With the amount of rubbish that is created on a daily basis, around the world, knowing that you can buy your favourite products and still take care of the environment, plus plant a new tree, is very comforting. Two Georgian entrepreneurs have come up with an application that creates innovative and revolutionary shopping habits and significantly influences purchasing decisions.
Bacho Khachidze, Co-founder & CEO of Treepex, dubbed the most promising green start-up, spoke to Justyna Wróbel, about how the application is being developed and how it can be used by companies to maintain loyalty and build a long-term relationship with their customers.
Things are happening very quickly for you, aren’t they? What are you up to now?
Yes, you are right. We launched Treepex on May 3 this year. Since then our priority has been to attract as many users as possible and to get valuable feedback from them. As we have a direct sales strategy, it helps us a lot to learn what our consumers think about Treepex. We believe it is clear that we are building a service that the entire world truly needs. Meanwhile, we are enjoying designing a better engine behind this social undertaking. This is our passion and it’s what we live for.
At the moment, we are preparing for the Frankfurt Book Fair, which will take place in Germany over 19-24 October. We’re also planning on presenting Treepex at Seed Forum New York on November 1. In the meantime, our web and mobile application is in a development phase, as we are adding additional features.
You forgot to mention that, for example, you were chosen as the best start-up in Tbilisi. What has changed since then?
To be honest we won two start-up contests, at the regional level — Seed Forum and Seed Star. I must admit that it is always nice to win competitions and, as a result, to attract media attention. All this has motivated us to think big and look for win-win-win scenarios where we, as well as our potential businesses partners, and the end-consumers could all benefit. Aside from Treepex there are a number of other very promising start-ups that have the potential to bring real value and to succeed at the global level.
But coming back to your question, winning those contests has helped us to sign a few big contracts with medium and large-sized companies in Georgia and given us “the most promising green start-up” status, however, the real challenge is to convert all those credits into something real.
So what are your development plans right now?
As far as technical development is concerned, we are working hard to add even more features to the app. We now have a feel for what our users would love to see in Treepex. We ‘greenovate’ and we innovate with tree planting. Apparently we lean more towards tree planting gamification that other applications where users collect Green Points for conversion into tree planting, watering and other green activities in real life. We are also thinking about adding elements of virtual reality so that consumers could ‘visit’ their tree and see how it keeps growing.
Also, now, apart from Georgia, planting activities will be carried out in Tanzania, India and in the Amazon forest. This will increase our opportunity to engage international users with Treepex.
We have already planned several meetings with book publishers in Frankfurt, during the Book Fair and in the US. In fact, book publishers are one of our main target groups.
You’re talking about international users. Where will they come from, in the first place, and, then, why are publishers so important?
We are planning to get into the US market first, although we know perfectly well how hard it is. We are trying to find our niche in the international market and we are believe we will find it through publishers.
When a true book reader buys a book with a Treepex logo, they will be continuing to appreciate the tactile and visual aesthetics of printed books, but in a responsible way.
I like that manner of thinking and taking care of the environment. Could you tell me how you came up with the idea in the first place?
Well, one day Lasha, a great friend of mine and a co-founder of Treepex, called me and we went for lunch. I’ve known Lasha for a very long time. He has always been different from other friends; he has always stood out for his innovative and crazy ideas. He had just come back from Dubai, where he took part in an acceleration programme and his first start-up had failed.
Initially I thought that a failure is something devastating that completely destroys people. I was entirely wrong. For a real entrepreneur, failure actually makes them stronger and more experienced and this is what Lasha is like. As for me, at that time, I was working on an environmental project at an international agency.
So, during our lunch Lasha said: “Bacho, It’s absolutely great what you do but if we take your seven years’ experience in green marketing and add my 12 years of IT experience and spice it up with a bit of crazy creativity, I believe we could design a world class product that entire world would use.” That is how it all began.
The first version of Treepex was a bit different. It was a mobile app with a tree planting challenge feature. We developed a minimum viable product (MVP) in August 2015. We tested it, but didn’t work well so we pivoted and, again, it actually made our team even stronger. Then we developed a completely new version which was based on our previous experiences and on researchers and studies. Today we have this new version of Treepex but we are still learning a lot from the feedback we get from our users.
I like the fact that you spiced up your experience with a bit of crazy creativity, but sometimes it’s difficult to realise that you need a fresh look to develop a great product, isn’t it?
