Ridwell’s father-son origin story is as compelling as it is adorable. Ryan Metzger, and his then six year-old son Owen, turned a weekend project in 2018 to find a home for used batteries into a fast-growing business with over 75,000 customers who pay around $15/month for the service. Ridwell has recycled or repurposed over 11 million pounds of hard-to-recycle items since then. Their initial efforts were well meaning, but it was Ryan Metzger’s discovery that the recycling industry was in turmoil that was a catalyst for launching a business. Metzger and his co-founders met the moment.
Certain startup stories lend themselves to a narrative built around the question, “why now?” Why hasn’t this solution been created yet? What factors align to make this the perfect time to introduce this service? Every startup story needs to be logical. It must make sense. A good “why now” can be the foundation for your story logic. Here’s how Ridwell’s story started, why it was the perfect time to set up the business and how it’s going today.
“How It Started”
Ryan and his wife, Erin, grew up on the West Coast where recycling was an important family value. When they had their own home, they tried to throw out as little as possible. The Metzgers had a place in their basement where they gathered batteries, plastic bags, old clothes, and Styrofoam, because they hated the idea of sending the items out to sea or into landfills. They just didn’t know what to do with the stuff or lacked the time to get rid of it all.
One weekend in 2018, Ryan started to search for a place to recycle the old batteries. Once he found a destination, Ryan and Owen thought they’d check in with some neighbors to see if they had any used batteries of their own. Some neighbors were interested so Owen went door-to-door collecting batteries (Ryan said the idea was inspired by an old-fashioned paper route, but in reverse). After a while, Ryan and Owen started collecting other items. Ryan built a website called “Owen’s List” to help organize the pick-ups and before long 4500 Seattle neighbors were on the site.
Ryan realized this had the makings of a business. His environmentally-conscious Seattle neighbors needed to find an easy way to dispose of hard-to-recycle items; but it was the timing that heightened the opportunity. China had just announced that it would no longer accept the West’s items for recycling. Based on this news, journalists and citizens alike started to wonder whether the recycling they brought to the curb was actually being recycled or rather just ending up in landfills. There was an immense lack of trust in the system. It was critical for Ryan and Owen to be clear on explaining where everything went. They would list each of their partners and would show photos of items being dropped off. This is something that Ridwell has continued to this day.
Some of the best innovation stories happen because of timing. Once the startup storyteller realizes what people care about in the moment, they jump on that. On Ridwell’s site, transparency is front and center. Their customers want to know where things are recycled and how; so Ridwell is saying, “we’ll tell and show you.” Their overall value proposition is “Wasting Less, Made Easy;” but one of the primary benefits is, “Feel Great About Where Your Stuff Goes.”
“How It’s Going”
Owen is 11 now, but he isn’t the only character in this story that has grown since 2018. Ridwell raised capital and has expanded to several cities, including: Portland, Denver, Minneapolis, Austin, and the San Francisco Bay Area. Their team of 200 is now finding homes for new items so they don’t end up in the landfill, including: multi-layer plastic, eye glasses, corks, political yard signs, linens, and more. Ridwell is paid for some of the items, donates others, and even has to pay for a few things to be disposed of properly.
As Ridwell moves into new communities, they give residents a say in what they pick up. Often people are most conscious of the “plastics in the ocean” problem and select plastic film. After a one-time offer to pick up for free, Ridwell tells its story with transparency front and center. Once the story resonates with a customer, Ridwell offers several pricing plans to trial the service. There are other ways to dispose of these hard-to-recycle items, but Ridwell contends that no one else takes more things, makes it so easy to do so, or tells you what happens to everything.
The business is currently growing by over 50% per year; and with high retention rates, they can invest a fair amount in advertising, social media content curation and a referral program to attract new customers. As Ridwell grows, new organizations are coming forward looking for the items that Ridwell collects. Food banks reach out when getting low on supplies and Ridwell rounds up canned goods. In Denver, a refugee support group sought old coats. A wildlife center welcomed old blankets and pillows for the animals to nestle in.
The best part for Ryan is hearing from customers. One customer told Ryan, “I can’t bear to throw this away.” With Ridwell, you no longer have to feel bad about doing so. Most of your hard to dispose of items will stay out of the ground and find a new home. And due to lessons from 2018, Ridwell will tell you where that home is.
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