Welcome to the first installation of our new Kickstarter in-depth interview series. Here, we take an inside look at cool, new technology coming out of the hot world of crowdfunding, and learn what it takes to launch a successful Kickstarter project by speaking with the people behind the goods. This week, we sat down with Camille van Gestel and Kim van der Leeuw, two of the creators of the super-efficient Wakawaka solar LED light. Designed as an inexpensive lighting alternative for those in developing countries who currently rely on unhealthy and costly kerosene lamps, the ultra-portable Wakawaka is intended to be the go-to light source for everyone from remote Kenyan villagers to summer-break backpackers.
Kickstarter project: Wakawaka solar LED light
Funding goal: $30,000
Deadline: January 7, 2012
DT: How did you come up with the idea for Wakawaka, and what made you decide to pursue the venture?
CAMILLE: It was about a year ago when I was in Hong Kong, meeting a friend of mine, Frans Biegstraaten, to talk about some business, and he told me about an idea that they had, which entailed putting solar LED lights on a bottle. Basically, that was all that they had at the moment.
Kim and I just finished a project inside South Africa with World Cup Soccer for LED lighting. We’re currently making the whole World Cup Soccer in South Africa climate neutral with using carbon credits. So, when I heard the story from my friend with his solar bottle LED light, I immediately saw an opportunity there to combine carbon credits with it. And saw also the opportunity for different distribution channels. For example, bottle companies like Pepsi Cola or Coca Cola.
During that meeting in Hong Kong, I called Kim, and I said, “Kim, is this something that would qualify for carbon credits?” He said yes. I said, ‘Well, join the team!” And I called another friend of mine, Maurits Groen, who is the representative of Al Gore in the Netherlands. He has invited him on several occasions. And I asked him if this is something that he would discuss with Al Gore. And he said, Yeah, why not?” [I said] “Well, OK, join the team!” And a month later we got started.
DT: What makes the Wakawaka light different than any other solar light that I could go and buy on Amazon?
CAMILLE: Thank you for that question. We are the most efficient solar lamp in the lower price segment. So below $25, there is nothing as efficient as the Wakawaka. And the reason for that is a patented solar technology chip, which boosts the efficiency of the solar cell. And it boosts up to 200 percent, especially with lower light intensities. It’s a Dutch invention, obviously [laughs]. Now this chip is used in solar cellphones — cellphones with solar power. The chip is integrated in about 90 percent of all the solar cellphones worldwide. This is the first time this chip is being used in a lighting product.
KIM: Just to add to that. So, on the one hand there’s the technology aspect, as Camille just explained. What that leads to is that we can pack much more power into our battery in a much shorter time than any other light. So, you’ll get about 16 hours of reading light on a full-day charge, which is of course great. This means, on average people will charge it everyday, so you’ll never run on empty, even if you have a day you forget about it. Most people use light about four hours every day. So if you get 16 [hours of charge], it’s more than enough. So that’s one.
I think another really important aspect that makes is special is that we designed and ultra-portable light. It’s very light. It’s handy — you can take it with you. We greatly reduced size and material use, and thereby cost, by opting for a bottle mount, so you can mount it on a bottle, or hang it from the ceiling. That means we’ve reduced the need for a stand. That’s less material, less size, so less transport costs. There’s a lot of smart thinking going into that.
DT: Humanitarianism seems to be a large part of the DNA of the Wakawaka light. Why did you decide to focus on that kind of market, as opposed to the outdoorsman market, or another type of high-end market?
KIM: Again, and interesting question. Myself, I’ve been working in poverty reduction and environmental management since 2003, so it’s basically in my DNA. That is the tree-hugging side of things. And it’s in all our DNA. We all like to do something that really matters. So that is one. Kerosene — you can read it on the Kickstarter page — there are huge problems associated with kerosene lighting
But there’s much more to it. We are a business. You said it looks a bit like a humanitarian project. Well, it is in the fact it actually helps people, that it actually provides a productive use of light. So you actually help people save money on kerosene. There’s a lot of positive aspects associated to using solar light. But it’s also a business.
