I am kind of an ad-hoc inventor, a tinkerer of sorts. When I was in Haiti early on, I did a bunch of work with solar ovens and most of my efforts in the early 2000s failed because they were too slow and bulky. I had removed a solar hot water heater from a rooftop in about 2002 and I was just tinkering with it in my backyard rather than throwing it in the dumpster.
As a part of our series called “Meet The Inventors”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Patrick Sherwin.
Patrick Sherwin is the CEO and Founder of GoSun, a leading manufacturer of essential solar-powered consumer products that support independent healthy living. Under his leadership, GoSun has developed eight ground-breaking solar innovations, moved over 40,000 units to 70 countries worldwide, amassed a solid IP portfolio both in the US and China, and developed relationships with major retailers including REI, ACE, and Home Depot.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?
I’ve always been a bit of an entrepreneur. In fact, I started selling clay pots and little herbal remedies to neighborhood moms and I ran a small business under a honeysuckle tree as a kid. Then I built a lawn mowing business. I was also heavily focused on restoring native plants and animals, so I had my business focus on cleaning up the creek in my backyard as a kid. We restored a bunch of fish and amphibians. Unfortunately, a neighborhood kid who was working on his car decided to dump his automobile oil directly into the creek, creating an oil spill. My 12-year-old self saw my first massive impact that man can make and it quickly turned me into more of an environmentalist that uses entrepreneurship to try to make a difference. It has been my life mission ever since.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Albert Schweitzer has a quote something along the lines of “Those of you who seek and find ways to serve will be happy.” I read this quote during an outward-bound mission when I was a 19-year-old and it really stuck with me. When I was in college, I started working in the solar energy space and it really helped me find a place to provide and help others. I’ve been trying to find a way to get solar into people’s lives. I use solar and all of what that means as my source of service for others.
Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
“An Inconvenient Truth” by Al Gore. It came out in the early 2000s and I sat to watch it with my pregnant sister. I was working in the solar industry already at the time and I remember my sister looked at me and said “oh my gosh, this is crazy to be bringing children into this global warming planet.” I gave her my best assurance to try to help her get through that. With that, I double-downed on my efforts to work towards saving our species, our planet and doing work in the clean technology space to try to get us out of the mess we have created.
Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. What was the catalyst that inspired you to invent your product? Can you share the story of your “ah ha” moment with us?
I am kind of an ad-hoc inventor, a tinkerer of sorts. When I was in Haiti early on, I did a bunch of work with solar ovens and most of my efforts in the early 2000s failed because they were too slow and bulky. I had removed a solar hot water heater from a rooftop in about 2002 and I was just tinkering with it in my backyard rather than throwing it in the dumpster. It was tubular, only about 1 inch in diameter and 6 feet long. I couldn’t cook anything in it except for hot dogs. So, I had this “ah-ha” moment that I could cook a hot dog inside this evacuated tube that was a hot water heater. I threw it in there and it sizzled on its way down, and I knew that there was going to be a future in this evacuated tube to become a proper solar oven. I just didn’t know exactly how to apply that. So it took another 5 years of tinkering before I was able to turn that into more of a user-centric product for consumers.
There is no shortage of good ideas out there. Many people have good ideas all the time. But people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How did you overcome this challenge?
For me, the trick was crowdfunding. I knew I had a good idea that would be good for consumers. I just knew I wasn’t going to be able to raise capital easily on something so different and out of the box. I decided I would go straight to the crowd and made a commercial using my iPhone. I did a ton of market research and gut checks, and crowding funding was the key to overcome the financial challenge of getting a product into the market. The other thing that helped me over is that I did a lot of open testing in parks and events where other people’s curiosity and interest ended up being a driver for me to deliver. I could tell that they were going to be interested in this thing if I could make it available and that was a huge source of motivation.
Often when people think of a new idea, they dismiss it saying someone else must have thought of it before. How would you recommend that someone go about researching whether or not their idea has already been created?
I used Google Patents and found it easier than using the USPTO site. The other thing is that if you find something that might be taken, you need to look again on USPTO and see how long ago the patent was submitted and if the item is still for sale. A lot of good ideas haven’t been taken to market, leaving the opportunity for you to still take it even though someone else has already thought of it and patented it in the past.
Did you have a role model or a person who inspired you to persevere despite the hardships involved in taking the risk of selling a new product?
