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Big Ideas: “How to help climate change and deforestation with a new paradigm for a wood-burning stove” with inventor Brice Hoskin

As a part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years” I had the pleasure of interviewing Brice Hoskin, an inventor and serial entrepreneur who lives in the mountains of Colorado. His diverse interests have led him in many fascinating directions — from his first job hooting for Mexican […]

As a part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years” I had the pleasure of interviewing Brice Hoskin, an inventor and serial entrepreneur who lives in the mountains of Colorado. His diverse interests have led him in many fascinating directions — from his first job hooting for Mexican spotted owls in the forests of New Mexico, to his current twin ventures of making rum at Montanya Distillers and promoting an efficient wood-burning stove in Nepal. Hoskin, a Colorado native, speaks Mandarin and Spanish, and he is learning Nepali. (See www.ganeshastove.com).

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I thought for a long time that I had a disjointed career path. Then a friend explained that, since I was an entrepreneur, it made perfect sense that I tried to turn every interesting idea into a business venture. I am blessed to be born in western Colorado, into a supportive family that has done everything they can to make my dreams possible. So I turned a liberal arts education into a mantra — “Sure, I can learn to do that!”, which has led me into newsletter publishing, designing snow sleds and finding a family-run factory to produce them in eastern China, making rum, and now designing and promoting Ganesha cookstoves in Nepal.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

Several years ago in Nepal, I took a multi-day hike into the hills after launching a pilot project in a village devastated by the 2015 earthquake. I got lost, made a promising turn, and soon was way up a long, steep hillside on a newly cut trail. I ran into the Nepali trail crew, who told me I had gone the wrong way. But before I could turn around, they started peppering me with questions. “Where are you from?”, “Where are you going?” and, the kicker, “What is in your pack?”. I pulled out the Ganesha stove in my pack, set it up, and told them why I was in Nepal. They found firewood, built a good fire in the stove, and promptly pulled out their lunches of lentils and rice. We reheated them on the stove, and then they insisted on sharing their lunch with me. They asked if I could give them the stove (at the time, my only prototype). When I said I couldn’t, they offered to put me up and cook me dinner in return for the stove. Laughing, I promised to bring them one another day, and they eventually let me go while they went back to work. (I have some great photos of this encounter).

Can you tell us about your “Big Idea That Might Change The World”?

Over 2 billion people cook on an open wood fire for every meal, every day. A simple metal stove can cut their use of firewood in half, reduce pollution by half, and make cooking much faster and easier. While many stoves exist, they are big and heavy (the size and weight of a pumpkin), and expensive — $35 to $50, plus significant transport costs. So I designed a stainless steel stove that collapses flat, weighs only a few pounds, costs $12, and is easy to transport. When assembled, it is sturdy, safe and very powerful.

How do you think this will change the world?

Cooking is one of the most important things in our lives — it makes food tasty, and also makes it safe. Making a significant improvement in the way that billions of people cook can make their lives better in so many ways — in many cases, a simple stove means that girls can go to school instead of collecting firewood, women can earn a living instead of cooking all the time, and families can eat better food and breathe healthier air. At the same time, the whole world’s environment can benefit from significantly reduced pollution and deforestation. The key is to get cooks — usually village women — to like and use the stove. Those were critical factors in developing the stove, and it’s what we’ve asked villagers to talk about when we survey them. The overwhelming response has been that they like the Ganesha stove, they cook on it every day, and they would buy one if they could.

Keeping “Black Mirror” and the “Law of Unintended Consequences” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this idea that people should think more deeply about?

An unscrupulous copycat stove maker uses an “innovative” new treatment on the outside of the stoves, which when heated releases psychoactive compounds that fundamentally change the cooks, their kids, and all of society.

Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this idea? Can you tell us that story?

I am an avid backpacker and go out overnight once a week from May through October. About five years ago, I began experimenting with wood-burning stoves oriented to backpackers. They are tiny and really hard to operate. I finally found one that worked well, but it was far too big and bulky — roughly the size of a cantaloupe. I figured I could make a version that used stamping of thin, flat metal sheets to create pieces that were light but rigid, and could then be assembled into a kick ass wood stove. It was only then that I learned about stoves in the humanitarian sector, and the need around the world for a great, low-cost stove. And bam, I fell down the rabbit hole and started the Ganesha Cookstove Project with donations from friends, family and community members.

