Podcast 092: Patrick Walsh & Anish Thakkar – How is this solar+battery startup improving tens of millions of lives while simultaneously creating one of the hottest companies in climate tech?

Our guests today run a global cleantech powerhouse that recently closed $260 million in a series D funding round. They’ve served 90 million customers so far and they’re adding two million households a year at their current connection rates. If that isn’t inspiring enough, what makes these two scrappy entrepreneurs even more inspiring is the fact that they have looked beyond the wealthy markets of the US and Europe and built their company in emerging markets like Kenya, Zambia, Uganda, and other countries in Africa. In just over a decade, these founders have built a team of 2,000 employees, created a field distribution team of 15,000 people, and helped pioneer a novel financing mechanism that allows some of the lowest income people on earth to benefit from safe, affordable lighting and other benefits of electricity.

Join in as host Bill Nussey talks with Patrick Walsh and Anish Thakkar, co-founders of Sun King, the global solar PV giant that is improving the lives of millions.

Here are some of the highlights from their discussion…

“…what excited me about the idea of Sun King is that it addresses this huge problem of global energy access, by [helping] families that, by circumstance, live in homes that aren’t connected to the electric grid. It doesn’t treat these families like charity cases, but as consumers. [We thought that] if we could profitably deliver solar power to one off-grid family, well, we could scale it up to millions of families that live off the electric grid.”


“The beginning [of Sun King] really started with figuring out the technical challenge, figuring out how to build great products. And then it was all about: how do we distribute those products? How do we get them where they need to go? And then the third key component was: how do we provide financing for those products so that people can actually afford them?”


“Our field team… has 15,000 field agents. And these are invariably Sun King customers first, so they’re powering their own homes with solar power… They go door-to-door and they explain the value proposition of Sun King solar. And they make it available to their neighbors, to people that live in their community and communities nearby… It’s an essential part of getting solar onto millions of off-grid homes, because if you live in an off-grid house and you’re going to invest in solar equipment, you need to trust it. So when someone comes to your door and says, ‘I’m like you, I use this in my house. It works well. I think you should use it too,’ that is an incredibly powerful way to spread this technology to families.”

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Sun King

Global Off-Grid Lighting Association

Full Transcript

Bill Nussey:

Well, hello and welcome. Happy summer to everybody in the Freeing Energy community. I am really excited about today’s podcast. We have some superstar entrepreneurs. If you follow the off-grid space at all you have probably heard all about these folks. But we have the co-founders of Sun King, Anish Thakker and Patrick Walsh.

Bill Nussey:

This is going to be a discussion about how these two incredibly creative, very resilient, and stubbornly persistent people went through some pretty tough times and have emerged today as one of the leading solar PV companies on the planet Earth. And the coolest part is they are changing lives, not just helping wealthy suburban Americans. But more importantly, I think, is changing the lives of tens of millions of people that can benefit the most from some of these technologies.

Bill Nussey:

They’re fresh off the heels of closing a huge 260 million series D funding, I mean, $260 million for off-grid is inspiring. And they continue to develop this great set of products to people all over the world. Sun King now accounts for 38% of total industry-wide PAYG, pay-as-you-go, solar revenue, according to the latest data collected by GOGLA, which is the industry trade association that tracks us. As a result of that growth, the company has eliminated 22 million tons of CO2 emissions, while saving consumers and the poorest parts of the world $4.4 billion in energy costs. They are truly rock stars in the industry.

Bill Nussey:

So Patrick and Anish, first, many kudos. And welcome to the podcast today.

Patrick Walsh:

Thanks so much, Bill. We were really excited to be here. Reading the book and listening to some of the earlier podcasts, it’s just super exciting to be part of the conversation.

Bill Nussey:

Great. Well, let’s start with you, Patrick. How did you end up pursuing physics and economics? And why the University of Illinois?

Patrick Walsh:

So I started with physics, and it was for reasons totally unrelated to off-grid solar or engineering. I was just interested in metaphysical questions and the origins of the universe. I’m really glad that the program that I chose ended up being applicable to what we’re doing today. Because it was about my end of my freshman year, I started working with some folks who were doing a nonprofit project in India, to do biofuel microgrids in rural Orissa, through a group called Engineers Without Borders. And that work was so exciting. It was the first time in my life I just couldn’t sleep because I was so excited about the work. And the rest is history. But the physics degree has certainly come in handy.

