Ron Gonen ’04 will change the way you think about recycling. He’s been honing his strategy ever since the day he convinced his high school of the economic benefits of purchasing reusable metal silverware instead of plastic.
With RecycleBank, the company he started while still a student at CBS, Gonen has found a way to reward people based on how much they recycle — and has dramatically increased recycling rates in the process.
Today, he shares with Public Offering the three things to keep in mind when building a successful company where environmental and social responsibility aren’t just peripheral concerns, but rather central to the business plan.
Get tough love
When you’re an entrepreneur in the midst of traditional businesspeople, everyone wants to pat you on the back and encourage you. But when you get into something like the Entrepreneurial Greenhouse Program and you’re in the company of other entrepreneurs, you get a much higher degree of constructive criticism, which is critical to the success of any new venture.
You have to believe in yourself when starting a business like this. Before you pitch the idea to anyone else, you first thing have to sell it to yourself, and keep convincing yourself of its potential every day. But you also have to be humble enough to acknowledge areas for improvement.
Once I had committed myself to launching RecycleBank, I needed people who were going to tell me at key junctures: “That’s not going to work.”
Articulate the benefits
People want to do good things, but it helps when they’re given an incentive.
In the RecycleBank program, we make the incentives explicit, by rewarding people with points based on how much they recycle. These points can then be redeemed through our corporate partners — vendors as diverse as Apple, Chipotle and Zales.
I’ve tried to communicate to a variety of constituents that in all the actions that we take, if we think about the environment, we can also think about the ways to cut costs. I don’t want people to think about helping the environment as just the right thing to do — which it is — I also want them to see that it’s an effective way to generate positive financial return.
Make it scalable
In 2004, I was operating this business out of my apartment on the Upper West Side, and now, in 2008, we’re already providing service in 10 states.
In the beginning, growth was largely supported by millions of dollars in private equity investments, but at this point, I hope that we’ve done our last round of fundraising.
Since RecycleBank’s revenue comes from our ability to divert trash from landfills, this program is naturally sustainable.
I believe we can continue to grow with the support of our Reward Partners, leaders in local government and our team. We’ve been incredibly successful, reaching 90 percent of households in the areas we’re operating within and increasing recycling rates by more than 100 percent.
And I’m confident that we’ll soon be able to reach the entire country, as we keep making it easier for more people to see the immediate rewards of their recycling efforts.
Photo Credit: RecycleBank