Jens Molbak’s decision to create Coinstar – a startup that would become a billion-dollar international coin-recycling company – was driven by his Danish family values and his own impatience.
Molbak’s parents had lived in Nazi-occupied Denmark before immigrating to the United States. As a family, they valued democracy, freedom and entrepreneurship as well as a northern sensibility of egalitarianism and civic engagement, says Molbak.
Molbak, who grew up in the Seattle area, worked as an investment banker in New York and then went to Stanford for his MBA. Older colleagues had advised him that life would go in stages: you work in the private sector to make money, give back to nonprofits through donations and volunteering, then maybe cap that. with a stint in the public sector before retirement and death.
Molbak saw the opportunity for a different path. Started in 1990, Coinstar was a for-profit company that allowed people to get rid of coins that were piling up in jars at home while giving them the opportunity to help non-profit organizations by donating to charities. charities from the value of unwanted coins. Coinstar benefited the government and taxpayers by putting the coins back into circulation, reducing the need to mint more silver.
Molbak left the company in 2001 and Coinstar is now Outerwall, based in Bellevue, Washington.
But he took with him the idea of building businesses that simultaneously serve and benefit the private, public, and nonprofit sectors. He calls it “tri-industry innovation” and in 2020 he started his own nonprofit, NewImpact, to promote the idea to fellow entrepreneurs around the world.
“Our belief is that each sector has unique, important and powerful strengths,” Molbak said. “There are things the private sector does really well, there are things the social sector does really well, and there are things the government does really really well, and how can we leverage those things? “
NewImpact develops tools to help innovators integrate the tri-sector lens into their own businesses. The 10-person team published an online guide this month explaining the concept and how to apply it.
In addition to Coinstar, Molbak mentions other companies built on this model, including Propel, a New York-based fintech company that created an app to serve the 45 million Americans receiving food stamps or SNAP benefits, and MoCaFi, a business to close the racial wealth gap.
We recently caught up with Molbak to learn more about the evolution of Coinstar and how that experience inspired the creation of NewImpact. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
GeekWire: Where does NewImpact and the concept of tri-industry innovation come from?
Molbak: I have reached 50 years old. I was thinking how much I care about the government. And I care about citizenship, not in the sense of immigration status, but citizenship in terms of people participating in creating a civil society, a better place for all of us. And I care about the nonprofit sector. And I felt like it was Groundhog Day, and we had the same conversations over and over, and we weren’t really solving large-scale issues.
So I started thinking about how Coinstar was a very small example of how sectors could work together. I went for a walk, I attended tons of conferences, to understand what was going on. And the more I searched, the more I couldn’t find anyone who considered using the best available resources in an industry-agnostic way.
I thought about how I could start another business, but the more I researched, the more I realized there were thousands of federal programs and amazing state programs, and hundreds of thousands of non-profit organizations. And there’s $250 trillion of resources in the United States that have already been built.
If we could just be a little more innovative in terms of using what we already had, maybe we could find things like I found a market in the parts recycling system. So we started using this term or business model of tri-sector innovators where each sector both contributes and benefits.
GW: Who are the customers in the tri-sector model?
Molbak: It’s a model-by-model basis. Returning to the start, [some asked] why don’t we charge the [Federal Reserve] and the US Mint for all that money you’re saving them, and I’m like, they’ve already done the work, they’ve created the market opportunity for us. Rather than treating the government as a client, we have treated it as a collaborator. And they were incredibly helpful.
Not only were they working with us, but I also got a follow-up call a year later from the head of the UK euro who said, “Hey, I just spoke to the Fed, and we hear you’re saving them a ton of money. Would you please come and see the same system in the UK? So it was a very good conversation. And I flew over and met the people there and they arranged all the meetings with [the British grocery stores] Tesco and Sainsbury’s, the Bank of England, within a week. So we’re rolling out 1,000 units in the UK in six months, which is a big plus for my private sector shareholders.
But if we hadn’t had this advantage of the public sector, we would never have had this acceleration that exists. So it’s kind of a mentality. You can treat everyone like a customer, but it’s often best to really understand what they’re trying to do and work alongside them, and co-accomplish some of the goals. It’s this alignment piece that we talk about a lot.
GW: If you were to become an entrepreneur again, where would you love to apply the tri-industry concept and exploit these neglected resources?
Molbak: When I’m giving a talk about entrepreneurship and people say, “Hey, I want to build the next Coinstar, the next Propel, where can I look?” I encourage people to watch federal government programs. There are 127 social safety net programs, and they all offer a wonderful opportunity to be redesigned. If you were to redesign the social safety net today with cloud computing and mobile apps, it would look completely different.
I have been particularly interested lately in Social Security and the pension system. It’s a trillion dollar program. It’s time to rethink how it works for all of us.
GW: You say there are many resources to consider and use. What do you mean, what do you see as resources?
Molbak: In the United States there is approximately, according to our research, approximately $250 trillion in assets. So each building, each car, each road is a kind of assessment of the country. It’s a huge pool of wealth and worth well over the annual budget. So if you want to find economic leverage and economic power to solve some large-scale problems, as a society we have to be smarter about how we use those $250 trillion in resources.
It could be something as simple as a bus. If a church has a bus that it uses on Sundays, could the nearby school use it during the week and share the bus as a resource?
GW: How does NewImpact disseminate this philosophy?
Molbak: We publish these three parts: inspire, enable and activate innovators. And we define innovators quite loosely: people who really care about making things happen and are able to do so. It could be early-stage entrepreneurs, the head of a community foundation, or someone who works in a federal agency.
So it’s a great idea, but we want to make it super pragmatic and super tangible. Part of that is storytelling. We do some of these projects ourselves, called Catalyst Projects, which we share publicly on the site to say, “Hey, here’s some great ideas.” We try to create a series of case studies.
We have also started working with universities. We developed a course that we prototyped last year at Kent State. We are discussing the idea with a network of universities. I think tri-industry models should be taught in every business school in the country, every public policy school, every news school.
But for these things to really work in practice, we also think there needs to be some sort of open and available technology platform.
GW: It certainly makes sense. Because, as you said, our problems are too big and we need to solve them more effectively and on a larger scale than we are now…
Molbak: We haven’t talked about measurements. There are many easy dashboards to create for cities, countries or states and track what is going well in terms of education, health, housing, that sort of thing. It’s great that we follow the measures. [But] my question is, what are we doing to really change them?
And too often people just think it’s the government’s job and responsibility to make those changes. And I think it’s all of our jobs, regardless of your industry, to think about what you can do to move these things forward.
With this technology platform that we’re looking at, we’re really interested in engaging with other people who were thinking about this stuff. There are a lot of people doing really interesting work, and we think ours can be one of them.
But we have to rethink the way we want to do things. I deeply believe that 21st century tools like [building] a machine learning algorithm must be part of it. And we use all of these tools to capture our attention instead of advancing society. And that strikes me as a huge misuse of the power of this technology.