This is Harris Edelman, founder and CEO of Ombligo, a New York City-based computer hardware company that helps other companies reduce their electronic waste through sustainable IT asset management, refurbishment and recycling. We recently sat down with Harris in his Brooklyn offices to discuss running a small business that promotes a circular economy. Here’s some of that conversation:
Harris: I wanted to work at a company that lived and breathed what it believed. The challenge I had was that I couldn’t find one, so I created one. Ombligo was formed to maximize value and minimize risk (for example, environmental and data security risk) from used and out-of-service IT hardware. Ombligo means “belly button” in Spanish. Why belly button? We assign human characteristics to most computer parts. The central processing unit (CPU) is the brain, monitors have arms, and keyboards have feet—but there is no belly button because computers are made, not born. So we are the belly buttons, testing and refurbishing these computers.
I believe that companies can do well financially and also do good socially and environmentally. These two goals are not mutually exclusive but inextricably linked. I dream of a world with a true circular economy in which resources are reused again and again rather than being extracted, used and disposed of. I think reusing and refurbishing IT equipment is a powerful part of the reduce, reuse and then recycle paradigm, and I’m proud to see Ombligo and other companies like TechMikeNY working hard each day to reduce electronic waste.
The World Economic Forum recently estimated that 50 million tons of e-waste are produced each year. To minimize this kind of electronic waste, Ombligo thinks about IT hardware in terms of the sum of its parts. We only recycle parts that we cannot sell or upcycle. While we responsibly recycled 6.5 tons or 13,000 pounds of electronic waste in 12 months time and successfully diverted this waste from landfills, the majority of our revenue is generated by selling refurbished IT hardware. To that end, last year we sold thousands of certified refurbished parts and systems.
As the tech cycle continues to speed up, more and more electronic waste is pushed into the waste stream. IT hardware can and should be more repairable and reusable. However, some of the big Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) design their products to be difficult and expensive to repair because they want to incentivize their customers to upgrade to the current model. I think the really innovative OEMs understand that there are some customers who will repair a phone, computer, or server for many years after they stop supporting that particular product, but those companies are few and far between.
Here’s a crazy idea: what if the OEMs make their products more modular and more straightforward — and less expensive — to repair and fix? Imagine if the screen on your mobile phone didn’t cost a small fortune to repair. Imagine if the nerd next door, or your friend’s kid, could fix your phone with the right tools and genuine OEM parts. I have faith that manufacturers will come around and figure out a way to make the circular economy a reality, but their participation and commitment is critical.
What we are doing now with used IT hardware is similar to what the car industry did with used cars several decades ago. As cars became more reliable and there was greater transparency, more folks became open to the idea of purchasing used cars. While there are objective metrics to buying a used car, like mileage, dents, accident history, and so on, until recently there weren’t analogous metrics for used computers.
The used computer sector is working through this evolutionary phase right now and we are very excited to be in the vanguard. There are some subjective characteristics for refurbished computers but there are now many objective metrics, too. By sharing these objective metrics with customers, we’re able to assuage some of their concerns about purchasing certified refurbished products. For example, printers have page counts and manufacturers publish the average monthly page counts for which printers are rated, and hard disk drives have read/write errors, grown defects, power-on hours, and so on. We test each part and have come up with our own bouquet of tests and metrics to help our customers make informed decisions.
”I believe that companies can do well financially and also do good socially and environmentally. These two goals are not mutually exclusive, but inextricably linked.”
Overall, Ombligo is a team of inspired individuals as diverse as the city and country in which we operate. We say “we” and not “me,” and we believe in encouraging experimentation despite the stress it causes on internal resources. We share information across the entire company, our successes and our failures, too — especially our failures. We believe that the lessons learned from our mistakes can and should be used to educate and strengthen our team.
When we started to build our offices, we thought carefully about what material to use or re-use. For example, every desk (even the conference room table) is made from server chassis, carriage bolts, metal pallet banding, and plywood. We put as many people as we could by the windows to be near natural light and we kept the inventory in the middle of the warehouse since most servers and CPUs don’t really care for natural sunlight. (Or, at least that’s what Alexa told me.)
Whenever a new employee joins the team, they get a plant to take care of. Hani, our COO certainly wins for most improved plant partner (MIPP). After a few failed attempts at keeping plants alive he found his flow with a dracaena. I think that means dragon and yes he’s a huge game of thrones fan, so you could say it was his destiny. The most connected plant partner (MCPP) would have to be Sukhdeep Singh, aka the plant whisperer of the office. One secret, look at the leaves. Plants do communicate just in their own way, as Singh would say. When the right human connects with the right plant the world is a greener (and certainly more oxygenated) place.
We started out small because we believe doing so drives innovation. To paraphrase Franklin Delano Roosevelt, we do as much as we can, with as little as we can, for as long we can. We think small companies should be self-funded because financial independence allows for creative freedom. And we believe that it is still possible to start a great American company in a garage, as we did, and expand across the country, as we are doing now.
Founder’s syndrome is a real thing. It’s hard to let go. It’s taken me a while to come around, but I believe that I’m taking some steps toward that end. Letting go validates the people you are working with and also allows me to spend time thinking about other aspects of our strategy. It’s almost a new year but one of my goals is to let go of more and trust more and just be available if someone has a question or an idea or an experiment they want to run. I’m grateful to have people at Ombligo like our COO, Hani Keirouz, who is brilliant and also understands my idiosyncrasies. We hope to encourage leaders to emerge with new ideas and take responsibility for implementing these ideas.
Outside of Ombligo, I’m passionate about spending time with my family. I think of it like this: every phone has a portrait feature (and, no it doesn’t matter which manufacturer makes your phone). This feature helps aspirational artists like me take respectable pictures. I mention this for two reasons. First, if you didn’t know that your phone has this feature, you’re welcome. And second, if your phone doesn’t have this feature, upgrade (I happen to know of a reputable company that refurbishes used and out-of-service IT equipment). Anyway, in portrait mode, you need to get close to the subjects in the picture. The camera frames the faces in crisp, almost 3D focus while simultaneously blurring the background. I look at the world in portrait mode. My family is in focus while everything else melts into the background.