Power a Life: The power of social enterprise.
Power A life began when three architecture students at Strathclyde university undertaking a 12 month long design project in a Developing World context discovered that many children in West Africa did not have access to lighting, and that kids with lights had more life opportunities.
They founded Power A Life in 2013 and began focusing on one idea: the WeePal, a portable charger for our power hungry devices. But how does this help the kids in West Africa? Power A Life have adopted a buy one give one business model so for every purchase made in a developed nation, a child receives a solar light in West Africa. I caught up with Jeremie in Edinburgh for a lovely lunch and to discuss how he has grown a business based on social enterprise….and ended up taking a WeePal home with me.
HOW DOES YOUR PRODUCT DIFFERENTIATE ITSELF FROM OTHER PORTABLE BATTERIES?
Jeremie Warner: Our portable battery is better quality compared to what’s on offer on the high street. For starters, the WeePal has an on and off switch and it holds its charge for upto 6 months, which other competitors don’t have. We also have a high quality material finish with great feedback on the quality of our packaging. Retailers really like what we’re doing, because not only are we offering a high quality product, but we can provide CSR impact reports for them based on what they sell to customers. And then lastly, for every WeePal purchased, we give a solar rechargeable light to a children in need. In our product category, we are unique in the marketplace with a buy one give one business model for portable power.
CAN YOU QUANTIFY HOW MUCH IMPACT YOU HAVE HAD SO FAR?
Since Christmas we sold over 750 WeePals, with next to no marketing and advertising spend. From these 750 donated solar lights, we impacted 1.3K people and saved almost 800 tonnes of co2. For every solar light, 1,000 hours of study is given to a child, meaning we have given over 750,000 hours of study. For that one child we donate a light to, their life is transformed: they’ll get better grades, stay in school longer and therefore increase their opportunities later in life. The difference between the haves and have nots is massive, and teachers in our partnered schools immediately see impact that having the light at home has on children’s grades. There is also a wider impact on the community because parents now have access to a renewable source of high quality lighting instead of having to buy disposable batteries, candles or kerosene.
WHAT WERE THE BIGGEST CHALLENGES YOU FACED IN GROWING THE BUSINESS TO WHERE IT IS TODAY?
The biggest challenge is finding funding to get started. We got bank financing half way through last summer which allowed us to launch just in time for Christmas but in speaking to investors, having a tangible product is key, it’s something investors can touch and feel which has made all the difference in our conversations. The biggest barrier we had to overcome was bringing the product to market as it is really expensive to produce and takes a lot of time.
WHAT WAS YOUR MARKETING STRATEGY AT THE START AND HOW HAS IS DEVELOPED OVER TIME?
Our marketing strategy comes from mostly online and direct sales. We initially attended craft markets but that wasn’t the right fit for our demographic, and now we mostly sell through social media and events. We were always communicating the giving aspect rather than the technical features and product benefits but taking part in the ASDA supplier academy taught us that product has to compete shoulder to shoulder with competitor products before you factor in the ethical giving, so product features are equally as important.
HOW DO YOU REACH YOUR TARGET CUSTOMERS?
We predominately use Facebook to target our customer, which we learned at the ASDA Supplier Academy. We’re now also starting to use Instagram and Snapchat to target our younger demographic. Our promotional budget is the only thing that limits how many people we can target. On Facebook there’s promoted posts and adverts, which most businesses are using and we’ve invested in to maximise our post reach rather than buying likes. One of our strategies has been to target people who like similar buy one give one businesses like TOMS Shoes for example. It’s a super powerful and useful tool that allows us to measure the return on investment, where you can easily track your links and check your analytics.
WHAT TIPS CAN YOU GIVE FOR EFFECTIVE ONLINE MARKETING?
What I find really crucial in online marketing is having a responsive website, and having a slick web presence which works across all devices is fundamental. The channel that is most effective depends on your product and what the bulk of your market is using. For us we’d like to be on all of the social channels to address a wide range of customer, but given that we have a small team we have to pick and choose our battles based on what we know we’re going to win…
ANY ADVICE YOU CAN SHARE ON MARKETING A SOCIAL ENTERPRISE SPECIFICALLY?
