Andrea Sreshta, '16
Andrea Sreshta is a co-founder of LuminAID, a company that focuses on innovative solar powered energy products for humanitarian aid and outdoor recreation. Andrea holds a B.A. from Yale University, a Master’s in Architecture from Columbia University, and a MBA from Chicago Booth.
LuminAID products include a dual phone charger and lantern or a solar lantern light. Originally designed for solar lighting in disaster recovery areas, it is available to the mass consumer. The dual phone charger lantern does not require replacement batteries and utilizes direct outdoor sunlight. It provides up to 50 hours of light fully charged and fully charges your phone in 2-4 hours via USB or 12-14 hours via solar. Lightweight, water-proof, packable, and easily portable. Great for camp-sites, hiking, trails, parks, beaches, and outdoor night-time activities.
Your products serve two wonderful purposes, for supporting disaster recovery and for solar lighting purposes. Can you tell us how you got started?
My business partner, Anna Stork, and I were design students in January 2010. We saw the news reports about the earthquake in Haiti and got to thinking: what could we do to help the people who experienced such a devastating event? We saw that within the shelters they needed to use kerosene lighting. Portable solar technology existed, but was bulky and expensive. We wanted to design a product which was more affordable, portable, and could be distributed in large numbers. In the beginning, for our first prototype, we used what we could get our hands on. Some of the solar components we got from off the shelf, Radio Shack, Amazon, etc. My business partner has a background in engineering so she soldered the components together. We went through many prototypes, continuously changing and improving the first one.
In 2011, we soft-launched through crowd-funding on Indiegogo. Back then, crowd-funding was a small marketplace relative to what it is today. Initially, we planned to make 500-1000 units, we ended up selling lots of lights around the world. It significantly exceeded our expectations. We also learned a lot about our potential customer base from the campaign.
Can you tell us about the challenges you faced in the initial phases?
As students, we didn’t have a ton of money. We turned to crowd-funding for our initial funding. Money was one of the early challenges. We’ve been careful in scaling the business because we want to ensure our margins are healthy. We kept in the mode of not relying on a ton of outside funding. We have two outside investors, Mark Cuban and Blake Mycoskie, the founder of Tom Shoes.
You’ve been extremely successful in getting early stage funding. The competition wins and Mark Cuban as your first investor. What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs trying to get early stage funding?
It was the luck of being a student in architecture and business school. And in the case of Shark Tank, being at the right place at the right time. We were using student status to get into business plan competitions. Extra lucky being a Booth student, being able to take our business plan to the Booth New Venture Challenge. We had access to what Booth had to offer. It works differently for every business. For us, at around a $20 product price, getting to break-even, and additional marginal revenue didn’t take long.
We had a different experience than most companies funded by VCs. Luck plays a role. We were selected to be on Shark Tank. They pick start-ups which have the most potential drama to be on the show, and during our pre-show prep our producers would give us feedback on how we should up the energy and drama. Nevertheless, we got lucky and we were picked to film. Once you are on set, you only get one chance. I would characterize it as high pressure. There’s five investors on the show, they call you up, film, and it's all done in one hour.
It’s definitely a shortcut to getting investor funding. It was a huge stroke of luck to be put through the process and to be able to pitch in front of five investors all at once. We got offers from all 5 investors. People on the show said we came off very prepared and polished, but we had all the experience in pitching and Q&A from the other business competitions we participated in over the years that we took with us to filming. (Watch Andrea and Anna on Shark Tank)
What advice would you give to entrepreneurs?
We had a huge hurdle to scale manufacturing, managing manufacturing, and not having leverage with suppliers. In 2012, we started selling on Amazon and our own website, www.luminaid.com. We used different channels to test the consumer and quickly re-assess. We quickly knew what was working and not working. It doesn’t apply to every business type but if people started today, their lives would be dominated by selling on Amazon. If we relied on retail as our only channel, it would have been very risky.
Currently, LuminAID has a dual solar rechargeable lantern and phone charger in development, are there any other prototypes in the pipeline?
The dual lantern solar phone charger is exciting. This time we used Kickstarter. Further launching our solar phone charging product is our main push right now. We are always in a state of continuous improvement based on customer feedback, utilizing crowdfunding campaigns are a great way to test out initial product reactions. The solar lantern and phone charger is available now exclusively at REI.com. It will be launched more widely in other distribution channels in September 2017.
To our readers: If your cellular phone batteries don’t last till the end of the day and you’re desperately looking for a phone charger or electrical outlet, you may want to consider buying one.