FIP 111: Hardware entrepreneurs 3/3 – Creating a device to solve last-mile connectivity issues in Africa, with Erik Hersman

The Lemelson Foundation LogoThis is part three of a 3-part series on invention-based entrepreneurs, supported by The Lemelson Foundation. The series aims to provide unique insights into some of the challenges and workarounds faced by entrepreneurs creating hardware products in emerging markets. This third part episode is with Erik Hersman, co-founder of BRCK, which creates a modem-cum-router device aimed at solving last-mile connectivity issues in Africa. We’re going to talk about the early prototypes, how they funded manufacturing and validated the market, some of the challenges they had along the way, and how the product evolved into what it is today.

On this episode you’ll learn:

  • Erik’s mantra about why “experience is knowing what not to do.”
  • “Managing expectations:” for BRCK version 1 it took 15-16 months to get a prototype working, then another 12-18 months to build it for the market. In hindsight, how could it be done quicker?
    1. if you really know what you’re doing (ie. what materials should be used, etc.
    2. if you’re well capitalized (ie. have the money), and
    3. if you’re not based in Africa (which has increased costs and time).
  • How did he validate the market to make sure people will buy it? By using Kickstarter, the crowdfunding platform, which is a great way to find out. They raised $170,000 then decided to create the for-profit company to raise additional capital.
  • Early stage companies (particularly in hardware) have to find a balance of when to pull the trigger on shipping.
    • The internal messaging was that it is not acceptable to miss deadlines.
    • The external messaging to stakeholders was that you try to deliver when you say you’re going to.
  • Some of the initial problems (that went wrong) and why initial timelines were pushed back: “end of life” manufacturer (ie. they don’t make it anymore), testing at scale, user experience, etc.
  • The decision to move from selling a product to moving to a service: the internal conversation within the company on whether they are solving the real problem of how do you get people online? It resulted in business model innovation (more so than technology innovation) which led to Moja wifi in Kenya and Rwanda which serves up free internet to half a million people.
  • Linear versus non-linear growth: when you’re getting venture-backed finance or choose to take venture funding, they are looking for non-linear growth.
  • Why BRCK became a vertically integrated company—they discovered value in building everything in house—helps with risk mitigation, agility, and the ability to respond to customer needs.
  • How Moja wifi is funded.
  • What Erik knows now that he wished he knew back then?
    1. Realize earlier that they needed to build a platform on top of the hardware since the hardware is just a means to an end.
    2. Focus more capital on the SupaBRCK earlier (their next generation device) since it was delayed 6 months.
    3. Hiring the right people: maybe hired too fast in some positions and didn’t get the right people.

Links to Resources:

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