Bill Nussey:

As simple as some of these little systems look, they’re actually incredibly hard to make at huge volumes and make them high quality. So having a strong science background is actually, I think, a really big deal for creating great products.

Bill Nussey:

Well, Anish, there’s a surprising theme that runs through a lot of the guests we have on the podcast, it’s this crazy early drive to make a difference when they’re early in their lives, college student. So when you were in college, you started an NGO called the Illini 4000, for cancer. It’s a charity which has raised money for cancer causes. So tell us what caused you to do that in college?

Anish Thakker:

Well, I think, like a lot of college students, I wanted to find a way to change the world, as many college students come in with big ideas. So in college I founded the Illini 4000 for cancer, which is a nonprofit that raises donations for families in the US affected by cancer. It’s a charity.

Anish Thakker:

But when Patrick and I met many, many years ago in college, what excited me about the idea of Sun King is that it addresses this huge problem of global energy access, not by treating families that, by circumstance, live in homes that aren’t connected to the electric grid. It doesn’t treat these families like charity cases, but as consumers. That if we could profitably deliver solar power to one off-grid family, well, we could scale it up to millions of families that live off the electric grid.

Bill Nussey:

So you guys are in college, you get to know each other. You’ve traveled around the world. You’ve made a big difference. You’ve seen the world in context, much larger than yourself. But I’m really interested to learn about the first set of conversations you guys had. You’re hanging out, you meet each other. How did you meet and what conversations triggered the idea to do something so bold?

Patrick Walsh:

The way I remember this, Anish, is I was sitting in a lab, drilling holes in PVC tubes and sticking LEDs out the sides of them, and trying to figure out how to build a prototype solar powered lantern. And you probably looked at me and thought, “That kid looks like he needs a lot of help,” something to that effect.

Anish Thakker:

Well, I remember that really well. I think it was like 3:00 in the morning. A dark tech lab, and Patrick looked like he hadn’t slept in a few days. If you’ve seen a picture of Patrick, he has a well coiffed beard today, but it was a very long disheveled beard at the time. And he was hand building these devices that were made out of PVC tubes, with wires sticking out. And he had a pile of them. And he looked pretty haggard. So I think I really approached him out of concern, maybe for him or others around. And I said, “What are you-

Bill Nussey:

And by concern, do you mean pity?

Anish Thakker:

I said, “What are you doing? And do you need help?” And Patrick, he explained he was hand building the first Sun King prototypes, and he was going to fill up a suitcase and take them to some potential customers in India, see if he could actually sell them to families that didn’t have any electricity.

Anish Thakker:

And that just seemed like the coolest thing ever to do. From that evening, I think I just said, “Hey, do you need some help?” And we’ve been working together ever since.

Bill Nussey:

I’m getting chills on this. I just want to make sure that people listening in get the genesis that I’m hearing here. Because you’ve built this amazing company as partners, and it started with one of you trying to change the world with new products, and the other one’s saying, “It looks like you need some help.” I mean, the genesis of the very beginning of your company, from this story, tells me that it was born, and the ethos that you’ve brought to the world to billions of people. And I love the fact that you were just trying to help. I think that’s so meaningful.

Bill Nussey:

How did this turn into a actual business that had employees and raised money?

Patrick Walsh:

So today, Sun King is 2,000 employees across many countries, over 90 million customers served. We have a whole range of products, from solar lights to solar energy systems, that really run the gamut, along with energy efficient appliances that go with them.

Patrick Walsh:

But the beginning really started with figuring out the technical challenge, figuring out how to build great products. And then it was all about: how do we distribute those products? How do we get them where they need to go? And then the third key component was: how do we provide financing for those products so that people can actually afford them?

Patrick Walsh:

So each one of those three pillars … the products, the distribution, the financing … probably took 3, 4, 5, 6 years, overlapping a bit. But really, it was in that order, trying to figure out: how do we make great products? And then now that we have them, how do we get them out there and how do we make sure they’re affordable?

Bill Nussey:

Got it. Got it. Well, let’s open the aperture wide and look at the reason this stuff is so important. I’m sitting here in my suburban East Coast home with air conditioning and plenty of electricity. And if I flip a switch, it works. And one of the most powerful parts of my own journey, and researching the book, was traveling to rural Africa several different times and meeting people who had never had electricity, and, I think, even more exciting, meeting people that had these small systems for the very first time.

