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The idea for LuminAID Began When…

Anna: Andrea and I were graduate students getting our Masters in Architecture when the Haiti earthquake occurred. Haiti did not have a stable electrical grid before the Earthquake and after, people were in complete darkness at night. There were informal settlements with millions of people living under tarps and tents. At night, there were reports on an increasing number of rapes, kidnapping and theft. We were students, sitting in our design studio, thinking about what we could design that may help in a situation like Haiti. We noticed that organizations were distributing food, water, shelter and medical supplies, but they were not shipping any lights or ways for people to have portable power. We focused our semester on designing lightweight, portable energy products that could be cost-effectively shipped in emergencies and the LuminAID Solar Light was one of the designs we came up with.

How we established credibility as a new business…

Anna: We asked some of our target customers very early on what they would like to see in a lighting product, what some of their challenges were, and communicated that our goal was to design useful products for them and create a company that can support their operations after an emergency. We developed relationships with organizations even before we had a finished product to sell them and this foundation helped when we were ready to start working with them.

Andrea: And we are always working hard to meet our customers expectations with our products and stay in constant communication with them.

LuminAID measures our impact by…

Andrea: The number of lights we have been able to distribute or donate to those in need around the world. Our Give Light, Get Light program—where customers are able to purchase lights for themselves and sponsor lights to be donated to our charitable partners—has seen more than 15,000 lights distributed to projects in more than 50 countries, including 4,000 lights donated to charities helping victims of the earthquakes in Nepal. In addition to our Give Light program, we have worked with our NGO customers to supply an additional 60,000 lights that have been used after disasters.

Anna: Also, we survey our customers after they have distributed lights to learn through a series of questions how the distribution went and what feedback they have from it.

Key lessons learned during the early production phase…

Andrea: It’s okay if you haven’t perfected your product so long as it works exactly as it’s described. If you have things in mind that you can work into your product or service later on, it is still worth it to test out the market with something that you can sell and get an early sense of what sells or does not sell. We have made continuous improvements to our lights over the past three years because we are committed to putting the best and brightest lights out into the market and we have also learned a lot from sales of earlier versions!

Anna: We have thought of product development along the same lines as software development, where we have many incremental updates and improvements. This is especially important since technology is changing and you are constantly receiving feedback from customers.

How our previous work experiences prepared us to found LuminAID…

Andrea: I worked in a design and architecture firm for almost two years before graduate school. During that time, I learned a lot about how investing in the creative process and good project management really made a difference in outcomes and results. I have learned that it works very similarly in managing a small business, where teamwork and planning also go a long way towards accomplishing goals.

Anna: When I was in college, I worked at the Department of Defense. This was very inspiring – especially to see the rigor of testing that goes into products used in military applications. This helped me recognize that the same technology used to help someone in a remote region, could be reimagined for a different commercial application. I also interned at Warby Parker. Warby Parker does an incredible job at balancing the communication of their social mission and their well-designed, high quality, affordable glasses.

How our strategy has evolved since launching…

Anna: We have learned about new sales channels for our products. It is hard to predict where your greatest sales will be and where there will be fewer barriers to entry, so it is important to always test and try.

Ways we prepared for Shark Tank…

Andrea: We made our employees and friends pretend to be Sharks and grill us on any and all questions we might encounter in the weeks leading up to our taping. Some of them really got into character!

Anna: And we studied all our numbers. We had also previously participated in business plan competitions where we had to pitch in front of judges or an audience.

What we would do differently…

Andrea & Anna: One thing we did not prepare for was getting offers from all five Sharks! With so many offers on the table, we probably could have negotiated an even better deal or at least asked. That being said, we have never looked back on the deal we made with Mark Cuban and were very excited about the outcome.

Best piece of advice we received before going on Shark Tank…

Andrea: Know your numbers. All successful pitches on the show have this in common.

Anna: Balance being confident with being open to feedback.

Mark Cuban’s advice on Shark Tank that stuck with us…

Anna: Mark asked us “what’s next?” on the show. Going into it, we didn’t know how much we should talk about new products because often times the Sharks tell companies to focus on their primary product. Mark Cuban pushed us to think about what else we could invent and design based on our technology. This was a major reason why we picked him.

The key elements of a great business pitch…

Andrea: Know your product and what makes it special. Know which customers would benefit most from your product and construct a plan to target them. Given your product development goals and marketing plans, come up with a general financial plan that will get you from A to B (and beyond). While it is unlikely you will have all the answers up front, it is important that you are aware of the gaps in your plan and will actively work to figure things out as you progress.

