“The Entrepreneurial Light”

Ned Tozun and d.light design

A self-declared “serial entrepreneur,” Ned is hard to pin down. Constantly trotting the world from his current home-base in Hong Kong, he is using his background in computer science, his passion for sustainable solutions, and his boundless entrepreneurial energy to help grow d.light design — an international firm that helps provide low-cost and energy-efficient electricity to communities with limited access to electric light. More light means more hours to work, study, and enjoy a higher quality of life, and d.light has the ambitious goal of bringing light to over 100 million people by 2020.

Where did the d.light collaboration begin?

We got started at the Stanford Design School where I was in the MBA program. There was this really cool course about how to take the world’s best product design thinking, and instead of applying it towards the richest 5% of the population, applying it to the base of the pyramid’s problems. I was personally really interested in social enterprise and technology that could be used to improve people’s lives, especially in developing countries. I have an engineering background, but I went to business school because I wanted to apply my background to issues in the developing world.

In South Asia, it really struck us how many people are spending so much money on lighting, on kerosene or candle, spending 10 or 20% of their incomes on candles or kerosene for lighting, and these are dirty, hazardous, expensive, dim – but there wasn’t anything else available in the market. We left some very basic prototypes with people – a battery connected to a panel connected to LEDs – and we would come back and people’s lives would be transformed. Very low income families would have money saved up to buy prototypes. People would cry when we came back because their lives had been so impacted. We went to one place where the police had confiscated the light because they wanted to use it for their headquarters. We realized that there was really a market need that wasn’t being met, and that there was a business opportunity, and essentially the whole second year of business school we were putting together a business plan, getting a team of engineers together to develop the technology, and by the end of that year we raised an initial seed round and we really went for it.

So you really got to incubate the idea within the business school setting?

Yeah. And both the business school and the design school were very, very supportive. We had a lot of resources and brilliant minds available to us, helping us refine the product, refine the business plan. We are very much iterative in our approach, always improving and pushing ourselves, very hard working, always trying to innovate and improve. And that’s been with us from the very beginning.

Do you think that’s an unusual business school experience?

Yeah, I think it is. I mean, there are people who start companies while at business school, and there are tons of resources that are available when you’re there to get advice and help, so in that sense it wasn’t completely unusual. But that we were a social enterprise and trying to do something to make a very positive impact on the lives of a lot of people just made people more energized, and I would say we probably got more support than normal because of that.

You’ve identified yourself as a “serial entrepreneur.” What qualities do you identify in that and why are you good at it?

I’ve always had a bit of an entrepreneurial streak. I think it’s part of how my brain is wired; it’s hard for me to specialize. I like starting a company because you get to be involved in so many aspects of the process and it is very engaging. My interest in all the areas of a business has helped me start things. It’s also key to have a willingness to take calculated risks to be an entrepreneur. I’ve never been attracted to picking the stable option. I had a job offer from Google, and could have made a lot more money and had a lot more stability, especially considering my debt from business school, but I took a salary cut and a risk to work on d.light because I believed in it and had that appetite to take on big risks and big challenges.

In the early conversations about d.light, was it clear that it was going to be for profit versus not for profit?

As we got to understand the market, we saw that this was a real market opportunity, that businesses weren’t adjusting because they didn’t see the pyramid as a real market, so we felt like business was the best channel to address the need. With an NGO model, it would be very hard to get up to scale.

Any tricky moments?

One big decision was when our founding team of five people was living in the Bay Area, but we realized we couldn’t really do this project sitting in Silicon Valley. We had to be closer to the market and to where production was happening. That was hard, because people were comfortable there, some had their families there. I moved to China, to manage production and engineering, and co-founder Sam Goldman moved to India to manage the market side. So that was a pretty big leap, and I think it helped us become who we are. It’s very hard to do this work remotely.

What advice would you have for someone who is just starting out on the Social Entrepreneurship route?

The best way to learn is just to start and do it. Business school training is great, but I learned much more from starting the company. Be patient, be willing to take criticism. People will think you’re going to fail, and build up a bit of a thick skin to that. Realize it’s not going to be easy, it’s going to take a lot of perseverance, but overall it’s rewarding and fulfilling. And it takes a lot of work to get results.

How would you define leadership?

Good leadership is setting a clear vision for the future and being able to communicate that to the people around you and getting them to buy into that vision and inspire them. If you can do that, you can achieve really, really great things.