Lessons from Bright Sparks

How it began

The idea started in London, with the original Bright Sparks. I watched a video about them and got goosebumps. About a year later, I decided to take the plunge and start something similar in Melbourne.

How it worked

The Bright Sparks pilot program gave Melburnians three options:

  1. Donate. People donated their unwanted or broken appliances to us at Bright Sparks HQ or 14 donation points throughout Melbourne. Some of these items were given new life and resold or donated to people in need. Broken items were recycled.
  2. Repair. We offered a paid repair service for people who wanted their appliances fixed.
  3. Buy: We sold good-as-new kitchen appliances, household appliances and electronics. All appliances were tested for function and safety (aka ‘test and tag’).

Our predictions

Monsieur Turtle

Our first week

Outside Bright Sparks HQ
The video for our crowdfunding campaign, handmade with love on a budget of $3.50

A whole lotta love

Our van driver, Dan, summed it up best: he knew people would like us, but he didn’t know how much they would like us.

Seen and heard

I’ll share our final stats a bit later — what we collected, how much, etc. — but what I found far more interesting was the stuff we couldn’t quantify. Our supporters’ stories had some common themes.

67 things donated by one person (everything but the televisions, which were part of our retail counter). Yikes.
  • the drop-off point
  • the owner’s first name and postcode
  • item type, manufacturer and model
  • weight (kg)
  • working status (self-reported by donor: working/broken/unknown)
  • a story (optional, which could be used to describe why the item was broken or why it was donated)
  • the item’s final location (recycled, sold, etc.)
Overflowing donation bins at Northcote Library. So lovely and stressful at the same time.
Here’s what eight months of unsolicited, donated batteries look like — more than 27 kg worth. Batteries were never promoted as a Bright Sparks donation item but they arrived anyway, either by the bag-full or inside of battery-operated devices.
This is what 21 kg of remote controls looks like, in case you wondered. You can see a hint of the 836 kg of electrical cables we collected behind them.
Postcodes of Bright Sparks HQ visitors from August 2015 — April 2016
Note on the box reads: “What a great service, I hope it will continue. There is absolutely nothing like this in Tassie and I can’t bear to take this stuff to the tip. Thank you!”
A.K.A.: “This item isn’t good enough for me but it should be good enough for someone else.”

If you no longer want something, why would someone else want it?

I’m not saying you should throw things away because they’re not worthy of a charity (scary but true: there is no “away”). I want you to think about the life cycle and value of an item before you buy it.

We received quite a few notes in our donation bins.
Popasaurus, the dinosaur who vomits popcorn! Click here to see him in action.
I spent a couple of hours cleaning this juicer/blender with a toothbrush, photographing it and listing it on eBay because it was such a divine vintage appliance and needed to be loved again. It sold for $15.50.

The final countdown

Not volunteers.

Lessons from Bright Sparks 1.0

  1. Cupboard Procrastination Syndrome is real.
    I made up a funny term called Cupboard Procrastination Syndrome, referring to people who stored broken appliances in their cupboards because they didn’t know what to do with them. The Age ran with it. And then it seemed everyone we spoke to actually suffered from this disease I’d invented!
  2. Location, shmocation. (If we’d been in a high-traffic location like we wanted, I might be dead from exhaustion.)
  3. Sales costs outweighed sales revenue.
  4. Recycling e-waste is a huge challenge.
  5. The people who loved us weren’t all paying customers.

Why I am so @#$%@! thankful we ran a pilot

When Bright Sparks HQ closed, I was a little bit sad but mostly relieved. Why? Our business model needed fixing. We didn’t have to waste years pretending everything was fine while we were struggling. I was working on Bright Sparks pretty much seven days a week; now I have time to crunch the numbers and process everything I learned.

How Bright Sparks will evolve

In the next phase, we’ll focus more on repairs and encouraging people to repair and love the stuff they own.

More repairs

We’ll repair more types of things (not just appliances) and offer repair classes (non-electrical) to teach people new skills. Fees for our repair service will increase — in line with customer feedback — ensuring we can pay repair staff appropriately for their time and expertise.

Less recycling

If we do offer recycling in future, it will not be free. We’ll begin charging a recycling fee (possibly around $5 per item), regardless of whether it’s working or broken. E-waste will no longer be accepted as a ‘donation’.

Less time spent on reuse

We’ll spend less time on sales and focus more on the hiring of appliances — generating income from the same items multiple times. This will reduce the time we spend cleaning, testing and promoting items for sale. We won’t donate appliances to people in need unless that activity (sorting, cleaning, testing and coordinating with charity partners) is funded, e.g. by a grant or a corporate sponsor, and we can hire a coordinator to run it.

No collections

Recycling customers would need to drop off unwanted items at Bright Sparks HQ and pay a recycling fee for each item.

Bright Sparks 2.0: welcome to Tinker Town

The vision for Bright Sparks 2.0 is a magic place called Tinker Town — a repair, reuse and replay centre.

“Mayor of Tinker Town” has a nice ring to it, don’t you think?
  • Repair Town, a one-stop shop where you could get just about anything repaired — electrical appliances, shoes, clothing, bicycles, furniture, etc.
  • Repair School — non-electrical repair classes that might focus on fixing bicycles, books, clothing, garden tools, jewellery, furniture, ceramics, food or even your love life (register here if you’re interested in teaching)
  • Repair supplies for sale — tools and materials to help you fix your own stuff
  • An appliance hiring library — offering kitchen appliances, retro games consoles (e.g. Atari 2600), power tools, karaoke machines and anything else you might want to use once or twice but don’t need to store in your home all year

How you can help

We need a location

We’re on the hunt for somewhere that’s low or no cost for 3–5 years. We’d like 800 square metres, but we can work with more or less for the right space and opportunity.

We’ll need funding

Grants and philanthropic funds for early-stage social enterprises are difficult to come by, and major funding for environmental social enterprises even moreso. (I could write a whole article just on this topic.) Crowdfunding can be fantastic but would likely raise only a fraction of what we would need to start up again.

Get involved

We get many lovely offers for help; what’s most useful is someone with a specific skillset and initiative who rolls up his or her sleeves and gets started. This could be as simple as keeping an eye out for spaces and major funding opportunities. Or maybe you’d like to analyse all the amazing, comprehensive data we collected. If your particular super power is business development or fundraising, I’d encourage you to apply for a position on our board. Contact me if you’d like to know more and have an idea for how you might contribute.

Create less e-waste

If your appliances are broken, get them repaired.

Update

It’s been three years since I wrote this story. Bright Sparks is officially over (the company has been deregistered) and Tinker Town is off the cards. It’s a whole other story I’d love to tell one day, but I want to give it the time and attention it deserves.

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