Interview with Tom Tullie, former CEO of EcoATM, and Mark Bowles, the Co-Founder and former CTO of EcoATM
In this interview you’ll hear about the creation and early development of the EcoATM product, navigating through the challenges of raising money, building the business, and successfully selling EcoATM to Outerwall. Despite the recent challenges and management changes at Outerwall and EcoATM, this technology holds the promise to take millions of cell phones and other portable devices out of landfills and into the hands of new owners, while giving cash to the former owners.
Mark Bowles and Tom Tullie are both serial entrepreneurs that gained significant experience at larger companies prior to entering the startup game. They were both already seasoned executives by the time they started and joined EcoATM, respectively. Both spent many years in the semiconductor industry prior to EcoATM, so they gained a significant amount of experience with technology, growth companies, and competitive environments.
Mark and Tom used EvoNexus, a pro bono startup incubator and accelerator in San Diego, to jump-start the company. To-date, EcoATM is the most successful outcome of the companies that have been incubated at EvoNexus, but there are many more that still hold great promise.
After selling his former company, Mark Bowles was thinking of new ideas for a company, and frequently met with other like-minded entrepreneurs at a local coffee shop. It was during this time that Mark found a survey done by Nokia about recycling used phones. They survey was conducted in the Summer of 2008, in 13 countries and 6,500 households. The results of the survey showed that only 3 percent of people have recycled their cell phones. Also, Mark found-out that there was a giant under-served market for used cell phones. The challenge was to collect the phones and get them into the hands of used phone re-sellers.
Part of the challenge was to identify high foot traffic areas for consumers, and develop an automated way to collect the phones and pay the consumers cash. Some of the ideas they explored were malls, grocery stores, college campuses, and cell phone stores themselves. There were also many technical and legal challenges that existed in building the company. EcoATM had to develop a kiosk that electrically inspects the phones, includes artificial intelligence, and has machine vision to identify the person and the phone. They had to ensure that the phones had not been stolen. They had to accurately appraise the phones. They had to validate that consumers would actually use the kiosks to exchange their used phones for cash. After solving all of these issues, the company was able to deploy these kiosks to collect the phones for cash.
Despite overcoming these challenges, it was still extremely difficult to raise money for this startup since the idea was so unique and unusual. Tom and Mark, through patience, self-sacrifice, and lots of tenacity were finally able to raise venture capital for EcoATM.
We hope you enjoy the story of EcoATM and think through many of the challenges and potential rewards of entrepreneurship. As always, we welcome your comments.
This article originally appeared in The Consulting Masters.