The Search Engine That Plants Trees with Christian Kroll

May 25, 2021

Christian Kroll is the founder and CEO of Ecosia, the green search engine that uses its profits to plant trees. He launched Ecosia in 2009 after witnessing the devastating impacts of social inequality and massive deforestation while traveling through Nepal and South America. Ecosia has gone on to become the world’s largest not-for-profit search engine and has planted more than 120 million trees in over 30 countries. In 2014 Ecosia became Germany’s first certified B Corporation, and in 2018 Christian gave away his right to ever sell Ecosia or take dividends out of the company.

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John: Welcome to another edition of the Impact Podcast. I’m John Shegerian, and this is a very special edition of the Impact Podcast today because we’re so lucky to have with us today from Portugal, Christian Kroll. He’s the founder and CEO of Ecosia. Welcome to the Impact Podcast Christian.

Christian Kroll: Thank you very much for having me.

John: You know Christian, I don’t think I’ve ever really thought about 1500 or so interviews over the last fourteen years. I don’t think we’ve ever been so lucky enough to have a guest from Portugal. Tell us a little bit about Portugal. Is it a beautiful and wonderful country like everybody says it is?

Christian: Yeah, I personally really love it. I’m spending the lockdown here in Portugal instead of Berlin, where I’m usually based. And yeah, I almost don’t dare to say it, but I’m having a good time here during lockdown because we are lucky to have a bigger house somewhere in nature and that’s more pleasant than the apartment in Berlin.

John: Lucid! That’s a great thing. You figured out a way to get through this tragic pandemic period by having a nice situation. No one wants anyone to wake up unhappy and not in a nice environment. It sounds like it’s beautiful there. Are the beaches and the food amazing over there?

Christian: Yeah, that’s all great. Even restaurants are open again, I mean in Berlin still, everything is closed so we’re benefiting from…[crosstalk]really really good situation here.

John: Good.

Christian: But I’m also aware that many people have been affected really really negatively.

John: Yeah. That’s something to always keep in mind, you know Christian, what you’ve created here, Ecosia, and for our listeners and viewers who want to go on your website, during this podcast I’m on your website, It’s just amazing, and the impact you’re making and the relevance of what you’re doing is huge. We’re going to get into that in a little bit and for our listeners who want to go on the website, It’s www.ecosia.org. Christian, tell us a little bit about your life, your background, leading up to the founding of this wonderful website, and the great mission that you’re on.

Christian: Yeah, so I was born, I think 36 years ago? [laughs]In the former GDR, the east of Germany. I spent my youth in a small town called Wittenberg, which is also the hometown of Martin Luther, who is the reformer of the Catholic Church in Germany.

And so, that was 500 years ago. Since then, not much has happened in my hometown, but still, it’s a nice place. And yeah, basically, I went to school there and then studied business administration, and also finished my studies but I always had the feeling that I wanted to do something a little bit different than just a normal career. So, I wanted to have a little bit of a positive impact but I didn’t know what this could mean.

After my studies, I decided to travel around the world and take a year off. It was even one and a half years, and half a year of that, I spent in Nepal, one of the economically poorest countries of the world, and they’re really…So, I always knew that there were countries where people earn less money and have a lower quality of life. But knowing that and living that for a while, are two different things. For me, that was the point where I decided, “Okay, I can’t… I have this.” I’m lucky that I was born in a country like Germany, we have all these opportunities. There are so many people who don’t have the same opportunities.

So, because I was just lucky, I didn’t do anything about it. I saw my obligation to give back. To help those people who don’t have the same opportunities. And I firmly believe that every child, no matter where it’s born in the world, should have the same opportunities, more or less. And we’re still very, very far away from that. So I wanted to dedicate my life to achieve that.

What I did then because I was already doing university, I was working a little bit on internet projects, what I did then in Nepal, I started the first project where I wanted to help people in Nepal earn a little bit of money for development projects in Nepal that didn’t work out. So, then I continued traveling, I spent almost one year in Latin America, and there, I observed the massive destruction of our ecosystems, of our planet, exploitation of people, and I also found out about climate change. So, there was also a massive wake-up moment for me.

