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The Dumpster-Diving CEO

The Dumpster-Diving CEOHow Jeremy Cohen is changing the way we think about recycling

Many children grow up around books, favorite bedtime stories and shelves of well-loved, well-worn paperbacks, but when Jeremy Cohen says it he means it, literally. Jeremy spent his childhood darting up and down the aisles of his father’s used bookshop, and was raised with an appreciation for giving old objects a new life. At Booksellers Row, Jeremy saw two stories unfold simultaneously: those of the written word inside the books, and the stories of those who once loved them: the people behind the books, which interested him the most. Dog-eared chapters, an old library card, a birthday note scrawled on the inside jacket; these were the relics of unwritten lives, told almost by accident in the pages of the books their owners had read.

As often is the case, Jeremy’s own life narrative (which we can safely call an adventure story) took him far from his father’s bookstore: to college in the Pacific Northwest, backpacking through Transylvania, hitchhiking in Turkey and restoring houses in Denver. But no matter how far he traveled his sense of guardianship for things discarded remained intact. It was on a cross-country road tip in 2009, while dumpster-diving in Austin,TX that he discovered his own reuse niche, and the object he would then dedicate himself to salvaging: the cell phone.

The Dumpster-Diving CEOAt first thought, a cellphone lacks the romance of a cherished novel. But when you really begin to think about it, do cell phones not also hold a very special place in our hearts? We give them as gifts, entrust them with digits of our loved ones and inboxes of sentimental text messages, we bring them everywhere and we just about lose it when they get broken or lost. Cell phones connect us, no matter where we go, and for that they are

cherished. However, we don’t quite know what to do with them when they are replaced. There is not yet a reuse culture around cell phones as exists for clothes, cars, furniture and, of course, books. We don’t loan them to our friends saying, “Here, I loved this one.” We don’t display them on cellphone cases in our living rooms. Yet, we are hesitant to throw them away because we paid (let’s face it, a lot) for them and don’t know where they should be properly recycled.

Jeremy created ExchangeMyPhone to change this. It is a business centered on the idea that people should be paid to do something good; recycling a cell phone should give you some extra cash and erase some “green guilt” knowing that it has been given a second life. At anyone can receive a price quote for a new, outdated or even broken cellphone and send it off with free shipping. When EMP receives it, the phone is wiped of all data, restored if possible, and given a new home or, disposed of ethically. Even those phones without value are recycled free of cost because EMP believes e-Waste stewardship should be convenient. The company has set its sights on making cell phone recycling as easy as returning a Netflix DVD.

Upon returning from his road trip Jeremy spent much of his energy building a business model before he built the actual business. According to Jeremy, “making a strong plan was one of the things I did right in the beginning”. Of course, there were a lot of missteps as well. For one, he says it would have been useful to know the Vin Vacanti truism, “Every day that your product is not in the hands of users – you are failing”, which came, Jeremy says, “…about two years after I needed it.” When asked what was the biggest threat to his business in the early days he replied, “I would say myself. I almost

The Dumpster-Diving CEOkilled the business many times over. I made a lot of unnecessary mistakes, and today it is remarkable that there is a business at all.”

But thankfully, there is. What started as a dumpster diving dream less four years ago, is now a bustling start-up in Brooklyn, New York. The day-to-day office crew is a group of four, including Jeremy and girlfriend Katherine plus two recent college grads and fellow Brooklyn transplants Maggie and Brendon. “We have a very homey feeling around here” says Creative Director Katherine (who recently, among other things, authored her first book,) “of course that’s because we work from home, but besides that we are all friends. We have a family-style lunch everyday and actually choose to see each other outside of work, which is more than you can say for a lot of offices!” The extended team includes a wonderful web-designer and engineer as well as various non-profit partners such as Water Collective and Hope2o. Giving up some control was one of the biggest changes Jeremy has had to make since becoming a business owner but he is happy to have done so, “We are building a team that can take ExchangeMyPhone further than I ever could.”

“We have a very small, capable staff and like to keep things in-house as much as possible. So far, there hasn’t been much that we can’t tackle ourselves,” says Jeremy. This is a philosophy that spills over into the financial end of the business as ExchangeMyPhone has zero outside funding, “We’ve been really fortunate to get to where were are today. We are in the black and the only needs we have to focus on are those of our customers. For now, its a great place to be.”

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