Responsible Business: Reinventing business cards for a sustainable world

This article first appeared in Enterprise, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on August 5, 2019 - August 11, 2019.
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Business cards are becoming superfluous as the nature of networking, interacting and building connections become increasingly digitalised. Nevertheless, billions of these are still being printed each year despite the countless digital alternatives available in the market.

Perhaps many do not realise just how big of an environmental nuisance these little pieces of cardboard are. There are currently more than three billion employees worldwide, with 90% of them being white-collar workers who use traditional business cards.

Amano Young, co-founder of Malaysian tech company CodeZero, says the market size for these cards is about US$39 billion a year. The start-up’s research also revealed that 88% of the cards collected are disposed of within a week.

“That is because you either forgot whom you had connected with, misplaced the card or unintentionally thrown it away. So, that is billions of dollars’ worth of cards going to waste every year,” Young tells Enterprise.

He points out that conventional business cards are bulky, cumbersome, static and physical. And if people run out of or forget to bring these along, they may miss an opportunity to make a connection.

“There is also an expiry date on each of these cards because if someone leaves the organisation, the information on the card becomes obsolete,” says Young, who is the company’s chief design officer.

While there are many digital business card applications in the market, all of them use the scan-and-save method, he adds. That means they still rely on physical business cards, which defeats the purpose of going digital.

“The biggest problem with digital business cards today is that they increase the wastage from 88% to 92% because after a card is scanned, it is usually thrown away immediately. We found that 7.2 million trees are being cut down each year for business cards, the majority of which will be discarded,” says Young.

This worrying trend drove CodeZero to create Zero, a digital platform that connects people and businesses. It aims to digitise business cards in the hope of reducing waste and promoting environmental conservation.

BrandCard — the first of its kind in the world — is more than a digital business card, says Young. “It is not static as you can upload video and audio files. When you click on the organisation’s logo, on top of the basic information on the company, there is also a registration number. If you click on it, you will be directed to its information stored at the Registrar of Companies (ROC) or credit reporting agencies such as CTOS.

“This is to verify that a company is legitimate because we want to focus on the integrity of big data. The company also has to verify that a person is indeed its employee if he said so on his BlackCard.”

BlackCards are BrandCards issued by companies that display their brand identity and company culture as well as their products, services and marketing campaigns. There is a centralised system to manage employees’ cards and contacts.

Meanwhile, WhiteCards are personal BrandCards that allow users to create a digital representation of themselves. They may promote their passion projects or work that they do outside their professional scope.

The internet, particularly social networks, abounds with fake information and profiles, says Young. So, it is time to “reshuffle the big data”. “By ensuring the integrity of the data, people can trust the information they find on the individuals and companies they look up on our platform. Using BrandCards prevents identity fraud because the companies on our platform are verified by their ROC information while the companies themselves verify their employees. When an employee leaves the company, his BlackCard is removed,” he says.

Young points out that its competitors rely on scanning technology known as optical character recognition or require users to fill in templates to key in contact details. “While they claim to have accuracy, we have found that they usually hire people who work remotely in other countries to process the data, which is why it takes a couple of days to receive the data. You can only get the data immediately if you pay for the service. Meanwhile, apps that provide such services for free usually require users to examine the data, line by line, for accuracy.”

Switching to a digital solution is also a cost-saving method for companies, he notes. Instead of spending money on a stack of business cards for their employees, companies can simply download the app and assign cards to employees in less than five minutes.

“Personal BrandCards are free of charge. As for company BrandCards, employees may share and exchange these without incurring any fees. Companies may freely access the contact data on the first 500 cards collected. For those that want to access more than 500 cards, there is a tiered monthly subscription fee,” says Young.

“The monthly subscription fee is US$3.99 for 501 to 5,000 contacts, US$15.99 for 5,001 to 20,000 contacts and US$29.99 for more than 20,000 contacts. So, companies only pay a fraction of the price of printing business cards.”

Young says the digital business card apps that are currently in the market range from US$7.99 for a single card with limited features to US$30 for a corporate account with premium components.

CodeZero secured US$1 million in its first round of fundraising in May last year. It is currently conducting its second round of fundraising, the proceeds of which will be used to execute the next phase of product development.

Young says one of the company’s early investors, who is in the renewable energy industry, firmly believes in a paperless, smart future and hates paper business cards. “The support we have received from the environmental sector has given us a definite morale boost, as well as knowing that our app is a hit among users,” he adds.

 

Paying homage to nature and culture

A BrandCard is designed as a business networking tool that allows users to exchange contact details and more, on the go. There are three ways to do so, apart from simply searching manually and connecting with others through the app’s internal search engine.

The first option is to share your card with people who are not users of the app through external platforms such as SMS, WhatsApp, email or social media networks. The second is a one-to-one exchange within the app and the third is a broadcast-to-all option called “echo” within the app, which can be used to share your digital card with everyone in the room.

“The platform uses sound waves to transfer data from your phone’s speaker. This ensures that our app can work with any smartphone with microphones and speakers as we do not want to serve only those with high-end smartphones. Also, each exchange only takes a few seconds, allowing users to exchange on the fly without any awkward pauses in the conversation,” says Young.

He says the use of soundwaves is to preserve the culture of exchanging business cards. Each card will have a different soundwave frequency, which avoids duplication.

CodeZero recently launched an environmental campaign dubbed #SaveCostforaCause, in which it takes the cost companies save from not printing paper business cards and donates it to causes related to the environment. “For every 400 BrandCards exchanged or shared by a user or company, CodeZero will donate US$10 to an environmental cause — such as reforestation — on behalf of the user or company. We are also excited to be involved with the Children’s Environmental Heritage Foundation, through which we actively participate in programmes to educate the youth on environmental conservation,” says Young.

He adds that the company definitely wants to work with youth groups in the next few years to inculcate the right values relating to the environment because they are the future.

Young acknowledges that the product take-up rate has been gradual, but it makes sense because the solution disrupts people’s regular lifestyles and requires users to break an old habit. However, as a concept, it has always been well received.

“The reception is tremendously encouraging whenever it is presented. We are currently in talks for a few partnerships and collaborations. For instance, HLX Corp is introducing a new co-working space and BrandCard will be one of the digital tools offered to all tenants. We are also deploying a pilot group from Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation to experience the usability of Zero BrandCard,” says Young.

The challenge lies in getting the platform adopted in a corporate setting, he adds. “Whenever our business development team goes out to meet and present the app to clients, we usually receive positive feedback on the idea and aesthetics of the app. However, the challenge is to change the persistent habit of using physical business cards.

“Interestingly, the practice of exchanging cards dates back to the 18th century. Hence, it is understandably hard to give up such an ingrained culture.”