Meet the Disruptor: Morgan Berman

Entrepreneur Morgan Berman turned her masters thesis into the sustainable living app MilkCrate through a combination of personal passion and deliberate collaboration. Now she’s expanding beyond Philly—and making payroll

Sometimes, being a tech entrepreneur means assembling seed bombs on your living room coffee table. At least it does if you’re Morgan Berman, founder and CEO of MilkCrate, a sustainable living app which launched an updated version today. On Wednesday, Berman gathered her (as yet unpaid) MilkCrate team in her Fairmount living room—a bright plant-filled space that feels like a back patio—for a decidedly low-tech project: Hunched over a (dull) vintage paper cutter, they made labels out of eco-friendly paper, then tied them to cheesecloth wrapped around flower seeds—a literal “seed bomb.”

It was very…Girl Scout troop, circa 1982. And also clever marketing: MilkCrate is the official app for the Philadelphia Farm and Food Fest on Sunday, providing participants who download the app with a guide to vendors and activities in the Convention Center. The seed bombs’ label directs people to the app, and will hopefully help spread the word—like wildflowers. “We got forget-me-nots,” Berman notes. “So people don’t forget us.”

That forget-me-nots are native to Pennsylvania makes them the perfect flower for MilkCrate. Born out of Berman’s own experience of trying to be eco-conscious in her lifestyle choices, MilkCrate is a guide to sustainable local living. The first version of the app, described as a “Yelp for sustainable living” when it launched in August, compiled a list of dozens of Philadelphia businesses, organizations and other resources that are eco-friendly—from the vegan eatery Hip City Veg to the local office of the Clean Air Council and local soap and candle maker Volta Market.

Instead of competing with RecycleBank and the Sustainable Business Network, Berman spent months pitching them MilkCrate and convincing them to share their directories with her, to create a one-stop-shop for eco-conscious living. The new, interactive version has searchable categories with profiles of more than 1,100 businesses and organizations.

The new version—and updates over the next several weeks—will have searchable categories with more than 1,100 businesses and organizations, with descriptions for each, including a map of all the bike sharing locations; a way to personalize the list through a “favorites” button; a mapping function; and more interactivity both within and outside the app, through Facebook and the like. MilkCrate in the summer will also launch in Colorado—where one of Berman’s co-founders has moved—and Asheville, North Carolina.

“A woman in Asheville heard about us, said she loved what we’re doing and sent us a list of all the sustainable businesses there,” says Berman. “Turns out, Asheville is a great place for this kind of thing.” By summer, the app also will offer a way for its businesses to advertise—the first step in turning MilkCrate into a profitable venture.

Not that Berman has had much trouble selling her idea. In the last 18 months, she has participated in two different incubators that helped her launch the first version of MilkCrate in late August and a crowdsourcing campaign, which raised an initial $20,000 (on Berman’s birthday). This year so far she has raised $100,000 from angel investors and venture capitalists. She’s been selected as one of several startups to pitch Pipeline, a group for first-time female investors, in both Austin and DC, and Berman says she has several other fundraising pitches in the works in coming weeks. Which means that in April, for the first time, Berman and her employees will get paid. (“Yay!” says Jason Cox, MilkCrate’s Chief Technology Officer, who on Wednesday was working the paper cutter. “No more Ramen!”)

MilkCrate has started to shift from directory to lifestyle tool. “I learned so much by getting hard questions from potential investors,” Berman says. Now, the model is no longer Yelp; it’s Facebook or Twitter, with more ways for users to interact with the app and eventually with each other.

From one perspective, MilkCrate’s success seems inevitable: Like so many good ideas, it’s hard to believe that no one came up with it before. Berman traces her passion for sustainability to her childhood in Elkins Park, where her family lived in a carriage house situated between Tyler School of Art and a community garden. “I mean there it is: Art and design on one side, community garden and local agriculture on the other,” she says. (She also helped her mother run thrift shop bus tours throughout the area.) In West Philly after college, Berman deliberately set out to shop, eat, and live in a way that gave back to the earth. She found a community of like-minded people through GRID Magazine, a monthly sustainable living publication where she worked for a year, but found navigating Philadelphia through an eco lens difficult. “There was all this great work happening, but there wasn’t one place I could go to find out about it,” she says. Instead, Berman says she kept stacks of GRID in her apartment filled with sticky notes, so she could refer back to lists and articles as needed.

It was while she was in grad school for sustainable design at Philadelphia University that Berman came up with the idea for MilkCrate. “I realized that I could design this thing I’m passionate about for myself,” she says. “It was the perfect confluence of my personal, professional and academic experiences.” In the process of researching her thesis, which eventually became MilkCrate, Berman found several local businesses and organizations that narrowly addressed some aspect of sustainability. Berman realized those groups had already done a lion’s share of the legwork she needed to start her directory.

“Most entrepreneurs say I’m going to be the best at something, I’m going to win,” says Berman. “But I wasn’t going to be in that contest. There were all these organizations that had the best lists for this or that and were ‘winning’ in their category—but they were losing by being on their own.”

Instead of trying to duplicate the work of organizations like Sustainable Business Network or B Corporation, Berman spent months pitching them MilkCrate and convincing them to share their directories with her, to create a one-stop-shop for eco-conscious living—all without requiring an in-house research department. Berman says she’s been reading PayPal founder Peter Thiel’s book on startups, Zero to One, and finds herself aligned with his philosophy. “Competition is not the key to successful capitalism,” she says. “It’s collaboration.”

Since the fall, MilkCrate has started to shift from directory to lifestyle tool, partly as a result of conversations with investors. “I learned so much about MilkCrate from getting “Nos,” and getting hard questions from potential investors,” Berman says. Now, the model is no longer Yelp, which users may visit once a month. It’s Facebook or Twitter, with more ways for users to interact with MilkCrate, and eventually with each other. Not all of that is in today’s launch. Some of Berman’s ideas for MilkCrate are still just that—ideas. But she is certain of one thing: The community of potential MilkCrate customers is growing everyday. After Philadelphia, Colorado and Asheville, Berman says she’s looking to expand to Washington, D.C., where she already has a Georgetown intern collecting data.

“I want to make it easier to get information to anyone anywhere to make sustainable choices, whether in their own neighborhood, or when they travel,” Berman says. “People want to live sustainably, but don’t know how. That’s what MilkCrate is for.”

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