Trees and plants are the lifelines of our planet- Earth. The wide use of wood has given rise to deforestation. It induces the cutting of trees and makes the green land barren. Have you ever think of making a little change for converting wood into heat energy? If this could possible, it will surely save around one million trees from being cut in the next ten years!
Himalayan Rocket Stove is a venture which is working in this field to protect the forest and save trees of the Himalayan region. This venture aims to save around a million of Himalayan trees by the year 2026. Himalayan Rocket Stove provides benefit to the environment by manufacturing fuel stoves of high efficiency. Such stoves should be easily accessible to those people who usually burn wood for cooking the food and heating their homes.
Himalayan Rocket Stove venture presently targets the Himalayan regions of Bhutan, Nepal and India. Today, we have Russell Collins, the Founder and Managing Director of Himalayan Rocket Stove. He has developed this innovative idea by traveling in the Himalayas and noticing deforestation and various changes in the environment and climate. Russell is now worldwide popular for this noble cause.
Our team interacted with Russell Collins where he clearly describes his motive, vision and aims of this venture.
Scroll down to have a look at the exclusive interview of the founder of Himalayan Rocket Stove, Russell Collins…
1. What is the Name of Your Venture? Any specific reason for this name?
Himalayan Rocket Stove. The name comes from the core technology we use in our high temperature, high efficiency, and low pollution heating products. The combustion technology is known generally as Rocket Stove, and the Himalayan in our name speaks to our target market region.
2. Who is your target audience or clients?
Domestic householders in the Himalayan belt from North to NE India, including Nepal and Bhutan initially, and as we grow we have potential to scale out to various parts of the world that have a need for clean biomass combustion in various formats.
3. Where your venture is based (city, state, country) and what are your geographical target areas?
We are based in and around Chandigarh, as this is an ideal gateway city for the Himalayan regions of North India. Our production and warehouse locations are spread around Parwanoo, Baddi and Nalagarh at this stage, with distribution and sales outlets in various locations, including Manali and Leh.
4. What problems does your venture resolve? What are your products or services?
Our core products are a range of biomass combustion space heaters in 3 sizes that suit small to medium to large family homes as well as smaller guesthouses and schools. We are reducing fuel costs for the householder for space heating by approx. 50%, through high efficiency biomass combustion. This also has the added benefits of being clean burning, so we are radically reducing air pollution which is of great interest to the govt. sector. The reduction in fuel demand also has flow on benefits in that there is decreased demand for forestry resources and reduced drudgery for the householder in collecting fuel.
5. Share the idea or story behind the venture. How did it come to existence? What motivated you to start your own venture?
I started traveling in the Indian Himalayas in my early 20’s in 1992 and loved it so much I set up a travel company called Yak Trak Tours and ran eco tours through Kinnaur, Spiti and Ladakh for many years. As a result, I became aware of the various issues around deforestation and climate related changes due to pollution on the high mountain snows. I first heard about the rocket stove concept while in conversation with Sonam Wangchuk, who was also looking into them back in 2014. I went off and started researching the technology and found that it had great potential, but it was not suitable for the typical Himalayan home in the forms it was generally used in other parts of the world. I spent 2 years working on prototypes, attempting to modify and adapt the technology to suit the Himalayan context. I was given the grant to develop the idea in Ladakh in 2016 and had a breakthrough with the technology in 2017 that lead to the current version we are now commercializing.
6. Who are your biggest competitors and how do you differentiate yourself from them?
There is no one else actively doing improved thermal space heating in India, so we are leading the way with clean and efficient combustion in this context. In terms of existing thermal space heating, there are plenty of low costs, low efficiency and low quality vendors, and a few high costs, high quality, low efficiency vendors… none are offering our mix of mid cost, high quality and high efficiency.
Apart from fuel cost savings, our products are unique in that we offer a range of improved functionality via various modular add-ons such as: hot water system using waste heat from the exhaust flue, biomass pellet feeder and biomass chillet burning baskets, glass fire door option and heat safety panels. We are also developing phone charging and pizza oven attachments. No one is offering anything even remotely similar to our range in India or elsewhere in the world, as far as we know.
