“You Have To Accept That Someone Will Always Be Mad At You” The 5 Lessons I Learned Being a 20-Something Founder
I had the pleasure of interviewing Eli Harris.
Jean: What is your “backstory” of how you become a founder?
Since an early age, I’ve been inspired by my parents’ international travel, work and ties and wanted to forge a similar path. Fast forward to college, and I accepted a Fulbright scholarship to work in diplomacy in China. I quickly learned that diplomacy wasn’t quite my pace, so I joined FLIR Systems in Beijing working with their team on strategic partnerships, which led to a job at DJI building their enterprise drone department. This role took me to over 16 countries, working with some of the biggest players in farming and agriculture, and I was shocked to see that the world was still relying so heavily on fuel generators. A few likeminded DJI colleagues, experts in batteries and manufacturing, and I left the company with a new mission to dethrone the fuel generator. This was the birth of EcoFlow, a portable power company with a mission to harness new battery technology to foster inclusion and help raise standards of living in areas of the world where power shortages stunt economic growth and development.
Jean: What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
With a truly cross-national team, co-headquartered in both U.S. and China, we are aiming to shift the startup model of solely sourcing funding from Silicon Valley VCs — and instead, building trusted financial relationships from the companies from within our supply chain and manufacturing our products. We raised our Series A from our partners in battery cell manufacturing, battery pack manufacturing, industrial design tooling/molding factory and financial firms focused on energy to give them skin in our game. These partners helped us rapidly realize EcoFlow’s commitment to creating high-quality, accessible clean energy storage products. By granting key suppliers a stake in the company’s success, EcoFlow is able to gain access to the same speed, quality and cost advantages leveraged by leading multinationals through access to top-tier suppliers and manufacturers.
Jean: Are you working on any exciting projects now?
We’re focused on designing and deploying energy solutions — that ultimately help drive to our larger vision to democratize access to clean power. Today, 80 percent of all energy in the world is generated from fossil fuels, such as oil, coal and gas, and only 20 percent is generated from renewable sources, including solar, wind and water. We’re developing renewable power solutions that make an industrial amount of power accessible to consumers, as part of a long-term mission to dethrone the fuel generator.
Our first product, RIVER, launched last year, and is playing a role in bringing power back to Puerto Rico following the 2017 hurricane season. Working in collaboration with targeted partners and health service providers, we hope to deploy 1,000 EcoFlow RIVER mobile power stations and solar charging panels to Puerto Rico to ensure access to clean, safe energy to those who need it. These mobile power stations will be used to set up data and communication stations on medical field missions, in clinics with power issues or outages, and to power respirators, asthma therapies, refrigerate insulin, and more.
Looking ahead, we’re exploring second-life batteries and ways we can recycle and re-use battery cells from electric vehicles and other sources to make clean energy storage solutions more accessible to third-world countries. After a battery pack degrades to 70 percent of its original capacity, it is no longer effective in its original value proposition for the customer, but the functionality and safety remains in a healthy state. These second-life batteries are perfect for next-life energy storage systems, and present a less expensive solution than systems manufactured with new battery cells. Our long-term vision for the company includes modular power units that can not only replace fuel generators, but power everything from a home to a car.
Jean: Do you have a favorite book that made a deep impact on your life? Can you share a story?
There hasn’t been one singular book that radically impacted my life, but Siddhartha provided some unique perspectives and relevance to my own life, particularly the pursuit of knowledge. My dad lived in Africa for 16 years and my mom lived in India for 12, and this inspired me to want to learn about other cultures and languages. I’d read a lot about the rise of China, and I decided to learn Chinese in university, which played a significant role in where I am today.
Before going down the path that led to EcoFlow, I knew I wanted to be a global citizen with an international role, possibly in diplomacy. But I was quickly jaded by what was happening in the real world, and had a unique opportunity to study abroad in China, where I was entrenched in the world of entrepreneurialism. I studied and worked in China during a four-year period, which ultimately led to roles within industry-leading technology companies. It was during this time, traveling around the world for my job, that I truly saw the global reliance on fuel generators — and the opportunity to develop a renewable, clean energy product that could replace them.
Jean: What are your “5 Lessons I Learned as a Twentysomething Founder” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
First, you have to accept that someone will always be mad at you. You can’t make everyone happy — and you need to make peace with that. I have wasted a lot of emotional energy and time on trying to be a people pleaser. It matters, but you have to separate that from your own goals.
Second, listen and learn. I want and need a lot of advice, and respect a person’s wisdom, time and skillsets. I am humble enough to know I need advice and to learn from people who have achieved, and failed, before me. But just because someone has advice doesn’t mean it will always be the right advice. I don’t blindly believe, I absorb, and apply my own critical lens to their point of view.
Third, understand which mentors are transactional, and which have ulterior motives or incentives. I truly respect and value everyone’s time but have learned to be up front and direct in understanding if there is an ask at the end, or set expectations. It helps to understand when mentorship needs to be compensated, whether through money, partnership or a role, and when it’s truly benevolent.
Fourth, it’s important to acknowledge beyond an idea where your competitive advantages are, geographically. Look beyond your own backyard. If we had siloed EcoFlow in the U.S., our company outlook would not be what it is today, because the battery expertise and manufacturing is China-specific. And respect the cultures you are looking to work in and with. So much of the world is still relationship based — learning to speak Chinese was a commitment, but it empowered me to build relationships, earn respect, have the right conversations, and access the right resources.
And finally, really think through your cash flow and supply chain if you’re building a physical product. You have to buy all components, assemble the product, package it, ship it, warehouse it, and get it to retail before you see your sale. It’s not just selling price versus cost, you have to think about timing and when that money moves. With hardware, you don’t get paid for 6–8 months after you start production. With software you don’t have to think of this way — you build and scale.
Jean: Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. :-)
I greatly admire Bill Gates, not just for his history of innovation, and building a Fortune 100 company from the ground up, but for leading the Giving Pledge, committing to and challenging other billionaires to give away half or more of their fortune to philanthropic causes. He also recently flagged energy as one of three areas that will impact the world moving forward, alongside AI and bioscience. We started EcoFlow with a greater purpose to dethrone the fuel generator and a vision for democratized, clean energy globally. Back to the topic of mentors, I can only imagine what I could stand to learn from Mr. Gates.
— Published on June 27, 2018