One of the most challenging things I have found about start-ups is to be sure you are going in the right direction. We developed a product that no one wanted, for three months, but I still don’t think that was waste of time. We built a new version, based on that, that an increasing number of our consumers actually use.
You need to zoom out very often and try to see the things from the different perspective. You can perhaps imagine how hard it is, but you have to do it. It can take not a week or a month but sometimes as long as a year to realise that you are working on a product that no one needs. The challenging part is to develop and release an MVP very quickly and to validate your idea. It doesn’t matter how embarrassed you feel with the first version of your product; just do it.
So now, tell me how the app actually works.
The ‘less is more’ theory matches the reality of our start-up perfectly. Buy a product with a Treepex logo and a tree will be planted on your behalf and with your name.
All purchased items displaying a Treepex logo feature a unique QR code. When you scan the QR code with the Treepex App, you add the purchase to the internal Treepex system and a tree will be planted and cared for in the name of the buyer. Immediately after planting, the buyer receives a picture of the individual tree with the nameplate and its GPS coordinates. The planted tree, the name of the buyer and the partner company appear on the Treepex map.
Where can you buy products with a Treepex logo on them?
This is a very common question we receive from our users. 90 per cent of our partner companies are based in Georgia, which means you can get products with Treepex logo in the Georgian market, though we do have a partner company in Ireland that sells hand made goods with Treepex logo.
Receive numerous e-mails every day from individuals asking where to get the products, who want to plant trees and to appear on the Treepex Map. For that reason we have developed an online platform which gives you the opportunity to plant your one tree or gift it to your loved one through the web. The platform has been designed for a specific group of users living outside of Georgia.
So what do you actually give your users? Is it a feeling of being environmentally friendly?
Nowadays with a satisfied and highly competitive market, one of the biggest challenges for companies is to attract new customers and to maintain their loyalty. Treepex directly responds to this and offers those firms a solution for building a long-term relationship with their customers. By addressing them on an emotional level and in terms of their environmental consciousness, the companies create a bond with the customer for any future purchase(s). Additionally, Treepex adds green value to the products which contributes to the company’s green trademark and its marketability.
Imagine how happy people are when they receive our message: “We have planted your tree. Have a look at the photo; thanks for being our customer” or…another one in six months: “On this hot summer day, we have watered your tree so that it keeps growing.”
How many trees have you planted already? Do you have a ranking of who has planted a certain number of trees?
Treepex is still in a testing mode, as yet. Since March 2016, we have managed to engage up to 10,000 users which means we have planted 10,000 trees. Please note that a planting season in Georgia starts from October, so the 10,000 users have not received their tree details yet. Additionally, once the tech development is concluded, we will start a marketing campaign and we hope to reach millions of consumers, in a short period of time. We have everything well prepared to play big.
So how many users are you expecting to reach?
Our research shows that the markets we are addressing consist of up to 290 million individuals, spending $ 46 billion annually.
And how big is the team now?
It is very small actually — just Lasha and me. Honestly, we are very cautious about hiring a new person into the team and want someone who can get things done and feels about Treepex as we do.
A new team member is another challenging part in an entrepreneurial life. Once we decide to get one I think we would ask only two questions of ourselves: first, are we going to have a social life with them? Second, can they get things done quickly and at the high level?
Do you think it is easy to acquire new partners for a start-up?
Well it depends. Nothing is easy in a start-up’s life and especially when you are at the early stages where you have to prove that your solution is unique and truly solves a given problem. It’s hard to get new users, even to test your service.
Another challenge is that you have to build trust and I think Treepex is amazing, as we have managed to build trust and interest sceptics, as well as those among vulnerable population groups who have more immediate concerns than the green loyalty programme we offer.
We appreciate that great companies are willing to spend money with us to make the world greener, but we value their drive to participate even more.
What advice would you give to companies from the region who would like to expand to other markets?
Have a global mind set. Travel more, talk to the foreign people around you. Read more, but read good books; relevant ones. Plus, design your product for a specific group of people within a specific community. Be number one and then try to expand. This is my theory, though I might be wrong.
How do you see the company developing over the next few years and where will the company be in ten years?
How I see Treepex developing? Well, people will be living normal lives, travelling, buying their groceries, getting the necessary services, using their devices and meanwhile ‘green’ measures are being taken with Treepex, so that they don’t even have to pay more for that.
Today we focus on tree planting but other interesting environmental activities are coming up very soon. I personally enjoy being a social entrepreneur and I believe that passion will last for a very long time.
Click here to read more about the company and download the App and plant your own tree.