For a company that wants to quickly grow its business from 2 million users
to 10 million, there are a few obvious steps to take: consultants, marketing, focus groups. One less obvious
step is the one Recyclebank—the company that offers redeemable rewards
for recycling and other good behavior—took in its quest to grow: hold a competition of young social entrepreneurs to see who could come up with the
Partnering with Purpose, an agency that helps move people to
action, Recylebank used itself as the annual test case for
StartingBloc, a fellowship program that exposes emerging leaders to new methods of achieving social impact. The company
offered the 103 fellows (all between 25 and 30) at this year's Institute for Social Innovation—a five-day incubator for budding "social innovators," as StartingBloc calls them—to formulate business plans
that would quickly scale Recyclebank's user base as it tries to expand
its offerings beyond curbside recycling to a platform to incentivize all
sorts of good behavior.
"We liked the work that StartingBloc was doing. The idea of creating this incubation period to help cultivate future leaders who are social entrepreneurs and want to refine their abilities, and people who both want to make a difference in the world and do it in way that's financially viable. That really resonates with the purpose of Recyclebank," says Ian Yolles, Recyclebank's chief sustainability officer. "And there was the potential, in this open source kind of way, to access a group of smart, diverse, passionate, digitally savvy people who could generate ideas that would find real-world application in our business."
The competition involved groups presenting business plans to a
group of judges, including Yolles, as well as representatives from Purpose
(full disclosure: I also served as a judge). The winning team's entry was the one the judges though most likely to be easily accomplished (the rules said that it needed to be implementable and successful by the end of 2011) and spoke most to the goals and direction of Recyclebank's current business plans.
With an eye on the success of social games like Farmville, the team offered a
vision of a series of challenges—playing off Recyclebank's successful Green Your Home campaign. Green Your Home had users explore a virtual house that gave them tips on how to reduce their own energy use, for which they could earn points. Referring users who took actions also earned points, and people who amassed enough points won prizes. The winning team took this idea and expanded it, proposing to integrate more socially conscious actions into Recyclebank's users lives,
while at the same time using the games as a marketing tool to garner more users.
"One of our big selling points was that we started from the Green Your Home challenge. We took the strengths of that and expanded it to be more of a multiplayer experience," says Jeff Wenzinger, a member of the winning team. "When you're going from 2 million to 10 million users in six months, you need to deploy really quickly. So, it was a strategic advantage because they had already had some results with it, but they could see how it could be expanded into a bigger version."
The proposed games would allow users to share accomplishments and tips, while also taking daily actions that required them to return to the site as often as possible. Users could earn points for referring new users, making evangelists out of their users and increasing the numbers of players. Starting with challenges related to the home (like reducing water use), the plan then called for players to move on to their block, their or their children's school, and finally, all of their shopping, in time for the holiday season.
And for Recyclebank, the results were exciting because this elite focus group had come up with ideas surprisingly in line with what the company is already discussing. Instead of coming out of the competition with a brilliant new idea "there was what I would describe in 'value via affirmation,'" says Yolles. "[The winning] concept is remarkably similar to some concepts we are in the process of executing on. And it may be the case that as we are evolving this work in progress, we may reach out to that group. That would be of tremendous value."
Should the competition have yielded no ideas, though, Yolles would have still been happy demonstrating to these young people that it's possible to create a cause-based business. "If we could contribute to the experience that the fellows had in a way that enriched their learning, we consider that a valuable contribution that we could make to the community."
The more people creating a network of successful businesses based on giving back, the better the business landscape is for Recyclebank, and that may be enough of a winning idea.