And I realized that one of the best things you can do if you want to help people, let’s say nature, the soil biodiversity. But I also want to solve climate change. One of the best things you can do is either plant trees or protect trees. I got excited about trees and that was basically…

So, I read everything I could find about trees and forests and figured how important they are to solving climate change. But also how great they are at solving many of the problems that we have. So, water scarcity, food, not enough availability of good nutrition, so, all of that and many other things, income for people in low-income countries. So, all that can be solved through tree planting. And so, I decided that I want to plant a lot of trees to have a positive impact on the planet.

John: Right.

Christian: Because of my background in technology or in building websites, I then decided to start a search engine that is focused on tree planting.

John: Now, okay. So you wanted to start now, how old were you then? How old were you when this epiphany happened?

Christian: I think that was at the age of 23 or something like that.

John: Okay. So, were you already a computer engineer or software engineer? Did you know how to build search engines or this was just right here, and now you had to put it together like all other entrepreneurs?

Christian: Yeah. So, I learned basic programming but am not very good at it. But I was good enough to understand what the developers are doing. But then I just hired a few people in Nepal. Salaries were quite low, so I could afford that without having external funding. And then also just a few friends helped me to build this up.

But it was a lot of my time also, I was just dedicated to figuring out what the code is doing, how it can be improved at least, in the early days. Luckily, after a few years and when the project was up and running, I could hand over this task to people who are more qualified. So, I hope nobody will ever find the code that I wrote because I think it’s probably quite embarrassing. But in the early days, I had to do many of the things just by myself.

John: How long did it take to launch your first version of Ecosia?

Christian: I think this was… because I already built various projects before that were kind of search-related. So, I think it only took us a few months in the end. Maybe half a year to get everything up and running but there was a rather rudimentary version of it. Today’s version of Ecosia is much, much better, and really can compare to the other search engines out there. Yeah, but in the early days, it was rather slow, It often broke, the results were not that great. But fortunately, there were enough people to use it that we kind of could still build on that very early version.

John: Tell me if I’ve got this right. You’ve gone on since then and Ecosia has become the world’s largest not-for-profit search engine that’s planted over a hundred and twenty million trees in over thirty countries.

Christian: Yeah, that’s… I mean, when you say those numbers, [crosstalk] It sounds massive. Yeah, we’re proud of that, I mean, in the end, it’s the users who are planting those trees. Those trees were only the tool basically that made it happen. We have 15 million users. Most of them in Europe, but also quite a lot of people in the United States and also many other countries. Yeah, all those people care about climate, they care about people, they care about our diversity. And if you’re one of those people then switching the search engine to have a positive impact on the world is one of the easiest things that you can do. And this is how we’ve gained all these users. It feels good with every search you come here, you’re contributing to tree planting.

John: Incredible. What you’ve done! How many…? I want to ask you so many questions, but let’s go back to… I mean, you’re sitting in Portugal, you seem like the most gentle and humble person I could ever meet. How many people are working with you? Do you have a hundred people? Is it just you and five other people? How many people are working with you to keep this, now amazing machine going?

Christian: I think we are… So, I haven’t met them for a while because we’ve been on lockdown for a long time and we added more people since then. But I think we’re roughly a hundred people now. Most of them are based in Berlin, but we also have people in many, many, other locations.

John: Let’s go over this then. So, people can just go on your website, which I’m on right now, which is a beautiful website, Ecosia.org and they could use that as their search engine, and the more they use it, the more credits are built for trees to be planted instead of net carbon, bad things happening. It’s not even net neutral, It’s carbon negative, huh?

Christian: Yeah, So that the soil my goal was never to be neutral because when I learned about climate change, I realized that being just carbon neutral, isn’t enough. Ecosia works like any other search engine. You type in your search terms, sometimes you see ads right next to the search results and if you click on one of those advertisements, then we earn money. The big difference though is that we don’t use this money to pay dividends to shareholders. There’s nothing wrong with that but we don’t do that.

