Launch Tales: Confronted With My Own Carbon Footprint, I Built an App to Shrink It

I entered the stats for my personal energy habits, and my immediate reaction was, “This can’t be right.”

I’ve long had an interest in saving energy and “thinking green,” but the challenges greentech companies of all sizes face made me doubt whether I could turn my interest into a business. For 25 years I happily labored in the manufacturing and enterprise software arena, working primarily in the company I started. After I sold Integrated Industrial Information technology to Adobe, I worked there to ease the technology transfer, but after a couple of years I was itching for my next venture.

As I contemplated my career and my desire to make a difference, I came across a web-based carbon footprint calculator for the first time. I entered the stats for my personal energy habits, and my immediate reaction was, “This can’t be right.” After crosschecking on various sites and seeing the same results, it was obvious: I needed to be more mindful about my energy use. I thought a quick Google search would yield a few energy-saving silver bullets and I would be back on the straight and narrow. Wrong! I found enough energy-saving tips, sure, but most were generic and not particularly relevant to the shape of my carbon footprint. Figuring out which ones I could actually use would have taken hours.

That’s when I had the inspiration for JouleBug. I wanted to find a way to make saving energy more engaging and social, a way that was compelling enough for people to consistently use. A mobile social app evolved as the answer. Something playful. Something bite-sized. Something to keep sustainability fresh and fun so users wouldn’t become overwhelmed just trying to manage their environmental impact. With a concrete idea I truly believed in, I was finally confident enough to leave the stability of the enterprise software industry and—using my personal funds—join the dynamic world of green tech.

My long career in enterprise software made it rather straightforward to establish the sophisticated, secure, and privacy-focused infrastructure, especially with the emergence of cloud computing. But making an app that makes sustainable living a personal experience for individuals by understanding specific aspects like their climate, public transit options, or dwelling type, is hard. Doing that with an experience that’s aesthetically pleasing and makes you want to share with your friends? That’s really hard.

Given the ever-growing number of apps available, we knew we needed to create something that had genuinely never been done before. We started with the simple premise of our JouleBug slogan badge, “JouleBugs use energy wisely,” but pretty quickly started to feel we were limiting ourselves by only focusing on energy consumption. We want people to become mindful not only of their energy use, but of other sustainability choices they make.

Early in our development, we turned to B.J. Fogg’s theories for guidance, as well as a several studies by Accenture, IBM, McKinsey, and Ogilvy & Mather to figure out what methods effectively encourage this awareness. We’re also lucky enough to have three major universities close by, so we’ve focused a lot on the student population to give us feedback as they’re already accustomed to apps and social media interaction. As a startup, we’ve also gotten helpful feedback from family, friends, and associates and have added a lot of content and features based on what our initial users found meaningful.

There’s a lot of humor and lightheartedness in our team, and we’ve worked to incorporate that sense of gentle nudging vs. nagging when trying to influence the habits of our users. Our objective is always to provide suggestions in a non-judgemental way, throwing a little absurdity in from time to time, to keep people smiling. When people are smiling, we believe they’re more receptive to change.

We try to provide a wide variety of content and activities so we encompass the lifestyle choices of all types of people, and then allow them to see which of their decisions make the greatest impact on their personal carbon footprints. Even the small steps that individuals make in the right direction are something to feel good about and give us a place to build from, expanding into communities, businesses, and universities.

We’ve come a long way. Earlier this summer we won an Accelerator competition from a $2 billion sustainability private equity fund. More recently we learned of our i2i Award at SXSWeco in Austin, which paired nicely with a partnership with the City of Raleigh, NC. The “City of Oaks” is where we call home, and now it’s the first city to have its own customized set of everyday, real-world achievements that encourage its citizens to take advantage of the city’s sustainability efforts. Many of these efforts helped Raleigh earn the title of “Most Sustainable Midsized City” in 2011 from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

I now come in to work every day knowing that I’m helping people save money while saving the planet. That’s a good feeling.

Photo via Flickr (cc) user gypsygirl09

via Barry Schapiro / Twitter

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