The Okra Whirlwind – A Startup Story

by | Aug 14, 2019

To all future team members, friends, or anyone coming across our path, I hope these anecdotes begin to tell our story and reveal the captivating experience of being part of this company. My journey as a core engineer on this team has been filled with excitement, intense challenges, and ambition like nothing I’ve ever experienced.

Maybe five years from now this whole beginning phase of the company will feel like a blur, like one crazy, exciting, exhausting, and intense chapter. But right now, it feels like every month is its own chapter, with its own story, challenges, and growth outcomes. A lot of sleepless nights, terrible jokes, and max hustling (all of which are on-going) from a group of people who are now my closest friends, resulted in us building something cooler than I could have ever imagined in my wildest dreams.

The last couple of weeks felt intensely surreal, as I worked remotely from beautiful Indonesian islands and managed the launch and installation of a new project. Despite the stunning views, nothing goes quite according to plan, so the challenges were aplenty. Still, it was too absurdly good to be true, especially when I retrace our steps and think about how we got here.

The perks of working in remote off-grid areas around the world; this secluded cove was merely a hop, skip and jump away from the newest Okra grid on Sumba Island, Indonesia.

It was only a year and a half ago when the tech didn’t work and we were watching our runway (funding) approach zero. We had team meetings to discuss all the scenarios in which we would succeed, but also to plan for the possibility of failure. Our tech was installed in one village in Cambodia, via one distribution partner. And to release every software update, we spent the entire day going to the village, plugging a computer into each Okra unit and manually transferring new code.

Our team lived together and worked out of our living room. We used ping pong tables as desks, but never had time to actually play ping pong. As an energy company, we once forgot to pay our own energy bill and subsequently had our power cut off. We fumbled when investors asked for our legal team to review documents and wrote employee contracts for each other when a grant committee asked where they were. Thankfully sometimes it looked like we knew what we were doing, but we were constantly winging it.

Slowly, moments of triumph gave us a boost. We made changes to our algorithms which enabled us to distribute 50% more power throughout the village just by better utilizing wasted power. We built the ability to send software updates over-the-air and successfully pushed out new code to an entire village without leaving the office.

We began shifting focus towards productive uses of energy and learned so much about crickets that we received a grant to develop and pilot Okra powered cricket incubators. We started gaining traction towards commercial scale-up in new markets and we hit a necessary grant milestone of 100 households electrified by the end of 2018, at 7 pm on December 31st.

With rapid growth came new growing pains. After we installed a village’s first freezer, a lack of community education resulted in everyone opening the lid too frequently, pushing the freezer into overdrive and eventual breakdown. Traction in Indonesia stalled after months of negotiations and we had to begin again, this time turning our focus to the Philippines. Then once we thought we were on the verge of launching in the Philippines, we realized that negotiations with investors, regulators, infrastructure companies, energy distributors, communities, and field teams, would take a lot longer than planned- an entire year longer, in fact. Meanwhile, we discovered critical manufacturing errors in our recent production round and had to frantically hand-solder fixes to dozens of circuit boards in order to meet deadlines.

Needless to say, our juggling skills have levelled up. We’re still such a small team, maintaining an old product whilst working on an entirely new product, simultaneously. We built mobile money functionality which unlocked remote, island communities as potential markets. We brought on interns, went through multiple hiring cycles, and built an intensely streamlined and data-driven HR process. We travel around the world to meet investors and form partnerships. Our financial schemes and business models have reached new heights of complexity and innovation. We competed in and won Booking.com’s accelerator program, and we’re actively open-sourcing chunks of hardware and software to help other IoT players fast-track their progress. And perhaps the most clearcut indicator of our growth- we’ve gone from a living-room to a proper office.

Very Small Aperture Terminal Okra Grid

We’re also working closely with our partners to deploy more VSAT (Very Small Aperture Terminals) in areas with poor connectivity so that people can reap the benefits of information access.

We understand the obstacles are never-ending, which only fuels our excitement and determination. Our vision is to empower 1 billion people through energy access, and every day we discuss zillions of ways we can improve and grow to actually achieve the meaningful, sustainable impact we’re passionate about. There are so many risks, so many ways we still need to validate our ideas and so many things that could go wrong. Constantly focusing on everything we haven’t yet figured out is both motivating and overwhelming, so when I looked back to compile this list of milestones and achievements, I was stunned. If this really is just one chapter in my life, it sure is a densely packed one.

The past couple weeks were a particularly surreal display of how far we have come. Team members in the Philippines kicked off phase 1 of our biggest project, overseeing almost 60 new homes get energized; myself and Cal oversaw another village come online in Sumba, Indonesia, where a new technical configuration brought both energy and internet to a previously completely offline village; team members in Cambodia spoke with government energy regulators about crafting subsidized scaling agreements; team members continued R&D in Cambodia, Australia, Shenzhen, and Austria; and everyone, amidst all the craziness, worked on new types of risk mitigation, data analysis, optimization, modelling, and strategy. And honestly, that doesn’t even begin to cover the number of things happening on a day to day basis.

When we tuned in for our most recent weekly meeting, 12 people in 7 locations across 5 countries and Skype unsure how to display so many videos at once, I was instantly uplifted, reunited with such an incredible group of people. Physical distance doesn’t prevent us from cheering each other on, troubleshooting problems together, and bantering in the most ridiculous ways possible. As the meeting went on, I was overcome with gratitude. Here I was on a remote island of Indonesia, facing challenges and unreal adventure, for my job. How did this happen?

Sumba island indonesia sunset

Sometimes it’s good to take a moment and appreciate the remoteness of the areas we work in – this is the view from Mandas Village, Sumba. A job well done but there’s still an infinite amount to do.

Somehow, we have the opportunity to travel to stunning, completely remote parts of the earth, learn from people and cultures I never thought I’d ever get the chance to meet, and work with all our heart towards massive challenges that fire us up every single day of the week. And somehow we have had the most supportive mentors, friends, and family who, every step of the way, give unreal amounts of time and energy towards this vision, enabling us to chase this dream furiously. The fact that Cal and I, two chronic workaholics, can work even longer hours than normal while being held up on tropical islands is a pretty good indicator of loving our work. But remote island or not, I never stop being blown away by how far we’ve come, and how far there is to go.