There’s a huge market — it’s 1.5 billion people worldwide that depend on kerosene. It’s a huge market. We also see that, by allowing people to save money, you allow people to free up money and free up income and free up time that can be used for other productive purposes. So you actually help propel a market. If you do it right, you can also, from a business perspective, sell more services and products that are actually, again, productive, that help people. So there definitely is a part of doing good, and it’s a large part. We keep our margins low. You don’t want to extort people. It wouldn’t work. But it is a healthy business.
DT: Camille, you mentioned Coca Cola. Can you tell us about your plans with company partnerships, and how you plan to expand outside of emerging markets and into developed markets, like the United States?
CAMILLE: Yeah, we wanted to put the “light” back in Coca Cola Light. [laughs] No, seriously… The idea to make it fit on a bottle, partially as a way to reduce costs and logistics. It’s also because we see promotional opportunities with companies like Coke. We’ve been talking to Coke already.
Last September, in New York, I had the opportunity to speak to Muhtar Kent, who is the CEO of Coke. I spoke to him only very briefly, I must add. It was a genuine elevator pitch of 30 seconds. But he said he knew Wakawaka already, in the few days that he was in New York. I was greatly surprised to hear that. And secondly [he said] they’re interested in doing something with solar light and education. As you’ve seen, we have an educational component.
Apart from that, the fact that [the Wakawaka light] fits on a bottle, it takes the bottle off the street and puts the bottle in a central location in a rural household — with a light on it. So, if kids start to study three hours instead of 1.5 hours, next to a Coca Cola bottle, that does something with brand recognition and brand loyalty. And that’s the benefit there for Coke. That’s one benefit. And another benefit could be that the Wakawaka could be a promotional tool, which [people] could save for, or buy, after buying several bottles of Coke.
KIM: Or Pepsi, or whatever. As Camille said, we’re still exploring the opportunities. We see huge opportunity there. But it’s not only Coke. It could be Pepsi. We’re talking to different parties.
CAMILLE: For example, Unilever — a lot of fast-moving consumer goods companies can benefit from this.
DT: Your first Wakawaka model is simply a light. How do you plan to expand the Wakawaka brand?
CAMILLE: The first plug-in accessory that we’re going to launch is a plug-in battery charger. It’s a kind of a holder, which holds the [cellphone] battery. So you’ll need to take the battery out of your mobile phone, place it in the charger. And the reason that we’re using this mechanism is because it’s much more efficient. So we need less batter capacity [on the Wakawaka] to charge mobile phones this way. But it does require that people take the battery out of their phone.
In Africa, the case is that people not only buy a mobile phone, but when they buy a phone, they buy two or three additional batteries. Because, when their battery runs out, somebody picks up the battery on a bicycle or a motorbike, goes to the next village to charge the batteries. So, at every given moment, there is one or two batteries underway from, or to, a charging station somewhere. It’s a whole business. So, Africans don’t have a big problem with taking out a battery from the phone.
However, an iPhone, for example, or a BlackBerry, it’s a bit more complex to take out the battery. So, we’ve received a lot of requests for a direct charging option, which needs to be a five-voltage-out. This will be the next version that we’re going to launch, probably by the end of 2012, I expect — perhaps early 2013 — which will be able to charge 80 percent of the most-common phones directly. It will have a bigger battery, a faster charge, and it will be even more efficient with the high-performance solar cell on top of it. So, the combination with the chip we have there’s also high-efficiency solar cells, which are a bit more expensive, so it will be an up-market model. That will be launching a little bit later on.
In the mean time, we’ll be launching different kinds of accessories, varying from something as simple as sticker sheets to personalize your Wakawaka. If you image, the whole village has a Wakawaka. People will want to know which one is [their] Wakakwaka. That’s one thing that we’ll launch. Also, a small lock, a lanyard, and also a plug-in mini-radio. So, this is all to come still.