Yes, absolutely. Our Business Development wizard, and my longtime mentor and advocate over the years: Gary Starr. I met him at a conference in San Francisco called at Social Capital Markets, and he became an angel investor in the company. I knew I wanted an investor who would be hands-on and understand the green and sustainable aspects of the company, and he couldn’t have been more perfect of a fit. Not only did Gary found a solar energy company in the 1980s and an electric car company in the 1990s, but he also has sold over 100 million dollars of environmental products both domestically and internationally and is experienced in market entry, business growth, international sales, branding and business growth financing, and management. I don’t know where GoSun would be without him. Certainly not here.
For the benefit of our readers, can you share the story, and outline the steps that you went through, from when you thought of the idea, until it finally landed on the store shelves? In particular we’d love to hear about how to file a patent, how to source a good manufacturer, and how to find a retailer to distribute it.
It takes a long time to go from an idea into a store self. Don’t expect that to happen in a year. The idea needs a lot of time to incubate. You have to work on the design heavily, and I am a big believer in design. I think 90% of the work needs to be done on the design side before the first bolt is turned. I was lucky to have a lot of friends, particularly in China because a college friend of mine lived there. When I needed to get into manufacturing, we took a trip to China years before I actually launched the product to get a sense of the manufacturing base and how easy it would be to work there. I also had a good friend in intellectual property law, so he helped me to file patents and helped me realize how intuitive the process in general. I found that China was particularly easy to work in, very welcoming and interested in taking things to a higher volume. When it comes to retail and distribution, I think that really only happens when you have the right product, the right people and of course the demand. That is going to come down to marketing which is a big part of this exercise.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I love mistakes. I think our second product was something that was a bit of a mistake. We went in and realized that our product was largely a tubular oven with smaller tubes. We narrowed into a hot dog and sausage making machine. We call it the GoSun Solar Dogger and that product was not super successful. I think we ultimately didn’t direct it at the right audience. We launched it on Indiegogo and to narrow it into only tubular beats was a bit too restrictive to the audience. Although we had a ton of fun making up the Solar Dogger video and products, we didn’t put much realistic market analysis. So that was a several month-long failure, but we made improvements to the design and ended up delivering a much better product called the GoSun Go that can still fit hot dogs. In fact, it goes from fitting only two to fitting six hot dogs.
The early stages must have been challenging. Are you able to identify a “tipping point” after making your invention, when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?
For us, the tipping point really came fairly recently in the last couple of years because we decided one invention in one line of products around solar cooking was not enough and that we needed to pivot and become more than just a solar cooking company. We had a great audience and they were asking for other solutions. They asked “hey, can you do lighting and fans and chargers?” So, we came up with a solar-powered cooler and that became our massive pivot. That gave us what feels like real success and it still stays in the outdoor kitchen realm. We didn’t reinvent everything but I think the lesson for us was that we needed to do more, find a larger broader market appeal and that we needed to keep trying, keep innovating, keep tweaking. We want to never stop and to maintain a lean business strategy.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Invented My Product” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
First, I’d say don’t worry that much about patents and intellectual property. Early on, I always had people sign non-disclosure agreements before I talked to them. And that’s pretty unfair. People aren’t going to steal your idea. No one’s really going to want to jump ship from whatever they’re doing to steal your idea. If you’re trying to come up with a new computer mouse and you’re talking to people who develop computer mice, then you’re probably talking to the wrong people.
The next lesson I would say is people want to help you. You’re an entrepreneur and an inventor. People like to jump on that ship and give a hand. You’re basically a student or a mentor or an apprentice and people want to mentor you. They want to provide you with their insights and advice. I didn’t realize that getting started. I thought I would be inconveniencing people, especially people that were busy and more senior. But in fact, those are some of the people that you want to ask the most asked for advice. It’s like Warren Buffett’s quote: “If you want good advice, don’t ask cheap people.” You want to get good advice from really good, experienced people who want to help you. Everyone wants to help you.
Another lesson I’d say is fail early and fail often. Just keep trying stuff. I think one of the big hesitations people have is that they’re worried that things aren’t going to work and that’s definitely going to happen if you’re worried, they aren’t going to work. So, manifest it and make it happen. Build it, build the prototypes. And if they’re not perfect, don’t apologize. You’re starting something brand new. Give it a try. I know I was a little hesitant here and there and I had plenty of trepidation. When it came to just going into the shop and cranking one out, 3D printing one or paying for the prototype, you just gotta do it.