We basically, after just deducting our own costs, all of the profits go to tree planting projects, and we have over thirty projects now across the entire planet, planting a tree every second. Thanks to this income that we’re generating from the searches. And yeah, also from the user’s perspective, I think it’s cool because I’m personally doing probably thousands of searches every day that adds up to thousands of searches every year.

John: Right.

Christian: We calculated that each search absorbs around one kilogram of CO2 from the atmosphere. Thanks to tree planting, which means that adds up to a few tons of CO2 removed from the atmosphere. And considering that, I mean, the average German has a footprint of 11 tons. I think the United States has a bit more CO2 per year and just by switching your search engine, you can remove a significant share of that and it’s so easy to do. So, that’s why I think so many people start using us.

John: And it’s just basically the advertising field. So, there’s no net difference to the user except that they’re doing something good for the planet while they’re using their internet browser.

Christian: Yes. There’s even an additional benefit that many people forget when they’re using us because we’re focusing so much on trees, but we’re focusing on privacy as well. So, you get that part on the top that we are tracking much much much less information than all the big ones, the big competitors. And yeah, that… [crosstalk]

John: And that’s by the way! And Christian, I don’t want to… that’s a very very big point with GDPR coming to the EU in 2018 and now all around the world, privacy and data protection, and data privacy, and protecting people’s rights and privacy is a big deal. So, you’re saying your search engine is even kinder to the users in terms of its tracking much less information than the other search engines.

Christian: Yes.

John: That’s incredible. I’ve read a lot about you preparing for today’s episode and one of the things I love that you discussed, but I want you to share with our listeners and our viewers Christian is, you’re shifting the mindset from sustainability to regeneration. Can you share a little bit about what you mean to our listeners when you talk about that?

Christian: Yes. So for me, sustainability is nice, I mean, we have to get to a level where we at least don’t further increase the amount of carbon that we have in the atmosphere, but it’s not enough. So, we could have switched to a sustainable economy, maybe in the 80s or 90s when this was still possible. But now, we’re at the moment where we’ve already put too much CO2 into the atmosphere, and just reducing our footprint won’t be enough.

We need to think differently, and think way beyond that and that’s what we’re doing. For example, if you’re searching with Ecosia, you’re not only sustainable, you’re massively positive when it comes to your climate impact. You’re removing a lot of CO2 from the atmosphere. And this is, I think this kind of business model or this kind of mindset is super important for the next few decades because it’s not going to be enough if just everybody slowly reduces their footprint, we really have, and that’s also I think boring.

If you just… if the maximum you can do is not have a negative impact, that to me, sounds super boring. I would want to have a massive positive impact and this also creates a lot of new opportunities. And once we kind of remove this imaginary threshold of 100% renewable or carbon-neutral, then a lot of new things become possible. For example, we are like many internet companies, we run a lot of servers and these servers run on renewable energy, but we decided not to stop at 100% renewable energy.

There’s no reason why you should stop at 100% renewable energy? We are at I think 200, 300% now, so, we’re just adding more capacity and there’s no reason why… I don’t know. The other big tech companies could do the same, and they could have a massive positive impact, and I think this is what will be necessary for the next decades. We can’t just… I think all of the chief sustainability officers of big companies should rename that title and call themselves chief regeneration officers because we can’t afford to be so slow. We have to think way beyond that.

And it’s also if you start taking that mindset you suddenly also really, you can maybe reshape the business model. Why should your company only have, let’s say, no negative impact on the planet? You could have a massive positive impact. And so, for me, this word regeneration, that is the word of the 21st century. So far, we’ve lived in a world we destroyed. The previous theme was destruction.

Now, we go through this very brief face of sustainability, but right after that, we have to go into the mode of regeneration until we reach a point where we actually, can potentially have long-term sustainability If the plan is functioning and can provide for everyone, not only every human but also the ecosystems are all working. And yeah, I think this will have to last many, many decades now. We have to regenerate for many decades.