DT: And when do you hope to launch the initial Wakawaka light?
CAMILLE: We’ll have first pre-production samples ready to test in the end of January or early February. We’ll be doing field tests in Durban, Kenya and Nigeria, in February. Based on the results of the field tests, we’ll tweak and improve the design and engineering a little bit. And then we’ll start mass production. We’ll be ready for distribution by May. So, basically, the consumer launch will be, let’s say, June 2012.
KIM: And this is also where the Kickstarter funds help us a lot, because they will be put to use also in the field test, and getting all the samples online, so to speak.
DT: On that note, why did you choose to fund Wakawaka through Kickstarter, as opposed to some other funding source?
CAMILLE: Well, the interesting thing about Kickstarter is that it’s been around for a couple of years. It’s one of the largest, if not the largest, crowdfunding sites in the world. And a lot of the funds come from the Kickstarter network itself.
Typically, crowdfunding comes 60-80 percent from your own personal network. And we need a little more than a few thousand dollars to get this actually kickstarted. We really need a significant amount to pay for the molds and to pay for the field tests. So, we had to aim a little bit higher. For that reason, Kickstarter was the most suitable platform with a little amount of time — they give you a limited amount of time, two months, in this case, to raise that amount of cash.
KIM: I just wanted to add to that, there are a few more reasons for Kickstarter specifically. One is it’s very product-oriented. So, for us it’s a way to actually kickstart, not only our project, but the product itself. And we see that reception of product-oriented projects are actually quite good on Kickstarter. Secondly, it’s of course a US-based crowdfunding platform. That is a huge market, and something which is quite hard to enter — as any British pop group will tell you — if you don’t already have a huge network on the ground. So Kickstarter gives us help there.
Also, [funding through Kickstarter] is not giving away shares. To be honest, we actually use a mix of two different crowdfunding platforms. One is micro-equity investments, which is very much towards Holland, where most of us are from. And the other is Kickstarter, which definitely has nothing to do with giving away equity shares in your company, but is very much geared towards getting the product launch off the ground. So, we use first Kickstarter, then micro-investments. And we hope to leverage that to gain enough traction to also get the larger investors on board.
It offers the chance for your investors, so to speak, or your “backers,” as they’re called with Kickstarter to actually receive a fun product. We hope to build something people want. And it’s also a test for us. Because it’s so product oriented — much more than shares. You know, if somebody buys a share, they have to get some money back, or to make money off of it. If someone backs you on Kickstarter, it’s because they like the product. It’s the first test [to see] whether people actually like it or not. And, so far, we’re happy.
DT: What kind of feedback have you received so far from the Kickstarter community, and what is the experience of having instant feedback on your idea like?
CAMILLE: This is very interesting. It’s very interactive. There is a lot of people who are communicating with us through the Kickstarter network. Some are basically telling us on which blogs they have posted a link, or they have suggestions for us. We also get inquiries from manufacturers saying, “Hey, that’s a cool light. Can we quote?” That happens. But there’s also people asking, “What is it made of? Because it’s an environmentally friendly product, is it also environmentally manufactured?”
We anticipate that it will be made of recycled plastic. Until we have actually seen a recycled plastic pre-production sample, we don’t want to communicate that yet. Because, first of all, it must feel and look good. That’s first. If it doesn’t sell, then we’re over-shooting our goals, basically. I do believe it’s possible to make this from recycled plastics. And, in time, we want to launch an aluminum version, made of recycled aluminum. So, there are very product-specific questions every now and then, and we try to answer them as well as we can.
And we get good feedback on how to get more traffic. There are people who are very engaged. And that’s really what I like about this network.
DT: Do you feel that there’s any downside to trying to launch a product through Kickstarter? Does it give potential competitors and edge to get a head start?
