A Convenient, Affordable Battery Solution with BETTERY’s Charlie Kawasaki

January 27, 2014

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome to another edition of Green is Good. We’re so excited to have with us today Charlie Kawasaki. He’s the CEO and co-founder of BETTERY. Welcome to Green is Good, Charlie. CHARLIE KAWASAKI: Hey! Thanks, John. Thanks for having me on. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Charlie, before we get into talking about your great company, BETTERY, can you please share the Charlie Kawasaki story? How did you even get here as the co-founder and CEO of this great company? What was your journey leading up to this point? CHARLIE KAWASAKI: Well, I’ve had a lifelong passion for developing new and innovative solutions to help people solve problems that really cause them a great deal of hassle and concern. I have about 35 years of experience in the high tech industry developing both hardware and software products in a variety of startups and my passion has always been in developing cool innovative products. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Cool. Speaking of cool innovative products, tell me about your company and what your company does and for our listeners out there that want to follow along, I’m on your beautiful and really well-done website right now and it’s www.betteryinc.com. Tell us about BETTERY. What is it and what solution were you providing? What void in the marketplace did you see? CHARLIE KAWASAKI: Well, BETTERY has produced the first kiosk for responsible use and purchase of disposable batteries that really make it easy for users to step up to a sustainable battery product and make it really easy for them to use. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Awesome, and so explain how it works and what’s the real mission of BETTERY. What is the mission that everyone at the company knows? CHARLIE KAWASAKI: Well, the way it works is it’s pretty of easy. It’s kind of like a Redbox kiosk, if you’re familiar with renting DVDs and instead of DVDs, it’s with household batteries, like double-A and triple-A batteries and the way you use it is you walk up to the BETTERY Swap Station at a convenient retailer and you can choose double-A or triple-A batteries to take home and you use them just like you normally would but instead of throwing them away in the trash when you’re done, you take them back to the BETTERY Swap Station, stick them in, and you exchange them for freshly charged batteries and the reason why we did this was a couple things: One is to help people save money on batteries but also, we had a big pile of batteries piling up at home in a Ziploc bag labeled “bad” and didn’t know what to do with them and we wanted to find an easier way to step up to a reusable product and not have to drive around town looking for a place to recycle our batteries. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Okay, you’re the co-founder. Who else co-founded with you? When you say, “we,” we came up with this idea, which is your a-ha moment, which is just so perfect for entrepreneurs like you, who are always trying to come up with new solutions? Who was the other founders with you? CHARLIE KAWASAKI: My co-founder is Bill Coleman out of San Jose, and he’s also had a lifelong passion for sustainable products. He and I have worked together on and off for the last 25 years in building different innovative technology products and so it was a great way for us to work together more on this new idea. JOHN SHEGERIAN: I’m on your website now, like I’ve just shared with our listeners. For our listeners out there, again, it’s BETTERYInc.com. First of all, the machine itself looks gorgeous. You have a great video on the landing page that shows how it works and everything. Where is this machine today? Is it in a lot of stores? Is it in a couple of test stores? How widespread is your machine getting out there? CHARLIE KAWASAKI: We have BETTERY Swap Stations around the Pacific Northwest right now at both Safeway and Whole Foods Markets locations. We also have them at the Portland State University Student Union building, and we’re in discussions with additional national retailers as well as large corporate campuses. We’re looking to put these Swap Stations in place for their employees. JOHN SHEGERIAN: This is so great. So, now let’s step back and talk about the problem because for our listeners out there, batteries, just like electronic waste, which really they’re part of the electronic waste stream in many ways, have a lot of environmental problems with them when they come to the end of their usable life. Can you share the bad environmental problem that’s caused by batteries if they’re disposed of inappropriately and they’re not put into your ingenious machine? CHARLIE KAWASAKI: Certainly. I was pretty surprised when I discovered just how many batteries we use in the U.S. each year. It’s about 2.5 billion batteries that end up in U.S. landfills every year and in addition to the hazards related to disposing of them improperly in our landfills, they also have a big environmental impact in just the making and the transporting of them in terms of their carbon footprint for a single use product. You can sort of think of it like a foam cup. You do all the manufacturing and the transport and they use it once and throw it away so we’re pleased that we have support from recyclers like King County’s Recycled Waste Division, that’s helping us get the word out, educating the public about getting these batteries out of the landfills and in addition to that, there’s a huge amount of raw material they manufacture, the manufacturing impact of batteries that are used and so what we do is we get to reuse our batteries up to 500 times so you take that environmental impact and you get to divide it by 500 for each use of our batteries. