The Paper Chase

How a small University City company—one of the nation’s fastest-growing—is on a mission to “make Philadelphia awesome.”

The Paper Chase

How a small University City company—one of the nation’s fastest-growing—is on a mission to “make Philadelphia awesome.”

It was only the second week of school and already the teachers of Northeast High School faced an absurd crisis: They were running out of paper. And without paper, they couldn’t do…well, anything, really.

The teachers, like elsewhere, were going to have to buy their own paper, out of pocket. At other schools across the city, parents were encouraged to send in printer paper along with their kids’ supplies for the year. And still schools might not have enough to get through the year.

“It sounds so crazy,” says Julia Anaya, a marketing associate with Leadnomics, a University City tech startup. “Paper was this overlooked resource. But we realized that paper is easy. It’s something we have in our office.”

So Leadnomics launched StackThatPaper, an 8-week word-of-mouth campaign to collect paper—or donations for paper—from companies around the city. Think ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, but for school paper: Companies posted pictures or videos as they creatively “stacked” their paper, while also donating paper or the funds to buy it to Leadnomics. CEO Zach Robbins launched the effort in September in plank position on the floor of his office, while employees stacked reams of paper on his back. (He made it to 17 before collapsing.) A few days later, another local tech company, LeadID, staged a videotaped basketball dunking contest with stacks of paper as launching pads. From there, the campaign took off: Some 20 companies made donations, allowing Leadnomics to provide 16 area schools with 270 reams of paper. (While the campaign has officially ended, Leadnomics will continue collecting paper for a later donation. Get details here.)

Making Philadelphia awesome is about more than being a good neighbor, says Leadnomics CEO Zach Robbins. It is also good business.

None of this has to do with the business of Leadnomics, a 40-person company that connects car insurers with customers looking for insurance through a proprietary technology platform. Started by Robbins and Stephen Gill in 2007, Leadnomics was one of the Inc. 500 fastest-growing companies for two years. Now, with 40 employees, Robbins says Leadnomics is expanding its lead generation program to the more than 50,000 local agents across the country. But Leadnomics is a tech company with another mission, as well: “To make Philadelphia awesome.”

“I have spent a lot of time traveling in other cities, and have always had a particular fondness for coming home to Philadelphia,” says Robbins. “I see the potential this city has, and that it is not always exploited to the best it can be.”

In particular, Robbins says his team has looked for ways—big and small—to have an impact on Philadelphia’s youngest citizens. Some Leadnomics workers volunteered in November at an entrepreneurial class at South Philly High. One employee is an advisor to a local school. The company is now looking to hire high-schoolers to do some part-time clerical work, rather than a college intern. Leadnomics also hires Drexel co-ops and interns from Penn. And Robbins is part of Philly StartUp Leaders, a group of young entrepreneurs whose mission is to make Philly a world-class city.

To Robbins, it is not just about being a good neighbor. It is also good business. A South Jersey native, Robbins went to Temple, where he volunteered with Gang Resistance Education Training in some local high schools. “That gave me a first-hand look at how broken the schools are,” he says. Robbins, 28, has no children. But as his company has grown, so have the number of employees with families. Robbins has seen workers move out of the city because of the schools in town, making their commute more burdensome. And he says he worries that Leadnomics will have a hard time recruiting mid-level technology experts to Philadelphia for the same reason.

“For a lot of people, schools is the number one thing they look at when they’re thinking about moving,” says Robbins. “We want to attract the best talent to the area. But we might not be able to do that.”

The logic is clear: Making better schools, a better city, means a better environment for businesses like Leadnomics to thrive. But Robbins admits that he has not seen as many companies step forward as he would expect—perhaps, he says, because they feel helpless to make any difference.

“I think people don’t understand how they can affect change,” he says. “For me, it is my personal passion to enjoy Philadelphia and make it better.”

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