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Sam’s Story: How A Snake Bite Turned Into a Bright Idea for a Solar-Power Startup

When d.light co-founder Sam Goldman (pictured left with co-founder Ned Tozun) got bitten by a snake in Africa one night, it led to a series of events – and a moment of clarity that eventually turned into a startup now providing millions of people around the world with an alternative energy source.
After many months – and near-death experiences – in Africa, Sam understood firsthand the urgent need for a safer, cleaner energy choice than kerosene, and he decided to do everything possible to create a solution.

The result was d.light, a social enterprise that sells affordable solar solutions that do everything from charging cell phones during the day to providing light at night, for customers in the U.S., South Asia, Africa and India. 

d.light‘s positive global impact is truly staggering. To date, their solar solutions have created 31 billion productive hours for working and studying and helped customers save $5.0 billion in energy-related expenses – dramatically improving the quality of life for millions of people in the developing world.

Sam talks about how he turned his ‘bright idea’ into a scalable, global business: including why real-life storytelling was so crucial in his winning pitch to initial investors to the importance of being flexible, investing in good people and why ‘good is sometimes better than great’ when scaling a business globally.

What were you doing before you started d.light and what inspired you to launch a purpose-driven business?

I lived overseas my whole life. Both my parents worked for…a US government development organization.

 At three weeks old, I was in Liberia, then Cameroon – I went to elementary school in Pakistan, middle school in Peru and high school in India. I decided to (enroll in the) Peace Corps after my undergraduate (studies) because I wanted to really understand what it would be like as a subsistence farmer. The theory being once I did that, I could design appropriate solutions.
I was accepted into the Peace Corp program in West Africa….and I was the first volunteer out in the middle of nowhere – no electricity, no water, no paved road, no telephone, no mobile, no nothing! While I was there, a couple things radically changed for me.
(Firstly) I went in as an environmental studies and biology major and anti-capitalist so to speak…and while I was there, it was so obvious that there was 80-100 years of good work by the NGOs, etc. but it was having very incremental results.
And there were two computers in the second-biggest town where I could access the internet – and they were like $7 per minute. And by the end (of my stay) there were computer centers all over the place and the price was down to 50 cents per minute and mini-businesses were sprouting up…all just in the four or five years I was there.

So it was super clear to me that the only way to create large-scale change in developing countries was through capitalism. That was the big philosophical … turning point for me, from I’m a scientist doing good work to I need an MBA!

On the other side of the equation, I had been an entrepreneur my whole life and while I was in the Peace Corps, I was running a cement business on the side to help people…and setting up local entrepreneurs to build latrines in the villages.
And then a couple of things happened to me: I was bitten by a snake walking back to my house and as soon as the snake bit me, I dropped the kerosene lantern (kerosene, also known as lamp oil, is known to cause dangerous skin burns). That was a really freaky experience because I thought it was a (really) poisinous snake and I would die within an hour! I ended up being able to get to a local health center and the doctor said ‘You’re lucky, we have one anti-venom left because somebody came in last Friday and couldn’t afford it.’
(Around this time) I stopped using kersosine and bought an LED head lamp – I cooked with it, I read with it, and everyone in my village wanted it! So I wrote to all of these LED head lamp companies and asked to be a distributor but not one company wrote back to me.
But the really major thing that happened to me was when…my next door neighbor’s son got into a kerosene accident …he had third-degree burns everywhere on his body. Normally people die from the infections of the burns – they don’t die from the burn.
So I started doing research and learning about the numbers of people dying from kerosene burns, and how prevalent kerosene was …and it just completely blew my mind.
Tell me the story behind the launch of d.light. What steps did you take to bring it to life?
The story for me (in regards to d.light) is the (combination) of all of these things coming together (see Sam’s answer above) and then Stanford’s design for extreme affordability program (where Sam did his MBA) was just this amazing opportunity. We designed (energy) products for an NGO in Mynamar and we called the class project d.light.

We built some prototypes and as our final project, we presented a solution for customers in Myanmar. We took these prototypes out to (Myanmar) and people would literally cry when we had to take the prototypes back.

