A New, Scalable Model for Food Waste Management with The Compost Crew

September 1, 2015

 
John Shegerian: Welcome to another edition of Green Is Good. This is the Green Festival edition of Green Is Good here in beautiful Washington, D.C., and we’ve got The Compost Crew with us today. We’ve got Brian and Kevin with us today. They are The Compost Crew, and to learn more about them, you can go to www.CompostCrew.com. Guys, welcome to Green Is Good. Thank you for being here. Tell us a little bit about the three of you and The Compost Crew. How did you get it going, and what is The Compost Crew? Ryan: First of all, John, thank you very much for having us here. John Shegerian: Happy to have you. Ryan: It’s a pleasure to be here. So The Compost Crew is the brainchild of Brian and myself. We had known each other since we were five years old, have been best friends and went to different collages. While we were at university, we developed a very strong passion for sustainability as a core value that really drives the decisions that we make. John Shegerian: Where did you grow up? Ryan: We grew up in Bethesda, Maryland. Just down the road. Brian: Silver Spring, Maryland. John Shegerian: And where did you guys go to college? Ryan: I went to Vanderbilt University. Brian: And I went to Ohio University. John Shegerian: Ohio University? Brian: Bobcats. John Shegerian: The Bobcats. Brian: The Buckeyes. John Shegerian: OK. Got you. And so you came back together. And when did you launch Compost Crew? Ryan: So we spent about a year after school just doing odd jobs and trying to figure out how could we start a business together. So Brian had a do-it-yourself project doing composting in a backyard. Brian: Right. Kind of greened up my own living situation gardening and composing, and as I was trying to compost in my own backyard, I found it kind of difficult to actually be successful at it, so I did some shopping around on the options I had for composting and realized there wasn’t much of a delivery or pickup service – like what we provide – in the area. So we spoke about it – Ryan and I – and developed this idea, and everything fit at the right time and we launched in May 2011. John Shegerian: May 2011. So now we’re basically four years in. Brian: Yep. John Shegerian: And so talk a little bit about what Compost Crew is, and how big is The Compost Crew now after four years? Ryan: So The Compost Crew is an at-home pickup service for your food waste. So think of it as another recycling service. John Shegerian: OK. Ryan: But you put all of your organics in a bin. We come by, pickup every week, do the composting for you at a local farm or composting facility. John Shegerian: Oh great. Ryan: And then return finished compost back. So it’s closing a food loop and is just a great environmental service. John Shegerian: And where did you launch it? Which community? Brian: Bethesda was our main starting point. We got a slot at the Bethesda Central Farmer’s Market, and that’s where we got most of our starting customers, and from there, we’ve kind of grown out into southern Montgomery County. We’re in D.C. now, all of D.C. We are expanding into Baltimore, and at the end of the summer, we hope to expand into northern Virginia. John Shegerian: So it’s growing. Brian: Yes. Ryan: We have about 2000 homes served to date. Every week. John Shegerian: Every week. Ryan: Yes. John Shegerian: Wow. And when you started it, how did you raise the money originally? You guys have just been out of college pretty much. Did you do social media to raise the money? Family? Friends? How did you do this? Ryan: The trick was, John, we just didn’t value our time very highly. So we didn’t take a salary for a while. John Shegerian: That’s OK. Ryan: Our friend had a truck – or his parents had a truck – and we were able to get a very favorable lease agreement with them, which allowed us to launch, and that’s really what we needed. And then the time to do the pickups and sell the service John Shegerian: Best friends since five. Ryan: That’s exactly right. John Shegerian: So how many people do you have now, like Kevin, on board helping to service these 2000 homes every week? Ryan: So we have a full-time driver, we have a part-time driver and Kevin is our crew leader. He’s a business leader with us. He joined a few months ago, and it’s just been an amazing asset for us. Then we have two or three – it kind of rotates – crew reps that help us out on weekend events like this, farmers’ markets in the area to help grow our business. So all said, I guess, we have a team of about six or so. John Shegerian: Six that takes care of 2000 homes? Ryan: That’s exactly right. Brian: The driver and the part-time driver do all the pickups, so it’s only two people here and 2000 homes. Ryan: Exactly. John Shegerian: That’s incredible. Brian: Yeah. Ryan: Yeah. Brian: We make it work. Ryan: Optimization. John Shegerian: Obviously. Holy Toledo. So talk a little bit about the problem of how much food waste do we really have here in this great country – in the United States – and what solution you’ve provided on a very local and growing level. Ryan: So we’re talking about millions and millions of tons of food waste that is either put in a landfill directly to decompose anaerobically – releasing methane, carbon footprint – or it’s being incinerated or being put down the garbage disposal, leading to the issues we’re seeing at water treatment facilities. We’re talking about somewhere in the range of – EPA estimates – about 35 percent of our municipal solid waste stream that consists of stuff that could be composted. So our solution is we will take it for you, put it right back into the food system where it can do the most good, get the nutrients that would otherwise be sitting in a landfill dormant for potentially