Bill Nussey:

Whichever one of you guys want to start, help us understand why is this need exist at all? And what difference do the Sun King products make?

Anish Thakker:

It’s easy to think about access to power as a given. In the US, we walk into a room, we flip a switch and the power’s just on. We have just seemingly abundant power at our fingertips. But that’s not how the world started. The US was connected to the electric grid one house at a time, with billions and billions of dollars and centralized investment from the government and from large corporations. And that’s still how power is delivered to homes in the US today. But that effort of building this enormous centralized electric grid, it’s just never happened in large parts of the world, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia.

Anish Thakker:

So what happens if you don’t have power? Really, it closes a lot of doors. Our customers are people in Africa primarily. And they’re just like you and me, they’re teachers, they’re doctors, they’re farmers. The big difference is that they don’t have a connection to the electric grid. It means their kids can’t study at night for very long, or very well. It means that they’re spending a lot of their income just to power, say, a small kerosene lantern. They’re creating a fire hazard and a health hazard in the home. A lot of doors close if you don’t have that power.

Anish Thakker:

So what Sun King is about is enabling families to own their own electric power source, with solar power on their own roof. And when you own your own power source, when you generate the power that you need for your family yourself, you’re not dependent on whether the grid does come to you, whether it’s going to come for you or your kids or your kids’ kids. It comes today, because you put it there. And you’re not dependent on a blackout that means your kids can’t study tonight. You take the power in your own hands.

Bill Nussey:

So what was the first product you guys shipped?

Patrick Walsh:

Yeah. So the first product that we shipped was called the Sun King, and that is where the company’s name, today, came from. So the company originally called Greenlight Planet. And the name Sun King stuck, and we formalized that as our company’s name just earlier this year.

Patrick Walsh:

So the original Sun King was a solar powered lantern designed to replace kerosene lamps. And it was as simple as that. It provided light and it replaced tons and tons of kerosene fuel with a affordable, clean, safe alternative that was brighter and easier to use, and just an all around win-win for everybody. For people who are using it, it saved money. For the planet, it saved carbon. So that was the first entry point.

Patrick Walsh:

But very quickly thereafter, we started expanding into products that are providing power for other devices. So solar lanterns that included mobile phone charging was the next step. And from there we started providing solar home systems that offer multiple lamps, fixed installed lamps for the home, the power for additional appliances. And the product range has expanded from there.

Patrick Walsh:

So now we offer appliances to go with those systems. We offer solar powered fans for ventilation in places where temperatures can top … You see in the news about all the heat waves in India and Africa lately. Ventilation is a huge need and fans are an important part of solving that. We provide satellite televisions for access to information, entertainment, solar powered radios. And we’re expanding into larger and larger systems that can power AC appliances in the home. So our largest systems now are up to about 2,000 watts of solar, with a three kilowatt AC inverter to power refrigerators, you name it, inside the home.

Bill Nussey:

It’s an amazing evolution. One of the early challenges of the industry was quality. A lot of companies entered, just flooded into it. I’ve talked to many entrepreneurs who were providing high quality products. But the low quality products ended up giving the entire industry a bad name. The governments got concerned that, in general, these were low quality products.

Bill Nussey:

How did you guys deal with the early flood of second-tier products? And how did you survive and thrive through it to have come out as the leader?

Patrick Walsh:

One thing is, Sun King, for 15 years, has been part of an ecosystem that goes well beyond our organization. There are a number of organizations, like the World Bank’s Lighting Africa program which then became Lighting Global, and all kinds of organizations that have facilitated the regulatory framework to get high quality products recognized by consumers, by government institutions, so that people can trust the products.

Patrick Walsh:

And that has been critical to building a supply chain that people can trust and that governments can provide incentives for: reduce taxes, even just allowing products into the country. So we’ve tried to help with those efforts, but we’ve really been reliant upon the governments and the non-governmental organizations that have set up that regulatory framework over the last 15 years.

Bill Nussey:

Got it. I didn’t know a lot about that. It’s encouraging to hear that the industry embraced itself and created a framework to differentiate and qualify the proper products. It’s a really healthy response to rapid innovation and it doesn’t happen in every industry. So this is one that needed. And it sounds like it’s working, which is great.

