Meet Cullen Schwarz of DoneGood
Cullen Schwarz was in the early stages of building a career in politics when he decided to take a leap. Always passionate about manufacturing supply chains and ethical business practices, he partnered with Scott Jacobsen to launch DoneGood - a browser extension that makes it easier than ever for consumers to discover the products they need from businesses that are making the world better. The DoneGood browser extension automatically shows people ethical and sustainable alternatives for big name companies when they search for products on Google or Amazon, while the app allows users to enter a product they’re looking for and select values that are important to them. Collectively they are changing the way consumers access companies they truly care about. We sat down with Cullen to talk about how he made the leap from political campaigns to purpose-driven entrepreneurship, what he learned from Washington, and where he wants to go from here.
DoneGood leverages technology to make it easy for consumers to do good. What was the inspiration behind your brand? At the intersection of politics, ivy leagues, and data scientists - how did you get your start?
When I was in college, I served in the national leadership of an organization called United Students Against Sweatshops. We got universities to commit to only contracting with sweatshop-free apparel companies. I saw firsthand what a powerful tool purchasing dollars can be for creating change. I wrote a paper about how conscientious consumerism would be the new social movement of the 21st Century and always thought I wanted to work on that effort somehow.
But then I got a job in politics. That turned into a career path that took to me to D.C. where I met Scott.
One day I was telling Scott how hard it was to find clothing I knew wasn’t made with child labor or someone earning a poverty wage. Scott complained his favorite sandwich shop used plastic containers even for people dining in and didn’t recycle so he had to stop going there. We talked about how we wished there was something that made it easy to make sure the money we were spending was supporting things we believed in. After Scott got into Harvard’s Kennedy School we applied with the idea for DoneGood to the university’s Innovation Lab and got in. We said, “Well, looks like we’ve finally got to stop talking about this and build it!”
We’re curious, how did your experience in Washington prepare you for entrepreneurship?
We quit our careers to found DoneGood because we really believe the world’s most underutilized force for change is the power of consumer spending. We vote for president every four years but we vote with our wallets every day. It’s a supply and demand economy. The more we demand business practices that are good for workers and the environment, the more the market will supply those things.
A big difference between my former jobs and this one is that the guiding principal for being a spokesperson for a politician is “First, don’t say anything stupid.” There’s a lot of pressure not to make any mistakes. On the other hand, with startups, the prevailing wisdom now is “Hurry up and make mistakes.” Just try, do stuff, do it fast, if it works that’s great, if it doesn’t that’s also great, you just learned something and you’re better off for it. You’d rather try 50 things fast and find 49 don’t work but one of them hits big instead of safely planning out three things for months only to find they’re all mediocre anyway.
But at the end of the day there are a lot of similarities too. Scott and I have a background in communications and community organizing in the political and non-profit worlds where we helped people turn their beliefs into action. We’re still doing that around a lot of the same social justice issues we’ve always cared about. But now instead of encouraging people to vote or to support charities we’re helping people use a different tool, an arguably more valuable tool - their purchasing power.
With the launch a few years behind you now, what advice would you give to someone looking to take a similar risk?
Do it! You can’t put a price tag on working on something exhilarating and interesting that you really believe in every day. When I quit my job people kept telling me “Congratulations!” And I was like, “Um, thanks,” but I thought it was kind of a funny. I can understand being congratulated for getting a new job or winning an award, that actually reflects some skill and effort. But anybody can quit a job! It’s not even hard, you just walk in and say I quit and stop going to work. But I know people meant congratulations for having the guts to quit, to go without a paycheck for a while, to take a risk on something I believe in. I appreciate that now. I always hope to be the kind of person who sees what he thinks is right and follows that path even if it’s hard. I knew that no matter how everything turned out I’d be proud that I took the leap.
All of that said, I think there’s no shame in exploring an idea and working on it in your spare time before quitting your day job. We did exploratory work on DoneGood while Scott was getting his masters and I was still working full-time. So my advice is definitely take the risk, but maybe lay some groundwork before you do.