CAMILLE: If we were to be un-secure about what we’re doing, yes. But we’re very confident that this is a product that the world actually needs. Sure, we will be copied, in time. Actually, that would a compliment if people would try to do that. But the one thing they cannot copy is the chip inside.
If consumers cannot see the difference between a real Wakawaka and a copy, it could hurt our image. So, that is something that we would want to do something about, if that were to happen. But it’s not something that we’re afraid of, at all.
KIM: In thinking about the downsides of the experience: You know, it’s not so much in terms of competition. We’re confident enough; we believe being transparent actually improves innovation. If somebody comes up with something that is smarter, it just means we have to out-smart them again.
If there’s one thing that’s really annoying about Kickstarter, it’s habitually checking how far you are. Oh man, that’s annoying. You wake up, you check Kickstarter. That’s annoying — but in a positive way! [laughs]
DT: What would you say the ratio is in terms of the amounts of money people invest toward the product?
CAMILLE: The majority of people, they pledge $35 to $50. Our average pledge currently is a bit over $50, which is actually lower than the average Kickstarter pledge. Apparently that has something to do with our rewards system. I think that is something that one needs to learn by doing. That’s how this works.
You’ll be please to know that we’re going to start a Secret Santa campaign. As of today, we want to stimulate people to pledge a little bit more than the average. We want to stimulate people to pledge at least $125, with which they can choose to give away three lights to a school in Kenya. When people do this, they can send “Secret Santa,” which will be me with a beard and a hat on…
KIM: Trust me, everyone wants to see that! [laughs]
CAMILLE: [laughs] So, they can send a letter through Secret Santa, and Santa will read the letter record it, and send a YouTube link back. What people can do is place it on their social networks, and spread the news. And that link will be sponsored by them — with a link to Kickstarter, of course. And, I hope that that’s going to give us the boost that we need in the last two to three weeks.
DT: You’re currently at a little over 50 percent — around $17,400 of a $30,000 goal. Are you confident about reaching your goal by the deadline on January 7?
CAMILLE: Typically, most pledges are done in the first few days and the last few days. Normally, in the middle, there is a steady flow of pledges. So, if we extrapolate the grow that we’re seeing now, then we’re going to come up a little bit short. We’re a bit behind schedule.
But, honestly, I believe we have the potential to generate a lot more than our funding goal. And that’s something that we really would like to try, because that can speed things up significantly.
KIM: Yeah, for us it would truly be a kick-start. We’ve been working on the project for a year. Everything’s come out of our own funds, in both time and money. The next step is actually getting the field production units, and everything online. And this is where we see huge potential for the Kickstarter funds. In that sense, it really is exactly what it says. And, as Camille says, we see huge potential in crowdfunding, in general, and Kickstarter [specifically] because of the feedback and the way it’s supported. So, we really hope to see that spike in pledges coming in anytime soon.
DT: Last question: If you had to give advice to someone thinking about launching their own Kickstarter project, what would you tell them
CAMILLE: Well, what I did personally was, I kind of studies successful projects, first of all. Projects which got 200 to 300 percent [of their funding goal]. Some of those successful projects are the result of very innovative, and very appealing products. But also, there you will recognize a kind of pattern in the way the text is written. Make sure you have a Q&A. Make sure you post regular updates. There are certain rules of engagement, which you really need to follow.
What we’re doing, we’re personally thanking everybody who pledges. So, within 24 hours, everybody gets a personal thank you note. And we’re asking them, “Please post on your Facebook page. Please tweet about us. Mention Wakawaka light, and we’ll retweet you,” etc…
And, apart from that, for your specific interest group, you should really look at special-interest magazines, and write to the editors. So that’s a suggestion I would give to people. Once you have your Kickstarter page online, that’s when the work starts.
KIM: Be yourself. Don’t pretend to be anybody you’re not. But that goes for a lot of things in life.