Invest in soft skills. It’s easy to get caught up in the hard skills, and focus your time on hiring the best engineer or digital marketer, particularly as the founder of a relatively new company where the impact of every employee has an outsized effect as compared to a later-stage company. At their core, companies are about their people, and even in a high-tech, highly specified industry, people are still overwhelmingly defined by their attitudes, outlooks, and approach to problems. Ultimately, I’ve found were most successful when we hire people who are able to navigate challenging conversations with partners, keep teams motivated, and read cues in employees and customers.
I had the pleasure to interview Hannah Sieber. Hannah is the co-founder and COO of EcoFlow, where she is responsible for ensuring that consumers around the world, whatever their need, can purchase, receive, and enjoy the smartest mobile power products on the market without sacrificing a more sustainable, greener lifestyle. Hannah previously led the San Francisco Center for Economic Development’s Southern China effort, where she worked with Chinese companies across the Pearl River Delta on building and financing strategic projects in San Francisco. As a consultant at the The Parthenon Group, she focused on consumer private equity deals and worked with leading brands in both China and the U.S. Hannah, along with her co-founders, was recognized on the 2018 Forbes 30 Under 30 list in the energy sector. She is a graduate of Duke University, where she graduated with highest distinction, and is fluent in Chinese.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I went from what many would consider a safe, structured, secure consulting job, to a non-profit in Shenzhen, China, to co-founding EcoFlow. I like to think that entrepreneurship is about doing things outside of your comfort zone, and I’ve always been one to live outside of my comfort zone. When I was in 2nd grade, I remember picking the option to write about the Cuban Missile Crisis because it was the most complicated topic offered. When I was 17, I moved to China to live with a host family because I wanted to explore and better understand other cultures. So, when EcoFlow was culminating, leaving the familiar and trying something new felt right on par.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
As a multinational company, navigating different cultures and languages is part of our daily life, and it can present interesting challenges, especially within the complex world of operations and logistics.
On the eve of our first delivery, we were trying to move our units from the Port of Los Angeles to our warehouse in San Francisco. This sounds like a simple task of moving units from one city to another, however there were multiple third-parties involved, and large-scale lithium-ion batteries is a relatively new category of product, covered by unfamiliar regulations and documents. We had communication issues, to put it mildly. In the end, the only way to move forward with the truck delivery was to have one of our team members ride shotgun, side-by-side with the freight truck driver for the more than five hour haul from Los Angeles to San Francisco. Staying with the inventory to manage product delivery between the two warehouses was the only way to ensure we could deliver our product to the customers in the timeline we had promised.
Going the extra mile and having a team that’s enthusiastic about approaching their jobs with grit and determination was key to EcoFlow’s early, and continued success.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
One of the most misguided narratives that has emerged over the past several years is the view that borders, business, and trade are intrinsically zero sum games. We firmly believe this is not the case, and I am proud to have founded EcoFlow with two Chinese citizens and another American citizen.
We’re a true cross-border company: we’re not a Chinese company doing business in the U.S., and we’re not a U.S. company doing business in China. We’re all fluent in English and Mandarin, and in a time of such political divisiveness, we’re a story of how bridging cultural differences and establishing a culture of unity can help push beyond political differences.
We stay at each other’s houses, have been to dinner with each other’s families and traveled across the Pacific to each other’s weddings. We’re so ingrained as a team, despite living in different countries and having grown up with different cultures.
Potentially one of the most valuable things we have learned from each other as we have grown as a team is the necessity of and power derived from understanding the roles and needs of our counterparts. One of our biggest advantages is that we can do things at lightning speed since we have founding and executive leadership in both countries. Because we have boots on the ground in China that are deeply connected to supply chain and manufacturing hardware, and a strong team in the U.S., focused on marketing, sales, customer service and more, we’re able to execute and deliver for our customers.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We’re focused on designing and deploying energy solutions that ultimately help drive our larger vision to democratize access to clean power. Energy is an axiom of equality. Often times the lack thereof is a major culprit of pervasive and persistent inequality. In the U.S., we rarely think about energy, but we need it for almost everything.
I interned in Nicaragua one summer during college, working with female entrepreneurs through the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation. Most nights, we had no energy after 6PM. It was disruptive at first and I had to adapt — for example, ensuring I had a full laptop charge and headlamp charge prior to 6pm to get me through the night. For the families in our village, it was the status quo. Living there helped me recognize the value of creating and offering a completely solar powered energy solution.
Seven years later, I couldn’t be more excited to be tackling this problem more directly, through EcoFlow. We intend to put second-life batteries, refurbished previously used batteries that have depleted their initial shelf life but are still highly effective, into these developing areas which would allow us to create more affordable energy storage solutions and power more accessible for the people who need it most. It is our dream that every household from Denver to Delhi could have an EcoFlow portable power station.
