5 Learnings on the Road to Scale - By Kamal Lath
When I joined d.light in 2015, the task ahead of us was daunting. The company had great products and a well-reputed brand, but it was undergoing a significant turnaround. After a recent change in leadership, the company was running on tight cash flows, and significant balances were owed to lenders within a short period of time.
In addition, we knew Pay-Go had to be an important part of d.light’s future. But we were behind in scaling up our Pay-Go solution, and we did not have the capital to do it. Given d.light’s reputation for making the best value-for-money products in the industry, the investment community was skeptical that we could successfully sell a consumer-financed offering in the market.
Despite the challenges, I joined d.light because I believed in the company’s mission to make solar products universally available and affordable. The team’s passion and dedication were clear.
Even though the road ahead was uncertain, I was deeply inspired by the vision to reach 100 million people by 2020. The company had already made a tremendous impact in the world, and I believed we were only at the beginning of the journey.
The work over the last three years has been the most challenging and most rewarding of my career. Looking back over this time, I’m incredibly proud of what we as a team have accomplished:
- We have doubled the number of lives impacted by d.light, with 88 million people now enjoying high quality solar products. Our goal of reaching 100 million people by 2020 is well within sight.
- We have established ourselves as a market leader in portable solar lanterns and Pay-Go solar solutions in all the markets we operate in, in terms of market share and market-leading net promoter scores. When we launched Pay-Go in the market, our offerings were 30 percent more affordable than the next largest competitor, bringing more value to the customer. This has driven greater affordability and more positive customer experiences.
- We have established a consistent track record of profitability and strong performance, proving that distributed solar is a commercially viable and scalable solution.
- We have raised over $100M in capital, allowing us to scale beyond our initial vision and provide an entirely new level of energy access and affordability to our customers.
As we start a new chapter in our journey, I am often asked how we achieved this and what learnings there might be for the broader industry. In the spirit of growing the market together and expanding our collective impact, I wanted to share some of our key lessons around capital raising and planning:
Learning #1: Diversified capital is an enabler of several strategic goals
We achieved our target of raising $100M through a diversified capital strategic plan. Our current fundraising structure has a healthy mix of funding sources, including secured debt, unsecured debt, grants, impact equity, and private equity.
Of course, having the right kind of capital to match the appropriate use of that capital is essential. Here are the strengths that each form of funding brought to our company:
- Impact equity provided more patient capital as that allowed us to build up awareness of solar as a category and supported our explorations of new business models.
- Private equity enabled us to scale more expansively as we proved out sustainability and profitability in the business model.
- Grants have been an accelerator, enabling us to enter new markets or new categories, or to more quickly take certain calculated risks.
- Secured and unsecured debt provided traditional working capital financing for our receivables and inventory as we grew the business.
- Finally, off-balance sheet financing in local currencies supports the expansion of our Pay-Go business. We held off on exploring this kind of financing until we could build a strong Pay-Go asset. Now with a loan book of less than 4 percent delinquency rate and over hundreds of thousands of units, we will be able to pioneer a scalable off-balance sheet financing facility in local currencies that we hope will pave the way for d.light and other Pay-Go companies with healthy loan books to increase their reach.
Learning #2: Focus on investments that build long-term value.
At d.light, we thought it important to remain focused on profitability, and to invest strategically in areas such as R&D, platform, technology, and distribution scale—regardless of the investment climate. We focused on investments that built long-term value without sacrificing short- to medium-term ROI. Along the way, we had to make hard decisions in areas of the business that were nice to have but didn’t generate enough ROI.
Learning #3: Sharp clarity in strategic direction is essential.
Maintaining sharp clarity in our strategy without any major deviations has been a key part of our success. A company can at times reinvent itself and emerge stronger. But the number of radical changes a company can handle at any given time is limited.
d.light has had excellent leadership in this regard. We have remained committed to key high-level strategic decisions that we thought were right for the business in the long term, despite pressure from others to do otherwise. We made sure the strategic goals were clearly communicated to the teams and that everyone’s priorities were aligned towards the strategic objectives, while also allowing for enough flexibility to make adjustments to how we executed on the strategy in a very dynamic and quickly changing market.
Learning #4: It’s all about the team.
Over the last three years, d.light’s founders have provided excellent, high-integrity leadership, and have steered the company in the right direction. But, beyond this, at every level of the organization d.light has prioritized recruiting people who are talented and passionate. There is a strong culture in the organization and a powerful set of values that we take seriously, captured in the easy-to-remember acronym I.HOPE: Innovative, Honest, Optimistic, Passionate, and Empathetic.
When I first joined, I made a commitment to never give up on my team and to infuse positivity despite the challenges we were facing. Having the right attitude makes all the difference and leads to results. Maintaining focus, demonstrating grit, infusing positivity, being self-accountable and always putting in the hard-work with a smile are all characteristics our team has demonstrated. The results we were able to achieve were first and foremost a result of the attitude and passion of the teams, and it has been a privilege to work with such an amazing team at d.light.
As a whole, our team members—whether current employees or alumni—are all amazing ambassadors for d.light. I wish to express my gratitude to all of you– it wouldn’t have been possible without you!
Learning #5: The mission is a guiding light.
I am very thankful to d.light’s founders for establishing a lofty and inspiring mission as a guiding light for the company.
Talking to customers in Africa or India and seeing the impact of our products in the field have always been the most rewarding experiences for me. The difficulties I faced always seemed smaller when I could see our mission being actualized in the world, one family at a time. This was true also for my family – they also really had ownership in the mission and were incredibly supportive, even when my work at d.light meant many late nights at the office or time away from home.
When Sam Goldman and Ned Tozun started the company, they both uprooted their families and moved overseas. They wanted to impact 100 million people, but they agreed that, even if d.light only reached 10,000 people, it would all still be worth it.
We are currently connecting more than 10,000 people to clean, reliable, and safe energy every day. Seeing this mission and impact come to life around the world, and being able to contribute to this achievement, is amazing and humbling. Overall, it has been a life changing experience for me to be part building a company and an industry with such an incredible impact in the world.
I am thrilled that we have reached this level in the journey, and I am excited about the next challenges ahead. We know that we are really only at the beginning of the story for d.light and the distributed solar industry. I hope our story can serve as an inspiration to young entrepreneurs to look beyond the difficulties and focus on the ultimate goal of improving the lives of people in a sustainable manner. I also hope that d.light’s successes can help attract more capital to the sector for renewable energy to bring light and power for many millions more people
About Kamal Lath
Until very recently, Kamal Lath served as the Global CFO of d.light. He has now transitioned to being the head of the Indian operations for d.light. Kamal was recently recognized by the company’s board of directors for raising $100M for d.light. CEO Ned Tozun said, “We at d.light congratulate Kamal Lath for his leadership in the incredible achievement of raising $100M in funds. Along with the able team he built, Kamal left no stone unturned in his pursuit of this goal, enabling us to more rapidly toward impacting 100 million lives by 2020.”
d.light is a global leader in delivering affordable solar-powered solutions for the 2.3 billion people in the developing world without access to reliable electricity. d.light has been a true pioneer of the industry, with a broad set of innovative product offerings ranging from solar lantern to larger solar home systems with appliances. d.light has transformed the way people all over the world use and pay for energy. The company was founded in 2007, and the company’s products are sold in 65 countries, impacting the lives of over 88 million people to date and growing.