When many of us have a question, want to find something nearby, or are looking for information, we think, “I’m going to Google that.” Google is the world’s predominant search engine, commanding more than 90% of market share. The company’s name is synonymous with looking something up on the internet. But, like many large tech companies, Google often faces criticisms for its handling of user privacy, its algorithms that determine how information is disseminated, and its employee relations.
There are, of course, other search engines people can use, including Ecosia. Ecosia is the largest search engine based in Europe, yet it still only has about 1% of market share. The company is trying to attract users with a unique proposition: Every search on Ecosia helps reforestation efforts around the world.
“Technology can play a role in the solution to climate change, of course. Obviously I’m a fan of technology, but I don’t think technology is more than 50% of the solution actually,” says Christian Kroll, founder and CEO of Ecosia. “The other 50% is nature, and the power of nature is currently heavily underestimated. When it comes to forests and agriculture absorbing CO2 emissions from the atmosphere, there’s a huge potential, and we want to help scale that potential and give it visibility.”
Kroll says his love of technology and his realization about the harms of climate change gave him the idea to launch Ecosia in 2009. Since then, the company has planted more than 130 million trees; launched Ecosia Travel, a hotel search engine that plants trees based on a user’s booking value; and has gone carbon negative, removing carbon from the atmosphere by running its servers on more than 200% renewable energy. The company is also a Certified B Corporation.
As part of my research of purpose-driven businesses, I spoke with Kroll to learn about Ecosia and how the company executes its tree planting strategy.
Christopher Marquis: What is it like to take on search engine giants like Google?
Christian Kroll: It’s a little bit like David against Goliath — and it’s a very big Goliath, and we are a very small David. What we have is a competitive advantage that Google can never copy, and that is basically how we are structured as a business. Google is a profit-maximizing company. It has to pay dividends to shareholders, if not shareholders will get very angry. We have a different kind of structure where basically the company can never be sold and profits can never leave the company. That sets us up in a very different way and that allows us to create that competitive advantage where we’re giving basically all the profits that we’re generating to tree planting. That combined with a lot of authenticity and transparency makes us a lot more interesting to a lot of people who care about climate change and other social justice topics.
Things can be done better. Because we’re not a profit-maximizing company, our business objectives are totally different. We’re running a search engine because we want to solve climate change. Sometimes I say we’re making money because we want to plant trees; whereas, other businesses plant trees because they want to make money or to greenwash because, in the end, the bottom line is they want to make their shareholders happy.
For us, it’s completely the opposite, and that allows us to do things that are very, very different. That allows us to attract different types of users and different types of employees in this very, very competitive market. We have really, really great people here at the company, and that allows us to gradually gain market share. And even being Europe’s biggest search engine, which sounds very fancy, we actually only have around 1% market share. Google has more than 90% in most ranking markets. But we’re growing exponentially, so who knows how far this model can take us.
Marquis: Where did you get the idea to start a search engine that helps plant trees?
Kroll: I didn’t really know what I was getting into. I just had the courage to basically do it. I studied business administration, and already during my university years, I thought that I wanted to do something that has more of a purpose than just having a normal career and making money. But I didn’t really know what. So after I finished university, I decided to take a lot of time off and make a trip around the world. Initially, I think I wanted to do it for half a year, but it stretched to one and a half years. I spent a lot of time living in Nepal and in South America, most of the time in Argentina.
During that time, I really observed how much we’re destroying our planet and also how unfair the world is. Basically, there are so many people in Nepal, who are more intelligent, more hard working, and just really great people who didn’t have the same opportunities as I did just because I was born in Germany and they were born in Nepal. So I saw this kind of big, global injustice and unfairness that just convinced me that I need to dedicate my life to helping people who don’t have the same opportunities.
Then later on living in Latin America, I was just observing this massive destruction of our planet. In 2007, I found out about climate change for the first time and realized how much of an existential threat that is to humanity. Those things coming together really got me motivated to help people, help our planet and solve climate change. So I analyzed a little bit to learn what are the biggest drivers of climate change and social unfairness, and I realized cutting down trees is a big, big driver, so I wanted to tackle that.
I have always had an interest in computers and information technology. At a very young age I started putting together my own computers, although mostly, I was playing computer games. And during university, I actually started m y first business, which was a website that compared different financial products and different banks. If a user would sign up for a bank account, I would earn a commission so that was basically the business model. There are a lot of big companies doing that now and doing that very profitably, but at the time there were not many, that was my side project to earn a little bit of money to finance my trip.
Then I realized that I was actually spending most of the money that I was earning on Google to get visitors on my site. I thought, “What a great business model Google has.” Not only are they apparently making a lot of money, but they also have the power to decide who gets visibility on the Internet, this super-important new medium. That’s what got me excited about the search business basically.
So because I wanted to plant a lot of trees and wanted to get into search, I just put them together, and that’s how the idea came about. Maybe from an outside perspective it doesn’t make much sense, but for my background it actually was a good answer for what I wanted.