millions of years. John Shegerian: Isn’t that crazy? Ryan: Yeah. John Shegerian: What a waste. Ryan: Back in our food system and, in turn, getting our local food supply healthier, more resilient. The fields have more nutrients in them, so you don’t have to cycle through as much with the crops of local farmers. So it’s really a win-win-win. John Shegerian: When you guys started this in May of 2011, how many people were doing what you’re doing in the United States? Was there a local composting service like you made up of young people who wanted to run a mission-based business? Ryan: In the U.S., there is the gambit. You have got people in Boston that are riding bikes with a little attachment to it going around and picking up compost from their neighbors and friends – which you admire what they’re doing, but I always try to think of what is scalable, because I want to have the greatest impact – to in San Francisco where you get fined if you have too much trash. They collect your compost, they collect your recyclables and they have huge industrial-scale commercial facilities. So, all in all, you see them sprouting up pretty regularly these days in different little areas – metro areas – but maybe a dozen or two different areas have some. John Shegerian: Wow. And what is the business proposition? Do the homes or the municipalities pay you to pick up for each of these homes? Brian: A little bit of both. We work with municipalities that we started out just servicing homes and it grew in popularity and the residents of the municipality brought it to their lords and then we eventually got a contract with them. But a lot of our customers are just single-family homes or apartment-dwellers that pay us a monthly service or a yearly service fee for our service because they believe in what we do and our mission as a company. John Shegerian: I’m seeing a theme here at today’s Green Festival. Is this the first Green Festival – by the way – that you are doing? Ryan: That we have exhibited at, yes. John Shegerian: Yes. And how has the response been when you have been at the festival so far? Ryan: It’s been very strong. Everyone is interested. We’re getting a lot of backyard composters – as can be expected – so converting them to the service is a bit of challenge. John Shegerian: Right. Ryan: But you’ve got to love their gumption. John Shegerian: But it’s a great way for you to market your message, right? Brian: Absolutely. Ryan: Exactly. Brian: Find like-minded people. John Shegerian: Yeah. And what I’ve seen here at this festival is young people – your generation, Millennials – who are loving what they’re doing and are making the world a better place in so many different categories. It’s the first time I’ve seen such a group of great young people in so many different verticals of the sustainability revolution all fired up and that is a great trend. Talk a little bit about how big can this go? What is the vision for The Compost Crew? Can you franchise it? Can you just go out and raise a bunch-load of money and make it a national deal? What’s going on in your minds and you’re – house-by-house, community-by-community – growing your great brand? Ryan: So the vision is what we’re doing in D.C. is trying to create a model. How do we most efficiently provide this service? How do we most efficiently get these nutrients back to where they matter? To local farms? John Shegerian: Right. Ryan: How do we grow the business? What is the most effective way to build a business? So the vision is to basically corner the market in D.C., to make Compost Crew the residential food waste hauler of the D.C. metro area and then either reinvest our cash flow, if there is enough, or look for investors to replicate the model in other municipalities throughout the U.S. and potentially abroad. John Shegerian: That’s great. What do we have here in front of us? What is this here? Brian: This is our “kitchen bin” – if you will – kind of the equivalent of your trashcan that you have in your kitchen or in any room. Then we have a different bin, which is our curbside bin, which is the bin that we use to do pickups in. So you would separate – as you’re cooking – into the smaller bin and then as the smaller bin fills up you would empty it into the bigger bin, which is where we do our pickups from. John Shegerian: Got it. So smaller bin, bigger bin, and that’s the bin that you pick up in 2,000 homes. Brian: Yes. John Shegerian: And you drop off a fresh one. Brian: No. We wipe down the bin and replace the compostable liners that we use. John Shegerian: And so they just keep that one? Brian: Yep. John Shegerian: Got it. Brian: And it’s odor-sealed so there are no pests or any worry about that or bad smells. It has served us very well over these past four years. John Shegerian: Was that already designed by somebody else and you leveraged that design? Ryan: Yeah, so the bin exists, and then you buy the gamma seal and you attach it. Brian: We chose green. John Shegerian: I love your t-shirts. Brian: Green is good! John Shegerian: Green Is Good! And I love your design of your t-shirts – beautiful – and that’s a great looking bin. Very clean looking. So what is the cost? If I’m a local homeowner here in the D.C. metro area, what is the cost for a weekly pickup? Ryan: So our base rate is $32 a month. If you sign up for a year, you get a month off – so even cheaper. John Shegerian: It’s $8 a week. Ryan: $8 a week or just a little bit more than that. John Shegerian: To make the world a better place with you guys. Ryan: Exactly. Yeah. We think it’s very reasonable. John Shegerian: So we are here with the owners, and with Kevin the crew leader, and we’re here with the owners Ryan and Brian of Compost Crew. To learn more about Compost Crew, go to www.CompostCrew.com. Talk about your journey as social entrepreneurs. 