What consumer trends is DoneGood responding to or noticing as it refines its model? What are consumers attracted to when choosing responsible products over traditional brands?
Well first, and this may seem obvious, the easier we can make it to find mission-driven companies, the more people will use DoneGood to look for them when they shop. That was the driving principal behind creating the extension. We wanted to make something that made it as easy as possible for people to discover businesses making great stuff and making the world better at the same time. We built the browser extension because it literally means people don’t have to spend any more time or do anything differently than they already do when they shop online. Just search on Google or Amazon or visit big-name company websites and when there’s a mission-driven company that has the kind of product you’re looking for, the extension shows it to you. That’s it.
We’ve also learned a lot about what sort of messages people respond to. We still talk about how buying from ethical companies is one of the most effective ways to create social change because we believe it’s true. But now we also try to be really clear we’re not asking people to sacrifice anything for the good of the world, there’s something directly in it for you too. The companies we work with aren’t just making the world better, they’re also making higher-quality products. It just makes sense that stuff made with natural materials by a skilled, well-paid craftsperson is going to be higher quality than stuff mass-produced in a giant factory someplace. Products built to last ultimately save money over the long-run. So it’s not a sacrifice, it’s a win-win. You get better products, feel good about where your money is going, make the world better, and can save some money at the same time.
As evidenced by the myriad businesses to which you drive traffic, there are more ways than ever before to contribute to social and environmental change. How do you navigate these options? From donation dollars to volunteer hours to responsible consumerism, what are some of the ways that you give back?
In terms of our partners, we put more emphasis on some business practices than others. We don’t list companies that are just giving a small percentage of revenue to charity, we look for brands that are paying workers well, preserving the environment, and otherwise changing the world through the everyday actions of their business. A lot of corporations give something to charity and they get a tax write off for it. That’s fine. But if you give money to anti-poverty organizations while the people making your products live in poverty, if you give to environmental non-profits but poison the earth, if you give to Save the Children just to have a retort when people talk about child labor in your supply chain, what’s the point?
So we apply that ethos ourselves too. We’re a legally incorporated public benefit corporation and a Certified B Corp, which reflects the overall impact our business makes with everything we do. That said, even though startup life also means not having a lot of free time, all DoneGood team members receive paid time off to do volunteer service work. But we feel like that’s just one extra thing we do along with how we try to run our business and help create a more just economy every day.
At the end of the day, we believe it’s good for us all to give away some spare money, volunteer in our spare time — but we can all achieve greater impact if we work to align entire systems so that we can make the world better as we do all the things we need to do in our daily lives. Most people spend way more money buying stuff every year than we can give to charity, so let’s make that money do good for the world. We spend way more time at work than we can volunteer, so let’s make our jobs have a positive impact as much as possible. When we can make the world better by buying things we need to get anyway or doing things we have to do anyway, that’s when the world really changes.
You’re clearly thinking critically about our individual impacts as well as the evolution of the industry, so what’s next? As you build your new career in socially and environmentally responsible businesses, where are you setting your sights? Any interest in returning to politics?
For DoneGood, our long-term vision is to give people an easy place to get anything they ever need to buy from an ethical, purpose-driven company. And we mean anything, from a sweater to a smartphone to lunch at a diner to food from a grocery store. In Boston we have both local brick and mortar stores and restaurants and online stores on the app. We’ll add more local options elsewhere as we go. And we’re working to keep making the extension and app better. We’ll be continually adding more businesses. If people know of companies we ought to add we ask them to please let us know. We’ve already released updates to the app and extension and are about to release more updates soon. Over the next several months, people who use the extension will see it constantly improve.
What’s next for me? I have no idea! Hopefully nothing is next for a long time. I really want to work on something I believe is making the world better, and I really believe that the best way to create change is for us all to effectively wield our purchasing power for good. So I’m not that interested in returning to politics. It was fun, interesting, and (sometimes) seemed like important work. But I think I always want to work in the business-as-a-force-for-good movement from now on.