Since making our Top 20 Entrepreneurs to watch out for in 2012, I’ve been curiously watching BBOXX go from strength to strength and last week decided it was time I had a little catch up with one of the founders.
In this interview, I speak with Christopher Baker-Brian as he shares the story of how the idea of the company was born, struggles along the way and how they’ve managed to scale the company to its current stage.
Hi Chris, thanks for doing this. How are you doing today?
Fine thanks. Exciting times for us at the moment…
Can you give us some background information about yourself?
I’m an Electronics and Electrical Engineering Graduate from Imperial College London. I’ve been running BBOXX since leaving university four years ago with my fellow co-founders, Mansoor Hamayun and Laurent Van Houcke.
Tell me how you initially got into business?
While at university, Mansoor, Laurent and I did some travelling in the developing world and saw a huge need for a reliable source of electricity. There are around 600 million people in Africa living without power; they are instead forced to use kerosene – which produces a harmful gas – as a light and heating source. It was clear that these people needed a simple, reliable and clean source of power – solar.
While in our third year of university, we started a charity, e.quinox, through which we hand-made and distributed portable solar battery boxes for people in rural Uganda. The response was overwhelming; we managed to make enough boxes to power 800 homes, but we couldn’t keep up with the demand. We then realised that this idea had huge potential, and operating it as a commercial business would allow us to scale up production to fit demand.
Tell me about the early days, the type of challenges you initially encountered?
The main challenge for us was getting our products to consumers. In the early days, before we had developed such a strong network of local partners and distributors, we were doing a lot more of the distribution work ourselves. In many developing countries, much of the road infrastructure outside the main cities is virtually non-existent. This makes basic transportation a real challenge. Likewise, many people don’t have addresses, so finding them can be a difficult task.
What is BBOXX? And what are you trying to solve with it?
BBOXX is a high-tech commercial business that is focused on developing solar solutions for communities across the developing world. We are aiming to develop and provide a solution for the 1.2 billion people globally that live without electricity, and are currently operating in 15 African and Asian countries.
How have you been able to fund it so far?
We started the company with £45,000 raised from personal savings and pledges from family and friends. Throughout our first three years of business, we didn’t need any additional funding.
However, at the end of 2013, we secured finance from one of Silicon Valley’s most famous impact investors, Khosla Impact Fund, for $1.9million. This will help us take our business to the next level – offering solar energy to our consumers as a pay-monthly service, rather than as a one-off product that requires a large upfront cost.
What advice would you give to entrepreneurs looking to raise funds for their startups?
You should always research their potential investors meticulously to ensure that they fit in with the aims of you and your business. You should find out what their aims are, whether they have invested in your sector before and what they can bring to your business – in terms of financials, experience and contacts.
Make sure you are also totally clear with investors about the amount you need and what it will be used for. You should be entirely sure that accepting funding from your investor is going to help your business reach its long term aims.
About the first few months, how excited were you, tell us about how those months felt, what happened?
The first few months as an entrepreneur are hectic, you are the website developer, accountant, salesperson and developer all rolled into one; it’s a time that tests you time management skills but is also a period when you should never lose sight of that end goal, which should be to provide great products and services to your clients. Even several years after starting, it’s the customer that we place at the heart of what we do.
How did you initially get traction?
Reaching rural consumers in the developing world remains a huge challenge for us. An effective way we’ve been able to reach them from the start has been through developing relationships and partnerships with local distributors and vendors. Local vendors are the best people to reach their own communities and by getting our products in front of them, we’ve been getting them in front of our target consumers.
What are the most crucial things that you have done to grow your business?
Developing relationships with local partners remains one of the most important means of growth for us. Aside from this, the other most crucial step we’ve taken towards growth has been to start transforming our business from a product provider to a service provider. This is key to reaching the mass market, and key to us reaching our goal of bringing electricity to 20 million people by 2020.
The biggest barrier that stands between consumers and our products is upfront cost. We are now aiming to remove that barrier. Khosla Impact’s investment will enable us to develop an asset financing division of BBOXX, which will help our new customers afford their first kit. We’ve also developed wireless capabilities for our boxes, which will allow us to monitor and control usage remotely.
What would you say has been the highlight of your entrepreneurial journey so far?
Securing finance from Khosla Impact Fund, one of Silicon Valley’s most respected social impact investors, was definitely a highlight for us. Khosla’s investment will help fund research and development in battery and payment technology, which could bring a more reliable and accessible energy product to the entire market.
The investment has definitely brought with it many exciting possibilities and opportunities, which is a huge highlight for any entrepreneur.
What should we be expecting from yourself and the BBOXX team for 2014?
This year, we’ll be launching customer financing in Uganda and Kenya, and we aim to make it available to a further six markets by the end of next year. We’re currently focusing on raising debt to enable us to roll this service out across our other key markets – this will form a key part of our activity this year.
We’ll also be investing heavily in research and development, working specifically on developing remote monitoring wireless technology for the boxes. This will help us record and analyse customer usage of our kits, and enable us to respond to the needs of our consumers.
Lastly, what three pieces of advice would you offer entrepreneurs starting out today?
The most important thing is to “just do it” and don’t overthink your product/service. The best things in life are often the simplest!
Second on the list would be to get a very thick skin because people will tell you that you will fail, products won’t work, customers will be angry, people will write harsh emails; you just have to deal with it and build on that experience to create something even better.
Finally, it’s important to do a bit of “dream-selling” and pitch where your company is going, rather than where it is now. The challenging part is making that dream happen!