Coinstar’s Jens Molbak wants to teach innovators and entrepreneurs a new way of doing business

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Jens Molbak, founder of Coinstar and NewImpact. (NewImpact photo)

Jens MolbakHis decision to build Coinstar – a start-up that would grow into a multi-billion dollar international coin recycling company – was guided by the values ​​of his Danish family and his own impatience.

Molbak’s parents lived in Nazi-occupied Denmark before immigrating to the United States. As a family, they valued democracy, freedom and entrepreneurship, as well as a Nordic sensibility for 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 evolved in stages: you work in the private sector to make money, give back to nonprofit organizations through donations and volunteer work, and maybe top that off with a job in the public sector before retirement and retirement Death.

Molbak saw an opportunity for a different path. Founded in 1990, Coinstar was a for-profit company that enabled people to get rid of the coins that accumulate in jars at home, while also giving them the opportunity to help charities by showing the value of those unwanted cents and dimes charities donated. Coinstar benefited the government and taxpayers by bringing coins back into circulation and reducing the need to mint more money.

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 not-for-profit sectors. He calls it “tri-sector innovation” and in 2020 founded his own non-profit organization. NewImpactto make the idea known to other entrepreneurs worldwide.

“We believe that each sector has unique and important and powerful assets,” Molbak said. “There are things that the private sector is doing really well, there are things that the social sector is doing really well, and there are things that government is doing really well, and how can we leverage those things?”

NewImpact develops tools to help innovators bring the three-sector lens to their own ventures. The team of 10 released one this month online guide explains the concept and how to apply it.

In addition to Coinstar, Molbak points this out other ventures built on this model, which includes Propel, a New York-based fintech company that built an app for the 45 million Americans who receive food stamps or SNAP benefits, and MoCaFi, a company dedicated to closing the racial wealth gap.

(Creative Commons photo / online trading academy)

We recently caught up with Molbak to learn more about the development of Coinstar and how that experience inspired the creation of NewImpact. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

GeekWire: Where did NewImpact and the concept of tri-sector innovation come from?

Molbak: I have reached 50. I’ve been thinking about how much I care about the government. And I’m interested in citizenship, not in the sense of immigration status, but citizenship in the sense of people participating in creating a civil society, a better place for all of us. And I’m interested in the non-profit sector. And it felt to me like it was Groundhog Day and we kept having the same conversations and we didn’t really solve problems on a large scale.

So I started thinking that Coinstar was a very small example of how the sectors could work together. I toured, went to countless conferences to understand what was out there. And the more I searched, the more I couldn’t find anyone who thought of using the best resources in a non-industry way.

I thought about how to start another business, but the more I researched about it, the more I realized that there are thousands of federal programs and amazing state programs and hundreds of thousands of nonprofit organizations. And there are $250 trillion worth of resources in the US that have already been built.

If we could just be a little more innovative in terms of using what we already had, then maybe we could find things like I found a market in the coin recycling system. So we started using this term or this business model of tri-sector innovators where each sector both contributes and benefits from something.

(NewImpact image)

GW: Who are the customers in the tri-sector model?

Molbak: It’s a model-by-model basis. Back to top, [some asked] why don’t we calculate them [Federal Reserve] and the US Mint for all the money you’re saving and I think they’ve already done the job, they created the market opportunity for us. Instead of treating the government as a customer, we treated them as employees. And they’ve been incredibly helpful.

Not only did they work with us, I got a follow-up call a year later from the head of the euro in the UK, who said: ‘Hey, I just spoke to the Fed and we heard you’re saving them a lot Money. Would you please come and have a look at the same system in the UK? So that was a pretty good conversation. And I flew over and met the people there and they arranged all the meetings with them [the British grocery stores] Tesco and Sainsbury’s, the Bank of England, within a week. So we’re launching 1,000 units in the UK in six months, which is a huge benefit for my private shareholders.

But if we didn’t have that public sector advantage, we never would have that acceleration that’s out there. So it’s kind of a mentality. They can treat anyone as a customer, but often it’s far better to really understand what they’re trying to do and work with them and help achieve some of the goals. This is that alignment piece that we talk about a lot.

GW: If you were an entrepreneur again, where would you be excited to apply the three sector approach and tap into these overlooked resources?

Molbak: When I give lectures on entrepreneurship and people say, “Hey, I want to build the next Coinstar, the next Propel, where do I look?” I encourage people to look at the federal government’s programs. There are 127 social safety net programs, and they all present a wonderful opportunity for reconsideration. If you were to redesign the social network today with cloud-based computing and mobile apps, things would look very different.

I’ve been particularly interested in Social Security and the pension system lately. It’s a trillion dollar program. It’s ripe for a rethink of how this works for all of us.

GW: You say there are many resources out there to consider and use. What do you think, what do you see as resources?

“We use all of these tools to get our attention instead of pushing society forward. And that seems like a huge abuse of the power of this technology to me.”

Molbak: Based on our research, there is approximately $250 trillion in assets in the US. Every building, every car, every street is a kind of balance sheet for the country. That’s a huge pool of wealth and a value far greater than the annual budget. So if you want to find economic leverage and economic power to actually solve some problems at scale, we as a society need to be smarter about how we use those $250 trillion of 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 spread this philosophy?

Molbak: We publish these three parts: inspire, empower and activate innovators. And we define innovators fairly loosely: people who genuinely care about making change and are able to do so. This could be a young entrepreneur, the head of a community foundation, or someone who works in a federal agency.

So it’s a big idea, but we want to make it super pragmatic and super tangible. Part of that is storytelling. We run some of these projects ourselves, the so-called catalyst projects, which we share publicly on the website to say, “Hey, there are big ideas here.” We try to create a series of case studies.

We have also started working with universities. We developed a course that we prototyped at Kent State last year. We are talking to a network of universities about the idea. I think three sector models should be taught in every business school in the country, every public policy school, every information school.

But for these things to really work in practice, we also think there needs to be some kind of technology platform that’s open and available.

GW: It definitely makes sense. Because, as you said, our problems are too big and we need to tackle them more efficiently and on a larger scale than we are currently doing…

Molbak: We didn’t talk about metrics. There are many easy-to-build city, country, or state dashboards to keep track of what’s going well in terms of education, health, housing, and the like. It’s great that we’re tracking the metrics. [But] My question is what are we doing to really change it?

And too often people just think it’s the government’s job and responsibility to make those changes. And I think it’s our job, no matter what industry you’re in, to think about what you can do to move these things forward.

With this technology platform that we have in mind, we’re really interested in reaching out to other people who have thought about things like this. There are a lot of people doing really interesting work out there and we think ours can be a part of that.

But we have to rethink how we want to do things. I firmly believe that the tools of the 21st century will please [building] a machine learning algorithm must be a part of it. And we use all of these tools to get our attention instead of pushing society forward. And that seems like a huge abuse of the power of this technology to me.

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