If you are like me, by now you've used some sort of online coupon site to grab a deal on a local promotion at a restaurant or recreational spot. Thanks to CUsavings.com, I can pretty well golf at half off, eat at Old Orchard Lanes on the cheap, and even get a silly price on an oil change.
Eatcu.com recently got in on the game with their Daily Steal promotions. My Illini Deals is also a new one starting to get moving. An old friend from Urbana recently showed me what he is working on in illinicoupon.com. Our wildly non-partisan daily, The News-Gazette, even does a similar thing on its unbelievably interactive website called Deal of the Day — and even makes it super convenient for its customers by forcing them to drive to their building to pick up the gift certificate. (It's true: they have an online deal that you have to literally show up in person to claim. Unreal.)
And of course, just north in Chicago, there is a good chance that you know someone working for the ultimate players in this game: Groupon.
So, it's a fact of social media driven life: we are available to be promoted to at any moment that we're online. As I write this, while checking my Gmail screen to screen, I can see that if I need a Discount Wedding DJ, it's simply one click away.
So, when a few weeks back, Mark Palmer (who is a Twitter freak-a-zoid, and likely the most handsome man in town) informed me of a brand new online deal site called Zero Percent, my first inclination was to simply roll my eyes and click away. But, it was Mark, and there had to be a reason why he was asking me if I'd seen it yet. I trust the man, greatly.
Sure enough, it was more than a little interesting. Well-branded, here was a site that was offering deals at the moment — happening now — with nothing to sign up for, no credit card to submit, no user ID to create, nothing. Just simply: here is the deal, go and get it.
One catch: the impetus of the deal structure — the reason the company was founded — was predicated on the notion that because the U.S. struggles with food waste in such drastic ways, they are designing a system to combat that.
From its Facebook page:
This is a system created to help food businesses offer discounts for the food that they would otherwise throw away.
The world is more connected than ever and we don't believe there is an excuse for restaurants to waste food anymore. We hope Zero Percent is only the first of many similar systems. We welcome collaborators as well as competition that will help push restaurants closer to Zero waste. We created Zero Percent to start a cultural movement against food waste.
Now, I try to live without cynicism in my heart as best I can. I want to believe that when people do things, they are doing it in a way that is designed to help others as it helps them, too. I recently had a conversation with a friend who argued that we could redefine our social structure to implement a new system without hierarchy called Horizontalism. I told her straight up: that's a lovely idea, but you are delusional if you think that this will take, anywhere in the world, for any length of time.
And I maintain it; we're a selfish, greedy, and horribly disgusting species. I have to will myself towards charity and doing good daily, because my inclinations are wrought with ideas that are geared towards helping me and me alone.
Shocking, I know.
So, upon learning that the mission of Zero Percent was this audacious and delusional, I contacted them and asked for an interview. They obliged, and quickly.
The company was founded by computer science grad student Rajesh Karmani, from Pakistan, and recent college drop out Adam Carney, from Naperville. The former is 28, and married. The latter is 20 and owns a branding and marketing firm called the Redesign Agency.
When I asked them for how long they've known each other, they looked at each other, confused, and Adam furrowed his brow and said, "About two months or so? But we're practically married now. This is all we're doing these days."
We had a chance to sit down last week so I could hear just how much of this thing was genuine and to be believed, and how much of it was a way to turn a profit: an upstart with something of a socially conscious whitewashing. I was very intrigued.
Smile Politely: So, fellas, how do you make money with this thing?
Rajesh Kamani: You want to make the payments as low as possible. You want for anyone to be able to enter the system, enjoy these offers and then, for us to continue the offers. Once we evaluated its potential as a solution to the problem, you want to assess the value. And this is a unique concept, the first of its kind probably, as far as I know, in the United States. We don't know the value. Maybe it becomes popular. Maybe business becomes strong; they are getting more revenue and foot traffic. Once we establish the value in our new system, we will know. We have a list of potential clients, but we are not specific to any, maybe not even for the next month or two.
SP: So what you're saying is that, currently, you're not monetized?
Adam Carney: Oh there's absolutely a plan to be monetized. We're just not there yet.
SP: I saw a deal about crepes on the Facebook page this morning. So here you currently have 286 followers on Facebook. You were doing Mandarin Wok yesterday; essentially they're just telling you what they're offering, what you can put on special, but there's no financial end to you right now? They're not paying you, you're just getting the word out at this point.
AC: We believe...we decided from the beginning, the purpose of business was not the problem. We kind of realized that a lot of the other deal sites and companies out there aren't necessarily trying to go after solving a problem.
SP: Tying a social justice issue into what's already happening regarding consumption as humans, and not just in America, but in general, you're essentially taking an issue that's of importance to you and tying it to a basic human function, which is consumption, and hopefully that makes a dent. Obviously, nobody is saving the world here, not with what you're doing, but in any arena. It's going to be hard to fully dismantle food waste.
AC: I disagree with you on that actually. I think it's absolutely possible.
SP: To fully dismantle food waste?
AC: Absolutely possible. In a lot of ways that's kind of our mission with this. At night we understand very much that it's not going to be us that is doing that. If you figure out a system that puts a dent in it, it will inspire others. You figure, a company model that can solve this problem and make a profit off of it, there will be competitors. And that's what we embodied in our tagline: "Together, we can end waste." By together, we mean everyone. We are open collaborators. We are opening this up to competitors. We are just trying to help people solve this problem. We believe that, not even necessarily because we're these great social venture guys, we believe that's the best way to run a business in this world: you solve a problem, and you prove to people that you're solving a problem and making their world better, and they pay you for it.