John: Christian, you’re a very young man. You’ve already done huge things to make a positive impact and make the world a better place but the numbers that you just shared if you’ve already planted a hundred twenty-five million trees, I’m on your website right now and it’s really fun because it shows how many trees, you’re… the searches have provided for and these… you’re saying only fifteen million users and I don’t say that lightly. I don’t mean only as a bad terminology but I use only as, “Wait for a second!” There are hundreds of millions of users around the world. So, imagine if Christian keeps up his mission for years to come and two years from now or three years from now, there’s a hundred million users, you’re going to plant billions of trees around the world over time. Is this not what is going to happen with Ecosia?

Christian: Well, I hope because we need one trillion trees so that’s a thousand billion trees in the next two or three decades.

John: Yeah.

Christian: It takes a lot of effort to plant those trees and also quite a lot of money. But yeah, if we had 100% of the search market, then we could definitely plant hundreds of billions of trees actually and make a massive impact on the world’s climate and ecosystems. And there’s no reason why we shouldn’t aim for that. I mean, currently, we have, with our fifteen million users, we have not even 1% market share globally.

John: Wow!

Christian: Yeah, so there’s a lot of potentials still.

John: So, there’s a lot of opportunities for your growth is over 99%, which is just amazing.

Christian: Yeah.

John: What you’re going to do to effect change in the world, effectuate change, where you and your colleagues and of course you’re great platform you’ve built, is just incredible, I mean, it’s just amazing. And you’re saying right now, the majority of users are in Europe. So, the goal is, let’s get North America involved, let’s get Asia involved, let’s get other continents to know about the Christian Kroll story, the Ecosia story, and get using this great platform.

Christian: Yeah, and so definitely, I mean, there are… 99% of the population isn’t using us yet.[crosstalk]There’s still a lot of long ways to go, yeah.

John: That’s great. Hey, you know, you also did something very interesting that I want you to share, because we have so many entrepreneurs that watch your show, and for those who just joined us, or you just tuned in, we’ve got Christian Kroll with us. This is a really special human being. He’s the founder and CEO of Ecosia. You can find Ecosia at www.ecosia.org. Christian, you did something in 2018, you turned Ecosia into a steward-owned company. What do you mean by that? What does that even mean? And what kind of changes is that effectuate of how you run the company and how you manage the company?

Christian: Yeah. So that was, I mean, I think a very big step and a big decision for myself. It meant that I gave up the right to ever sell the company or ever take any profits out of the company, I mean, Ecosia is now worth potentially hundreds of millions, I don’t know, a lot of money. But for me, it was never the objective to make a lot of money for myself but just to plant the maximum amount of trees. So, we made this lively binding and irreversible commitment.

The idea is to make sure that the purpose of the company can never be changed. This was never about making “Christian rich”, but this was about getting as many trees planted as possible. And I think this kind of commitment, it makes the whole story just perfect. Before that, if you could sell something like Ecosia, then it’s just there’s something wrong, something for me is missing there.

John: Well, it’s a remarkable story but I don’t want to get into any specifics or business, but this is your full-time job, right? You know, talking about Ecosia and continuing to build it, right Christian? So, you’re allowed, you and your colleagues are allowed to draw salaries. You just can’t overly enrich yourselves, and you know, buy a big yacht, and everyone’s on the big yacht, running the platform from a big yacht and stuff like that. Is that sort of the…[crosstalk]

Christian: Yeah, exactly.

John: Okay.

Christian: So, that’s the idea. An enormous salary is totally fine and I also, of course, have to live like I pay my rent. So, I think that’s[crosstalk]fine.

John: Right.

Christian: But the idea really is that also if, let’s say something happens to me and I can’t continue leading a company, or I want to stop working for Ecosia for some reason; I just want to retire. Then somebody has to take over who is already part of the company, who is aligned with our mission, and not the only kind of brings a lot of money to buy the company but can push forward the mission.

So for me, that’s changing, completely changing, basically the model of a company where not the shareholders are owners of the company, but the team, the employees, maybe the users even own the company, and they’re participating in this organization because they want to make our mission happen. And they’re a lot of companies who say similar things, but then in the end, if the shareholders disagree, they still have all the power, and we wanted to make sure that this can’t happen. That basically, the purpose of the company can never be just sold off. And that’s why we took that step.

