I was in Vallendar (near Koblenz) a couple of weeks ago. I went for a conference all about social entrepreneurship with a Belgian friend from class. We took a train all the way there from Freiburg and it felt good to travel up the Rhine again after quite a while away from the region. It is such a strange mixture of commerce, nature and history. There’s always cargo barges going up and down, and numerous castles dotted along the way. Those were set up by little lords that would tax passing boats for using the river. All are set against a backdrop of steep, small hills and sometimes patchy areas of forest.
Vallendar itself is nothing remarkable apart from the fact that it contains a British red telephone box. That and the Otto Beisheim School of Management, a well-known private university in Germany that has a reputation for producing the CEOs, business leaders and managers that power the massive German economy forwards.
There were quite a few interesting presentations at the conference. One stand-out, in terms of product at least, was the ‘Peepoople’ company. These guys produce a kind of bag for people who don’t have toilets that they can use. It has some sort of bacteria inside that transforms the crap into fertiliser! Needless to say, it could contribute massively to making urban slums less dirty although the question of whether the poorest people on the planet can really afford these things is an important one. They’re only about one or two cents per bag, but for people with very little that can mean a lot. Still, aid agencies seem to be a good customer for them so far.
There were some other good presentations that I need not go into here. What I really wanted to talk about was a workshop I was lucky to take part in with the ‘Bettervest’ founder, Patrick Mijnals. Now, before I took part in the workshop I have to confess that I thought Bettervest was just a kind of Crowdfunding Carrotmob platform. However, a minor detail makes this concept much, much bigger in my opinion. The video below is only in German so for those that haven’t wasted several years of their lives trying to learn this language, please allow me to explain. In this case, there’s a little girl that wants to refurbish the heating system of her school to make it more energy efficient and thus help the environment. To do this she puts her advert or project on the Bettervest site. Then, people can give money to help the girl reach her target. A typical Crowdfunding platform so far. However, with Bettervest they can instead invest that money rather than give it away for nothing. How do they earn a return? Simple, the money saved through the energy efficiency goes back to the investors. Every year the school will save money on its energy bills and the money saved will be distributed amongst the investors. It’s like Carrotmob but one step further. With Carrotmob a business makes money. With Bettervest everyone makes money, it’s Carrotmob to the power of a 1000. Bettervest’s name is perhaps not so catchy in the English language, although I think that it works in German.
In the workshop we were supposed to write out a business canvas or something – we did this half-heartedly but the group was much more interested in talking to Patrick about his concept. Towards the end of the workshop I suddenly realised that it might make an interesting blog to ask Patrick a couple of questions about the enterprise. I had less than 5 minutes to ask some hastily thought of questions, so I’m sorry it’s short!
So, Patrick, how did you come up with the idea for Bettervest?
Patrick: I have been a trends and innovation consultant for a while now and also been into the Crowdfunding scene from early on in its development. A long time ago I read a book by Ernst von Weizsäcker (now President of the Club of Rome) called “Factor Four”. He argues that four times as much wealth can be extracted from the resources we currently use. So for a long time I had ideas that were influenced by this book and once I got more into the idea of Crowdfunding I was able to combine the two.
Your background is in psychology, what especially makes you think that your concept will be successful? Do you have any psychological insights to share?
Patrick: Yes, (points to logo on his leaflets), this here will hypnotize ever…..laughs, no there is sadly no secret; it’s just all about motivations. In this case we score in every way as people can promote sustainability but also serve their own interests. It’s as simple as that.
What has been your biggest mistake/hurdle?
Patrick: If anything it’s that we’ve probably been too precise, too cautious. It’s only from your mistakes that you learn, so if anything we are probably not making enough mistakes! Another big challenge for us is working together over a large distance. [Patrick is part of a team of five, each covering a different area, e.g. energy efficiency, finance, IT etc and they are often in different parts of the country]
And what have you enjoyed the most about running a start-up?
Patrick: Seeing people working together and growing. Also coming to events like this and seeing you guys tell us what a great idea it is and just talking about different possibilities is a lot of fun!
With that we had to get out of the workshop room and go into the main conference hall for the closing session. I came away feeling very excited about this business. For sure there are some potential problems. I thought that changing energy prices might be one of them (how on earth would you calculate this?) but Patrick explained that the return is calculated each year by multiplying the amount of saved energy (in kilowatt) with the current energy price. This would be a fair deal, since the project owner would have to pay the current energy price anyway, with or without the energy efficiency project. And the crowd will get its interest even when the prices rise.
Cold fusion is a potential threat too!* Nevertheless, I think the concept is a great one and if they execute it well then chances are this will be a well-known and successful platform in a few years time. It also makes a nice change that this is an original start-up coming from Germany, as most are just cut and paste jobs from the US!
The business isn’t yet off the ground and for now the website is just a beta version. Even so, it will be interesting to see how things go for them.
*Patrick wrote back on this to say “…I would love to see cold fusion 🙂 It might be a problem for our business model, but the purpose of our social business is to solve the problem, not just to make money! In my opinion this is exactly the difference between conventional business and social business. I would be glad to see, that bettervest isn’t “needed” anymore and my team and I can dedicate ourselves to another social/sustainable challenge.”
Interesting reply and it certainly makes clear the distinction between the mentalities of traditional businesses and their newer social competitors!