Bill Nussey:

One of the points that I really try to emphasize with the whole local energy, Freeing Energy book theme, is that this isn’t just about the technology. I’m an electrical engineer. Super nerd. Love this stuff. By the way, I absolutely need to figure out how to get one or two of your units to put in my shelf behind me here. Listeners can’t see it, but I’ve got a shelf. I’ve got some other company’s products, that I didn’t even think about it until Patrick pointed it out on the video. But I would love to put some Sun King products there.

Bill Nussey:

I am fascinated with the technologies. But the part that is so exciting, and is easily overlooked, is this is a job story. I mean, I hope everybody caught it when you said at the beginning that you have 2,000 people working at Sun King. Those are presumably jobs that didn’t exist before you guys built this company. And a lot of those jobs, they’re not in the US, they’re not in wealthy Europe, they’re across Africa and other places, and a lot of that comes in the form of distribution.

Bill Nussey:

So you’ve got a fascinating network, I’m going to pronounce it, Sathis, or friends as you guys call them. I’d love to hear from one of you about this network of micro-entrepreneurs. How does it work? Why is it succeeding? How it works from continent to continent, from India to Africa to South America? Tell us about that part of the story?

Anish Thakker:

There’s basically three pillars to the company. So one is that we make products, we have to make the best solar equipment for off-grid homes. And the next pillar is getting those solar products to off-grid homes, and the way we do this is through our field team.

Anish Thakker:

So our field team, we have 15,000 field agents. And these are invariably Sun King customers first, so they’re powering their own homes with solar power. And it works it in their house and then they become evangelists for the product in their community, to their neighbors, to people nearby. And this becomes a full-time, really skilled employment opportunity. About half of our field agents are women, and they go door-to-door and they explain the value proposition of Sun King solar. And they make it available to their neighbors, to people that live in their community and communities nearby.

Anish Thakker:

And if a family wants to power their home with Sun King, then they install the system in the house. So all of our agents are trained on how to install the solar panel on the roof, install battery storage in the home, wiring, wall switches, lights, all the equipment. And that’s a essential part of getting solar onto millions of off-grid homes, because if you live in an off-grid house and you’re going to invest in solar equipment, you need to trust it. So when someone comes to your door and says, “I’m like you, I use this in my house. It works well. I think you should use it too,” that is an incredibly powerful way to spread this technology to families. And when families have a need for service, for help, our field agent comes back to the home and helps them resolve it at their door.

Bill Nussey:

It’s easy to miss how important this is. Part of the reason I traveled to Africa several times, East Africa particularly, to write parts of my book, was to see it. I had a good idea of what to see, but when I was there it was really powerful, it painted a picture. The roads are dirt. And not like the dirt roads in rural Georgia, where I visit occasionally, but roads that get washed out. Communities become inaccessible. Only highly specialized vehicles can travel on these roads. And often not even vehicles, maybe a motorcycle or a bicycle. So your distribution network is having to reach into these communities, where it can make the biggest difference.

Bill Nussey:

I think providing these products and navigating these geographic and cultural challenges is something that … as they write the stories about what you and other companies are doing, I think that’s got to be as big a part of the story as bringing light to homes. It’s just a different world than most people listening have got a chance to see.

Bill Nussey:

What is it like to be one of your customers? If you can help our listeners understand, put yourself in one of your customer’s shoes, what does the world look like? What’s it like when they get a light or a television for the first time?

Anish Thakker:

I think the first point is that our customers, they’re people primarily in Africa. And they’re just like you, they’re just like me, they’re just like our listeners. They’re teachers, they’re doctors, they’re farmers. The really big difference is that they live in a house that, because of circumstance, is not connected to the electric grid.

Anish Thakker:

So before they get Sun King it limits life in a lot of ways. When the sun goes down, it’s dark. And then producing light in the house is actually very expensive. Most homes will buy kerosene at really high costs and burn them in kerosene lamps to light up a room or part of a room. And if you have kids, that’s probably how they study. And that means every hour studying is a pretty big expense. So it really ends up limiting the ability to study and thrive in school.

Anish Thakker:

So when our customers get Sun King power in their home, overnight they have an abundant solar power source. They can walk into any of their rooms and flip the switch and the lights turn on. And light can turn on for the whole night. So I think one of the biggest changes is one that we’ve just take for granted in the US, which is access to a absolutely abundant light at your fingertip really does make daily life so much more productive.

