Ep. 01 - Jeff Kirschner: Founder And CEO Of Litterati | TED Resident
LITTERATI FOUNDER & CEO | TED RESIDENT
While backpacking around the world, Jeff Kirschner saw first hand the challenges we face on a global scale. In many ways, this experience led to his most recent venture. Inspired by his 4 year old girl and a cigarette butt, Litterati is a global movement using technology & data to “crowdsource-clean” the planet -- one piece at a time. Featured in National Geographic, Time Magazine, USA Today and Fast Company, Litterati is the epitome of how a simple action can create global impact.
Gail Davis: Okay, so joining us today is Jeff Kirschner and Jeff is the CEO and founder of Litterati. While backpacking around the world, Jeff first saw the challenges we face on a global scale. In many ways this experience led to his most recent venture. Inspired by his four-year-old girl and a cigarette butt, Litterati is a global movement using technology and data to crowdsource clean the planet one piece at a time. Featured in National Geographic, Time Magazine, USA Today and Fast Company, Litterati is the epitome of how a simple action can create a global impact.
Jeff Kirschner: Hey Kyle, Gail. Thanks for having me.
Gail Davis: You're welcome. Obviously the intro gives a brief glimpse of your story. I have read a lot about it and I'd love for you to elaborate a little bit more about why and how you actually started this company.
Jeff Kirschner: It all started on a walk in the woods in Oakland. I was walking with my two little kids and my four-year-old daughter noticed that someone had thrown a plastic tub of cat litter into a creek and she looked at me and said, "Daddy. That doesn't go there." That was really the eye-opening moment. Here I am living in the Bay Area, a place known for being environmentally responsible and ecologically progressive and yet everywhere you look there's litter. When she said that it reminded me of summer camp. I used to go away for two months and on the morning of visiting day right before they'd let our anxious parents come barreling through the gates, our camp director would say, "Quick, everyone go pick up five pieces of litter." Well, you get a couple hundred kids each picking up five pieces and within a few minutes you've got a much cleaner camp, so I thought, "Why not apply that crowdsourced cleanup model to the entire planet?" and that was really the inspiration for starting Litterati.
Gail Davis: That is really cool. I saw some of the data. Can you talk a little bit about the impact that you can already measure with what your company's doing?
Jeff Kirschner: Sure. What happened after this epiphany was a little bit awkward. I took a photograph of a cigarette butt using Instagram. There was no rhyme or reason, there was no big idea, I just did it, and then I took another photo and another and another and I noticed two things happening. One, litter became both artistic and approachable and two, at the end of a few days I had 50 photos on my phone and I realized that I was effectively keeping a record of the positive impact I was having on the planet. That's 50 less things that you might see or somebody might step on or some bird might eat, so I started telling people what I was doing and they started participating.
As this community started growing we realized that each photo tells a story. Each photo contains all this data, essentially it contains who, what, when, and where. From that we started understanding, "Well, this is just more than pretty pictures. Litterati is becoming a community that's really generating quite a bit of information," and we starting asking how could we use that data to create an impact?
I'll give you one example, and there are many. A group of fifth graders used Litterati to pick up 1,247 pieces of litter just on their school yard and they've learned that the most common type of litter were the plastic straw wrappers from their own cafeteria, so these students went to their principal, asked, "Why are we still buying individually wrapped straws?" and they stopped.
Gail Davis: That's awesome.
Jeff Kirschner: That's an example. Yeah, it's just an example of how a simple tool can provide data that leads to an insight that can make a difference going forward.
Kyle Davis: In a previous conversation that we had you mentioned something about, I think it was like a litter fingerprint, and that each city has their own litter fingerprint. What San Francisco has with regards to litter is going to be vastly different than that of New York and totally different than that of Dallas. Could you speak a little bit to that and then there was something that we talked about last time where you mentioned using that data to, I think, help with a taxing situation in the city of San Francisco or something like that?
Jeff Kirschner: Yeah, that's absolutely right. What happened was the City of San Francisco wanted to understand what percentage of litter was cigarettes and this dates back to 2008, 2009, long before Litterati existed, but they wanted this information and they wanted it to create a tax, so at the time what they did was they put a couple of people in the streets with pencils and clipboards and those folks walked around and spot checked. "That's a cigarette, that's not. That is, that's not," and they collected this information. That led to a 20 cent tax on all cigarette sales, which as you can imagine, created a massive revenue stream for the city, and then they got sued by the tobacco industry, who claimed that collecting information with pencils and clipboards was neither precise nor provable. The city gave us a call and said, "Hey, we heard about Litterati's technology. Can you help?"
