says. Taking that approach can be risky in the for-profit space. But Jason believes that’s how business must be done — in a fearless way that reflects his purpose, both for his employees and his customers.

The underlying insight wasn’t like, ‘Hey, you can make a lot of money building sustainable, healthy homes.’ The underlying conviction is like, ‘We have to find a way to make homes healthy and sustainable.’ That gives you a certain kind of courage, I guess. A certain kind of helpful stubbornness.

A great example of that is from when we first opened and nobody would buy solar from us. In another business, perhaps you would have said, ‘Oh, all right. Well, that’s just not a category for us. We’re going to abandon it.’ Like Home Depot or Lowe’s or something. But for us it was like, ‘No. We have to get solar panels on homes.’ We went back to the drawing board, despite the data, and found a way. Now solar is our number one category in the business. It’s a baseline conviction about the way things should be, which makes us hang in there even when the data says, ‘You should move along.’

While he has a deep commitment to sustainability, Jason recognizes it isn’t yet mainstream. TreeHouse has found success because it appeals to a convergence of trends and interests.

When we first opened the doors, I was younger and more naïve than I am now. We thought, ‘Man, this is just so profoundly the right thing to do that people will obviously get it and they’ll just beat a path to our door.’ In fact, that’s not what happened. The early days were rough. We learned that most people don’t wake up thinking about how to make their homes healthier and sustainable.

They do, however, think about their homes a lot. If you watch the Pinterest phenomenon, if you watch the phenomenon of all these home improvement shows, it’s very obvious that people care a ton about their homes. That makes a lot of sense, right? It’s your most valuable investment. It’s where you make your lives. So we really quickly realized that we had to align the problems TreeHouse cares about with the problems that homeowners care about.
TreeHouse kitchen remodel.

TreeHouse kitchen remodel.

That gets back to the first principles; what is a home for? Why did the first Neanderthals move into a cave? It wasn’t to be more sustainable. The most sustainable thing you could do was to keep sleeping on the ground. You have a home for comfort and safety, primarily. And then over time, the home has become your arena of high self-expression. We realized that to make health and sustainability desirable, we had to cook them up to comfort, safety, and self-expression. Healthy sustainable homes had to be the safest, most comfortable, most beautiful homes at the same time.

Between his business and raising a family, Jason renews his sense of purpose by setting aside time for silence and prayer.

The other thing I do is I try to and I also encourage all my employees to regularly reconnect themselves with nature. I go running and fish. I try to get outside as often as possible. I often joke with my wife — I’m a huge Lord of the Rings fan, and I don’t know if you know the story, but Frodo has to leave the Shire to save the Shire. He never gets to go back permanently. So, in order to save the wild and natural world, I’ve had to move to the city and work in an office most of the day. But it is important for me that I get back to the Shire from time to time to remind myself of those places and their beauty.

“And I encourage my employees to do the same thing because we work in a retail store. I mean, it’s easy to forget the trees and the water and the birds and the bees and what they mean for us. I encourage people and I regularly get back in touch with those things.
A walk through Big Thicket.

A walk through Big Thicket.

Jason has one last piece of advice for the budding purpose-drive social entrepreneur.

Whatever you do, you have to be great at it. Your purpose is not enough. Or a better way to say it is your purpose doesn’t excuse bad work. What I have noticed around a lot of other social entrepreneurs is there’s this sense that the purpose can carry all of the water. But in the rough and tumble world of business, you still have to do great work. I’ve seen so many people with good ideas, but it’s like, ‘You’re coffee is actually really bad. I appreciate that it’s shade grown but it’s bad coffee.’ Same thing with electric car. It’s great that it’s electric, but it only goes 85 miles. A purpose doesn’t excuse bad work.