Anish Thakker:

It also opens up a whole world of possibilities for modern appliances, modern amenities, that make life better. If you think about everything that plugs into your wall that’s in your house. If you walk into an off-grid home that doesn’t have solar on the roof, there aren’t a lot of appliances because there’s no way to power them. But as soon as we get the solar power on the roof we can power not just lights and phones and radios, but fans, TVs, computers, maybe solar irrigation in the future.

Anish Thakker:

I think the solar power, it’s the first step. Energy changes everything. I think the first big goal for us is to bring solar power to every home that’s off of the reliable electric grid. I think what we’ll see in the decades that unfold after that is the appliances that we have in our home, very custom-built power optimized appliances that fit for homes that inherently are using DC solar power, will become really popular. There will be a market for them. And these homes will have many of the amenities that we do.

Anish Thakker:

But also, I think this opens up a huge area for future innovation. There’s countless problems that can be solved, fundamentally, in new ways, that are solved because now there’s a power source in the house. And now we can build products that solve problems for homes, primarily in Sub-Saharan Africa, that live off the electric grid.

Bill Nussey:

I have a nerdy question I’ve always been curious about. The systems that you’re describing that you guys sell, and make and sell, are DC powered. They use batteries and solar. I’m curious, nerd question, does the existing US … our recreational vehicle markets, the boat market, where you also have lower power DC systems, does that help? Is it related to getting products to market faster? Can you use a refrigerator from a RV in Africa or are there really different needs in unrelated markets?

Patrick Walsh:

We haven’t seen too many products crossover from the US focused market to the off-grid market in Africa. I think that’s because off-grid consumers in Africa have slightly different but specific needs. And people are not going to settle for a product that doesn’t work exactly how they need it to work.

Patrick Walsh:

There have been a couple of limited examples of this. There have been RV refrigerator technologies applied at some scale. But I think the difficulty there has been getting any DC refrigerator supply chain spun up in Africa has been tricky. I think it remains to be seen which direction solar refrigeration goes in Africa. But there are also really high efficiency AC fridges coming out of the market that were designed specifically for energy efficiency conscious consumers in South Asia.

Patrick Walsh:

So those technology crossover opportunities are there, but the products really need to be customized for the exact needs of consumers who are living off the grid.

Bill Nussey:

The challenge for a lot of the folks that you’re selling to, I met people that made, on average, 40 cents a day, $1 a day, $2 a day. It’s amazing how they make do with that. It was inspiring. But that means that a lot of people can’t afford something in the US that would cost $150 or $200. And you guys were one of the pioneers of pay-as-you-go.

Bill Nussey:

So how did you guys arrive at doing that? What was the story of shifting from selling products to also providing financing?

Patrick Walsh:

Yeah. Well, I think one thing to talk about, in terms of the comparison to the US market or Western markets, and how off-grid solar is working there versus in, say, in Sub-Saharan Africa, I think when we talk about the energy transition … and everybody wants to see solar going on rooftops in the US. But I think I read that there’s somewhere around 3 million households in the US that have rooftop solar today. So what is that? That’s less than 1% of the US population.

Patrick Walsh:

In Kenya, where Sun King has been active the longest in Sub-Saharan Africa, one in five Kenyans are using Sun King products today.

Bill Nussey:

Wow.

Patrick Walsh:

So that’s 20%.

Bill Nussey:

Wow.

Patrick Walsh:

20% of the country is using Sun King. And the majority of those folks are using Sun King as a primary electrical source. It’s not grid tied, it’s a primary source of electricity.

Patrick Walsh:

So across the continent, rooftop solar is already the defacto way of getting access to energy. So the affordability challenges are vast. But the status quo, is you’re coming from a situation where electricity is totally unavailable, or grid extension from an electrical pole that’s a few hundred meters away. Just getting a single electrical pole installed with a meter is often hundreds, maybe even thousands, up to $10,000 to get a installation for a single home.

Patrick Walsh:

With just a few hundred dollars we can provide a rooftop solar kit that provides power reliably, for the main use cases in that home. With a couple thousand dollars we can provide a system that truly replaces the grid, that provides AC energy up to the demand of a rural consumer, and on par with the energy demand of, say, a small apartment typical in a Western market.

Patrick Walsh:

So the need is there. The affordability challenge is there. And the question you’re asking is: how does financing come in and why is that such a key component? I think when people think about the need for financing a product that costs $200, the initial thought is, “Well, $200 maybe isn’t a huge amount of money for most Western consumers. Why can’t people just buy that product upfront if it’s so important?”

