Origin Story Interview W/ Joel Tasche, CleanHub

Origin Story Interview W/ Joel Tasche, CleanHub

Brighter Future

 / 

Aug 30, 2023

#BrighterFuture #entrepreneurship #Sustainability #ClimateChangeSolution #originstoryseries #seekthechange #oceancleanup #plasticpollution #plasticfreeoceans #innovations #plasticfree #environmentallyconscious #cleanhub #WasteManagement

Brighter Future

We’re happy to be here today with Joel Tasche, founder and CEO of the ocean cleanup company CleanHub.

Thank you so much for being here, Joel. Do you think you could introduce yourself and your company for us?

My name is Joel Tasche, and I'm the founder and CEO of CleanHub. I started this company because of my deep passion for oceans and water sports. I grew up in southern Germany, near Lake Constance, and from the moment I could swim a lap, I started sailing and, later on, surfing. My exposure to plastic pollution was early on through surfing before plastic being in the water was a mainstream topic.

I founded CleanHub to find a scalable solution to tackle this issue, especially ocean plastic pollution. However, we may ultimately discover that the problem starts much earlier than in the ocean.

What does your business do, and how do you approach it?

We operate in the carbon space and have found that externalities can be priced. Externalities refer to any negative impact a business has on the environment, and plastic is no exception. Given plastic’s status, then, as an externality, it should be priced accordingly.

When a company puts plastic on the market, they currently pay for the purchase of the plastic, the cost of raw materials, and the packaging. However, the proper disposal or recycling of plastic also incurs costs, and these end-of-life expenses are not yet included in the price when companies purchase plastic.

This is the issue's core: no one is paying for plastic waste collection, recycling, or disposal.

Our goal is to change this by working with companies that share our belief that externalities should be priced in. Many consumer goods brands have already expressed their support for our approach, recognising that they should be responsible for paying for the proper disposal or treatment of plastic waste.

They come to us at CleanHub and pay us a fee, which we use to organise plastic waste collection in pollution hotspots worldwide, such as India, Indonesia, and small island states. By doing so, we give plastic waste value, providing local entrepreneurs with an incentive to collect and sort plastic so that as much as possible can be sold for recycling. Whatever cannot be recycled is disposed of safely to prevent it from ending up in open fires or the ocean. We take a margin on organising all of this, which is included in the fee that brands pay us.

Our business model involves pricing externalities and working with companies to promote responsible plastic waste disposal and recycling.

Where did your journey begin concerning your awareness of the value of water and the issue of pollution? Can you trace what led you towards founding CleanHub?

I have always had the best times in or around water, particularly in a clean and natural environment. Whether sailing or hiking in the nearby Alps where I grew up, these moments were always the most enjoyable parts of my life. I believe many people feel the same way, and it underscores the importance of a clean planet.

This is where my values were set. During my studies, I worked during the semester to take breaks and go surfing in Indonesia. It was beautiful, with great people and friendly locals, but we would always find plastic bags in the water, which we would collect in the bags of our board shorts. Unfortunately, there were no disposal options for the plastic. Despite participating in numerous beach clean-ups, the pollution would return days later.

One memorable experience was when we went up a volcano, and the locals were burning plastic trash in a bonfire. This was a new perspective for me, as growing up in Germany, we have a waste management system in which people take your waste, and you don't think about where it goes. So, after working in a fleet management business, I took a year off to research the circular economy and waste management, particularly the issue of plastic pollution in India. I spent six months with my co-founders and took a very deep dive into the issue. It has now led me to where I am today.

Can you tell us about your co-founders? Were they friends previously?

Florin works with me at CleanHub, and I first met her at a fleet management company in Zurich in 2016. We quickly began discussing our shared desire to start our own company, and it didn't take much convincing for him to join me. In 2020, we officially founded the company and began researching and meeting with potential co-founders. That's when we were introduced to Bosse, through a mutual friend. Together, we travelled to India and Sri Lanka to better understand the problem we were trying to solve. And that's how CleanHub came to be.

What previous experiences in your career or personal life gave you the confidence to start your own business and believe it would be successful?

What helped me was that I had a clear idea of what I wanted and didn't want to do. I had internships at large corporations, including airlines, where I felt stuck and unable to move forward. While some appreciated my initiative, others preferred maintaining the status quo.

Life is meant for creating things, and I wanted to use my time for something more interesting and exciting. Working in a startup was an adventure, even if it wasn't the highest-paying opportunity. However, it allowed me to learn quickly and gain valuable experience.

