Shawn! We’re geniuses!
We’re well into hour two of our skype call. The topic: what we’re going to do after our first pocket factory is working. These are our strategy sessions, and we spend endless amounts of time debating different strategies and ideas. Some weeks we talk for four or five hours a day. Some weeks we’re too busy to do anything else but build solar machines in our respective labs. If we just wanted to make a Solar Pocket Factory, it would be easy. It’s one thing I’m not worried about. Oh, it’ll be hard, but there’s no question in my mind that we can build that machine. But we want to see cheap, clean energy used all over the world. From our vantage points in our small, cluttered workshops, we have to squint far into the distance to see a world where our marchines making 100 megawatts of microsolar panels each year, three years from now. But that’s the future we want to move towards. So we build models, we debate philosophy, we talk through scenarios. Glancing back through the numbers on my computer, a sudden sinking revelation emerges from the screen.
Shawn! We’re fucked!
So it goes. It’s all part of the invention adventure. But let’s take a closer look at the playbill. We think about this a lot, and it’s the crux of a decision that’s fast approaching. The big question is, what do we want the Solar Pocket Factories to do, a year from now. Who’s going to run them? Who’s going to buy the solar that they make? Where are they going to be? How much will they cost? What will we do? Etc., etc.
The problem is that nobody, ever, has bothered to put together any information on how microsolar is sold and how used. Everything we learn about microsolar we just heard by word-of-mouth from product designers, manufacturers and suppliers in the business. We have rough numbers, and we’re learning more constantly, but there’s a lot of uncertainty. If we’re going to make good decisions with the Solar Pocket Factory, we need to get some real numbers of our own. So we did what any good scientist would do: we set up an experiment.
At this point, we really understand nothing about the world of microsolar usage. Before we can make hypotheses and test them out, we need to do some observation. We figure that the best way to do that is to try and sell some panels and see what happens. So we scraped together some money and bought $1,000 of microsolar panels from a manufacturer we know and trust, and we set up a web store. I’m working with Skip, a friend in Manila, to help figure out how to handle all things store-related, from advertising to shipping these panels to analyzing our visitors and sales. Selling these panels helps us learn (a) who’s ordering panels, (b) how many they’re ordering, and (c) what they’re using them for. Of course, we don’t want to re-sell panels forever: the whole point of the Solar Pocket Factory is to make and sell panels in a new way, but we’re still about five months away from making shippable panels with the Solar Pocket Factory, and re-selling existing panels lets us learn about microsolar, now.
Also, by starting to sell existing panels now, the idea is to get regular customers who know we sell good panels, and who repeatedly order from us. Once the Solar Pocket Factory is ready, we can expand our product line with our new, flexible production, and start producing our own panels on demand, rather than buying them from another factory.
We just put together our first order of 285 panels of assorted sizes, from 0.5W to 10W. And this brought along a distressing problem: how the hell are we going to deal with boxing and shipping 285 panels? And this is our first run–if we’re any good, we’ll be ordering a thousand panels at a time six months from now. It’s already taking all of our time to design and build the Solar Pocket Factory, and we love doing that. The thought of trying to expand our tiny labs into logistics hubs makes our blood run cold. Plus, the idea of manually packing and shipping panels feels very counter to the hyper-automated idea behind the pocket factory. So we started looking around for shipping systems that were better than “pile the inventory under the bed and write the address on the box in sharpie when you get a sales email from the website” approach.
So Skip, Shawn and I spent a couple days clicking around online and calling people, and we found out that most warehouses won’t talk to us. The only ones that will touch us, in fact, are Amazon’s Web Fulfillment service and Shipwire. Shipwire is friendlier to international shipping and less of a pain to set up, so we decided to go with them. It’s kind of amazing: we send these guys a box of solar panels, and link our web store to their inventory system. When someone buys a panel from us online, Shipwire automatically gets a message with the type and quantity of panels that they need to ship. They pick all our panels out of bins in their warehouse, put them in a box and send them to the customer. Money bounces all around the internet, automatically paying the warehouse and shipping companies. We see it all play out on a fancy internet dashboard. I’ve never felt more American.
I learned something terrifying when I was looking into shipping panels internationally: the Obama administration recently enacted a 250% tax on importing Chinese-origin panels into America, as part of a silicont trade war with China. This is something of a problem: our warehouse is in Los Angeles, and we have to get our panels through customs. This threw us for a loop for about a week, as I frantically called around to importers and exporters and customs bureaus, trying to figure out if this applied to us. It turns out that it’s targeted at large-scale solar: the tax is only on orders with a value greater than $200, but that’s still a problem for our box, which has about $1000 worth of panels. After a bit more panicking, I learned that the crucial point isn’t where the panels are built: it’s where the solar cells are made. The Obama administration is accusing China of selling silicon at below market prices, so if the silicon comes from China, they tax it. If not, there’s no tax on the import, even if the panels are assembled in China. The owner of this factory is from Taiwan, so crossing my fingers, I sent them an email asking where their cells came from, and if they had some certificate that showed their origin. A couple days later, I got a response. The silicon is from Taiwan. Whew! That was a lucky bullet to dodge.
This is our first order with this factory, and it took about three weeks of back-and-forthing to set up our order and figure out the exact dimensions and weight and characteristics of all the panels. They’re making our panels right now. We get our first samples from the factory next Tuesday, and if that looks good, we’ll ship a big box of panels to our warehouse by the end of next week, and we’ll be shipping by the end of November, only three weeks later than our initial estimates.
It’s a lot of work, actually, for an experiment, but without it, we’d just be stumbling in the dark. And the future is coming closer ever day.