Patrick Walsh:

What we’re really asking people to do in that case, we’re asking people to pay for, say, five years of energy right upfront. So that’s an amount of money that somebody would spend over the course of a year or two, or sometimes three, four, five years. And we’re asking them to reach into their pockets and pay for all those electrical bills for months, years into the future, at one time.

Patrick Walsh:

So that’s really impossible for most people. And building this infrastructure to allow people to pay as they go, to pay for solar in the same way that people pay for a mobile phone service in Africa, to pay-as-you-go, or just in the same way that an energy user in the West would pay for their electrical service on a monthly basis, that’s really been the last key to solving for this need and it’s been a critical part of what we do.

Bill Nussey:

How many of your customers are using pay-you-go now?

Anish Thakker:

So today we’ve brought pay-as-you-go solar systems to 4 million households, and we add 2 million households a year at our current connection rates. We’ve extended $470 million of purchase credit, for homes to be able to buy their solar on the roof.

Bill Nussey:

Wow. And just curious then, what happens if someone isn’t able to pay the bills for a period of time? How does that work?

Anish Thakker:

The great innovation here is the model of financing. In the US the model is based first on a credit score, so you have to a formalized credit history. It relies on the idea that everyone in the US has banked. And then you have a set payment plan. You’re making 360 monthly payments on that 30 year mortgage to pay off your house.

Anish Thakker:

Pay-as-you-go solar works like a service, while you’re paying off the asset. So it works just like the prepaid SIM card works for virtually every SIM card that’s in every mobile phone in our customer’s pockets. You charge up your SIM card so that you have phone service for the next week, and then at the end of the week you’re out of balance and your phone service stops. You pay it for the next week and then you charge it up like that.

Anish Thakker:

The same way pay-as-you-go solar works. At the beginning of the week, you pay for a week of solar energy service. You charge up your account and then you’ve got a week of power in your house. At the end of the week you’re out of balance and you pay for the next week. And you just do that until you’ve paid off the value of the asset. So at the end of, say, a year, you’ve paid off the value of the asset completely and you own it. It becomes a way to extend, basically, flexible financing for families to invest in a solar asset.

Bill Nussey:

I remember talking to a gentleman who lived in a mud hut way outside of Nairobi. And he was very nonchalant about the fact that sometimes he had the money to pay for light and sometimes he didn’t. And some nights he went without light, and he didn’t like it but it was just part of his life. I think he was struggling more than many of the people that I met, financially, but it was still an asset that he was working towards owning. And he was excited to eventually own it so he didn’t have to worry about those days where he didn’t have the money. It was powerful to hear his story.

Bill Nussey:

And one of my favorite stories of that trip was from him. I asked him what it meant to have the light, and he said there was a woman down the dirt street that would occasionally come to his house to charge her phone on his system. And he said to me, “I think she likes me.” It was so powerful to see the weaving of this technology and the business and the pay-as-you-go, with the stuff that matters the most to us as human beings. The system was changing how he saw himself and how he fit into the community. And maybe even find the love of his life, we’ll see.

Patrick Walsh:

Yeah. It is interesting, that in the West both electricity and phone service are typically on a postpaid model. But it’s actually off-grid and on-grid customers, both in most Sub-Saharan African markets, where electricity meters are prepaid. So you oftentimes pay for electricity, type in a code into your meter, and then the electricity company delivers X number of kilowatt hours.

Patrick Walsh:

So the model that we’re using is the most familiar to folks in these markets. It’s a little different from the way that financing typically works in the West. But one way that it’s more forgiving is that there are no late fees. Unlike with a typical loan, where you would incur some kind of late fees or overdue fees, this is pay-as-you-go. So it’s just like a phone plan. You pay for as much service as you want, and if there’s a gap in payments there’s no additional fees, you just pick up where you left off.

Bill Nussey:

One of the reasons I was really excited to talk to you both was that you are, I think, bridging the gap between building a company that makes a huge difference to a huge number of people and being a hot venture backed startup.

Bill Nussey:

What’s it like, the evolution? At least briefly, what’s the evolution of raising money early for your company, all the way up to this fantastically large world attention raise you did recently?

