Mark Bowles: Green value in EcoATM

EcoATM is a San Diego-based nationwide network for automated electronics recycling. The concept is pretty basic: you see one of the 800 kiosks, you put your phone (tablet,MP3 player) in it, get some cash in return and walk away with a feeling of some small environmental contribution.

The idea immediately caught attention of the press and investors. With all of the new funding, awards, media support, and America’s new found interest in recycling for cash EcoATM proudly announced last April that they have recycled 2 million devices on that mark. Soon after EcoATM was acquired by Outerwall for $350M. Clearly a good, green idea is one that does not go by unnoticed.

Mark Bowles founded EcoATM in 2008 inspired by the fact that only 3 percent of people worldwide recycle their mobile devices. But it wasn’t his first startup. By the time EcoATM launched Bowles already had over 25 years of experience in the semiconductor, wireless and tech industries.

I asked Mark to think back to the first few years:

“The first year was hardest because there was only my belief that the product would work and that the company would be successful. I had no tangible proof of either. 

“The hardest part of that year was coming home after having pitched the fiftieth potential investor and my wife asking “How did the meeting go”. To which I replied, “They think it will never work and encouraged me to pursue something else. And by the way, we need to sell the house, pull the kids out of private school, and sell the 401ks because we will need to fund this thing ourselves for longer than I thought.” We sold the house, the 401k’s, the kids college funds, and put the kids in public school, and somehow managed to keep it going with no funding and without having a pay check for 2 years. But in the end it all worked out for the better. There is a fine line between being a persevering entrepreneur and a completely irresponsible knucklehead and I think I skated right up to that line in the first year.  

“The second year was better because we built prototypes that began to prove that the product would work in the real world. We needed that proof not only for potential investors but for ourselves too. The initial product trials were off-the-charts successful which was gratifying after so much sacrifice but also gave hope that getting the company finally financed were good. The original vision that only myself and a few other co-founders saw in the beginning was now a vision shared and understood by hundreds of people. That felt good.

“I knew we had a great opportunity right from the very first moment the idea occurred to me. But I had previously started 5 companies and knew that the finish line was a long way away. The 4th or 5th day of our first product trial in retail I knew consumers would respond well to the product when by 9am there were 4 or 5 customers waiting outside of the store for the door to unlock. When the manager unlocked the door they all rushed back to the kiosk. It was clear then that we had something. But I didn’t really know we had made it until Outerwall agreed to buy ecoATM in our 5thyear (July’13). Because as an entrepreneur who had built many companies before, I knew that sometimes value can be temporary in a start-up. With Outerwall’s acquisition, they brought the resources, capital, scale, and expertise to grow our business to a sustainable, global enterprise that would realize its full potential.”