I knew a corporate career was not for me, so I joined a very early-stage startup with only seven or eight people. I enjoyed navigating the chaos and setting things up, such as building my customer success team within the company and developing a call centre in Pristina, Kosovo. Although I faced many challenges, I always found a way to make things work by asking the right people, which led to a quick learning curve.

My former CEO trusted me and helped me build my confidence. He supported me in starting CleanHub, and I still turn to him when I need advice. Knowing that I had a support network, including my family, gave me the confidence to try because there wasn't much to lose.

I didn't see starting a company as a big risk because the experience helped me mature and learn quickly. Even if things didn't go as planned, I knew the skills I gained would be valuable on the job market. I believed I had nothing to lose and everything to gain.

How did you come up with the name CleanHub?

The name CleanHub resulted from a discussion among the three co-founders, although initially, they had a different name in mind. One option they considered was "Kumpel," a German word meaning both "friend" and "miner," which they liked because they envisioned their company as being in the resource business, mining for resources from waste. But, ultimately, they decided against using "Kumpel" because it would not be widely understood outside of Germany. So instead, they chose the name "CleanHub," which more accurately reflects the company's vision as a waste management company in a coastal region that collects and sorts waste to reintroduce it into the circular economy whenever possible.

As three co-founders, you initially thought of starting your own business and travelled to India. What occurred during your time there, and what steps did you take to establish your first project?

The initial step was to decide which problem to address without any intention of building an organisation around it. My goal was never to start a company and seek funding from venture capitalists to solve the problem. Instead, my main interest was in understanding what was required to solve the problem, and this approach guided our actions in India.

In a TED talk by an Italian individual who had spent significant time in Africa and foreign aid, he noted that if you want to solve a problem, you should listen and not speak. This advice was quite descriptive of our experience in India. We realised that making assumptions based on our cultural background was easy, concluding that things were not working in other parts of the world because they hadn't figured it out yet. However, this was rarely the case since people worldwide had already figured things out.

We approached our work in India with an open mind, acknowledging that we did not know everything. To begin, I contacted a friend who resided in India and offered us accommodation and assistance navigating the local waste management landscape. We began by visiting a recycling company that transformed plastic pouches into hoses for agriculture. From there, we worked backwards along the supply chain to identify where the materials came from. Who was sourcing the material, and where did they obtain it from? This way, we gradually approached the problem through a process akin to investigative journalism. That's how we ultimately identified the issue. You can start building a solution only by truly understanding the problem.

Where did you begin building CleanHub, and are you currently operating outside India?

We have a presence in Indonesia and Cambodia and are currently exploring opportunities in Tanzania.

Our decision to expand to India was to broaden our understanding of waste management and circular economy in countries different from German systems. We brainstormed potential locations and considered language and cultural accessibility, with a preference for countries where English was widely spoken.

Additionally, we sought out markets large enough to be relevant to us. As the second most populous country in the world, India fit our criteria, and we also had close friends there. This is how India became our top choice and how we ultimately expanded our operations there.

What is the most fulfilling thing in your work?

We have a Slack channel where people can learn more about what we do and understand its importance. However, we have developed track and trace technology for waste managers worldwide, enabling them to document that they are collecting plastic, thereby building trust in the market. Through this trust, they can attract consumer goods brands willing to sponsor their waste management activities. The track and trace component constantly sends images of waste bags, bales of plastic, and trucks in transit. All of this is now posted on our website, www.cleanhub.com/live-dashboard, for everyone to follow in real-time.

Seeing this evidence of waste being collected and managed properly is extremely fulfilling because it is ultimately what we set out to do. There are also numerous smaller stories surrounding it, such as people finding jobs, receiving better salaries, and feeling proud of working in the waste sector because they understand they are providing a great service to the environment and their local communities. We have had waste workers who were afraid to tell their families about their jobs in the industry. But through our work and the public awareness of this issue, they now feel a sense of pride in being part of the business of keeping the planet clean.

Did you plan to do a live stream from the outset, or did you realise it was essential for brands to engage with you?

From the very beginning, we have always done something that personally annoyed me: green marketing and not knowing whether the claims were true. It's easy to make claims to the audience. As a brand, we engage in activities that are tangible and verifiable. We started with a track and trace system, our first product.

