According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Americans owned nearly 3 billion electronic products in 2008. But the fate of these items when they become old and obsolete is the landfill, where they can leach toxins like lead and mercury into the environment. Yale’s Richard Littlehale ’10 and Robert Casey ’11 decided to change a waste into a resource.
“We believe that reuse is the highest form of recycling,” Casey said. “So many of the devices we receive are actually refurbished and resold.”
Seeing a potential opening in the market, Littlehale and Casey launched an electronics recycling business, YouRenew.com, on March 10. Currently operating out of an office in the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute on York Street, the two students struggled to adjust to their newfound professional life.
YouRenew acts as the middleman in the market for used electronics. To appeal to consumers, it offers to buy back thousands of devices in nine categories that include cell phones, laptops and gaming consoles. The devices are then sold to wholesalers or recycled for a marginal profit. The business has a no-landfill policy, so the electronic devices that are beyond repair are transported to a place in the United States where they can be recycled.
In addition, YouRenew donates a small amount of money to one of two environmentally focused nonprofit partners — carbonfund.org or americanforests.org — for every transaction made. The nonprofit chosen depends on the user’s preference during the checkout process.
The two entrepreneurs spent all of last summer doing research on their YouRenew ideas. Their first idea involved collecting cell phones by placing boxes in supermarket, post offices, and other convenient public locations.
But this business model was highly inefficient, Littlehale said, because they had to drive from place to place retrieving boxes that were typically empty.
“We’re competing with the trash can,” Casey said.
After these initial difficulties, Littlehale and Casey reformatted their plan, expanding the list of acceptable devices, offering people cash for their used items, and introducing an online platform.
“At one point, we had to get a team of six Web developers to actually produce the Web site,” Littlehale said.
To pay for the site and the whole operation, Littlehale and Casey pitched their ideas to angel investors — high net-worth individuals who invest in seed-stage companies. After receiving the investors’ funds in February (in exchange for a small portion of the company), the founders began working on their site, which launched in March..
“We wanted to make sure we were out and soliciting customer feedback rather than being stuck in the development cycle,” Casey said.
The plan was to “release early, release often,” Littlehale said. Adding that the main goal to “get out there regardless of how imperfect the Web site is,” to get feedback from users, and develop accordingly.
Along with the challenges of day-to-day activities, Littlehale said, it was also difficult to get people, such as family, friends, investors, and faculty, to believe that the project is a “good use of time” and “a viable business,” Littlehale said. He heard second-hand that people were criticizing what he was doing and that he was “insane for taking a year off.”
“In a way, it fueled a fire in both Bob and me to push forward and succeed — to work harder to make it work,” Littlehale said. “I wouldn’t be doing this unless I really believed in it.”
Both founders have taken time off from school to focus on their business. Littlehale, the CEO whose says his job is to “get the devices in the door,” took the year off from Yale starting in the fall of 2008; Casey, the COO, who manages the inventory and sells the devices, withdrew from school in spring 2009.
“I was working 35 hours a week and going to school in the fall,” Casey said. “But it was an unsustainable lifestyle.”
If he hadn’t taken time off, Littlehale said, he would have been working on the project while balancing courses, the crew team and searching for a post-graduation job. Now, he said, he is able to (and does) put in 90 to 100 hours per week.
“When we saw there was potential,” Casey said, of his time commitment, “it was a decision of whether we wanted to take it to the next level, and we had nothing to lose.”
The two are working to make YouRenew the brand name for people, schools and businesses to sell back or recycle their old electronics in an environmentally friendly way. When people think “I want a cheeseburger,” they think McDonald’s. Hopefully, Littlehale said, in the future when people think “sell or recycle my electronics,” YouRenew.com is the first thing that comes to mind.
YouRenew has four employees working part-time, all Yalies: Lawrence Abare ’10, Alexander Walker ’11, Jedrzej Choinski ’12, Kenneth Castaneda ’12, and Sasha Novograd SOM ’10.