John: As an entrepreneur myself and also with so many listeners and viewers as entrepreneurs, where did you even learn that paradigm, and what gave you that epiphany? It’s fascinating and I respect it so much and it’s remarkable because you’re a unique human being Christian. But where do you even… who came up with that paradigm? Or where did you replicate it from?

Christian: I think I observe this kind of transformation that I described earlier that I was… there was a brand that I liked, especially a lot of organic food brands in Germany. They had really strong Ad deals in the beginning and then they got… At some point, they got sold to one of the big food corporations. And then suddenly small subtle changes started happening and it just wasn’t that nice anymore. And I really… As a customer, I felt like my trust basically was abused and is now just used for making a profit, and I just didn’t want this to happen to my company.

And then I actually… when we started investigating, I found out that there’s even a growing network of entrepreneurs in Berlin, and also in Germany, and also in Europe. We call this the Purpose Movement. So, they’re quite a few other companies like a sustainable condom brand for example or an online shopping site for green products that are doing the same model. And I realized, I just really resonate with the values of those people, and it’s much more fun to work with them.

And yeah, we now have quite a few companies that follow the same model. There’s something like maybe a bubble or a kind of a movement starting in, I think with Berlin as the epicenter but a lot of companies are doing similar things at the moment. And I personally find this interesting because I think many of the problems that we have at the moment are to some extent caused by putting too much emphasis on profit maximization and too much emphasis on shareholder value.

And if this gets too much emphasis, then I don’t know. The climate, biodiversity, and people suddenly become less important. And for me, this may be what we are doing is a little bit extreme, but it’s at least another alternative on the other side of the spectrum. Where the purpose and the whole environment of the company are much more important than making a profit. Of course, we have to be profitable otherwise we couldn’t survive as a business, but it’s not about profit maximization, it’s about really achieving our purpose.

And I think a lot of… especially young people, who are looking for a job are looking for such a kind of company. I also see a lot of entrepreneurs who realize, either immediately for them, it’s… especially younger people, also realized. I don’t want to become rich, I want to have a decent income but it’s not about earning millions and buying a big yacht. That’s not important to me. So, I realized that there’s a new generation at least, in my bubble. [crosstalk]I feel there’s a new generation.

John: You’re right. I agree with you. There’s a new… you represent, I mean, my children are at your age and I think your generation is a generation that’s going to come and take what was the beginning of the sustainability revolution and make it an evolution around the world and make the world a better place. I think your generation is just already doing such a great job and you’re a great representative of that. Each search removes about how much CO2 from the air? Each search, just so we have a little bit of a barometer.

Christian: Around 1 kilogram of CO2.

John: One kilogram. That’s wonderful. You know, as an entrepreneur Christian, what do you think? It took you this long to get fifteen million users. How long do you think it will take for you to go from fifteen, would you like to say fifty or a hundred? What are your thoughts right now?

Christian: Yeah, I generally don’t make projections but we’ve seen massive growth waves. For example, whenever something really bad happens to a forest, people start looking for, “How can I help?”

John: Really?

Christian: So if they have vast wildfires or if the Amazon is getting cut down and the media start talking about it, then we have kind of huge waves installed and we had years where we grew more or even months where we grew more than 50 or 100%. And if this happens again, then we might quickly be at fifty million users. Also, the beauty of exponential growth is that… yeah, I mean, every time you double, you just now… we add 15 million more.

John: That’s just wonderful. That’s just wonderful. Well, Christian, you’re always invited back on this podcast, and to spread the word, and for all listeners and viewers out there, please go to his Christian’s great website, www.ecosia.org, download it to be your server, and your search platform. Now you should go to make the world a better place, but as Christian said, it also is great for your own privacy. Christian Kroll, you are making a big impact. You are making the world a better place. I’m so grateful for your mission and your vision. God bless you. Keep doing your great work and I hope we get to meet one day in the future together.

Christian: Thank you very much. Thank you for having me.

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