Anna: The important elements to our pitch are 1) illustrate the innovation and what problem it is solving, 2) explain the track record for how it has been received by customers, 3) show the potential for the technology and why your company will stay on top of that technology.

3 tips for setting up an e-commerce store…

Andrea:

  1. Use an e-commerce platform that has a lot of integrations since it will make your life easier overall. For example, we use Shopify, which integrates with our shipping and accounting software.
  2. Great visuals and photographs will make your site memorable.
  3. Capture the contact information for every person that comes to your site for your email list. Email marketing has really helped to grow our sales online.

Anna: And don’t forget to have a good back-end system that is keeping track of stats!

Advice for choosing non-profit partners…

Andrea: We’ve worked with a whole range of non-profit profit partners — both large and small — through our Give Light, Get Light program. For us, the best partners are ones where our lights can make a difference in the work they are doing and they are able to share back stories and pictures that we, in turn, are able to share with our community of customers and supporters.

How crisis response impacts our business…

Andrea: Being a supplier for the humanitarian relief aid industry means we have to be ready for the possibility of a disaster happening at any time. We keep a minimum level of stock for our key NGO customers so we can supply them on short notice. This is a challenge for a business of our size. But, we are committed to doing what we can to make our NGO partners and customers’ lives easier, especially when things get busy for them in an emergency or after a disaster.

Anna: We also have become more and more knowledgeable in shipping logistics to provide support to our customers as much as possible.

What more could for-profits, non-profits and the government be doing to innovate around crisis response…

Anna: A lot of challenges result when many organizations are trying to import supplies all at once and sometimes there are import delays. This happened with Nepal. I think continued innovation around logistics in times of emergency and improvements in communication will go a long way in providing aid quickly and effectively.

Andrea: Also, in an ideal world, everyone involved in a disaster response whether government, NGO, or private supplier would all have access to coordinated real-time information about where, when or how something is needed and critical status updates. The reality is disaster situations are complex and fast-moving, so there is no one perfect system that would actually accomplish all this. And the partners and agencies we have worked with all do a great job managing things in tough situations.

The key factors that contributed to our successful crowd-funding campaign…

Andrea: We put a lot of thought and energy into our campaign video. We included the option to donate lights to charities as part of the perk levels, which gave our campaign supporters an extra option through which they could engage with our social mission. And we stayed in touch with regular updates about the campaign and post-campaign fulfillment

How we connect with influencers in our space…

Andrea: We connect with influencers through cold emails (sometimes it takes a few rounds!) It’s surprising how responsive people can be even through cold emails if you pitch them something of interest.

Anna: We also use social media to communicate with influencers and build relationships. Instagram is a great tool for reaching out to people that we want to try out our product.

Advice for finding and selecting a manufacturer…

Andrea: This is tough especially when starting out because manufacturers want to work with companies that are ready for large scale production. So, it does take some upfront financing (in our case, our crowdfunding campaign). The most convincing argument is to find a manufacturer who can get on-board with your long-term plan and grow with you.

Anna: It is useful to seek help from someone with experience in sourcing manufacturers. It is good to get multiple quotes and compare quality and price. I would select primarily based on quality over price when starting out because you will be able to find a larger manufacturer and get more competitive pricing once you increase volumes. It is also important to set up quality control procedures and build this into every production run timeline. It is incredibly helpful to have someone on the ground from your team in the region where you are manufacturing.

How we evaluate growth opportunities…

Anna: Since we have many sales channels that we sell to, we often have to compare growth opportunities. We pick based on what we’re passionate about and what is most in line with where we see our company going. We typically try all opportunities and see what sticks!

Books that every entrepreneur should read…

Andrea & Anna:

How to Win Friends and Influence People

Anna:

Lean In

Andrea: 

Robert Taylor Obituary – Though not a book, I often read and re-read this obituary of Robert Taylor, the entrepreneur behind Softsoap and soap pumps. His story has a lot of lessons for how to innovate and then execute, which are two relevant areas we confront every day.

Where we envision LuminAID in five years…

Anna: Our vision for LuminAID is to build a company with innovative, intelligently designed portable energy products. We are excited to integrate new technologies, new materials and continue to expand our product line for our customers.

Andrea: We are “makers” at heart so we want to keep pushing the boundaries on all the solar lighting and charging products we can, that will both help people and bring something new to the marketplace.