7. How did you identify your co-founder? Tell us something about your co-founder/s
I am a sole founder, but early in the process, I decided to bring into the team two of my long-term travel collaborators, one from Ladakh and one from HP, due to our long standing working relationships and their ability to reach directly to our core audience in the Himalayas.
Our ability as a company to directly reach the market has been a key component of our growth and this is reinforced by our ability to communicate directly to our customers in local languages and to understand their needs. In the early stages, this was also critical as feedback and understanding of what our market wanted was crucial to designing a product that suited their purposes.
8. How did you hire your first team members? What skills do you want in your employees/team?
We are a friendly and family oriented organization, so it’s essential that all our team have a good connection with each other and feel good to work collaboratively. The team is now coming up to 10 strong (with 2 new hires), with 4 women and 7 from the mountains. Only one of our team (Nitisha) has extensive corporate experience, the rest being passionately committed to our vision of social impact and understanding our product from their own mountain based experience.
Having a largely non-professional team has pros and cons, but overall it works very well for us. Passion and personality are a key part of our business style, whereas skills can be learned and upgraded. As we grow, we are careful to employ people based on their personality and ability to fit into our team culture. We also encourage diversity and are happy to bring more women into the mix with our 2 latest hires being women from mountain regions.
9. What expansion plans are you looking for in the next 2 years and next 5 years?
We are approaching our third winter season and we are looking at a target of five times growth for this season, having achieved three times growth in revenue from our first to second seasons in spite of a range of impediments that included a cash flow crunch and production slowdowns that meant we couldn’t meet the market demand.
This year we are well prepared for the market with funding, factories, warehousing and the team already scaled and ready to deliver when the season demand kicks in. If we can meet the demand this season, we will have a good idea about the growth potential over the next 2 to 5 years. As a baseline minimum, I expect at least three times growth year on year for 5 years. We are now in talks with the HP State Govt about subsidies, which would explode our growth when that kicks in.
In the next 2-3 years, we will also be looking at various other global markets and will set up a global team to support growth beyond the Himalayan belt. We also have new product lines in development, including low cost regional waste incineration for areas without waste collection. We are focused on scaling our production and distribution systems to keep up.
10. Where do you want to see yourself in the next 10 years?
I am also in the process of setting up an R&D company called ‘Rocket Man Designs’ in Australia that will focus on the development of new product lines, as I have a lot of ideas I want to develop that will have a high degree of social and environmental impact.
In 10 years, I hope to still be inventing and creating social impact ventures, and possibly mentoring other social impact entrepreneurs.
11. What are your immediate goals over the next 1, 3, 6 and 12 months?
We are approaching our peak selling period in October, so we are focused on getting the supply chains ready with production in a new factory getting underway. Our immediate focus is to get stock produced and delivered to the locations that need to have it ready when the demand hits in October.
In one month we will have trucks full of stock heading to Leh and Kinnaur and our warehouse in Parwanoo. In 3 months we will be in the peak selling period so it will be all hands on deck for sales and distribution. In 6 months things will be starting to settle but still quite busy, and in 12 months we will be getting ready to do it again, but with more volume and in more regions.
12. Have you risen any funding? Or have any plans for the funding?
I bootstrapped the company with about 1Cr of funding I personally raised on top of a grant for 50,000 USD which got us started. We recently raised a loan of 1Cr with an extra 10L as an investment. This is covering our production cost, which needs to be paid in advance, so that has put us into a good position financially.
We also won a prize at the ASME ISHOW event in Bangalore in April which came with 10L funds and a trip to New York to pitch directly to impact investors keen on mechanical solutions. We will be looking for a suitably social enterprise minded investor who will be willing to help us grow the company to meet the rapidly expanding market.
13. What were the problems you faced during the starting days and how did you resolve them?
Initially, the biggest problem was solving the design issues that arose from trying to miniaturize rocket stove technology into a format that would suit Himalayan women who sit low to the ground to cook on their space heating devices. Once we solved that technical issue, then we faced the extremely time consuming process of setting up the company and all the corporate compliances that were required with international directors and funds.