Anish Thakker:

We’ve always viewed raising money as in service to the mission of Sun King. Sun King is a company because it’s just the right vehicle to be able to bring affordable, financed solar power to millions, and really hundreds of millions of off-grid homes.

Anish Thakker:

If this worked better as a nonprofit, we’d be a nonprofit. But the best way to solve this problem, we believe, is to do it profitably, so that if we can deliver solar power financed to an off-grid house profitably consistently, that means it’s a bankable activity, well then we can scale that activity up to every home that needs solar power. We can do it with financing from venture capital, private equity, commercial banks, whatever it takes. But the key to this is really to bring affordable, financed solar power to homes that need it in the largest scale in the most efficient way possible.

Patrick Walsh:

So, part of what you’re asking is … I think, typically, when the world hears about hot venture backed startups they’re thinking something in tech, they’re thinking something Silicon Valley, something that is targeted at the newest new thing.

Patrick Walsh:

And that’s all well and good, there are a lot of opportunities in the newest tech, in the hottest new technology. But I think that the idea that entrepreneurial opportunities are limited in emerging markets is totally false. I think fascinating thing for Anish and I, as engineers, as technical folks, was that there are numerous challenges that are just begging to be solved in, say, rural India, where we got started, or Sub-Saharan Africa, challenges that many fewer entrepreneurs are actually focused on.

Patrick Walsh:

So it seems to us like there’s great opportunity in trying to understand the needs of underserved consumers, of consumers who are not being focused on by the Fortune 500 companies and the latest Silicon Valley tech startups. So there’s tremendous opportunity, in emerging markets, to solve problems and to do so profitably. I think the main thing that holds industry back from solving these problems is just a lack of familiarity. So the fact of the matter is, most people who have access to resources, financial resources or technical resources, are just not familiar with the context of a rural consumer in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Patrick Walsh:

So we really think that if people look around and try to understand and just get a little bit of familiarity with folks who are just like them, living on a different continent, maybe in a more rural context, there’s a huge amount of opportunity there. We think it’s an exciting and really rewarding place to be an entrepreneur.

Bill Nussey:

Well, some of our listeners are going to want to learn more about Sun King specifically. Are you guys doing any hiring these days?

Patrick Walsh:

Absolutely, across the company; from technical roles to sales, marketing, operations. You name it. If you go to our website at sunking.com, we have a whole list of opportunities. We’re really excited to work with folks who are interested in solving these big energy challenges or, more broadly speaking, challenges faced by underserved consumers.

Bill Nussey:

I’ve had the privilege of being involved with dozens and dozens of startups. And one of the things that I’m interested for yours is that you guys started this as a team, and you’ve been a team throughout this entire arc. Which is not often the case.

Bill Nussey:

For our listeners who are building companies, maybe with someone they’re friends with or they’ve known since they were earlier in their lives, any tips or techniques on how the two of you have managed to be successful partners all these years?

Patrick Walsh:

Anish, I think you explained it to me. I remember it was a few years in, where I think you asked me, “What’s different about us compared to maybe some others?” And the way that you explained it was trust, that we trust each other. I think that crystallizes it for me.

Bill Nussey:

Anish, you want to add to that?

Anish Thakker:

I think part of it’s luck. I think Patrick and I, we just work really well together. I think we’re like two sides of the same brain. And that doesn’t always happen. When it does, it’s great. If it doesn’t, I think that’s something that, if you’re starting on a big project from the beginning and you have a group of people working on it together, it’s something you just have to accept. And everyone has to be able to adjust and support each other. And sometimes, if the chemistry’s not right, then go separate ways.

Anish Thakker:

But we’re 15 years in. I think I just feel very lucky and fortunate to have met Patrick in that lab many, many years ago, and been able to work so closely with him.

Bill Nussey:

Well, as an observer of many companies, and CEO of several, I think one thing I hear from the two of you that might contribute to the success you’ve had in your partnership is that you both think about your business in the biggest possible terms. You don’t use the term I, you don’t even use the term we in regards to Sun King. You contextualize most of your answers into your customers, into the broader needs of the world. And that is unusual, particularly in traditional startups, but even in the people I’ve talked to who are working in a more impact startups like yours. I think it’s just your DNA to think about the bigger picture. I think that helps everybody get along when you’re in service of a common mission that’s more important than your own day-to-day outcomes.