As a sceptical consumer, I don't believe many of the brands' claims. The carbon space has received rightful criticism for its impact on the environment. Brands can claim carbon neutrality and engage in reforestation projects, but how can they prove it? We chose plastic because it is a visible and tangible product. We can trust in actual data and evidence instead of trusting in words. We built a tracking system to deliver evidence to the outside world so that everyone can see that plastic will be collected, sorted, and treated correctly if money is put into the system. This is the core of what we do to ensure that every person knows that the promised impact of their contribution will be realised. Consumers deserve transparency. They deserve to know that when they support a brand, the claims being made are not just pure marketing but have an actual impact on the planet.

With CleanHub, was there a time when you took a completely different direction than originally planned?

After we started the company, things were not stable in the first year. We changed our course almost every other day and tried many different ideas in the space. But once we understood the problem, everything changed. Since then, we have focused on one idea: putting a price on plastic pollution to solve it. Two things happen when a price is put on plastic pollution. Firstly, it incentivises brands to minimise their plastic footprint because if something becomes more expensive, people tend to save it. We are currently seeing this with the energy crisis we are facing. With gas prices rising, everyone thinks twice before turning on the heat. If the same principle applied to wasteful activities in our society, we would see less pollution. Secondly, putting a price on plastic waste and its management would create an entire environmental service company that collects and manages waste. This is why we have never changed our course. We are convinced about our approach and foresee that the future will remain unchanged.

What have been the major challenges faced by CleanHub since its inception?

The company was incorporated just a month before the COVID-19 regulations took effect, resulting in a difficult start. I recall being on one of the final flights from Mumbai. We had just received our initial funding from our early investors, and I was on my way home when I realised that even though we had money in the bank, nothing seemed to work anymore. We had to regroup for a week or two and assess our options. Fortunately, online meetings and Zoom made a lot of things possible. We had already established a small network in India, which we were able to leverage. However, this was just the first of many challenges. There were ongoing economic uncertainties, and every new crisis caused budget owners to become anxious and rethink what their brands could afford. They were always thinking about the future and what it might hold.

Another significant challenge was staying relevant. It's a testament to our customers that, regardless of the economic climate, they continue to prioritise the environment to some degree and don't cut back on that front. The past two years have been a constant struggle, with the economy lurching from crisis to crisis. However, seeing how dedicated brands are to solve the world's most pressing problems is encouraging. So many of the issues we face today are relevant now and in the next five to ten years. Ensuring we have a habitable planet is a generational task, though, and seeing so many people prioritising the long term is fantastic.

Did you make any mistakes with CleanHub or in your career that you learned from and applied to running this business smoothly?

Yes, there were hundreds of mistakes that I learned from. My biggest lesson was to trust my gut instincts more, even though it may sound cliché. If uncomfortable situations are ahead, it's important to address them as quickly as possible. This could mean having a difficult conversation with a team member, customer, or partner where disagreements occur. Ignoring these issues will only worsen them, so finding solutions and addressing them promptly is important. Trusting your gut instincts is a reliable compass in these situations. Addressing issues early on will make life easier than letting them boil up, and this is probably the most significant lesson I have learned.

Have you had any epiphanies or big “Aha!” moments that have shaped you as an entrepreneur?

There's one interview that I keep returning to: with Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia. Everyone quotes him in the environmental space, but there's more to it. Working on these problems or looking at the news and seeing how devastating things are can make it easy to become pessimistic. I may be misquoting him, but in his interview with Fast Company, he says that the only solution for depression is action. Start working on the things that depress you or look grim, and it can only improve. The other thing to consider when you're in the environmental or general space is the definition of sustainability. What is truly sustainable? Even if you buy a hyper-sustainable product, it still has a carbon footprint, agriculture before it, and emissions around it. It's nearly impossible to purchase regenerative products purely, so nothing is truly sustainable. Chouinard also says this in the interview. It's like climbing a mountain that you can never reach the summit of, but you can always get better and better. I remind myself of this when I doubt whether all targets can be reached. Getting up every morning and trying my best to achieve the best possible outcome is what drives me.

What inspired you throughout your entrepreneurial journey?

My mum owned a travel agency during my childhood, and I spent much time there after school. Seeing her passion for working tirelessly to make her clients happy ingrained a customer service mentality in me. Even though the travel agency business has become more challenging with the emergence of booking platforms, my mum still managed to run a successful agency for over 25 years.

Travelling has been one of my biggest sources of inspiration. I understand that being able to travel is a privilege not everyone has, but I have always enjoyed it and found it valuable. In addition, experiencing different cultures and ways of thinking has given me a broader perspective, which is important for looking at things from different angles.

Another significant inspiration for me was my ethics teacher in high school. In Germany, you can choose to study religion or ethics, and I always enjoyed our discussions and building a moral compass to guide my decision-making. I learned that it's essential to make choices you're comfortable with and can stand by, even if they aren't always the right ones.