This all happened in the year 2016 and 2017 when GST was being introduced, demonetization happened and finding a CA who knew what to do with our international complexities was tricky. Eventually, through persistence and seeking advice from experienced entrepreneurs, we managed to get through those hurdles.
Then cash flow for manufacturing a seasonal product became the key issue of 2018, and we only managed to get through thanks to the commitment of our team who continued working without salaries for months while we struggled through the summer months.
14. What was the most challenging part of your journey till now? How did you overcome those challenges?
Probably managing cash flow shortages was the most challenging aspect of our journey so far. We were getting lots of appreciation from our early customers, but no one wanted to put money up front to purchase our product before the winter season, so we struggled to meet our production costs and overheads in the non-sales period.
I made a point of continually communicating with our team and our suppliers (who were owed money) so that we were all facing the problem together, and everyone knew what was being done to address it. I am very grateful to the commitment of the team and the patience of our supplier who stayed with us despite outstanding debts. At the core, this was about maintaining relationships and staying open to communication.
15. What are your hobbies? What do you do in your non-work time?
This started as a hobby for me, in between running tours in the Himalayas I was tinkering around in my workshop trying to make a rocket stove that would suit the Himalayas. It stopped being a hobby and became an obsession when I casually mentioned about the project in a small paragraph tagged onto the end of an email about upcoming tours. The next day I received a reply from a cyclist I had met in the mountains near Spiti 13 years previously, whilst we were stuck at a landslide. He asked me simply how much I needed… which was a very open ended question… So I took a chance and told him what I would do if I had $50,000. He said ok, and that’s when my hobby became a passion and now a rapidly scaling social enterprise.
These days, in my non-work time in India I like to get out on my classic RE Bullet for a Sunday ride, and in Australia, I like to surf, paddle a kayak and ride my cycle around the small town I live in.
16. Whom do you consider your idol or biggest motivator?
That’s tough…there are times I look at Elon Musk as a positive example of an innovator who is developing world changing technological solutions in a profitable format. His approach to open sourcing his tech once he has already monetized it is something I agree with, and I’ve done that with our MVP, the Eco1 Rocket Stove.
Other key social entrepreneurs in India are investing their success into social impact solutions, such as Muhammad Yunas from Grameen Bank and Manoj Bhargava from Billions in Change. I don’t think we have time to waste on purely financial ventures anymore. If a project doesn’t offer some aspect of social and environmental benefit, then I don’t any interest in it.
17. What do you feel is the major difference between entrepreneurs and those who work for someone else?
Low risk aversion and highly strategic thinking. An entrepreneur needs to be able to take strategic risks and be willing to lose, whereas someone with a lower tolerance for risk will tend to gravitate towards the security of a salary.
18. If you had the chance to start your career over again, what would you do differently?
I dropped out of university because I was not interested in the Physics degree I had signed up for. If I knew then how much I loved industrial design, I might have studied that or architecture… but really, I’m also happy to teach myself whatever I need to know when I need to know it, so I’m not sure I would change much at all.
19. How has being an entrepreneur affected your family & Social life?
I do not have children and my partner is self-supporting, so I have had the luxury of only needing to support myself for most of my life. That has allowed me to be flexible and more able to take financial risks. It has meant that I have experienced periods of low financial liquidity, but I’ve also had lots of time to live a life I’ve chosen. I’ve happily traded in a sense of security for high degrees of freedom and adventure.
20. Anything, you would like to say to our readers or upcoming entrepreneurs?
In an era of rapidly changing (and often insecure) workplace scenarios, creating and curating one’s own employment opportunities is a good option for those willing to take educated risks and put in the hard work.
Entrepreneurial risk taking is not about leaping blindly into the void, hoping that something good will happen on the way down. It’s about market research, writing business plans, getting advice from mentors and feedback from those around you and crunching numbers. An idea should be tested by several people trying to shoot it down. If it manages to survive the assassination test, then it’s probably worth doing a spreadsheet.
Assuming an idea has merit and is robust enough to survive initial critical analysis, I’ll do a quick bit of number crunching (I love spreadsheets) to see what the range of possible returns could be, best and worst case scenarios. If the worst-case scenario looks like it will at least make viable employment for the team, then it could be worth doing a business plan.