At the time I'm not sure that the city realized that our technology was simply my Instagram account, but what happened from there was really fascinating because I said, "Of course we can help, and not only can we tell you the percentage of cigarettes, but we can tell you whether something is a Parliament or a Pall Mall, and there's a geo tag and there's a time stamp and we can give you the proof that you need." Four days and 5,000 pieces later our data was used in court to not only defend, but double the tax, generating an estimated four million dollars in annual revenue for San Francisco to clean itself up. That was a really fascinating, eye-opening moment for us. During that process I learned two things, and Kyle you alluded to the second one about the fingerprinting.
The first thing I learned was Instagram is the wrong tool. We had literally launched Litterati as this hashtag and that's how the community started building, but it was at this point during the San Francisco work that we realized we need to create our own application, and so we launched in iOS app. Android should be ready soon, and that enabled us to collect data in a much more powerful and robust way.
The second thing we learned was that if you think about it, every city has a, what we call, unique litter fingerprint. I had just come from Toronto and I noticed Tim Horton's coffee cups on the ground. In San Francisco you don't see Tim Horton's because we don't have that coffee. We have Phil's and Pete's and Ghirardelli chocolate. As I was doing this work in San Francisco, I had this idea that what's lying on the ground in San Francisco looks a lot different than what's lying on the ground in Stockholm or even Oakland for that matter. If you could start to fingerprint a city and that could lead to revenue generation for something as simple as cigarettes, well what about coffee cups or soda cans or candy wrappers, and how could you start to use that data to really not only help improve a city's cleanliness and increase it's resources, but what if we could just be smarter about where to place trash cans and recycling bins?
That's really what we've started working on with municipalities and we think that there's tremendous potential.
Gail Davis: Jeff, sometimes I have clients that want to hire a speaker but they also want to have an experiential component. Is there a way that you could do something in a community where you were going to speak, whether it was a corporation or an organization where people could actually use your app and go out and do their own litter finding?
Kyle Davis: Clean sweep, if you will?
Jeff Kirschner: There is and in fact we've done it many times, most recently with Uber. I gave a talk at Uber and right after the presentation about 50 people went out for 20 minutes, that was it, and cleaned up their neighborhood in downtown San Francisco. What was fascinating about it was not only the quick team building that took place, but because we have all of the data, we were able to provide Uber with that information to show them the impact that they were able to create in just a short amount of time.
That data included, out of those people, who picked up the most? Out of that material, what was the most commonly found type of litter? Where was the litter located? If you think about what they could now do with that information, well suddenly you have one company saying to the rest of the world, "Look at what we're doing to give back to our community."
Gail Davis: Right, right.
Jeff Kirschner: That was one example. We've done that with schools many times. Schools have turned that into citizen science projects. It's been used as a team building exercise as a way for them to market the community service they're doing and as a way to just build this community overall and generate even more of an impact.
Gail Davis: That's awesome.
Kyle Davis: If I may, when you're looking at the data have you looked at an aggregated total of what it is Litterati has picked up or helped pick up over time and what that impact is today?
Jeff Kirschner: We have. On our website we have a list of the most commonly found items, the most commonly found brands. We also have the total number of pieces that have been picked up and it started with one cigarette. This week we'll do probably close to 4,000 pieces which sounds like a lot but in actuality it's nothing. The problem is so massive that 4,000 pieces is really nothing at all, but it's a start. We think, Kyle, to answer your question a little bit more specifically that it's understanding not just the volume but the characterization of what's on the ground that can actually lead us to solutions.
There have been cleanups for decades. Coastal cleanups, neighborhood litter walks. There have been $1,000 littering fines posted on signage, there have been public service announcements like "Don't Mess with Texas" and a very famous crying Native American Indian, and the problem isn't really getting any better. We could go down a rabbit hole as to why that is but we think that the best way to solve this problem is to first understand it because then it gives you something to go after. That's really where we think the data will be the most valuable.
