BBC’s weekly series The Boss features several business leaders from around the world. This week we speak to Christian Kroll, founder and CEO of the Internet search engine Ecosia.
Christian Kroll wants nothing more than to change the world.
“I want to make the world a better and greener place,” he says.
“I also want to show that there is a more ethical alternative to the kind of greedy capitalism that is approaching the destruction of the planet.”
The 35-year-old German is the head of the search engine Ecosia, which has an unusual but very environmentally friendly business model: he donates most of his profits to enable tree planting around the world.
Founded by Christian in 2009, Ecosia makes money the same way Google does: from advertising revenue. Earn money every time someone clicks on one of the ads displayed above and next to the search results.
Ecosia then donates 80% of the profits it makes from this to tree planting charities. To date, it has funded more than 105 million new trees, from Indonesia to Brazil and from Kenya to Haiti.
Since obviously not everyone clicks on the ads, the company estimates that on average it takes 45 searches to increase the cost of planting a tree by 0.22 euros (20p; 26 US cents).
Today Ecosia, based in Berlin, claims to have 15 million users. That’s a small drop in the ocean compared to Google’s estimated 5.6 billion searches per day, but Christian says he has big ambitions to “scale massively, win more users, and plant billions of trees.”
And unlike Google’s founding billionaires – Larry Page and Sergey Brin – he promises to never buy a super yacht. “Even though they have big yachts, I have a dinghy that I take to lakes. Ego consumption is not appropriate in a world where there is climate change.”
Christian, in fact, would struggle to buy a yacht if he wanted one, as he has imposed two legally binding restrictions on the business: shareholders and staff cannot personally sell shares or take profits outside the company.
Born in former East Germany in 1985, Christian hasn’t always been so selfless. As a teenager in the city of Wittenberg, he and his friends played on the stock market, often tripling their investments.
He wanted to become a stockbroker and so he enrolled to study business administration at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg in Bavaria.
However, his world view changed when he traveled through India for three months at the age of 18. “I’ve met smarter people than me who didn’t have the same opportunities because they weren’t born in Germany,” she says. “I began to realize that maybe I should have done something to make the world a better place.”
Then in college he started paying close attention to online advertising when he created a website that compared different online brokers. “I was shocked at the amount of revenue I was spending on Google Ads to drive traffic to the site,” he says.
And so his idea for what would later become Ecosia was born. “It became clear to me that Google had a very smart business model, and it was also pretty obvious that there was room for a targeted search engine to do something like this … to use the money to fund tree planting.” .
After university he spent six months in Nepal in 2007, where he first unsuccessfully tried to start a search engine to raise funds for local charitable and non-governmental projects. “I didn’t know how to start a business, the funds were limited and there were problems with the Internet and electricity most days.”
He then spent 10 months in South America, where the level of deforestation he saw gave him the determination to launch Ecosia in 2009 after returning to Germany. The name is a mixture of the words “eco” and “utopia”.
Christian says he started the business with the help of others. “The truth is, I didn’t have the technical knowledge to do it, but I could rely on the skills of friends and family,” he says.
Today Ecosia employs 70 people and publishes financial statements online every month. Last year it recorded annual revenues of € 19.3 million (£ 17.3 million; $ 22.8 million) and a pre-tax profit of € 14.5 million.
All of its electricity comes from solar energy and 80% of its users are said to be 29 years old or younger.
Its search engine uses Microsoft’s Bing technology, with which it has a long-term agreement. “They really like what we’re doing,” says Christian.
Eric Haggstrom, an analyst with corporate research group Insider Intelligence, says Ecosia and other smaller search engines face “significant hurdles.”
“More importantly, Google provides the default search for Android devices and the Chrome browser,” he says. “And it spends billions of dollars a year to be the default search provider for Apple devices.
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“Most users don’t use search engines other than their device or browser default settings. Also, on the ad side, advertisers use Google’s search product because [so] well.”
Christian admits it “can be tricky” and wants regulators to do something to loosen Google’s grip.
But more generally, he wants to see capitalism changed for the better. “This is really needed in the 21st century,” he says.
“What we’re trying to do is reform capitalism. I think it’s not healthy at the moment. I want us to rethink how business should be, what their role is.”