“If you see a problem, try and solve it”: Interview with Ecosia’s CEO, Christian

If you use a search engine, then you’ve probably heard of Ecosia. A truly social enterprise, this ‘search engine for good’ plants trees all over the world with its ad revenue (by December 2019 they had planted more than 80 million trees!).

A 100% bootstrapped startup, Ecosia’s mission on track to plant over 100 million trees in early 2020 – restoring landscapes, nourishing communities, protecting wildlife and neutralizing CO2.

We had a moment to speak with founder Christian Kroll on how he started Ecosia, the strategy behind a real ‘social enterprise’ (none of those soft marketing tricks!), managing competition from giants like Google, self-funding, their new podcast and advice for fellow social entrepreneurs.

Could you tell us the story of Ecosia and where you got the idea to plant trees specifically?

The idea for Ecosia really started when I went travelling after finishing my university studies. I was interested in social business models and first travelled to Nepal, where I tried starting a search engine that would finance development projects. It didn’t take off, as conditions made it tricky, the internet was slow and not many people were using it then. After that I went to South America, which is where I became acutely aware of environmental problems, especially deforestation. I found out that 20 percent of CO2 emissions can be tracked to deforestation and that number really stuck with me. And I learnt what an important role trees play, reducing carbon in the air, combating hunger, poverty and extreme weather systems, and restoring biodiversity.

I moved to Berlin and started Ecosia in 2009, with my sister and a couple of friends. We had no office space and only one developer. Before we even started planting, we decided to put our profits towards ecological conservation projects and tree-planting felt like a natural option.

Actually… how does the tree planting work? Where do you plant them, who plants them and what happens next?

We plant all over the world. Currently we have 31 projects across 20 countries. Our CTPO (Chief Tree Planting Officer) Pieter Van Midwoud and his team choose projects carefully, based on thorough guidelines. Ecosia’s reforestation projects should bring the best possible value to humans and nature.

We work with local partners for the whole process, from planning, to planting, to monitoring the trees carefully using geo-tagging, polygons and satellite imagery to see the positive impact of trees over time. We prioritize biodiversity hotspots and we have a broad tree-planting portfolio, from planting mangroves in Madagascar, to forest corridors for chimpanzees with Jane Goodall in Uganda, to planting alternatives to palm oil monocultures in Indonesia. To increase the chance of our trees’ survival, we focus on planting varied and local tree species.

Could you explain the business model of Ecosia?

Ecosia’s main business is our search engine, so like any other search engine the base is the revenue we receive from ads. But Ecosia’s goal and main business model is not focused on profit, instead, it’s focused on planting more trees. That’s why last year I gave up my shares in Ecosia and we turned it into a steward-owned company, meaning it can never be sold or have profits taken out of it. We do have an online store, where for every t-shirt sold we plant 20 trees.

With big competitors like Google, how do you ensure that Ecosia’s search results are high quality?

The majority of Ecosia’s search results come from Microsoft, which has the next-largest search algorithm after Google. It’s true that sometimes Ecosia results might not feel so relevant, which is because we don’t compromise your privacy in order to personalize your search experience. You’ll receive neutral results based on your search, not based on what the search engine thinks you want to see. Plus, on top of that we’re adding features like green search, where we show a green leaf icon alongside search results for planet-friendly organizations and a coal plant icon alongside companies that promote coal mining. We want to provide information that can empower people to make greener choices.

Given that there are so many ways to ‘do good’, how do you choose your ‘projects’?

Ecosia’s main mission is simple: to plant trees in places where they are needed most. By ensuring we choose our projects carefully and in a way that supports that mission, we can trust that we are doing the best we can.

We want our projects to bring value to people, and for our trees to stay in the ground long term. We work with local communities from the outset in setting up nurseries, undertaking tree planting and caring for the trees. Our tree-planting team collaborates with them to determine which species will bring products and services once standing. In the long term, this provides additional revenue and income. Women are central to many of our projects too. By planting trees they can build financial independence, find employment and provide for their families. It builds stronger communities. 

For you, what are the main challenges of running an “impact-driven” business?

It is definitely a challenge being impact-driven in a system that still rewards businesses that are focused on profit, at the expense of planet and people. On the flip-side, when you aren’t taking large amounts of funding, you have to build your business sustainably to ensure steady, healthy growth.

How do you manage the balance between driving revenue and doing good?

These two things shouldn’t have to be mutually exclusive and Ecosia is proof of that. We are a profitable company and we choose to use our profit to plant trees. By growing the business sustainably, staying true to our principles and taking good care of our team and community, we have managed to find the balance as a social business.

Have you raised any funding, and do you intend to raise in the future?

We have never done any major fundraising rounds. Myself and one other entrepreneur contributed small amounts to help get Ecosia off the ground and in October 2018 we decided to give up our shares and to turn Ecosia into a steward-owned company. This ensures Ecosia cannot be sold to a third party and we cannot take profits out of it.

Tell us about your decision to financially transparent and publish monthly reports on your spending.

Transparency is incredibly important to Ecosia and we’ve been publishing our financial reports since 2014. They show how much we spend on everything from salaries to operational costs, and detail which tree-planting projects we’ve funded that month. These reports allow us to be accountable and open with our users and are the most-viewed pieces of content.

You recently started a podcast! What was behind this decision and what impact have you seen it make so far?

The idea for the podcast actually came out of a team hack day. The stories behind our projects are so fascinating and we realized the podcast could help us give a voice to others to tell those stories. It also helps to personalize who we are, the people we work with, and the reasons we are doing what we do.

Finally, what advice would you give to any social or environmental entrepreneurs out there?

Decide your purpose and don’t let it be compromised by the quest for profit. We really need people to just take the lead, especially in the social and environmental space. If you see a problem, try and solve it. That mindset is more important now than ever.