Our long-term vision for the company includes modular power units that can not only replace fuel generators, but can power everything from a home to a car.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
Equality in the workplace is incredibly important, but as female leaders, we’re doing ourselves a disservice if we add the “female” qualifier in front of leadership. It’s more important to think about strong leadership skills, and qualities you appreciate in other leaders around the world — many of whom may be very different than you — and apply those insights to your own leadership methods.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
Feedback matters; early, and often, and two-way feedback is key. From my experience, feedback is one of the best way I can invest in my team, regardless of team size. I look to provide regular feedback, to help team members amplify and grow their strengths, but also build experience and identify areas for improvement that we can work on together. The frequency and open dialogue helps create a smoother outcome for what can easily become a challenge.
Feedback is also a sign of investment — that I believe in my team members, their future growth, and the opportunity to serve as future leaders of our company. I like to sit down with my team to determine which projects they want to get involved in, where they want to grow and gain experience, and where they feel they need help. We work so many hours together, and I’ve found that its important and beneficial to get to know your co-workers on a personal level, not just professionally. The opportunity to create these connections, and invest in my team from both a professional and personal perspective, is one of the advantages of working at a growing startup.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
My dad has always been my rock. When I was a junior in college and unsure about my career path, he encouraged me to “just go for it” and to look beyond whatever situation was making me feel “stuck.” That nudge to keep moving forward in the direction that felt right was invaluable. When I was on the brink of starting EcoFlow, I called him and said, “Am I crazy for doing this?”, leaving a stable job, investing 100% and going into uncharted territory. He said, “No, this is great and you’re going to have endless experiences that help define you and allow you to continue on.” Now, almost three years later, I couldn’t be more grateful for that advice.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
At EcoFlow, our mission is to harness powerful and new technologies to foster inclusion and help raise standards of living in areas of the world where power shortages stunt economic growth and development. After Hurricane Maria hit, we joined forces with 501(c)3 nonprofit Energy Equality For All and Energ.Se in Puerto Rico to help bring power back using our portable power station, RIVER, which has been distributed by Direct Relief International and Salud Primaria to set up data and communication stations on field missions, in clinics with power issues/outages, and to power respirators, asthma therapies, refrigerate insulin and more
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why. (Please
1. Actions speak louder than words. I know this is a middle school cliché, but I truly believe that to be a great leader you need to live a lifestyle that you want others to follow. You need to demonstrate and embody the traits that are core to your company culture and the traits that you value in a team. For me this means living the my life with the same diligent work ethic, compassionate communication style, and rigorously empirical decision making framework that I bring to work every day.
2. Invest in soft skills. It’s easy to get caught up in the hard skills, and focus your time on hiring the best engineer or digital marketer, particularly as the founder of a relatively new company where the impact of every employee has an outsized effect as compared to a later-stage company. At their core, companies are about their people, and even in a high-tech, highly specified industry, people are still overwhelmingly defined by their attitudes, outlooks, and approach to problems. Ultimately, I’ve found were most successful when we hire people who are able to navigate challenging conversations with partners, keep teams motivated, and read cues in employees and customers.
3. Stay hungry and humble. It’s easy to ride a wave of success and want to rest on Cloud 9 after closing your Series A or receiving your first major Purchase Order. You have to keep pushing with that same hunger, hustle and humility every day, because for every great high, there is a potential low.
4. Find a way to be comfortable in the uncomfortable. If you don’t push yourself, you don’t grow.
5. Innovation comes from diversity of thought. Call on everyone in meetings and push everyone to speak. At the end of the day, our customers look like all of us — not just me, or my co-founder, Eli. Different perspectives and backgrounds can go a long way in how we approach and think about a problem.
You are a person of great influence. 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. 🙂
As a battery startup with the goal of providing clean energy to the world, I do my best to make environmentally conscious choices in other parts of my life and I encourage everyone to contribute in a way that’s manageable for them. I’ve been keeping a vegan diet for 5 years to reduce my carbon footprint, and hopefully positively impact the next generation. If giving up meat is unfathomable for your diet, try eliminating meat from your diet during one meal each day, participating in meatless Mondays, or only eating meat out at restaurants — you get the gist — anything helps!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I love the Wayne Gretzky quote, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take” and also its corollary, “You took 100% of the shots you missed.” Each “missed” shot brings a risk that you will feel like you have failed; you will feel paralyzed, and as a result, you will not try again for the next shot. You have to lean into life. It’s so easy to not do something because it’s hard, or you’re afraid or nervous. Forcing yourself to do uncomfortable things is a great life skill. It’s not comfortable to fire your first employee, to sell your concept to a room full of potential investors or partners, or to get on a stage in front of innovators you have admired for years. But if you don’t do it, you’ll never know what you can achieve.
I’ve had so many crazy personal and professional experiences since starting EcoFlow — experiences that have really pushed me to lean into life. About six months before we closed our first fundraising round, my co-founders and I decided not to focus on our own compensation, in order to save money for operations and to ensure we could pay our current employees. As a result, I doubled down on my Ethererum investments to help generate enough income to pay my rent in San Francisco.
I’ve also been on live TV many times to promote our products on HSN. As someone who shies away from public speaking, it was a trepidatious and eye-opening experience. Both of these experiences, as well as the myriad others I have had since starting EcoFlow, are the result of leaning in and taking the shot.
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Thank you so much for these inspiring insights!