Networks for the Environment

Barely a year old,, an online service for people concerned with preserving the environment, has increased its membership base to about 1.4 million.

Entrepreneur and ecologist Randy Paynter founded the site in 1998 as, an electronic greeting card company. emerged a year later when Paynter decided to add features such as e-mail, channels, headline news, shopping, screensavers and games.

“We wanted to create more of a community and provide more services so users would stick around longer and eventually buy from our site,” Paynter said. “We want to make it as easy as possible to help the environment. The easiest way is to let users do what they would do anyway — send e-mails and greeting cards, shop — and if they can also help the environment, they will prefer our services over others.” appeals to “light green” consumers, a market segment with $500 billion in annual spending power, according to the Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability Journal. These people may not be ardent activists, but they care enough about the environment to help when they can.

In typical click-to-donate fashion, users click on a button that generates a donation paid by advertisers on the next page. gives environmental organizations 10 percent of its revenues from sponsor banner ads, user purchases and user visits.

In January, partnered with The Nature Conservancy for the first Race for the Rain Forest on the site. Now in its third Race for the Rain Forest, has earned more than $150,000, saving more than 4,500 acres. In August initiated the first Race for the Big Cats in partnership with The Nature Conservancy and the Wildlife Conservation Society. The two races have drawn more than 600,000 avid “racers” to the site. allows users to learn about the environment and to invite friends to visit the site. One feature is a multilevel track that shows users how much they have generated in donations, as well as their friends' donations.

“We want people to track the influence they have on the world. It's a great lesson in ecology,” Paynter said. “We want people to feel positive. [] has a fun look and feel. It's a family site. It appeals to all age groups. We've got a Pet of the Week, pen pals — something for everybody.”

Having turned his start-up dot-com into a viral marketing success story, Paynter plans further growth for his company by adding new features that build its online community and raise awareness for environmental causes. The company is in the process of launching new “Eco-channels” that help consumers learn how to incorporate environmentally friendly products into their daily lives.

Paynter's philosophy is a combination of hard-nosed business sense and an idealist's dreams.

“I've always loved the environment and always wanted to do something for the environment,” he said. “My father was an ornithologist. His advice was to go into investment banking and to go into the environment for a hobby. But the environment was my passion. I wanted to make it my life. When I couldn't find the right existing business, I created my own. And I got my dream job.”

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