Kyle Davis: I remember, and we've talked about this before, but there's a company that I worked for in San Francisco that every Friday or so we would go out and we would do "Clean Streets" is what the program was called and we'd go out and we'd clean trash. The data science team at that company would compile some of the findings for the week. We would weigh the trash bags and say, "Hey, you know today we picked up 258 pounds of trash." Of that, because it's San Francisco it was, and especially the neighborhood that we were cleaning up it was, we had 230 heroin needles and then we had X amount of cigarette butts and this and that and unique find of the week was always something really weird, like we picked up an amputated leg, not amputated leg, but a
Gail Davis: Prosthetic, I hope.
Kyle Davis: Prosthetic, thank you. Yes, please. There was always something really interesting and I just find, I will find it very interested to see what the data says over the long term as to what the impact that Litterati can do to limit certain things. I'm personally a fan of clean needle exchanges and I think this is something that we talked about but, putting it in the right area so that way you're not having to not just it up in a city like San Francisco which is so beautiful, but to also be able to skip – to not fear having to step on that or have a kid come in contact. I think that's something we talked about before.
Jeff Kirschner: We have and in that particular neighborhood you have tons of people who are walking dogs and it's not about shaming those who are using heroin, it's about providing a safe exchange that not only benefits them but benefits the environment. You brought up this notion of how can Litterati really limit the problem? I'll give you an example.
In downtown Oakland there is a block that is just covered in blight. A few members of the Litterati team then came together and picked up just over 1,500 pieces, and essentially conducted a litter fingerprint and what we learned was one, most of the litter came from the local Taco Bell that was on the corner. Most of the Taco Bell litter came from their individual hot sauce packets, those little single use plastic packages, and most of the single use plastic packages hadn't even been opened. Now imagine if you could take that data and work with Taco Bell in a collaborative way, not a confrontational way, but give them the opportunity to get out in front of the message. What if they said, "Okay, we're only going to give out hot sauce upon request or they installed bulk dispensers or they start working on much more sustainable forms of packaging. Now you have a situation where a brand takes an environmental hazard, turns it into an economic engine and becomes an industry hero. That's the type of story that I think would be widely shared.
Gail Davis: That's cool. Speaking of stories, I know that our audience is very familiar with TED Talks. I know that you were in residency with TED and that was a new term for me, so I'm curious how you get selected for that, what's involved with that? I want to learn more about being a resident with TED.
Jeff Kirschner: It was one of the most inspiring experiences of my life. Within TED they have something called the residency. It is an application process where they select people from around the world who they believe have "an idea worth spreading," which is TED's mantra. You spend about four months internally in their headquarters in New York City working with TED, working with the staff and essentially building that idea. I just completed the residency and I think one of the aspects of the program that is really so inspirational is you're surrounded by other people who are just working on the most incredible projects, one more interesting than the next. Having that level of exposure to other people who are, interestingly, going up against similar challenges that you are I think really helps you see new ways to solving the challenges that you're up against or understanding the tools that they're using in certain situations. In my case it was 20 of us from early September through the middle of December that culminates in a TED Talk, and it was just a fascinating, fascinating experience.
Gail Davis: When will the TED Talk be posted online?
Jeff Kirschner: Hopefully in just a few weeks. They obviously go into a bit of a post-production process and the next step is for them to release the talks. They'll typically release it on a YouTube channel, but they also have ted.com where each day they feature one talk and the exposure that any individual speaker or idea can gain from that is really tremendous.
Gail Davis: I am very familiar with that and I know that one you have a TED Talk that becomes viral it can really create a demand for you as a speaker and I'm curious, what do you envision doing once people ... The TED Talks generally are shorter in length, about 18 minutes, and then when people ask you to come out and speak for 45 minutes or an hour, what is it that you, what are your key takeaways or what do you envision your larger talk to be about?
Jeff Kirschner: It's a great question. I think it starts with who is the audience and what is the purpose of why I am being asked to speak? Obviously different audiences have different needs and desires and wants. I think in the case of me there's a couple different angles. One certainly is the story or Litterati and essentially how a very simple act can lead to a much larger movement, but really that is almost a Trojan Horse, if you will, for a larger idea, which is: How can mindful activists come together? How can these communities organically build to solve some of our world's biggest problems? How do you not only ignite and catalyze those communities but how do you give them the tools that they need so that they are empowered to take a very simple action that leads to a greater impact? I do think that there's an opportunity to deliver a talk, whether it's a Fortune 500 company or a small startup to show them anecdotally what has been done, not only with Litterati but with other communities who are really out there to try and solve a problem.
