STOWER are the makers of two personal energy devices: FlameStower and Candle Charger. The company launched both products on Kickstarter. We sat down with Founder and CEO Andrew Byrnes to discuss doing multiple crowdfunding campaigns, social enterprises, and how a harsh piece of advice lead him to become a better entrepreneur.
We’re an energy company. We design, build, and run wireless electricity systems for individuals and homes, creating reliable economic solutions for specific power needs. What that means is that instead of charging a whole house or a whole town, we’re trying to charge specific devices. The first thing we’re looking at is charging mobile phones in off-grid and weak-grid markets, and there are a few of those in the US—camping, power outages, preparedness.
However, there are billions of people in the world today who have the access to mobile telecom through low cost feature phones and smartphones. On the other hand there’s really limited access to even the most basic electricity. Our products charge phones reliably and affordably.
The FlameStower, our first product, is a camping product you can buy in camping equipment stores. You slide it up next to a campfire or cooking fire and you put some water in a cup and then the temperature difference between the fire and the water generates electricity to charge phones.
Our second product, the Candle Charger, which we’re in the middle of manufacturing and launching, is driven by the same idea but it works over a candle. What’s cool about the candle charger is that it’s one of the first electricity generators designed specifically to work indoors. That one we’re actually pretty excited about launching early 2016.
I wanted to be a doctor but moved to Hawaii and became a sushi roller instead. I was kind of a drifter for a couple of years, trying to write novels, travelling all around the US and then went to Africa for a couple of months. I’ve been to some pretty amazing places. I got a job in about 2004 with a wind energy company and just found my calling with new energy, and then jumped to a company doing carbon offsets and renewable energy credits. I switched to utility scale wind and solar project development and financing and did that for a couple of years before 2010 happened and the near collapse of cleantech. Then I actually taught high school chemistry for a year before coming back to grad school to study solar materials. That’s where I founded STOWER.
When I was a grad student, I got an internship with the California Clean Energy Fund doing cleantech investments. I was managing deal flow for them and looking at a lot of really awesome technology. It was a pretty cool opportunity; running the gauntlet in new energy designs and systems. The one thing that I latched onto that I felt a lot of the companies coming in were missing was that everybody would say, “Okay, I have a pilot for this clean energy thing, it’s a website that makes it easier to finance solar products or a new panel or something, and I have a pilot in San Francisco. It’s going really well and so I need to raise money to make it grow better.”
My response was, “I understand that, and that you have a pilot in San Francisco. But I want you to go across the mountains and do the same thing in Fresno, or Arizona where I’m from. Make this work there, make this work for normal people, not weird San Franciscans, like you and me.” From there that was really the core thing that I wanted to do—to make new energy technology more accessible to individuals. I keep seeing it, you see it all over the world; people really want clean energy but it’s not really easy to access. You actually have the grid and we’ve built our lives around grid-based electricity.
While utilities are able to adopt clean energy, on the individual level the uptake isn’t very progressive, like with home solar systems, because you have this amazing machine—the grid—that we already use. But people still really want clean energy. We build products that make it easier to access clean energy and make the energy more reliable. Then we can move the technology into markets where the need is really intense, like an emerging market like in Africa. That’s what we’re doing.
“I wanted to be a doctor but moved to Hawaii and became a sushi roller instead.”
When my co-founder, Adam Keil, moved to China for six months to oversee the manufacturing—that was it. Manufacturing is a huge part of hardware startups. Save for the few really cool companies who can manufacture in-house, if you want to make something, you have to find someone to manufacture it and it has to be done affordable. For some industries, like medical technology, you can actually do it domestically and afford and pay for the costs ramifications here.
But for consumer products, it’s really important to get it right—ramping up hardware is expensive. Make sure that your tool sets are all good and it’s all finalized with DFM and we have all that. But even still, overseeing that manufacturing ramp, it was a huge sink of resources for a small team. What PCH offers—supply chain management and oversight—it was a really good fit. We believe in keeping our team really small and lean, and using our investment to go into new markets and then grow our company that way. Having PCH as a supply chain partner helps us focus on doing that. We know they are going to be better at it than we ever could and it just worked out for us really well.
In our Crowdfunding campaign we had some amazing marketing and PR support from one of the people in PCH Access, Kaitlin Pike. She did an amazing job. She is super talented, really understands how to do marketing around crowdfunding and product launches. She played a chief part in helping us get our product out and be relatively successful for our own internal goals on our crowdfunding campaign. That was unexpected, for sure.