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Wow, so let’s step back here. I want to go back in time a little bit, Charlie. When did you come up with this concept? CHARLIE KAWASAKI: In about 2010, and I have a 13-year-old daughter who a few years ago, we were using a lot of batteries in our house, She would read books under her covers at night, fall asleep, and I’d get up in the morning and go, “Okay, there’s four more bucks down the drain,” and a bunch of batteries I have to throw out and at the same time, her babysitter introduced us to Redbox at home and looking at this Ziploc bag of batteries labeled “bad,” I put two and two together and came up with this idea that we could use the technology expertise of me and my partner, Bill, and build our Redbox-like solution that could solve these problems. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That is just so incredible, and when you were doing it and looking at the marketplace, you have a very storied career, unbelievably successful historically, but did you ever consider yourself a greenie or a treehugger prior to inventing this environmental solution that was desperately needed? CHARLIE KAWASAKI: I’ve always had a passion for reducing our country’s environmental impact. I’ve been involved in things like energy efficient buildings and interestingly, I’ve been a lifelong battery enthusiast. I’ve tried every new kind of battery that’s come out on the market and one of the things that really made this business go was the invention of a new chemistry of batteries that came out a few years ago that really made this type of battery a product that people could use, have a good experience with, and could deliver a good value to consumers. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Got it. When you were writing your business plan with Bill, what did the competition look like and what does it look like today? CHARLIE KAWASAKI: We don’t have any competition for reusable swap stations in the market today, so we really have a first-mover advantage that we’re really pleased to have. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Wow, and when you went out and raised money for this, people were excited? People were not excited? What was that experience like? Because we have so many entrepreneurs that listen to this show. It’s always great to share the entrepreneurial journey with also the amazing solution you’ve created. CHARLIE KAWASAKI: We’ve received great enthusiasm about this business in part because it’s a dual-mission business. We’re out to build a great business and build a company the size and stature of the Redbox business, but we also have a sustainability mission and there’s a large group of enthusiasts and investors in the country that really get excited about being able to have an impact on the environment while making a great business. JOHN SHEGERIAN: So, the combination of profit and higher purpose is sort of the one-two punch nowadays, huh? CHARLIE KAWASAKI: It certainly is. JOHN SHEGERIAN: So, you start in 2010. You’re now finishing three, three-and-a-half years of running this company and growing it. Are you where you want to be right now and what is it looking like? What was the first pitch like when you went into a Whole Foods or to a Safeway? What was their response when you showed this to them? CHARLIE KAWASAKI: They really liked it because they had a lot of customers looking for battery recycling, looking for ways to use batteries in a sustainable method, so we’ve had a great deal of interest from the retailers and the grocery stores in the nation. As a matter of fact, we are quite a bit further ahead with that than we expected at this point. JOHN SHEGERIAN: How about the shopper? When you gauge the user’s experience, how has that been from what you predicted in the beginning when you were developing the machine and how have you evolved your invention for the consumer experience? CHARLIE KAWASAKI: So, it’s exactly as we expected and consumers really thank us. They’re like, ‘Hey, this is great! This is a great idea. I was looking for a way to do something different than the bag of batteries that I have at home,’ so we get a lot of consumers that say, ‘Hey, thank you so much for doing this. This is great,’ and the one thing that was new and interesting for us that we didn’t expect is that we also have a great deal of interest in recycling the alkaline batteries that people have at home already so you can also take your old alkaline batteries and put them in our machine and we recycle them responsibly. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Wow, and so now that you’re in the Pacific Northwest and on the western part of the United States, what do you see in the next months and years ahead in terms of your machine getting out there even more? What does it look like to you? CHARLIE KAWASAKI: Our goal is definitely to be as convenient as a Redbox and that means being within a very short distance from your home to make it convenient and to do that, we need to be nationwide and so it’s our goal to have a national rollout in that same kind of key authenticity as you might see in a Redbox or in a Coinstar. JOHN SHEGERIAN: And, right now, how many employees do you have? CHARLIE KAWASAKI: We have five right now, so we’ve done this on a very slim budget, so we’re really pleased with how much we’ve accomplished so far. JOHN SHEGERIAN: A lot you’ve accomplished with five people. That’s what it looks like to me, right? CHARLIE KAWASAKI: Yeah, absolutely. We have a great team. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Now, is this machine also applicable for other countries? Are you going to take this international? CHARLIE KAWASAKI: As a small country, we certainly have interest in that and there are countries overseas that have interest in this but we’re taking things one step at a time. JOHN SHEGERIAN: How about when it comes to the battery companies? When you went in or when they’ve seen this, how has been our discussions with the battery companies themselves? Are they thrilled about this? Are they really intrigued by your new invention? CHARLIE KAWASAKI: This is a new offering that we haven’t had a lot of discussions with the major brands that you might be familiar with. The companies that make our reusable technology, of course, are very excited about it. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Your daughter, the one who was 13 back then and was your inspiration for the machine, what does she think about what you’re doing? CHARLIE KAWASAKI: Oh, she loves it. Our household is now the BETTERY household. She’s a big enthusiast. JOHN SHEGERIAN: She’s got the cool dad now. My dad’s part of the green revolution. My dad’s in the sustainability revolution. He’s the cool dad. CHARLIE KAWASAKI: That’s true, but at 13, you can imagine that dads can only be so cool. JOHN SHEGERIAN: I gotcha on that one. For our listeners out there that just joined us, we’ve got Charlie Kawasaki with us. He’s the CEO and co-founder of BETTERY, and BETTERY is a battery recycling kiosk that you can find in local grocery stores in the Pacific Northwest now, coming to a store near you eventually, but to go learn more about it — it’s www.betteryinc.com. You know, Charlie, we’ve got about five minutes left, and part of the show is not only to explain the great things that our wonderful guests have created or invented or done, but it’s also to inspire the next generation behind us to follow suit and to even do more with what we’re passing on to them. Share a little bit about your experience. As I said earlier, you have a storied history of success and lots of companies that you’ve been involved with and led and done really well with. Share some of the thoughts that you have for the next generation behind us who want to become part of the sustainability revolution or who want to be the next Charlie Kawasaki and invent something where there’s a great need. CHARLIE KAWASAKI: Well, the thing that really drives me other than solving the problems that people have, getting the kinds of consumer responses that we’re getting, which make me wake up in the morning every day charged up to go and continue to build the business and grow the business and make things available nationwide is that it does have the environmental benefit. It’s doubly motivating and doubly fun to wake up in the morning and think hey, I’m doing something that I really believe in. I’m doing something that’s important, that can make an impact and if you’re going to put your 24-by-seven into it and put your life and all of your effort into something, it’s really important to have that kind of motivation and that kind of belief that what you’re doing can really make an impact. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Do you feel that you’ll never go back? In terms of your life mission, you’re never going to work for companies anymore? You’re only going to work for companies that you’ve created and are involved with? CHARLIE KAWASAKI: That’s certainly the goal, and I’m having a great time both inventing things and working with a great team, so I certainly don’t have any interest in doing anything else. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Is raising money hard nowadays if you’re a young entrepreneur with another great idea? This is amazing, really truly, and I’m just in awe of this whole BETTERY concept you’ve created and how it’s working so well. Is it hard to raise money to get the prototypes and to get some traction? CHARLIE KAWASAKI: It certainly is. We, as a company, ticked off a space that had quite a bit of risk, everything from product development risk to getting interest from national retailers to building a supply chain, all those pieces are quite intensive and these days, investors want to see businesses with the lowest possible risk profile so this was definitely a big challenge for us and fundraising certainly has been very time consuming. JOHN SHEGERIAN: It’s so interesting, Charlie. Years ago, you and Bill would have to be in a garage together. Now, he gets to be in San Jose and you get to be in Portland and you still get to be co-founders and partners of a very ingenious and important new product, so geography isn’t critical to the success of a venture. Is that true? CHARLIE KAWASAKI: We definitely opted for finding people on our team that have the best experience and the most relevant experience in the industry and at the sacrifice of geographic convenience, but with today’s technologies, online video teleconferencing and things like that and file sharing, we’ve certainly been able to be very effective with our team spread all over the country, actually, so that’s worked really well for us. There are some times when we get together in person as well, though. JOHN SHEGERIAN: We’re down to the last minute-and-a-half or so, but for the next generation, what’s your thoughts now? The thought process around education has changed so much, Charlie. With your daughter, is college important, grad school important or is it more important, real life experience? What do you share with the youth of America and the youth of the world right now? CHARLIE KAWASAKI: Oh, education is absolutely paramount today. It’s a very competitive marketplace for people to find really great jobs and while real-world experience is extremely important, I don’t envy kids having to go through to the job market today and having to find employment so I would definitely still very cognizant of equipping their students with real-world experience as they come through the university systems, so it’s kind of the best of both. JOHN SHEGERIAN: When you’re back on Green is Good, where is BETTERY going to be? We’re down to the last 30 seconds. CHARLIE KAWASAKI: Oh, we’re going to be all over the place with lots of kiosks in many cities across the country. JOHN SHEGERIAN: I love it! I love the confidence and we wish you all the best. Charlie Kawasaki, you are a visionary sustainability leader and truly living proof that green is good.