Another lesson is don’t sweat the small stuff. Don’t worry about having all the details managed. You have plenty more challenges up ahead that you need to figure out like how to sell this thing. You need to figure out how to market it. You need to figure out who your customer is, who your team is, the details of making it all impeccable, and work perfectly. That stuff’s going to have to come later. Get your minimal viable product built and shipped. Perfection is a tendency that will really prevent you from execution.
Finally, I wish someone told me about undying optimism. Undying optimism is the only way to go. Optimism is not the same as undying positivity. You don’t have to be disconnected to reality to be optimistic but pessimism will definitely land you in the wrong place when it comes to entrepreneurship. It’s about saying yes, envisioning a new future and not getting stuck in some horrible trend that’s likely to ruin your business or your invention. Optimism is the only way through it.
Let’s imagine that a reader reading this interview has an idea for a product that they would like to invent. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?
Build a working prototype if you can and prove it to yourself that it’s a good idea. It can be really simple and ugly, but you just have to work and play with it with your friends and family. Now your friends and family, they’re not going to give you the greatest honest, purist feedback. They’re going to probably support it a little too much. It’s hard to say bad things about your own child so you need to get peer reviews. You need to find somebody to share the business with, somebody that you know can hustle.
There are many invention development consultants. Would you recommend that a person with a new idea hire such a consultant, or should they try to strike out on their own?
It’s up to each individual. I did most everything myself because I like doing it all and being well versed. I shot my own video on my iPhone but I needed some help on branding, graphics and proper industrial design. So, hire out people where you need it. I don’t recommend hiring one person or one agency to do it all. I think it’s better that you try to do everything you can. I try to build 95% myself and then that last 5% is where I go to an expert. Try to figure out how to do it all yourself and then get an expert to put that polish on it before you submit.
What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?
I think bootstrapping is the way to go. It’s very rare that venture capital really helps out. They’re always going to want too much. I’m under the lean startup mentality. Innovation and inventions are what I would call a messy exercise and experimentation is required for success. Venture capital is able to refine and mature. So we don’t look to them. We look to the crowd. We look to other customers to become our supporters, our investors, and we bootstrap. That keeps us innovative. It keeps us from being beholden and from getting too stale or too corporate.
Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I don’t know if I have, but I will certainly keep trying to use my success to make the world a better place. We’ve entered some cool new solar appliances in the marketplace that are really legitimate. They’re very reliable. They’re all portable, super easy to use and intuitive. We certainly disrupted solar ovens and solar cooking forever. We’re doing our best to get these things in the hands of people that need them in developing countries. We’re doing a lot with partnering with the American Red Cross and getting our products where they belong. After a disaster where people need power, fresh water, and a cooked meal. They need sanitation. We’re slowly and steadily working towards that. That’s really what we’re trying to do. It’s what it’s all about, making the world a better place. I think that can happen through entrepreneurship and through clean, appropriate technology.
You are an inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Spreading solar products like wildfire and getting people resilient. Can we maintain a semblance of our culture, and still stay in an ever-changing world? Can we save our species? I think to do that we better go towards renewable energy with great fierce force and put up as much solar and wind as we can, get off of fossil fuels and reduce carbon emissions. At the same time, give us all resiliency, give us the capability of essentially growing and cooking our own food, while keeping ourselves clean and cool. The mentality is so such that we don’t think innovatively. We think conservatively. We only think about the ways things used to be done and those are the only right ways. So, anything new that comes around that is disruptive, people tend to knee jerk away from it. I think that I would try to help really spread solar in a way that is integrated appropriately with culture in a productive manner that everyone could agree to.
We are very blessed that 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, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
I’d love to sit down with Elon Musk. I’m certainly impressed with him. I’m sure plenty of people in my shoes would say that, but maybe more appropriately would be Richard Branson. I think Branson probably would be a more fun person to hang out with. He seems to be more centered in his heart. Musk probably would make me feel like an inferior which of course I am when it comes to that guy. I think we’d spin off some pretty cool ideas and I’d really love to meet either of them. These are guys that have really tried to work and dedicate themselves to clean technology solutions and trying to make the world a better place.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.