2011 ‘til now, what have you learned that you didn’t expect? What happened for the worse that you had no idea could happen? And what luck broke your way to make this thing come together? Because there is no entrepreneur – whether you are Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg – that didn’t have breaks that went for them, and they wouldn’t be here but for those breaks, and then had breaks that went against them, and but for some act of God or something else kept them afloat for those near death experiences. Talk about some of yours. Ryan: So the thing that immediately jumps to my mind is for some unfortunate turn of events, the favorable terms on our lease on the first truck dissipated so we had to buy a new truck. We didn’t have that much money. We bought a used 1997 Chevy 2500 for about $2,500. Constantly in the shop. After about eight months – this is our only thing we can use to service customers. If we can’t service customers, we lose all our credibility, so we needed to keep this going. Eight months, the engine craps out. We got a mechanic, he says, “You know what I’ve got an engine, I can’t warranty it, but I put it in your truck.” We get it running for another two grand. So we’re like buying another new truck. Eight months later – almost to the day – that engine craps out. And we thankfully had enough cash at that point we were like, “We’re buying a new truck,” and that’s what we’ve been using since then. John Shegerian: Good decision? Ryan: Great decision. John Shegerian: Never missed a day, never missed a pickup, never missed a start since then. Ryan: Well, we won’t say we never miss a pickup, but we’ll turn back around and grab it if we do. John Shegerian: Right. What advice? We have thousands of listeners every week both across the United States and across the world that want to be the next change-makers like you, the next disruptors like you guys. What advice do you have for mission-based people that just don’t want to make a living. which is important, but also want to make a difference? Brian: Patience. You need patience and perseverance. Like you said, there are going to be breaks going your way and breaks going the other way, and you’re just going to learn to have to continue on your path and understand that these things are going to happen and that you just have to find a way to make it work. Use a network of people that you are developing as you’re starting out to help you along the way, because we have found that as we were growing, people liked what we were doing, liked our mission and would just support us in any way they could if it was like, “Oh, OK. We’ll be flexible with you.” Our customers are amazing. As we’ve grown, they’ve been so patient with us. They’ve given us advice and other things to help us just grow into a better business and help us service them the best we can. It’s just patience, perseverance and rely on your network. Do not be afraid to ask for help. John Shegerian: Speaking of network, what about social media? Do you guys leverage social media to get the word out and to grow your brand? Ryan: So I’m going to let Kevin talk to this, because he is our social media expert. John Shegerian: You’re the guru? Ryan: He’s the guru. Kevin: The goal with our social media is to reach as many people as possible. We go through Facebook, Instagram. Our Facebook, our Instagram, Twitter. We’re also doing Pinterest. And our goal is to reach our customers in addition to anybody beyond our main core that would be interested in joining The Compost Crew. So that has been our goal. Currently, we are working with Gigawatt for some support, which is a local firm for social media, helping with our social media. Long term, we expect to continue to try to bring on new members onto those social media outlets and for those people to eventually sign up as they learn more about the service. John Shegerian: Great. That’s great. So social media does play an important role. Ryan: It’s about sharing content that people that would be interested in our service would be interested in in general. You need engagement. Posting stuff doesn’t mean anything. We’ve had posts over the years where you get two or three people that even view it, maybe a “like” here and there. Kevin does it. We got 500 personal exposures, 20, 30 “likes,” sending content that people enjoy and getting the brand out there. John Shegerian: That is awesome. That is awesome. What do mom and dad think of all of what you guys are doing? Brian: Very supportive. Enjoying our service. John Shegerian: Is there any downside for composting wherever you live in the United States or the world? Is there any downside? Brian: I don’t think so, no. Composting is very easy. It can be as simple as throwing things into a pile and mixing it a little bit or it can get complicated to where you’re processing it in the most efficient manner. But no. It’s all a natural process. Think of it as like the forest floor – it’s just breaking down food over time and feeding the earth again. John Shegerian: And we have no reason to be filling our landfills with all of this material, right? I mean that’s so. Ryan: No reason for landfills. John Shegerian: Thank you. Ryan: Ultimately. John Shegerian: Any final thoughts before we say goodbye for today? Ryan: I would just like to say, again, thank you very much for having us on the show, John. It’s been a pleasure chatting with you, and check our site out at www.CompostCrew.com and email or call us if you have any questions. We’d be happy to get you signed up. John Shegerian: They are The Compost Crew, and – as Ryan said – go to www.CompostCrew.com to learn more about their great service or sign up. Hey guys, thanks for making the world a better place. You all are truly living proof that Green Is Good.