What do you need to lead this idea to widespread adoption?

Distribution. We have tried out the stove in villages around the world, and if they are used to cooking with wood (not charcoal — this stove is designed just for wood, dung, and biomass like corn cobs), then they love the Ganesha stove. So now the giant challenge is to get them out to as many villagers as possible. The money exists — these stoves are cheap! — And the distribution systems exist. I just need the resources to put all of the pieces together.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Everyone else sees the upside. You will see the downside — it’s like walking on the edge of a cliff. Early on, one of my employees wanted to buy my newsletter company. I shared the financials and business model, and he asked, “how do you know people will re-order? Won’t you go bankrupt if they don’t?” The honest answer was, I don’t know if they will re-order. And yes, if they don’t, we’ll go broke. (I later sold the company to a larger publisher at a good price.)
  2. It’s really hard to grow a business organically. You can definitely starve, go bankrupt, or both when your tiny company is growing at 20% a year. Say you got things started the first year with sales of $50k. None of that went into your pocket, of course. The next year, with 20% growth, sales hit $60k. Probably none of that went into your pocket either. Meanwhile, two whole years have gone by. See how this goes? You need fast growth sometimes, and earlier is better.
  3. Sell your product, then buy it, not the other way around. When we sell a container of stoves, we don’t have them yet — as soon as we get the order, we turn around and order them (plus a few extra) from the factory. This is far better than the alternative, which is to borrow money, have thousands of stoves made, put them in a warehouse somewhere, and then try to sell them.
  4. Everybody loves a good story. Most people in the business world are bored, and looking for an entertaining interlude in their day. When I was in my 20s and working as an environmental consultant, my boss flew in to help me close a big deal. The people we were working for were happy to do the deal — but all they wanted to hear about was the boss’s crazy flight in a little twin-prop plane from Arizona to South Dakota.
  5. Only work with people you like. I’ve been tempted many times to work with people who rubbed me the wrong way, but I’ve found it’s never worth it. My sled company signed a big contract to supply sleds with logos on them to a big beverage company. The beverage company was fine, but their broker’s demands were endless, and I dreaded every call and email from him. We made a little money off the deal, but I wish we’d never done it.

The future of work is a common theme. What can one do to “future proof” their career?

Ideally, your career and your life are linked and are together part of your vision of what you want to do, what feeds you, what interests you, and what you want to learn. If you can, then do what you want to do — and figure out how to make money at it. I live in a mountain town where people make money every day doing exactly what they want: skiing, mountain biking, river rafting, and traveling the world. Some are guides; some are photographers or videographers, some are professionals at their sport. I personally like to tinker and invent things, so I have been able to spend most of my life doing the things I love as part of my businesses.

Based on the future trends in your industry, if you had a million dollars, what would you invest in?

I would invest in a multilevel outreach program for Ganesha cookstoves. There are so many sectors to reach — villagers in remote places around the world, governments at the local, regional and national levels, and all of the potential funders — individuals, big companies who want to give back, NGOs (nonprofits), and the aid organizations of wealthy countries, such as USAID.

Which principles or philosophies have guided your life? Your career?

“Get out of the box” is a common refrain in our house. It can mean thinking outside of the box, but the box can also be your coffin — get out and start living! You can get past all of those things that look like limitations but really aren’t.

Can you share with our readers what you think are the most important “success habits” or “success mindsets”?

One of the most important, and hardest, is to keep your worrying in check. There is so much to worry about — and a lot of is quite reasonably anxiety-causing — that you need many different ways to keep it to a dull roar. Perspective is one of my best tools: reminding myself that what I’m doing isn’t that important, and if something goes wrong it won’t be the end of the world. Gratitude is a big one too: be thankful you aren’t working in the salt mines!

Some very well known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say?

I have a way to quickly and cheaply make a huge impact on the lives of poor girls and women, on climate change, and deforestation. It involves an invention — an inexpensive but powerful and clean burning wood stove -, but it’s more than that since cooking is at the core of family life around the world. It is a big step on the path towards women’s empowerment, reducing poverty, and reducing harm to our planet.
 
How can our readers follow you on social media?

They can friend me on Facebook or Instagram.

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.

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