Gail Davis: I love that you said it depends on the audience because that was going to be my next question. In your mind, do you see yourself as more of a fit for say the corporate audience that you've mentioned or the associations or other non-profits or ...?
Kyle Davis: Colleges, universities.
Gail Davis: Colleges, universities, yeah. Is there a group out there that when you see yourself speaking more that you're more drawn to?
Jeff Kirschner: Hmm. You know, that's interesting. As you were asking that I was kind of running through the Rolodex of the different audiences I've spoken to and the truth is I've spoken at universities like Stanford and Michigan and Cal and Fortune 500 companies like Facebook and eBay and others and government summits and environmental conferences. I've even spoken at preschools and elementary schools. You know, I don't know if there's one particular audience that I am better suited for. That being said, you obviously have to tailor the talk depending on who the audience is and that could be anything from, you're speaking in an elementary school to a younger audience, you're speaking to a very sophisticated audience, for example I just spoke at MIT and that was a highly sophisticated, very data driven, very tech savvy group. The vocabulary that you might use, the stories that you might tell, the images that you might show will probably be very different than if you were speaking to a group of environmental activists. I think it goes back to where we started, really understanding the audience, understanding what will resonate with them is most important.
Gail Davis: Sometimes when people are evaluating speakers, they'll ask me the question, "What's the takeaway value?" I like that question but the question that I always want to ask the speaker is, "How is the audience going to feel after they hear you speak?"
Jeff Kirschner: I hope that the audience feels surprised, delighted, and inspired. I think that the most effective speakers really tell a story in a way that unfolds so that when you are first grabbed as an audience member you're immediately hooked in some way, shape or form, but as the speaker begins to go through the narrative, he or she is un-layering, if you will, different aspects of the story that cause you, as an audience member, to really have light bulbs go off, either in ways that you can apply what you're hearing to your own life, to your own problems, to your own career, or in ways that say, "I want to be part of what they're telling me." That's part of the surprise and the more a speaker can do that and lead into sort of this climactic moment, almost like a movie would, I think the more effective it can be. If you leave that audience feeling inspired and empowered after they've been surprised and delighted, I think you've done a really good job. I must be honest. I might have shared my personal story or the Litterati story a thousand times, but my attitude is, "Somebody's just hearing it for the first time."
Gail Davis: Exactly.
Jeff Kirschner: I need to bring that level of enthusiasm each and every time and at the end of the day I think every presentation really needs to be clear, concise, and compelling.
Gail Davis: This past year, Chris Anderson had his wonderful book, TED Talks. How did being in residency at TED change the way that you tell your story?
Jeff Kirschner: It was humbling. I have delivered quite a few presentations on stages of all sizes and all around the world and I had reached a point where I thought somewhat ignorantly, "How much more improvement can there be? How much better can this talk get?" and I was in for a rude awakening. I was really surprised. I think Chris' work, his recent book, being surrounded by that caliber of people, it introduces you not only to new ways of delivering ideas, new visuals that you can show, but it also points out the voids in your existing presentation that you may have been blinded to. If you give a talk or tell a story over and over and over, it just becomes habitual, and sometimes you don't see the holes that other people see. I think being at TED really helped me unpack a talk that I'm so accustomed to giving and repack it in a way that was much more comprehensive and hopefully more compelling.
Gail Davis: Well I cannot wait to see your TED Talk.
Kyle Davis: I think that would be great.
Gail Davis: I can't wait.
Kyle Davis: We're recording this in case the audience out there is wondering. We're recording this on December 27th and you recorded your TED Talk on December 13th or 12th.
Jeff Kirschner: That's right.
Kyle Davis: Right around there?
Jeff Kirschner: Yup.
Kyle Davis: In case people are wondering it should probably be available in the next few weeks from here. We'll annotate it when it is on the website when it is available. Since we are going into a new year and it is 2017, I'm just, to humor me I guess, could you do just a quick reflection of what 2016 has been like for you and for Litterati, and then also where you're going and what you see 2017 looking like?
