Interview with Ecosia founder and CEO Christian Kroll

Berlin-based search engine startup Ecosia has been described as the ‘world’s greenest search engine‘ by donating more than 80% of its profits from ad revenue to planting trees. In this exclusive interview, Tharawat speaks to Ecosia founder and CEO Christian Kroll about running an eco-friendly company and how you can make a difference in the fight against global warming with a single click.

How did you decide to start Ecosia?

After my studies in business administration at Nuremberg, I was sure about two things: I wanted to discover the world and I wanted to do something with a positive social impact. As I traveled to India and then Nepal, I founded “Xabbel”, a local search engine that would help generate funds for regional NGO projects. I quickly realized however, that although office rent and employees were very affordable, you couldn’t run a search engine with only a few hours of electricity a day.

I continued my travels and ended up living in Argentina for awhile. There, I learned extensively about reforestation projects in the Atlantic Rainforest and also read Thomas L. Friedman’s book Hot, Flat and Crowded about the need to reduce CO2 emissions to save the planet. It was then when I realized that I wanted to engage in forest preservation to help the environment. I came up with the idea of a search engine that finances tree planting and restoration projects, and by late 2009, the idea for Ecosia.org (back then called “Forestle”) was born and the product launched in December of that year.

Ecosia founder and CEO Christian Kroll
Ecosia founder and CEO Christian Kroll

How does Ecosia work?

Ecosia basically is a search engine that plants trees. Just like any other search engine, we show ads together with the search results, both of which are provided by our partners at Bing. We get paid for clicks on these ads and then donate at least 80% of our monthly profits from ad revenue to our tree-planting project.

So far we have been able to donate more than $4.5 million to the environment with which we already planted more than 6 million trees. We are currently financing a reforestation program in Burkina Faso and are very happy about the project’s sustainability and its positive impact on local communities, economy, and the environment. Our great goal is to plant 1 billion trees until the year 2020.

The Ecosia Search EngineSearch engines make money through paid advertising and links. Can you tell us about how Ecosia generates revenue?

EcoAds are the search ads next to regular search results. Most users are probably already familiar with such ads from other search engines. When a user clicks on one of these ads, we are paid for having delivered the user to the advertiser’s site. Lucrative search terms like “credit” are more expensive and may earn us up to a few dollars per click, which already plants several trees in Burkina Faso, where planting one new tree costs 28 cents.

EcoLinks enable our users to search and shop for things like “sneakers”, “flight to Berlin”, “chocolate” or “washing machine”. Clicking on one of the EcoLinks next to the regular search results will take them to the desired items on one of our e-commerce partners. We cooperate with more than 200 shops like eBay, Amazon, TripAdvisor and Macy’s. Every time a user purchases something at one of these shops through our link, we are paid a commission. Just like our profits from ad revenue, we use 80% of this commission to plant trees.

Ecosia's Business ModelWhat does it mean to be a social business, and why are you so passionate about environmental issues?

Being a social business means being between a non-profit and a full-profit business. We are very interested in scaling our product and making it as high performing and profitable as possible, but in order to support a good cause. In our case, this good cause is tree planting.

Apart from fighting climate change, we realized that planting trees solve much more than just environmental issues. By planting forests, you can change the world, tree by tree. Deserts can be turned back into fertile woods, which feed local communities, improve their health, and create jobs, which in turn strengthens the economy and may even stabilize political situations.

In the case of Burkina Faso, thanks our successful tree planting efforts, children can go back to school, women have an independent income of their own, and local farmers don’t have to leave the area to make a living.

Seeds for the next sowing season Credit: WeForestThere are a number of search engines (even green search engines) that Ecosia competes with. What is unique about Ecosia?

We appreciate any kind of effort to combine technology and the greater good. If other search providers enable their users to do good with their searches, we celebrate that as one more business having joined the movement.

Unfortunately, in spite of more than 100,000 registered organizations, the impact of donations are often very small. This is why we decided to support one project at a time because it enables us to offer the most transparency, while we thoroughly assess who and what we are supporting. Most of all, our impact speaks for itself – $50,000 to $80,000 dollars donated to tree planting every month really moves the needle.

We are also very proud to be the first ever German BCorp. The BCorp is like a “fair trade” or “organic” certificate awarded to businesses that prove to be transparent, sustainable, and respectful with the world as well as their employees. As the U.S.-based BCorp becomes increasingly famous in Europe, we feel like having our company validated by such an initiative sets us apart from our competitors.

Soil being prepared on Ecosia's planting site Credit: WeForest
Ecosia is a relatively young company, but what has it achieved so far and how do you plan to grow?

Almost everything we have achieved so far, we have achieved by word of mouth. While we are very proud of what we have been able to do with the help of our 2.5 million monthly users, we would like to concentrate on actively spreading the word in the future.

Most of our current users are in Germany, Austria, France and Italy, and by continuously improving our product and reaching out to international media, we hope to gain popularity in the United States. What we have learned so far is that most people are very happy to hear about Ecosia – it’s just a question of how to reach more of them.

Ecosia office warming party Credit: Bernd BrundertYou founded Ecosia in Germany. What is the startup and entrepreneurship environment there like?

The entrepreneurial scene very vibrant in Germany, especially in Berlin. Highly intelligent and sustainability-minded people from all over the world meet here in Berlin, where rents and living costs are still quite affordable. The city’s artsy flair and unique history attracts creatives and investors alike. People are very open to new ideas, especially if there is an environmental impact.

With so much going on in the LOHAS (Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability) and startup scene, you really need to stand out and not only convince people of your unique idea, but most importantly prove that you are for real. Luckily, our German users have been very supportive so far. We appreciate that many of them carefully examine our public monthly business reports and donation receipts and informing us if they find mistakes.

Berlin’s huge alternative scene also seems to inspire a few more social startups than elsewhere, where profit may be the only driver.

Ecosia founder and CEO Christian Kroll Credit: TybaWhat do you think needs to happen to increase startup and entrepreneurial activity in Germany and elsewhere?

Many Germans still seem to value security over adventure and uncertainty. It would be great if society could be a bit more open to trying new things. Also, failure is still seen as a negative thing and so many people don’t dare start something new because they fear being laughed at should they fail.

Personally, I think that our educational systems should encourage young people to work on their own ideas instead of following some predefined path. At university, I wasted endless hours memorizing things by heart instead of solving meaningful problems. I think if people have the right mindset about entrepreneurship, everything else will probably work out as long as the government does not get in the way too much.

Ecosia's office in Kreuzberg, BerlinDo you have any advice for other entrepreneurs and business leaders who are looking to grow in this increasingly competitive economy?

My first advice for people who want to get started: Find some great mentors who have already achieved something you admire. If they like your idea and what you represent, they will be willing to share their invaluable experiences with you. After all, you don’t know what you don’t know. Mentors can make the journey much easier.

At Ecosia, we strongly believe in transparency. You can’t expect users to trust you if you don’t provide them with any insight on your business model, income, or project details, especially if you are motivated by a greater good. This is why we publish all our monthly business reports and donation receipts. So our advice to fellow social entrepreneurs would probably be: Allow your users to understand that you are for real by showing them exactly what it is that you are doing and how you are doing it.

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