SP: Do you have any evidence at all that would lead anyone to believe that this is actually possible and not just a good thing to tell a second-rate media hack?
AC: (laughs) When we started working on this there were two very significant studies that came out, one from Food in Every Culture organization, and then I came across a book called American Wasteland. The study said that there's about 20% of the food in the whole world that's produced is lost or wasted. And that book focused on just the United States. The number is between 30 and 50% in the United States. The difference between the rest of the world and the United States is that in the United States, this waste is mostly between groceries, restaurants, and consumers. And then we realized, this service, we could just focus on that 30% food waste, just connect the consumers and the restaurants for now and then through progression, we could go up to groceries.
RK: It's not a technological problem, it's a communication problem. As a culture, we haven't put emphasis on making waste a priority.
SP: Do you feel like any restaurant business might be intrigued by the idea, that ultimately, if they're offering steep discounts for what might be wasted, they might marginalize the rest of their product? Take Live Nation as an example. It's a live concert company that has merged with Ticketmaster, and also owns a management company, and they kind of have these 360 deals, where they're promoting the show, they're representing the artist, they own the venue, they sell the booze, all of it. So they control all the means of production and they control all of the financial end, from t-shirt sales to beer to ticket sales, etc, etc. They put tickets on sale, and if a show is not doing well, 14 days before the concert, all tickets just get reduced to 5 bucks, 10 bucks, whatever. Because what's the difference at that point? They just want to make beer sales or t-shirt sales. They would rather open the house to cheap tickets and then you have all these people that bought 60 dollar or 100 dollar tickets being like "Why the fuck didn't I wait until I got the $10 ticket? I'll just wait next time." So in the same regard, Papa Del's has this slice special every lunch, and you could go in there and get your full priced slice between 11 and 1 or you could wait with the understanding that Zero Percent was going to perhaps announce these slice specials later on in the day.
AC: I see your point.
SP: Are you worried that maybe restaurateurs will find themselves potentially marginalizing or cannibalizing their already existing clientele?
RK: Day one, we kind of thought about that. In fact, the first business we went to was Café Kopi, and they showed us a basketful of day-old pastries, and they told us there was a snowball effect if they put out the day-old pastries every day, it snowballed into less and less sales for the new, fresh food. But we realize that there is some marginalization here too. People don't consume food based on just this. Not all the time. You have lunch groups that you're going out with, business meetings, and at certain times you are more hungry and you don't want to wait until 3 p.m. So these offers are usually being used by people who are hungry right now and that's something for businesses to figure out, what's best for them. Because this is a service than can help them solve problems, but it can also hurt them, I suppose, if they are not careful.
AC: I think that a lot of it goes back to the way that we think of business. You can let the people of Champaign know that it's not our intention to become a big greedy company that takes over things. Again, we're trying to solve this problem. That's what this brand and company stand for. I think that to an extent, we're not used to interacting with companies like that, because the assumption is always that you're going to try and grow and be irresponsible, and that's what we've gotten used to.
SP: So, then, how do you prove to the community that this is not a marketing job? You fellas seem genuine, you really do, but that might be hard to communicate through an interview like this.
RK: The way we designed our systems will reflect that. We had a meeting with the web builder that was designing the website, and every element is being built with this point of view.
AC: Even so, I think what he's saying is that regardless of how good your intentions are, there's going to be some asshole, saying "Oh you're just doing this....." And if we start to make a huge profit, that's the goal of a company, and we decided from the beginning that we wanted this to be one of the most transparent companies in the world. If you wanted to come work with us, see what kind of conversations we were having, you would be more than welcome to come work with us.
SP: So what are your current vendors right now? I see on your website right now, Fire Station Pizza. Does it use GPS to determine how far you are away from it?
AC: The website actually has a fixed location, but with our app, it will tell you how far away you are from the deal. People can also see the deals from the screen that we have up at 6th and Green, too.
SP: So what's the next step? Is it now just the goal to get as many possible businesses to allow you to promote them and eventually there will be an upside and eventually they see the value in it and you can start charging a premium for it?
RK: Actually users. Right now we want to get as many users to know about it.
SP: So you have one deal up there, but if you have seven or eight potential deals working right now then you open up the option for all sorts of people.
AC: We're going through a balancing act right now because of what you just said. There's more businesses on there, there's going to be more people using it. If there's more people using it, there will be more deals on there. What we're running into right now, is it's almost evolving out of the test phase of things. We had started this just getting whatever that came, and we're at the point now where people just love the concept. We're interested in having more businesses that are interested in signing up for a test. We're almost to the point where we're ready to put it out to the world.
If you were to meet Rajesh and Adam, you'd probably feel like I did after speaking with them. Impressed, and mildly baffled by their unbridled view of the world. Naive? Sure. Inspiring? Definitely.
Whether or not they really believe that they can end food waste, they are passionate and involved in what they are doing, and I definitely think they are doing as much as they can to help food waste in their own way.
A few days after the interview, I got this email from Adam:
I just wanted to give you an update that I thought would be relevant to the article.
We've decided that the service as it currently exists will be free for all businesses, forever. We will make our revenue from offering an improved service to restaurants that helps them more on the food efficiency side.
We decided this because we felt like it will significantly progress the mission of helping restaurants achieve zero food waste. If you have any questions, don't hesitate.
Personally, I am willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. I hope you do, too.