And of course, the team is a major factor. There are so many aspects to setting up a business that unless it’s an extremely simple cottage industry, you will need a team at some point. The factor those into the plan, either as cofounders or employees, are capable and trustable.
A successful entrepreneur can make a plan and do the work. It’s systematic. It’s boring at times. It’s hard! And if you have the right qualities and do the work, it can be very rewarding.
21. Tell us something about your education & family background.
I grew up in Adelaide, Australia and was fortunate that my father was an engineer with a workshop at home that I could tinker about in. His motto was “If you want something done right, do it yourself”. I think that’s where I developed a curiosity and passion for fixing things and finding how things worked by taking them apart and trying to put them back together.
Even though I found it tedious, I finished high school then hitch-hiked around the country in my gap year. I dropped out of university after passing first year physics, math, computer science and psychology and again travelled around Australia. I ended up on an eco-village for 4 years in the early 90’s learning how to build houses whilst living off grid with solar power, a composting toilet, water from the rain and food from the garden. In that period I started traveling to India and fell in love with the Himalayas.
22. What is your USP which makes it unique & different from other start-ups in similar domains?
We are committed to being a ‘For Profit Social Enterprise’, meaning that we count multiple bottom lines. Financial viability has to be there, as we are not interested in relying on handouts. If our products are not viable on their own merit, then we need to start again. We measure environmental and social impacts from various angles, and we work hard to make our workplace a happy and nourishing place for our team.
In terms of product development, one of our core design parameters is modularity. This allows us to modify, adapt, improve and repair with ease and low cost. It also means we can add functionality to our product range as we develop the technology to do so. An example of this is that when we released our minimum viable product, the Eco1 Rocket Stove, we already knew that we would be developing a glass fronted fire door in the future, so we designed the hinge to be able to easily add this at a later stage.
In principle, this design ethos allows us to adapt to the future more easily. As we improve our products, which we inevitably continue to do, we can roll out these improvements to existing customers as well as make changes to the production process with ease.
23. What do you think is the biggest threat to the success of small businesses & Start-ups today?
Lack of planning. It is impossible to know all the challenges that a start-up will face ahead of time, so it’s important to talk to those who have travelled the road already, so as to at least have an idea. Funding and cash flow are usually issues. Plan to have access to more money than you think you will need. Make sure you are compatible with your partners and understand each other’s motivations.
Corporate compliance was particularly challenging for us. We had to sack our first CA for gross incompetence, even though he sold himself to us for his apparent expertise in our scenario. We ended up getting a recommendation for a top-notch legal and accounting firm who we pay very well for their competence. I consider that money well spent, as the incompetent CA ended up cost us lakhs to correct errors that were made early on.
24. Do you consider yourself successful and by what means do you measure success?
We managed to get through the ‘terrible’ first 2 years when most start-ups fail, only through grace, determination and persistence! We are now poised to achieve financial viability in our 3rd year, which means as the founder I will be able to draw a salary. The company is well positioned for growth and the indicators are highly positive, so from that perspective, I would say that we are successful in terms of viability.
In terms of impact, I can absolutely say we are successful as we have revolutionized thermal space heating in the Himalayas, making a positive impact on a raft of issues including fuel cost, forestry demand, air pollution, women’s drudgery and home comfort through extreme winters. I personally go and visit members of my team who live in the high mountains and use our heaters in the winter to experience first-hand what it’s like. It’s always amazing to see and feel just how warm, efficient and clean they are, compared to anything else on the market.
25. Please share complete name, address, phone number, email id & website of Your Business & Contact Person
Himalayan Rocket Stove Pvt Ltd
Head Office: SCO 181-182 Sector 8C, Chandigarh, 160009
Showroom: Khasra No. 42 Vill. Abota, Sector 4, Parwanoo, Solan, HP 173220
9805126096 / 9418319819
[email protected] / [email protected]/ www.himalayanrocketstove.com
Founder: Russell Collins – 9805432176 – [email protected]
Core Team: Tanzin Bodh, ChozangNamgial, Abhishek Negi, Nitisha Agrawal, Karen Wilson, Kuldeep Kumar, Ajay Sharma