Our first crowdfunding campaign was a small one on Indiegogo very early on and it was a total disaster. That was around a pre-FlameStower product. It was a great learning experience and forced us way out of our comfort zone to try to sell units super early on. They were handmade—I think we handmade 50 units during finals week in 2012 at Techshop, just assembled those and shipped them out to hit our “deliver by Christmas” promise. That was an adventure for sure. We did a successful campaign with FlameStower on Kickstarter about nine months later. Then a year later we did the Candle Charger.
The decision to crowdfund the Candle Charger was really interesting. We debated for a long time, about six months, about whether or not to do a campaign. Crowdfunding is a really powerful tool for the right kind of product. Personally I wasn’t convinced that the Candle Charger was that right kind of product for a Kickstarter campaign. While we were successful, I think the numbers in our campaign, the amount we actually raised, reflect that. Great crowdfunding campaigns offer really cool, innovative, new stuff. But our pitch for the Candle Charger—”this is very reliable” and “this is a sensible product to have in case of a power outage”—that’s not what people are looking for when they go on crowdfunding sites. But our backers on there, they’re amazing and they have helped us out and given us tons of great ideas specifically on how to market, how to talk about our product so it’s not boring. Because really that’s what we want. We want a boring product. We want our product to work really well, do its job, nothing too flashy, and deliver real electricity.
At the end of the day we decided to go with another Kickstarter campaign because it’s a great platform to launch new things. It helps early stage companies amplify their message to larger markets. It’s a really good platform to rally PR around, to rally messaging and marketing, and to get that really good initial customer base as companies move into manufacturing.
Today, the game is different. It changes so fast. The bar is a lot higher, and I think rightly so for crowdfunding campaigns. People have gotten a lot smarter about what they want and what they’re looking for on Kickstarter. We raised about the same amount on our Candle Charger campaign as our FlameStower campaign, but put in about 3X the effort. And it wasn’t just us. A lot of our friends do multiple campaigns over time. Maybe you do get dinged a little bit having a repeat product. They’re like, “Yeah, we’ve seen you guys before.” But more importantly I think the game has changed and you need to do a lot of things in advance of launching your product in order to ensure a successful, really cool crowdfunding campaign. Adjusting to that was challenging but I think we did an okay job of doing it.
If I was an investor in our company, I would ask about the benefit of doing multiple crowdfunding campaigns. It’s like being in a business incubator or being some baby eagle in a nest. Sometimes you need to leave the nest and get out into the bigger world. The crowdfunding campaigns can be really cool and they can be successful to launch new products, but that’s one tiny step in the evolution of a company and a product.
Early stage companies ought to be able to grow beyond crowdfunding—to jump out of the nest. That’s another part of how crowdfunding has changed. We knew some companies in 2012 and 2013 who launched something like eight different campaigns with a new hardware product each time. They did pretty well. They did a couple hundred grand on each one. But each campaign required more effort than the one before, and it was more difficult to attract new people. I think they played themselves out a bit.
For us, we’re moving into larger markets and into retail, and I do think this will be our last crowdfunding campaign. But it’s a pretty powerful tool for an early stage company—a great proving ground to test your idea and messaging, and to get new projects off the ground.
“Sometimes you need to leave the nest and get out into the bigger world.”
It was really practical stuff, like is the water bath that you’re using in the Candle Charger FDA approved? Can I drink out of it? Our answer has been, “Yeah, sure you can. Maybe.” But that was something that a lot of people were asking, so now it’s pushed us to prove it’s safe, to get those certifications and to really work on that, because that was something that we knew was an advantage but we didn’t know most people would be asking for that.
The other thing that I thought was interesting—it wasn’t news to us because we’re going there, we’re already there and we’re doing it—but a lot of our backers picked up on, “Hey, I’m going to use this. This is a great solution for power outages, and maybe take it camping. But where people really need this is emerging markets. That’s where you guys need to be selling.” This time, way more than with the FlameStower, we heard that from our backers. Personally, that’s pretty exciting.
Social entrepreneurship is this weird category of startups that we sometimes get lumped into just because we pushed to sell product in Africa—call us what you will, but we are a for-profit business and our customers just happen to live in places without an electricity grid, like Africa. But to see customers on Kickstarter talking about emerging markets, and getting pumped about our messaging back like, “Yeah, we’re there. We’re moving really fast in those markets.” That was pretty exciting and I thought that was really cool.
One of the greatest outcomes of the crowdfunding campaign wasn’t our main product video but that our demo video got viewed something like 400,000 times in emerging markets like Central America, South America, Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. We’re on the news in four different countries in Southeast Asia. It just blew up a little bit. It hit that nerve; this product just hit that nerve. It drove into us the messaging that there is a big demand for off-grid, weak-grid charging solutions in these large, fast growing markets around the world.
What are we doing there? We’re selling the Candle Charger. Perhaps the greatest success of the Candle Charger Kickstarter is it got us an introduction to larger distributors and getting those distribution agreements in place. The Kickstarter campaign was indirectly responsible for getting us some early distribution agreements in large international markets, which is amazing.