The way to attract customers is to tell stories. Audiences online don’t like to be sold to, you have to earn the right to sell to them. Telling your message and story must be compelling in a hopeful, positive way rather than a story of despair. Moreover, social enterprises need to not be afraid of competing directly with for-profit competitors.
YOU PARTICIPATED IN EIE FOR THE FIRST TIME IN MAY – WHAT DID THAT EXPERIENCE OFFER YOU?
EIE is tremendous and came at the right time for us because we were looking to raise investment, expand our network and make valuable contacts. In the Pitch to Pitch panel were individuals I’ve been trying to get in front of for ages, and since then we’ve been in touch ever since. So, even before the actual event we had made contact with Cairn Energy’s Senegal Project Manager, made a partnership with a Scottish based charity in Zimbabwe who have now helped us fund a lighting pilot, and lastly had real interest from an investment syndicate.
On the actual day of the event itself we met a whole host of people, high net worth individuals, gate keepers for syndicates, all manner of Scottish enterprise account managers and business gateway people to name a few. What we learnt is that important wealthy people are really busy, so meetings that were arranged in May, only really landed within the last 3-4 weeks. EIE not only provided excellent training, but also gives you the opportunity to actually present to the investors, which is quite unique in Scotland.
WOULD YOU RECOMMEND EIE TO OTHER SOCIAL ENTERPRISES?
Without a doubt, we wouldn’t have been close to closing a deal had we not gone to EIE. EIE has been really useful not just in finding investment, but also in the connections we made. Our advice is that even if you don’t think you are the right fit, apply anyway because you have nothing to lose. Also make the distinction between you and a charity because in order to incentivise the investor you still need to be a profitable company.
WHAT OTHER SUPPORT HAVE YOU HAD FROM THE ECO-SYSTEM?
We have been well supported, especially from the Strathclyde University. They have offered us a lot of support and do so for many enterprising students. Within the rest of the ecosystem, we’ve had help from many organisations such as Business Gateway , SIE, ScottishEDGE and Power of Youth. What was really refreshing about EDGE is that they didn’t mind we were a social enterprise. We ended up winning the wild card which was a huge endorsement for us.
We’ve received plenty of mentoring from within the Strathclyde enterprise network, which comprises of many entrepreneurial alumni who give back their time to young Strathclyders and help them set up businesses. We worked with two mentors especially in finance and marketing. If your business is lacking in an area, connecting with informal advisors that have experience in that area is incredibly useful. They can give advice when you need it.
WHAT’S NEXT FOR POWER A LIFE?
We have some very exciting things in the pipeline, such as progressing our first retail listing with ASDA and closing an investment deal. The bulk of the investment we receive will be used on marketing and promoting the business. We’re coming into Christmas as well which is our biggest selling opportunity.
Speaking to Jeremie gave great insight into the mindset behind a social enterprise. The reality is a social enterprise is first and foremost a business and must be operated as such. The key difference between a social enterprise and a regular business is the way you market that business in order to leverage the social aspect.
Securing funding to get production off the ground was tough for the guys but they overcame this and in their own words have gone on to sell a significant number of products with little or no marketing budget which is very impressive and an example of what can be achieved through a good basic online presence and clever use of social media. We can’t wait to see what the guys can achieve when they finalise the funding to give them a proper marketing budget!
If you’re reading this and you’re battery is low….maybe you could do with a WeePal? Or maybe you would just like to spread the message about his awesome company who are making a real impact and changing children’s futures in Africa.
Join us next month when we’ll be talking to EIE veterans Mallzee about the app that has us swiping in retail heaven and how they have used Digital Marketing to secure their place as the UK’s top non-retailer shopping app, with more than half a million users.
The above article by Silvia Gatti first published on informatics-ventures.com in Aug, 2016.