I also watched a TED talk by Ernesto Sirolli that resonated with me: “If you want to understand the problem, shut up and listen.” I have listened to many podcasts featuring entrepreneurs sharing their stories and learned that the path to success is rarely a straight line. It's normal to face challenges and setbacks.

Did you ever feel like you had more responsibility or had to take responsibility because you were in a position of privilege?

Yes and no. Through travelling, you can realise how good your life is. At the same time, you can witness people living in poor conditions and still being happy. A couple of things help people be happy, and to some degree, it might even be completely egoistic because people try to live happy lives.

I learned that giving back to the community to some degree is important to feel good about myself and be happy with my life. Being in a position where I can do the things I enjoy, usually being by the ocean, is also important to me. Additionally, being surrounded by passionate people doing good work is very enjoyable. I appreciate people who stand up for something, especially those who manage waste and build out their businesses consciously.

It's not that I felt a responsibility to do it, but it made sense to use whatever I learned to leave a better planet. Everyone deserves to live on a clean and healthy planet, not just us but also future generations. So it was more of a natural drive for me than feeling responsible for others.

I can understand every person in the world who wants to live a different life or doesn't want to take on responsibilities. It's not a responsibility for someone who wants to go to their job, nine to five, but also have a lot of free time to spend with family and friends, etc. Everyone has to make their own decision. I made my decision, but that doesn't make me any better than anyone else.

What were the biggest compromises or sacrifices you made to get where you are today?

While making these sacrifices is unnecessary, I have recently prioritised other things over my physical health. There's a saying about the “founder’s 15,” referring to gaining weight while starting a company. This also happened to me, but I considered it a matter of personal discipline rather than a sacrifice. If you start a company, you should be fully committed; otherwise, it doesn't make sense as it's unfair to the people who work for the company, the investors, or the partners. Being fully committed means you may have to forgo relaxing vacations or adjust your priorities. I'm still trying to find the right balance because you must be healthy to run a successful company.

What kind of future do you want to help create with CleanHub?

I want to create a more circular future where people refrain from burning waste in their backyards. Burning waste significantly contributes to various environmental issues, such as air pollution, climate change, and poor hygiene standards for those around it. Furthermore, living in or around waste can lead to numerous health problems, and it has a detrimental impact on the cleanliness of our oceans. The oceans are one of our most critical habitats, regulating the climate and producing oxygen. Therefore, we must treat the oceans well, not only for the sake of our environment but also for our health. This is the future I aspire to live in and what we work towards every day at CleanHub.

What are your aspirations for CleanHub in the next 10 years?

Assuming everything goes well, CleanHub will transform into a worldwide network of waste management companies with access to funding from the open market to compensate for their environmental services. These companies will also have access to purchasers of recycled raw materials. Our main objective will be to establish one CleanHub, i.e., one waste management facility in each coastal community, to prevent plastic waste from entering the oceans. This is what success would look like to me.

Is there a particular company that you would like to collaborate with?

I do admire many companies. There isn't necessarily a preferred partner. I highly respect anyone who decides to do better for the environment.

What advice would you offer to young entrepreneurs who are just starting out or individuals considering creating a business?

Well, it depends on the stage you're at. First, you should be passionate about the problem you're trying to solve. The journey to success can be long, and it helps if you wake up in the morning excited to work on the problem. Then, once you have this passion, work on understanding the problem, making assumptions, verifying or falsifying them, and gaining an understanding of the economics of your market.

Once you have an idea, don't waste time on building the perfect website, finding the perfect logo, or creating the perfect name. Instead, get on the phone and try to sell your product. Revenue is the best indicator of whether or not your idea will work. Many people may say they love your idea and would buy it, but until people start paying for your product, you won't know if it will be successful.

As soon as you have validation through paying customers, follow that and find more customers who are willing to pay. Don't wait until you have a perfect product; get out there and embrace the market's feedback. Use any negative feedback to improve and refine your product.

In summary, I recommend focusing on your passion, understanding your market, and finding paying customers as quickly as possible. Then, use their feedback to improve and grow your business.

If there was a message that could reach everyone in the world, what would that one be?

Don't burn your waste under the open sky.

Words of wisdom, to be sure. Joel, thank you so much for spending a little time with us to talk about all of this. We wish you nothing but the best in the development of CleanHub and in preventing or removing plastic waste from the world’s oceans.

If you’d like to learn more about CleanHub, please visit www.cleanhub.com.

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