If you love the environment and you love (can’t live without) searching things online, then you might be intrigued by Ecosia.
Founded in 2009 by Christian Kroll, Ecosia is a search engine that donates 80 percent of its ad revenue to tree planting. Basically, the more you search the web and shop online with Ecosia, the more you contribute to helping the environment.
While reluctantly studying business administration in university, Kroll had an inkling that he didn’t want to pursue the typical career path that was expected of him. Not knowing what to do with his life, he ended up traveling to places like Nepal and Latin America where his impulse to solve societal problems slowly manifested into a concrete idea, which later developed into Ecosia.
Transparency is a core value at Ecosia and it comes through when talking to Kroll, who candidly and humbly talks about his trials and tribulations building up Ecosia as a social business. For him, a social business is one where the goal is to maximize the impact of a good cause—i.e. tree planting—rather than maximizing profits. It can also be thought of as a hybrid between a non-profit and full-profit organization because while it’s financially self-sustainable and driven to be as efficient as possible, the aim is to address a particular social issue.
We recently caught up with Kroll at Ecosia’s Berlin headquarters to learn more about how Ecosia works, what it’s like to attain B Corporation status and Kroll’s most important lessons learned from building up a social business.
Ecosia has helped to plant more than 4.5 million trees so far, most of them in Burkina Faso. How do you select which tree-planting programs to get involved with?
Early on when I started Ecosia, it was just me alone working with freelancers and I basically did everything – programming, marketing, design, etc. Because of this, I didn’t get to give much thought into which project to contribute to. Back then, we donated to a World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) program that supported a rainforest project in the Amazon. WWF is a great organization, but it’s a very, very big one and the money Ecosia donated was only one drop in a very big bucket. Because of this, it was difficult to see the impact we generated and to measure our social return on investment. It took us a few years as a company, to evaluate how effective certain projects were compared to others as well as what it really means to plant trees. Eventually, we discovered that we needed a smaller and more agile partner that would bring us closer to the actual tree planting.
Where did the idea of starting a green search engine originally come from?
When I was living in Nepal for almost half a year, I noticed some social issues that I found interesting and was motivated to solve them. Then this search engine idea came to me and I realized I could generate some money to devote to these problems. In the end, that project didn’t work out but I still liked the idea of doing something with a search engine. Around that time, I read a book by journalist Thomas Friedman called Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution—And How It Can Renew America that discussed globalization and its impact on the planet and humans. In the book, he mentions that deforestation makes up 20 percent of all CO2 emissions. I was shocked – 20 percent is a lot. So I continued reading up on trees and became fascinated by the many benefits of trees, which are not only good for the environment but also to people’s wellbeing. That’s when I decided I wanted to build a search engine dedicated to helping plant more trees.
How would you compare Ecosia’s current search experience with Google's?
It’s gotten much better in the past couple of years. Actually, our main challenges are to convince people to switch from Google to Ecosia and then to get them to stay with us. To do that, our search results have to be more or less on par with Google. Fortunately, our main partner Bing is putting a lot of resources into this and our experience is becoming better. Ultimately, Google is always a bit better, so if you really want the very best search experience, perhaps Ecosia isn’t the right thing for you. As a technical user myself, I’d say 95 percent of my searches are fine with Ecosia. For me though, Ecosia isn’t only about usability, it’s more about making a statement – against monopoly and towards creating a world that isn’t just about making money, but rather something sustainable. Every once in a while, I might not find what I need right away, but the pain for me isn’t that bad, especially when I see my tree count going up. To date, I’ve contributed to about 5000 planted trees, which is really motivating.
In terms of traffic, can you share some numbers with us?
We have around 3 million monthly active users at the moment and about 13 million searches a month.
Looking back on your entrepreneurial journey so far, what would you say are the most important lessons learned from building up a ‘social business’?
I pretty much started Ecosia alone, which wasn’t a good idea. An important part in the development of the company was when Tim Schumacher, who was the CEO of Sedo.com and now involved in Adblock Plus, joined. A business partner we both knew introduced me to him and that’s how we met. Because he founded and exited a company already, he went through the whole life cycle and brought a lot of know-how to the company.
Before Tim, I rejected a lot of investors who wanted to get involved in Ecosia because oftentimes their values didn’t align with mine. I didn’t want to have somebody in the company who’d push for profit maximization because that’s not what I wanted to dedicate my energy to. I mean, making a profit isn’t a bad thing, but it shouldn’t be exit-driven. Ecosia is about planting trees, not making money. Fortunately, Tim doesn’t expect return in that way. Even though he’s a VC and investor, he’s very green-minded and for him it’s about using his skills to do something good. It’s been helpful to get his perspective on what to tackle in the company and to have a sparring partner.
So in terms of lessons, I’d say not starting a social business alone, getting good mentors in the beginning and then also thinking about the business model – if you don’t have that down pat yet. I was lucky with the business model and Ecosia was pretty much cash-flow positive from day one because I didn’t pay myself a salary and I was the only one. We didn’t have the pressure you’d normally have from a traditional VC. For me, this kind of freedom has been really good. It allowed us to build up a different kind of company.
Ecosia is Germany’s first certified B Corporation, a status issued to for-profit companies that meet certain social and environmental standards. Why was it important for you to obtain this status?
Even though being a B Corporation is bigger in the US than it is here, we wanted to give this global label and whole social business movement a big push. We wanted to take a bit of a leadership role here in Germany even though it’s not very established yet.
How do you envision Ecosia in the next couple of years?
Our goal is to plant one billion trees by the year 2020. Currently, we’re at around 4.5 million, which means we need to speed up a lot. We want to acquire a lot more users because that will allow us to donate more money to planting trees. I think we’re still in a transitioning phase between a niche product in the German market to becoming an international phenomenon. To achieve our goal, we’d probably need 2 percent of the global search market, which doesn’t sound like much but is actually quite challenging. That’s our main goal right now.