So we knew this was huge.
We scrounged together money, we turned  (the project) into credit courses, we applied to school conferences…whatever we could do to make it work and that’s how we kicked off d.light.
We got out of ‘we’re doing this as a class project’ mode pretty quickly and got into ‘what’s the business plan that investors would get behind’ and put together a global plan.  And the way we kicked it off, which was a lot of luck, was by applying for (and winning) $250,000 at the Draper Fisher Jurveston (DFJ) Venture Challenge.
Everyone goes in (to the BSJ Adventure Challenge pitch) with numbers and graphs, but we told customer stories about what this product could do for people if we could get it to them (and showed an example of the product).  And I think people just got it. (check out How to Create Social Change: 3 Expert Storytelling Techniques to learn more).
One of my professors at Stanford told me ‘raise your first $250,000 and the rest will come’ and that’s what happened for us. Once we got that, we were able to raise more pretty quickly.
You’ve made an amazing global impact with d.light. Tell me a bit more about the positive environmental and social impacts you’ve made? Where have they been felt the most? What are your plans for the future?
Many people are still using kerosene and it gets more and more expensive, eating up on average 10-15% of a family’s total income – just burning it every night for this dangerous light. (Kerosine) produces black carbon, which is worse than normal greenhouse gases, so if we can eliminate billions of people burning this black carbon, we might be able to buy ourselves another decade or two to deal with climate change.
And it completely and fundamentally changes their life…we wanted to get people two things that would have the most impact on their life (1) high-quality, safe lights (2) ensuring they can charge mobile phones and therefore have access to communication.
Our core customers maybe make $1-$2 dollar per day, so they don’t have disposable income. And people also don’t realize – they’re not ‘consumers’ they’re not in the habit of buying, or being sold, things. So they are very risk-adverse. Buying one of our lights would be, to them, the equivalent of you or I going out and buying a motorcycle…costs a significant amount of money.
So we wanted to make solar lights affordable for anybody and when they get that, they’ll start being able to save money, which will allow them to upgrade and buy more power sources….

energy is the fundamental thing holding back development for small businesses and families all over the world.

In terms of where we’re going next, we’ve got a decent amount of scale in smaller, portable solar charging products and those we can take all over the planet, introducing people to ‘what is solar, what are better lighting and energy sources, what is the d.light brand, etc.’ We don’t have big marketing budgets so this is how we spread word-of-mouth.
So now we’re investing in consumer financing options, so either pay-as-you-go solar or through micro-finance institutions and offering people bigger systems with multiple lights, radio, flashlights, etc. And the cost that they pay back to us will be still be less than what they would pay for kerosene or mobile. So they get something 10x better, at less than what they pay today. They pay for it over a year and then they own it fully.
We’re increasingly looking at how we can scale what we’re doing today – our goal is to impact 100 million people by the end of 2017, so (it’s all about) how we can scale the existing business and prove the pay-as-you-go business and scale that up.
You’ve obviously had an amazing impact on the lives of millions in the developing world but is there one story for you that stands out or has impacted you the most?
The original story that I think got us a lot of the funding was …when we were doing research over Christmas break with families and we dropped off some prototypes with families in rural Myanmar.
(One of the families) made mud bricks so people can build their homes – they got up at 10pm at night and they would burn diesel in lamps, dig holes in the mud and make bricks all night…so when the sun came out in the morning, it would bake them.
When they used the lights, they were not only saving money but they could do their work in a safe environment. They were literally crying (when we took away the protoypes).
What’s been your biggest challenge as a purpose-driven entrepreneur working on such a large global scale? And how did you overcome this?
I don’t think social enterprises are fundamentally that different from any other business. There’s two things that you really have to get right:
People, people, people – everything is people! But as young company, you can’t invest in people – everyone’s working hard, there’s a risk of getting burned out. So (the challenge becomes) how do you take care of, nurture, retain and recruit really great people? And I think the answer for social enterprises is, because of the social mission, you can attract people that are already highly aligned and motivated…and ensure they stay with the company. The worst thing is lots of churn, especially since you really need to retain your learnings, that’s critical.
Unit economics and ensuring the business model scales – looking at really big problems, the tendancy is to go wider, faster. I always have to …think carefully about …proving the unit economics of a product or service in smaller areas. You have to prove you can scale incrementally. And when you’ve nailed everything, then go for it! I’m always saying get it right when you’re small, really understand it, because once you scale, it gets so much more complicated.
What’s the best piece of business advice you’ve ever received?
I was working with the sustainability team at Wal-Mart and my manager said, ‘Sam, you don’t need to do it yourself, you just need to get it done.’
You can’t scale if you don’t do that! Good is sometimes better than great.
What are the most important qualities or skills that you think purpose-driven entrepreneurs need to have in order to make a big impact?
Flexibility and adaptability! The world’s changing so fast and you just need to be willing to prototype different business models, creating different monetization and HR startegies – everything is learn-as-you-go.
I think if you can do that, and you set that expectation with yourself, your team and your investors, you’ll get there.
But if you’re too rigid, then I just don’t think it’s going to happen!

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One Comment

  1. dev_gl18mk dev_gl18mk

    Thanks for your feedback, glad you enjoy the site. I normally write most of the content myself, with the exception of expert guest posts. If you have an idea for a post, you’re more than welcome to use the contact form and let me know which topics you can provide expert advice on.

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