Adventures in Fire Starting

5 Stories of Failing Fast and Failing Smart in the World of Social Enterprise.

Fail fast, fail smart. Words entrepreneurs are taught to live by. Starting a company and scaling it up means preparing yourself for rejection, sleepless nights, grueling hours, and iterating your process quickly. Above all, it’s about bracing yourself for a cascade of challenges and having the resourcefulness to turn them into actionable lessons. Here at BioLite, we come to work to tackle those challenges everyday.

BioLite designs and manufactures personal scale energy appliances that enable our users to cook, charge, and light their lives off the grid. We serve two distinct markets that are united by the common need for safe and reliable energy access: outdoor recreationalists and low-income households in emerging markets. Our flagship products are two wood-burning stoves that generate electricity from fire while reducing toxic emissions by 90%.

We polled our team for their best examples of the epic fails, tough choices, and ongoing challenges that have shaped our company for the better – here’s what we found:

The Time We Drowned Our Inventory

What Happened: In 2013 we were gearing up for our first ever shipment of stoves in India, coming in by public train. Their arrival was nothing short of a disaster: one thousand damaged boxes each filled with a waterlogged stove inside. Turns out the train had traveled through a monsoon and the storage and handling process had no provisions in place for harsh weather. The entire batch was ruined. We had to push our launch timeline back, causing pressure on both our manufacturing capabilities and our relationships with local partners.

What Happened Next: After a healthy moment of panic, we realized that durable packaging was going to be a must for whatever we did going forward. We reinforced the HomeStove Box and redesigned the inner packaging for a more protected fit; this was going to be the beginning of many tumbles and drops for these stoves along their delivery journey. And when it came to the deliveries themselves, we realized we needed more reliable modes of transport beyond the public train system – this became a critical insight into building our own distribution model. 

What Others Can Learn From This: Bad surprises are going to happen. Instead of wallowing, take a step back and break down what happened into two categories: what can we control and what can’t we control? Knowing what you can’t control (Monsoon Season, Packages taking a beating) can help inform how to modify what you can control (choosing transportation that protects against weather, stronger packaging).

When Dominoes Pizza Was Our Best Mentor

What Happened: The quickest, most reliable way for our sales agents to reach our customers in the last mile is by motorcycle. Only problem is, large boxes + motorbikes + unpaved roads don’t really mix well. Not only were the rides themselves a bit too thrilling, but having an agent show up to a home and have the bike immediately topple over (with the family’s brand new stove attached) wasn’t exactly a great first impression.

What Happened Next: Motorcycles are a really popular mode of transportation in our markets so we took a look at who else was using them to run their business – and we found inspiration in an unlikely place: Dominoes Mumbai. This wildly successful pizza delivery service was fueled by a fleet of men on mopeds, but with custom delivery boxes attached to the back. We designed our own box that could accommodate the unique physics of stove + motorcycle + movement, built and hand-painted it ourselves, and we still use them to this day.

What Others Can Learn From This: Seek inspiration outside your industry, and don’t be afraid of a little DIY. Channel your inner maker and start with your own sketch from scratch; from there you can see if there are simple off-the-shelf solutions you can retrofit to your needs or if you need to embark on a true custom build. We’re talking about a physical item in this case, but this applies to things like workflows, software, and marketing templates, too.

Eating Humble Pie (or Bush Cat)

What Happened: Here in the States, we might say “oh, no thank you” as a self-deprecating way to avoid imposing oneself on a host; in Uganda refusing hospitality, no matter how polite, is deeply offensive. Our Uganda Country Director, Jan, experienced this dilemma firsthand when Rose, one of our earliest customers, offered him freshly seared bush cat, cooked on her HomeStove.

What Happened Next: He ate the damn thing, duh. Jan has been working in Uganda for years and understood the importance of accepting such a generous gesture. Over that meal he and Rose established a lasting friendship – so much so that Rose has become one of our top ambassadors, referring five neighbors to become customers.

What Others Can Learn From This: Get to know your customers – and get over yourself. Jan’s respectful handling of that meal reminds us that humility and the desire to understand are invaluable traits.

Blood, Sweat, and Soot: It's Not Done Until It's Done

What Happened: In 2016 BioLite introduced the HomeStove 2, the newest generation of our biomass stove. In a small pre-launch field visit, we were met with kindness… and skepticism. The #1 concern of households was durability and longevity and while we could promise that we had designed it to be super durable, we didn’t have the data to back it up. As an unknown brand we were asking homes to take a big chance on very little information, and they weren’t biting.

What Happened Next: Despite tons of momentum behind our impending launch, we pushed pause to go back and get that data. Back at the lab, we kicked off a durability blitz, logging 1600 hours of extreme use, monitoring both combustion and electrical performance. We built custom testing rigs and hired “burners” in both Bhubaneswar and Brooklyn to feed our stoves 24/7; each BioLite employee took turns sleeping over at the office to ensure testing was constant. By pushing our stoves to the limit not only did we get data to back up our durability claims, we also caught and fixed potential quirks that forestalled future customers service calls down the road.

What Others Can Learn From This: Stopping momentum can be your bravest act. We’re not saying to throw deadlines and calendars out the window, but sometimes a hard choice now can prevent much harder outcomes later. To be clear, it has a ripple effect: our choice to delay threw off sales and caused some unpleasant phone calls, but our transparency to partners created mutual confidence in this decision. Six months later we have a superior product and a much stronger understanding of customer troubleshooting which will be invaluable to long-term adoption and support.

No, It's Not Like TOMS.

What Happened: This one remains a challenge to this day. BioLite has a unique business model that builds impact directly into our operations as a company. It’s not a marketing tactic, it’s not a corporate social responsibility campaign – it’s the business of our business; that being said, explaining what we do can be a mouthful. With the rise of cause-marketing brands like TOMS, we are frequently confused with one-for-one models because, honestly, TOMS has made that concept really easy to understand. We have tried to counter that with our concept of Parallel Innovation, but the subsequent explanation of that requires a lot of attention. The reality of social enterprise is often more complicated than a tidy tagline.

What Happened Next: You’re looking at it, right now. This article is part of a series called The Road to Impact; ten chapters about the business of impact and what it takes to make it happen. Rather than try to tell you what we do, we wanted to show you what we do through firsthand stories of our team and users.

What Others Can Learn From This: Don’t get caught up in explaining your cause; show how you live that cause as an organization. Our recommendation? Take a few friends out for beers and talk at them about your mission until you’re exhausted. Then, have them repeat back to you what stuck with them, what they’re curious about, what they want to know more of – you’ve got the basis for stories you can tell that might connect with your community. Simplify wherever possible, but don’t compromise your business, or your impact, for some sexy copywriting.

These lessons are just a glimpse into what a few years in the field have taught us. The truth is there’s still a lot to learn. By keeping an open mind and embracing each new learning that comes our way, we have built stable entities across the US, India, Uganda and Kenya, grown to a team of 100, launched over 20 products and distributed 20,000 HomeStoves to families in emerging markets. As we continue to grow, we’d love to learn from your challenges too, feel free to share in the comments below.

Stay tuned for our special edition Giving Tuesday chapter of the Road To Impact where we unpack how your purchase in the outdoor market gives us the ability to bring Energy Everywhere.

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