Ron Bills is the CEO of Envirofit, a social enterprise started in 2003 to develop household energy products that are designed for customers living in developing countries. The products are meant to reduce pollution and improve efficiency.
1. Tell us about one of the toughest situations you’ve found yourself in as a business owner.
As a business owner and social entrepreneur there are always challenges. But embracing the reality that the direction you are headed is wrong is sometimes hard to face.
Early in the Envirofit days, we developed our first product that we thought was great from a design and engineering perspective. Once we launched the product, we quickly learned that it didn’t fit the customer’s needs.
The self-reflection was the fact the customer knew more than we did about what they wanted. From that day forward, we had to redesign our product development cycle to make customers a central part of the process. Changing this process early on, not only allowed us to be successful, but influenced a shift in how the clean cookstove industry designed products and approached consumers.
2. Which business achievement are you most proud of?
It has been an incredible achievement to see our organisation grow from a small team of 15 people implementing a programme in one country to a multinational company with a strong brand generating US$25m in revenue. Today we have 400 employees and distribution in 30 countries and growing.
It’s not just about the impact our products are making, but the thousands of local direct and indirect jobs that are created across the globe – which, in turn, impacts people’s lives and improves local economies. Also, it’s not just about the business objectives, but the impact the products and services can have on a society.
While meeting the bottom line is essential, so is establishing a legacy in helping people rise from energy poverty.
3. Describe your greatest weakness as an entrepreneur.
As an entrepreneur, my greatest challenge is internalising setbacks that happen naturally in business – whether it is income challenges, HR issues, politics, or sales figures. The challenge is that, as the CEO and leader of the company, there is really no one to vent to.
So I have learned to look at these challenges as positives, not negatives. The enabling factor here is in adopting a positive attitude in the face of adversity. Through this lens I view challenges as just another mountain to climb and encourage the team to do the same, and to look at these challenges from different angles to find solutions.
If one route does not work, find another; but never give up. We cannot always predict the market reaction, speed of growth, or unexpected challenges we may face, but we can determine the attitude we approach these problems with.
4. Which popular entrepreneurial advice do you disagree with?
The five-year strategic plan. While traditional business practice dictates it is good to have a vision for three to five years of where the company is going, it can also serve as a distraction to what is happening in front of you. While it is good to have a vision that you are striving for, a small company – especially in the start-up phase – needs to have the flexibility to make mistakes, learn and grow at a rapid pace. There were times when our strategy would shift from where it was the previous six months. I think this is one of the factors that is key to our success – that we were willing to take major leaps based on the information we were receiving, and how the markets were shifting.
So keep the vision to a succinct idea and be willing to shift the vision if needed. That said, long-range plans are necessary, but they too need to be revisited on a regular basis so as not to take the “lemmings off the cliff”.
At the end of the day you know where you want to go, but the path to get there needs quick action and flexibility. If you are going to fail, fail fast.
Never get so locked into your idea that you are not looking at the indicators around you – change direction and change fast when you need to.
5. Is there anything you wish you knew about entrepreneurship before you got started?
Building a business takes time, especially if your target market customers are marginalised populations. There is a lot of expectation of entrepreneurs – from the public to investors, and even from the media – to grow fast.
The reality is that even though you are moving a million miles an hour it still takes many hours at that pace to achieve large-scale growth. Envirofit took on big challenges and just in recent years reached a point of profitability but this took time, patient investors, and a hard-charging team.
This is because social entrepreneurship is about challenging the status quo and doing things differently, if the value proposition is there to the customers then it has a chance to succeed, but change takes time.
6. Name a business opportunity you would still like to pursue.
We are doing it with SmartGas. This new, disruptive initiative allows people to have the convenience of a mobile LPG utility company and to pay for it on a daily consumption basis – it is an amazing technology advancement. When you think about half the world’s population burning biomass on a daily basis and the resultant deforestation, carbon emissions, health impact and personal burden, it is overwhelming.
The fact that our latest SmartGas technology can help move people up the energy ladder to affordable, clean and safe fuel, is an incredible business opportunity that can help millions of people in emerging markets. I am also encouraged that other advancements in global technology around “the internet of things”, “big data”, “predictive analytics”, “block chain”, to name a few, may even open other doors to help lift people out of energy poverty.
This is our passion, this is our quest – that we will continue to evolve with the latest technology to help families and societies move forward.