There are a bunch of comments from people in the UN and World Bank, just really wondering about how you drive innovation. How do you drive the growth of society? Increasingly, profitability is becoming a pretty key figure of merit in judging how successful these technologies and these new product offerings are for emerging markets. How successful are they in driving socio-economic growth?
The best example that I can provide to what we’re doing is that the single most transformative innovation that has generated socioeconomic growth in emerging markets like Africa and Southeast Asia is the mobile phone. It’s cellular technology. I think a lot of people would agree with me. Nokia isn’t a social enterprise. Motorola isn’t a social enterprise. Orange Telecom, one of our partners, they’re not a social enterprise. But by offering a really good service and a solution to a very specific need of being able to communicate with the outside world, and if you can use new technology to do that, those are proven to be incredibly useful tools for emerging markets. That’s why Africa is the fastest growing mobile market in the world.
We think the same rings true for personal, small, distributed clean energy systems. For the same reason grid-based communication didn’t take off—the need for infrastructure, utility-scale operations and maintenance—that’s also limited grid-based electricity. If you can do it wirelessly, we believe that the access to electricity will increase significantly more rapidly than if you’re relying on a grid-based solution. That’s why I hedge a little bit when people put STOWER into the social entrepreneurship category. We want to be an electric utility. All we’re doing is we’re designing systems that follow the need. The systems we designed and the most intense need in the world just happened to be in emerging markets.
This one is easy for me, and it was brutal. We had a professor who was one of our advisors. Something happened with a patent—we made a public disclosure before filing our traditional patent or something. It made part of our patent void and I was really upset. I said, “Hey, advisor man, you guys needed to tell us about this kind of stuff. You’re our advisor. The least you could have done was let us know something.”
First the advisor said, “Andy, are you done?” I said, “No, this is your responsibility.” They said, “Okay, okay, are you finished?”
“Yes, but I’m pissed off.” “
“Andy,” he said, “you’re a whiner, and for that reason you’re going to lose.”
Wow. I was shocked. I almost literally fell out of my chair, and I was tearing my eyes out I was so pissed off. It took a few weeks, but when I calmed myself down and really thought about it, his comments is by far the best piece of advice I’ve received as a founder.
Shit happens. The “unicorns,” “thunder lizards,” whatever people call hyper-successful spaceship companies, they’re very, very rare, but even those I’m sure face some pretty heavy adversity during their evolution. The most successful founders I’ve seen are the ones that don’t complain, that find solutions to whatever problem they face, and just keep hammering at it. It might be non-traditional and indirect, but that was the best piece of advice I’ve received.
You have to be objective. Our company is always a prototype. New startups, new early stage companies, are prototypes—you build them and maybe launch some early products in some target markets. But the companies themselves are always prototypes, you’re always learning, always adapting, changing what your company looks like and how it acts.
When and where were you happiest?
When I got married.
What is your idea of misery?
When I'm stagnant, not doing stuff.
What is your greatest fear?
Not trying new things because I’m afraid.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Convincing my wife to marry me.
What is your greatest extravagance?
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
“Cool” and “Yeah.”
Which talent would you most like to have?
The ability to stay really calm under pressure.
If you were to die and come back as another person, who would it be?
André 3000 from Outkast.
What is your greatest regret?
Not taking a year off before college.
What book are you reading right now?
Introduction to Solid State Physics by Charles Kittel
Our focus is on growing and moving into exciting new markets. We have two products and we’ll have about five SKUs in retail next spring at a couple of hundred locations, so we’re growing fast.
We’ve learned a lot about brick-and-mortar retail, and have a lot more to learn. We’re working really hard on getting it right. Those are crazy places to do as a single SKU company—it’s pretty easy to get lost. Once a startup gets brick-and-mortar distribution in retail, I think it’s pretty important to build out your product portfolio relatively quickly just so you get more eyes and more focus on your product on that shelf space.
That was something as a more technical founder I wasn’t really prepared for or even aware of when we launched. But our head of marketing and sales, Jason McGowin, is spot-on about it and provides great balance for our company strategy.
I’ll say, “We need to go into 2,000 stores as soon as possible!” And he’ll say, “Well, you can do that, but you won’t have a company anymore.”
And he’s right. You need to hammer internal marketing and in-store sales. Increase your SKUs, increase your shelf presence, and go from there. Companies like FitBit have done a really good job at that, of diversifying products and creating a suite of products rather than just one.
We’re also focusing on moving more aggressively in emerging markets. Then brand introduction, product introduction, and more energy services specifically in emerging markets. We’re going to keep innovating and keep growing and keep screwing up and keep correcting it.