Jeff Kirschner: 2016, I think, was primarily a year of learning for us. We learned not only what we could do internally as a team, where we could push, and where we might want to hold back, where our skill sets really were and where we needed to improve, but more importantly what our community wanted. We were learning a lot more about what our current application needed to do more effectively or much more simply. We learned a lot about what paying customers would want from our data, whether that was a brand or a city or what educational curriculum should entail. It was really a year of sitting back and, well no, I shouldn't say sitting back, of pushing forward, but talking to the community and customers and figuring out, "What is it that you want from us and how can we solve your pain points?" because frankly, if we're not doing that we have no business doing this at all.
What I see 2017 as is really putting that into action. Taking what we've learned in 2016 and now starting to test some of those ideas and concepts and features and continue on this very, very intimate discussion with our community while we do this building, while we push out new application features and say, "Hey, this is what you asked for. Now that it's in practice, is it what you hoped for? Is it working the way you wanted and anticipated, and if not, what can we do better?" I think that's really what 2017 will be.
The other big area for us is I hope it's a year of discovery and what I mean by that specifically is the litter problem is a global pandemic. It impacts the economy; it affects the environment. It degrades communities; it kills wildlife. It is now poisoning the food system and we solve today's problems with data and this is one massive problem where there's virtually none. I'm hopeful that in 2017 as this data grows, as our community builds, as the tools we create become more insightful and effective, we start to discover new insights and solutions towards attacking this problem that we had no idea existed in 2016. That's really what I'm hoping the next year entails.
Kyle Davis: I think what's so, it sounds kind of cliché, at least for me saying it because I come from the startup world, having both worked in New York and San Francisco for very well-funded and not so well-funded startups and everything in between, but I think what's great for you and for what I've learned about Litterati and being this app-based, data-driven company is that it allows you to also, to be agile and to find new focuses and to really put a new light, shining that data component, just the simple act of taking a picture and just letting people see, "Hey, this is what we saw." I think, it was the other day actually, either on Facebook or Instagram or something that I saw somebody take a picture of a lit cigarette butt. It was still lit and the caption, it was geared towards you Jeff, but the caption said, "Someone was just smoking this and then they flicked it on the street. I took a picture of it, put it out, and then threw it away." Something like that.
I think that's a very powerful thing to just say that in a weird way you can find beauty in something that's ugly. I think we can all agree that litter is a rather ugly thing, but there's beauty in taking that photo, picking up that piece of litter or trash or recyclable or whatever and doing the right thing and putting it away. I think there's a lot to that and being that data-driven startup where you can be agile and add those new components to what your audience, what your users really want, I think is really great.
Jeff Kirschner: Well Kyle, I'm sorry. No, no, you brought up a point which I think is spot on, which is, to go back to the example of this individual and the cigarette, how do you take an action like that, which has traditionally been isolated and quiet and make it social and shareable? If you pick up a bottle cap in Sydney, Gail picks up in Seattle, and I pick one up in San Francisco, those are isolated, quiet actions. The three of us don't know that each other exist. What Litterati is starting to do is serve as that unifying umbrella. The technology is bringing the community together because now we each know that each other exists and what happens is that that action of picking up this particular cigarette butt, which traditionally is overwhelming and, "Oh my God, what difference would it make if it possibly picked up this one cigarette butt?" It takes that action, makes it social and shareable and that leads to three of us feeling not overwhelmed but empowered because we now know that we're not alone in trying to solve this bigger problem.
I think that's a really powerful place for the technology to go, certainly in the next year, and that will lead to the community becoming more engaged and hopefully growing to larger and larger numbers.
Kyle Davis: Oh, awesome. I think that's probably a good point for us to wrap up. With that being said what I'd like to do is let people know that they can learn more about Litterati by going to Litterati.org. You can also go to GDAPodcast.com to learn more about Jeff and what we're doing there and see the transcripts and blog posts. If you're interested in booking Jeff for any of your speaking engagements, you can go to GDASpeakers.com or call 214-420-1999. Thanks, Jeff.
Gail Davis: Thank you Jeff. It was very inspiring.
Jeff Kirschner: Thank you both so much. It was a pleasure.
Kyle Davis: Have a good one.