Big Belly – Revisiting an Old Friend

 By Shlomo Maital

Big Belly

Bigbelly wants to transform its solar-powered trash cans into digital hubs offering Wi-Fi access, advertising, and data-collecting sensors. (Oh, and garbage receptacles, too.)

   In August 2014 I wrote a blog titled “Why I Live in the House by the Side of the Road”, and in it mentioned Big Belly:

    In downtown Brookline, part of Boston, MA., I saw a Big Belly solar powered trash compactor. (See photo). I teach this business case, about MBA student James Poss who won a business-plan contest and used the money in part to help launch this business. The Big Belly saves 3 out of 4 garbage truck trips, helps the environment, is very esthetic, and is simply cool. And it’s got a cell phone – it calls the garbage truck to “come empty me” when it’s full!      Poss thought he would sell them to ski resorts. None bought them – but the City of Boston did. Lesson:   Get your product out into the market, as fast as you can, and people will tell you how they want to use it, and WHO wants to use it, and you will often be very very surprised. Until you get your product into the market, you will not have a clue about its true value-creating power. Remember: make your product an MVP – minimum viable product, and then launch it.   If you wait for perfection, you will almost always be too late.


Now, in a Harvard Business School Working Knowledge article, I am happy to read about Big Belly’s continued success, based on a new case study by Mitchell Weiss. This is a wonderful case about business innovation – innovating how you do business, rather than just the product you innovate. Weiss told HBS Working Knowledge:

“I thought what could be less high-tech than a trash can,” he remembers. When he met with company managers, however, they broke the news that they were transitioning to expand their connected software offering and provide Wi-Fi and other hi-tech services.

“My first thought was, what are you doing to my course?” laughs Weiss. “My second thought was, what are you doing to your company?” Selling hardware to budget-crunched cities can difficult. Bigbelly’s early pitch was that by providing trash compacting in the units (solar powered to boot), additional waste storage would help keep streets cleaner. Another plus: sensors in the units report when the cans are full, enabling cities to optimize pickup routes and save money.   Even with initial growth, however, the company wondered why it wasn’t selling even more trash products to more customers.

It turns out that the usually universal sales-winning message of “save money” is not always a convincing pitch for cities. “The reality is, 80 percent of a city’s operating budget is people,” says Weiss. “When you say, ‘save money,’ what they hear is ‘lay off people.’ That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done sometimes, but it does make things more difficult.”

A better strategy is selling cities on something citizens need. In Bigbelly’s case, the company aims to leverage the power and connectivity already embedded in the waste stations for a public increasingly hungry for data. Not only are Wi-Fi hotspots in demand by those who can’t afford Internet access, but connectivity is also increasingly desired by smartphone users who want to cut data costs while streaming high-bandwidth content.

“I’ve been surprised at how popular it still is, both to bridge the digital divide and for people who like having access to Wi-Fi instead of using their cellular data,” says Weiss.

 Solar trash compactor, as a Wi-Fi hotpot?   Now, THAT’s creativity. Go, Big Belly!