What made you want to pursue this type of project?
After my business administration studies, I wanted to come up with a business idea that would serve a good cause. So I traveled the world to find inspiration, taught myself a little programming, and read a lot about environmental issues. In South America I learnt a lot about tropical reforestation and how trees can help mitigate climate change. This is how the idea for Ecosia was born and the search engine was launched back in Berlin in 2009.
And how did you come to link ad revenues with tree planting?
This is the main idea behind Ecosia: It’s a really useful tool that empowers users to do good by capitalizing on a daily habit without any additional cost or effort. If by using Ecosia you could search the web AND reforest the planet at the same time, why would you use any other search engine? Search engines make a lot of money from online advertising. At Ecosia we use our profits from that ad revenue to help both the environment and society. So far we’ve been able to donate more than $3 million with which we’ve planted more than 3 million trees. Our goal for the future is to grow our user base and come up with more clever tools that allow everyone to contribute on a daily basis.
You have a really simple but powerful argument for people to choose your search engine, but what is your content strategy for really getting that message out there?
We donated almost all of our total income until late 2014, which never really allowed us to scale or invest in complex new features or have a decent marketing budget. Luckily, our users love the idea behind Ecosia so much that they spread the word. We have a very highly engaged community, which has helped us to continuously grow . However, what really helped us move forward was going from donating 80% of our total income to donating 80% of our profits. This allowed us to invest in additional team members and has afforded us the ability to donate more money . This was a very important business decision and I am glad we made it. Anyone can browse our public business reports and donation receipts for a breakdown of our monthly costs and donations.
When you decided to go from donating income to donating profits, was that simply because profits became big enough to do so or was it more of an observation that it would be more beneficial to use the profits instead?
The decision was made because we decided we wanted to take Ecosia to the next level and really be able to improve our product and grow our user base. For that we had to invest in additional team members and overall development. Since we cover our running costs first and then use our profits to support tree planting, we’ve been able to scale. I really recommend watching Dan Palotta’s TED talk on social business and the problems they face when it comes to investing in their own growth.
You said that you learned about reforestation in South America, but how and which countries do you now choose to support tree planting projects?
Unfortunately there are countless regions around world that are in desperate need of reforestation. We want the trees we plant to help both the environment and local communities. By planting trees you can help mitigate climate change, but you can also create a world that is socially, economically and politically more sustainable. We want to maximize the positive impact of our trees so we try to support regions where people don’t necessarily have the means to engage in reforestation.
What message do you hope people take away from Ecosia?
To us, it’s important to show people that they have a choice and that just because something is installed as a default on their device or in their browser, it doesn’t mean they have to stick with it. Monopolists can exert a lot of power, which we think can be dangerous. Lately more and more people have become aware of the fact that there are alternatives. We want to encourage people to explore and look for tools that offer them additional value. We believe that the future belongs to tools that cater to a user’s needs and at the same time empowers them to do good simply by capitalizing on a daily habit.