Ridwell’s father-son origin story is as compelling as it is adorable. Ryan Metzger and his then-six-year-old son Owen turned a weekend project in 2018 to find a home for used batteries into a fast-growing business with more than 75,000 customers paying around $15/month for the service. Ridwell has recycled or reused over 11 million pounds of hard-to-recycle items since then. Their initial efforts were well-intentioned, but it was Ryan Metzger’s discovery that the recycling industry was in turmoil that was a catalyst for launching a business. Metzger and his co-founders met at the time.
Some startup stories lend themselves to a narrative built around the question “why now?” Why hasn’t this solution been created yet? What factors align to make this the perfect time to introduce this service? Every startup story should make sense. It must make sense. A good “why now” can be the foundation of your story logic. Here’s how the Ridwell story began, why it was the perfect time to start the company, and how it’s doing today.
“How It Began”
Ryan and his wife, Erin, grew up on the West Coast where recycling was a big family value. When they had their own house, they tried to throw away as little as possible. The Metzgers had a place in their basement where they collected batteries, plastic bags, old clothes and polystyrene, as they hated the idea of sending the items to sea or to landfills. They just didn’t know what to do with things or didn’t have time to get rid of them.
One weekend in 2018, Ryan started looking for a place to recycle old batteries. Once he found a destination, Ryan and Owen figured they’d check with neighbors to see if they had any used batteries themselves. Some neighbors were interested, so Owen went door-to-door collecting batteries (Ryan said the idea was inspired by an old-fashioned paper route, but in reverse). After a while, Ryan and Owen started collecting other items. Ryan created a website called “Owen’s List” to help arrange pickups and before long, 4,500 Seattle neighbors were on the site.
Ryan realized this had the makings of a business. His eco-conscious neighbors in Seattle needed to find an easy way to dispose of hard-to-recycle items; but it was the moment that increased the opportunity. China had just announced that it would no longer accept items from the West for recycling. Based on this news, journalists and citizens began to wonder if the recycling they brought to the curb was actually being recycled or rather just ending up in landfills. There was a huge lack of trust in the system. It was essential for Ryan and Owen to clearly explain where everything was going. They would list each of their partners and show pictures of the items dropped off. This is something Ridwell has continued to this day.
Some of the best innovation stories happen because of timing. Once the startup storyteller realizes what interests people in the moment, they jump on it. On the Ridwell site, transparency is at the forefront. Their customers want to know where things are recycled and how; so Ridwell said, “we’ll tell you and show you.” Their overall value proposition is “Wasting Less, Made Easy”; but one of the main benefits is, “Feel good where your stuff is going.”
“How’s it going”
Owen is 11 now, but he’s not the only character in this story who’s grown since 2018. Ridwell has raised capital and expanded to multiple cities, including: Portland, Denver, Minneapolis, Austin and area. of San Francisco Bay. Their team of 200 now finds homes for new items so they don’t end up in the landfill, including: multi-layered plastic, glasses, corks, political signs, linens, and more. Ridwell gets paid for some items, donates others, and even has to pay to have some things disposed of properly.
As Ridwell moves into new communities, they give residents a say in what they pick up. Often people are more aware of the “plastics in the ocean” problem and choose plastic wrap. After a one-time free pickup offer, Ridwell tells its story with transparency front and center. Once the story resonates with a customer, Ridwell offers several pricing plans to test the service. There are other ways to get rid of these hard-to-recycle items, but Ridwell maintains that no one else takes more stuff, makes it easier, or tells you what happens to everything.
The company is currently growing at over 50% per year; and with high retention rates, they can invest a good amount of money in advertising, curating social media content, and a referral program to attract new customers. As Ridwell grows, new organizations arise seeking the items Ridwell collects. Food banks reach out when they run out of supplies, and Ridwell rounds up canned goods. In Denver, a refugee support group searched for old coats. A wildlife center accommodated old blankets and pillows for the animals to nest on.
The best part for Ryan is hearing from clients. A client told Ryan, “I can’t bear to throw this away.” With Ridwell, you don’t have to feel bad about doing it anymore. Most of your hard-to-dispose items will stay above ground and find a new home. And thanks to lessons from 2018, Ridwell will tell you where that house is.