Bill Nussey:

So as we wrap up, we like to ask all of our guests the same set of questions. And the answers are always amazing. If we can take a minute to get an answer from each of you, if you like? We call these lightning round questions. So I’ll just jump right in.

Bill Nussey:

We’ll start with, either one of you, what excites you most about being in the clean energy business?

Patrick Walsh:

For us, Bill, we got into this business thinking of it as the access to energy business. And the fact that it’s a clean energy business is a wonderful addition to that. But we’re most excited about making sure that everybody on the planet has access to clean energy.

Bill Nussey:

If you could wave a magic wand and change just one thing, what would it be?

Anish Thakker:

I wish people could understand each other better with empathy. I think people in the world, we’re more alike than we’re different. I think when we look at big problems, like energy access, sometimes the policy makers and the folks who are very, very far from the families that live without power, we forget that we’re all very much alike. We’d be able to serve these causes much better if we could relate better.

Bill Nussey:

Anish, I loved what you said several times in our conversation today. Who are your customers? And you said, “They’re doctors and teachers and parents, just like us.” And that’s a perspective that I think a lot of people who live in the West just don’t appreciate. These are people that get up in the morning and take care of their children and love them, worry about where they’re going to be in a year.

Bill Nussey:

In my own travels I was just amazed at how similar these people that seemed so foreign when I wasn’t in their homes, how similar they were. And they wanted many of the same things, from a very different context. So I love your answer.

Bill Nussey:

Third question: What do you think will be the single most important change in how we generate, store and distribute electricity in the next five years?

Patrick Walsh:

So I think the one question is how you define important. So is it important in terms of the amount of energy generated? Is it important in terms of the carbon reduction? Is it important in terms of how many people have access to it? And everybody’s going to have a slightly different answer to these things. But we’re focused on the last one, how many people have access.

Patrick Walsh:

And today there’s still about 1.8 billion people who don’t have access to reliable electricity. 700 million of those people don’t have any access to electricity. And our hope, over the next five years, is to get a long way towards reducing those numbers towards zero. So we won’t be able to get all the way there in five years, but we’re going to do our level best to try and, within a decade, get those numbers as close as possible to zero.

Bill Nussey:

Patrick, I want to make sure everyone heard really clearly what you said, because you basically and very realistically have a vision of bringing electricity, and the many benefits we’ve discussed today of it, to hundreds of millions of people in the next five years. I can’t think of something in human history where anybody can make a difference to so many lives, such a profound difference, so quickly.

Bill Nussey:

I think the mission that you guys are on … and there’s other companies that do what you do, that I’ve met and inspired by. But collectively, your teams, your distributors, your employees, your investors, you two are making a difference at a scale that really has little precedent. I want to make sure everyone listens to it and feels some of the same inspiration that I do, because I’m going to bet that what you two do and what your thousands of colleagues do is not easy. It’s a mountain climb. I’m sure, at times, people told you you’re crazy. Clearly, I don’t think they’re telling you that anymore. But congratulations.

Bill Nussey:

So for the last question, I think really speaks to … if people are as inspired as I am, what do you tell them? When they say, “I want make a difference? I want to get into this industry,” either your segment or a broader segment, how can they help to make this whole transition in so many lives in the West, in the low income parts of the world, what can they do?

Anish Thakker:

Well, a big part of the green transition is about decentralized solutions, individual decisions that we can make to bring cleaner power to our own lives. So if you live in a home and you’re off of the reliable electric grid in Sub-Saharan Africa or Asia, go to sunking.com, get in touch with us.

Bill Nussey:

Absolutely.

Anish Thakker:

One of our solar installers will come and we can put solar on your roof.

Anish Thakker:

If you’re excited about the mission, about what we do, go to sunking.com, see careers, and come work with us. We’d be happy to have you.

Bill Nussey:

I tell people that we have the privilege of having on the podcast, “Hey, listen, no product pitches.” But darn it, that’s a product pitch we can make. If you’re in Sub-Saharan Africa and you heard this, by golly go to sunking.com and check out their products. This is an unadulterated, no apologies product pitch, because the difference that it can make in people’s lives, it’s just amazing.

Bill Nussey:

Gentlemen, I have loved this conversation. Have learned a lot. Thank you for your time today, and big thank you for the great work that you and all your colleagues are doing.

Anish Thakker:

Thanks, Bill. Thanks for having us.

Patrick Walsh:

Thanks so much, Bill. Really appreciate it.

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