Marquis: Could you tell me about the tree planting aspect? How do you identify where the trees should be planted? And do you partner with organizations to do the planting?
Kroll: We have a Tree Team, and we have a Chief Tree Planting Office — and I’ve jealously wanted to have that job, but I wasn’t sufficiently qualified. So basically, their job is to find the right tree planting partners and to negotiate contracts with them, including how and where they are going to plant trees and then follow up to see if the partner has actually delivered. In the long term, through satellite images and through people walking through the field taking pictures on their mobile phones and also on project visits, we can follow up on the success to actually see if things are going well or not. If they’re going well, then we increase our spending with the partner. At the moment, we have more than 60 tree planting partners.
I think we’re the biggest private tree planting organization when it comes to how many organizations we’re managing, and we have more than 15,000 different locations where we’re planting trees. That’s quite a challenge to keep up with all that, so we have a huge database to monitor it. Our idea was to basically become an organization that manages a portfolio of tree planting partners. The goal behind that is that we really want to kick start this reforestation movement because we lost billions of trees — trillions of trees actually — and we need to reform our planet very, very quickly. We see our role as the pioneer that’s kind of making that possible.
Hopefully soon, the big, big corporations or governments will wake up and say, “Oh yes, we really need to reform our planet and we need to put billions and billions of dollars into that.” The problem at the moment is that the infrastructure isn’t there to do that. So we see ourselves as kind of starting to set up that system and set up the right standards then help scale that tree planting industry. There are a lot of organizations we’re talking to about planting billions of trees. The problem, though, is that you need to actually do it. Commitments are very easy, and even planting trees is easy, but then doing that successfully so the trees actually grow and survive and really benefit the communities and biodiversity, that is the difficult part and that’s what our Tree Team is basically dealing with.
I really think that tree planting is one of the most underestimated solutions to climate change. The potential is huge. Scientists are coming together, looking at the top solutions that we can implement to address climate change, and if you look at the top 20 solutions, out of those, I think 11 or 12 are actually solutions that deal with land use, so either how we grow food and how much food we grow or how we’re dealing with our forests. The potential there is really enormous, so I would say if we don’t manage to plant at least a trillion trees in the next two decades, then we probably will not be able to solve climate change.
At least in Germany, people are always just talking about electric cars, but electric cars are actually rather insignificant. Technology can play a role in the solution to climate change, of course. Obviously I’m a fan of technology, but I don’t think technology is more than 50% of the solution actually. The other 50% is nature, and the power of nature is currently heavily underestimated. When it comes to forests and agriculture absorbing CO2 emissions from the atmosphere, there’s a huge potential, and we want to help scale that potential and give it visibility. We sometimes see ourselves as the marketing department for tree planting because electric car companies have marketing budgets but tree planting unfortunately does not.
When we decide where to plant trees, what we’re focusing on is usually biodiversity hotspots, areas where you have a lot of biodiversity that’s critically endangered and where there’s a lot of forest being lost. We’re getting active in those areas, and we’re trying to see where we can get the best return of our money spent, basically the most trees per dollar. That usually means that we’re active in developing countries in the tropics with high biodiversity. Examples would be Madagascar, Brazil, Ethiopia, and Burkina Faso.
Tree planting, for me, is really a magic solution to a lot of problems that we have. First of all, we’re paying people to plant trees, which is kind of a kickstarter for the local economy, and usually the trees have a positive impact on the soil, which means that people can then grow food or harvest rice. Some trees also produce nuts and fruits, so that has a lot of benefits. It’s really good for the local biodiversity, it helps the local water cycle, because it prevents flooding and also prevents droughts, and then it takes a lot of CO2 emissions out of the atmosphere.
Marquis: How did you get the mechanics of the search engine, like the algorithm, set up?
Kroll: I mean I didn’t have billions of dollars lying around to develop an algorithm, so the idea was to always work on partnerships. In the beginning, my first partnership was actually with Google. A few days after launch, they canceled the partnership, so that was a shame. They canceled the partnership so early that it was never an option for me to really build the core of the product.
I then went to Yahoo, and I convinced them to basically grant me access to their algorithms, so that I could best build a search engine on top of it. At some point, Yahoo handed over this business to Microsoft, so we thought it didn’t make sense to be with Yahoo anymore, and we became a direct partner of Microsoft.
In the first years, we didn’t really make money. It was also more of a hobby project. But then, after a while, we had enough users, so that actually we also made some revenue. Then after three, four years, we were able to actually pay employees. There was no venture capital or anything like that, so I really had to build up everything from incoming cash flows, and it took a few years to get to the point where we were able to really hire people. Until then, it was mostly friends and freelancers.
So then, we really started building a real company, a real organization that was also able to develop the product further. Now we have almost 100 people. We are still partnering with Microsoft on the back end of the algorithms, but there are a lot of things that we’re building around that, including our mobile apps, for example, and enriching search results. It’s a lot of additional production.