John Salzinger is all about energy. The MPOWERD Co-founder & Chief Business Development Officer is always in motion, and he literally lights up when talking about their flagship product, Luci®, a solar-powered, lightweight, waterproof, portable lantern that never needs batteries.
Luci is more than a light, it’s part of a MPOWERD’s mission to create sustainable, affordable energy for the world. In a wide-ranging discussion we talked with John about that mission, his career, corporate responsibility, climate change, and, of course, surfing.
Small Planet: You were born and raised in New York City, right?
John Salzinger: I grew up on the Upper West Side when Needle Park — which is now Trader Joe’s — was really Needle Park. Then I also lived in SoHo before it was re-zoned for residential. It was a risk that my mom took to invest, and the neighborhood was desolate. She might see a vintage Singer sewing machine on the sidewalk sitting there for days, people could care less. Now it would be in a store in the same neighborhood, in AllSaints, selling for about $1,000.
SP: What’s interesting about your career is that as technology changed, you changed with it. Was that a conscious choice or did you find yourself going with the flow?
JS: I’ve always been interested in change. Why not adopt technology as soon as possible? I started out as a photographer shooting with film. That obviously changed, so I went to digital. Then I worked for ABC News and the Associated Press doing VHS editing on the old machines. That moved to digital, so I moved to digital too. So yeah, I think I like to move with the times, you have to. I’d love to call myself a futurist…I’m not that smart…but I like futurists.
SP: MPOWERD has a unique mission. Can you talk about the origins of the company and the trip to Haiti?
JS: The people who got MPOWERD off the ground were all doing a bunch of different things. Some of us were working together in a consulting company, some were in a tech company, some in a geolocation company that advertised to folks on their way to and from destinations.
I was working with a number of people on different consulting projects — for private companies, government campaigns, human rights organizations — and during that time a few of us went to Haiti. There was no work associated with it, it was just to see what we could do after the earthquake. The problems were glaring: years of global neglect, corruption internally and externally, and just the island itself. In Hispaniola you have a thriving tourism industry in the Dominican Republic, and right across the way, across a completely arbitrary line, there’s real poverty.
Port-au-Prince was designed for about 250,000 inhabitants. Three million people live there today with limited access to waste management, electricity, transportation, healthcare…it’s like everything that could go wrong seemed to go wrong. And yet, the people that live there have a fantastic mentality and outlook. I think if those conditions were pervasive in New York City, it’d be World War Three.
SP: The trip must have had a huge impact on you personally.
JS: Yes, as well as the people that I travelled with. Not everyone who went evolved into MPOWERD, but that was the personal impetus for me. We all decided at the same time that we could build something special. Our strategy has stayed relatively the same, we wanted to create energy sustainability. That means sustainable all the way down the line, not just being environmentally correct, but working in a way that isn’t disrupting markets.
If we are selling lights in a capacity-building, affordable manner in the informal market in Ghana, for example, that woman can buy more stock, resell it, and create a living. So, we haven’t destroyed the market by just dumping some lights.
SP: Was MPOWERD’s focus always on portable lighting?
JS: Always. MPOWERD — actually, my girlfriend came up with the name — was an acronym for “micro power design.” The idea centered around individuals owning their own clean energy source. We believe that humans across the world deserve products that are both beautifully-designed and well-functioning. They’re collapsible, so we can fit 60,000 in a container. They’re waterproof and can take 200 pounds of pressure, so they’re indestructible.
A woman in Togo could carry a hundred of these around and sell them at an informal market. They’re incredibly designed, they make you feel good. Put them in your hand, you want to touch them, you’re literally blowing life into a light. They’re not task lights or flashlights, they’re full lanterns. There’s a wow factor in seeing that light expand and light up an entire room.
In emerging markets and underserved communities in Southeast Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, South and Central America, people need this. The other choice is darkness, or kerosene, or firewood burned in the home, causing all sorts of pulmonary issues. So that combination of form, function, and respect guides us.
SP: Was it hard to make your business case to others, or even yourselves?
JS: What may have started in some of the founders’ minds as simply a morality play — I think all of us thought that, halfway at least — had to become a business model. Otherwise, we might as well have been an NGO (non-governmental organization), which is fine. But I wasn’t interested in that. I wanted to use capitalist incentives to create something to help people help themselves.
SP: You sell MPOWERD essentially the same way to developed and developing markets. The marketing message doesn’t seem drastically different between selling in, say, North America, versus Sub-Saharan Africa.
JS: We sell the same products here that we sell to those facing energy poverty in underserved communities around the world. More and more, we found that people here are similar to people everywhere else in the world, regardless of their economic level or geography or culture.
The wants and needs of human beings are relatively simple. You don’t need focus groups to understand those needs, but you do need to listen carefully as you’re developing your product. We think it’s really important to not apply biases to a community that you really don’t know much about. You have to consider what their needs are, what their wants are, what your product’s cultural influences will be, et cetera. It’s important to listen and understand what people want.
I’m proud of our model. It’s simple: the more we sell, the stronger our company is. In a developed country retail store, when you go to Target to buy our Luci light, that’s all you have to do to participate. Buy yourself a beautiful product, and MPOWERD does the rest.
SP: How much did you deliberate on the name Luci?
JS: The name came up from one of my co-founders, Jason Snyder, who’s also the principal inventor. We threw out a bunch of names, but his little kid actually came up with it. The embodiment of a maternal instinct, the circular shape of the planet, of the sun…all of that resonated.
SP: Who was involved in the design process?
JS: Jason and I developed the first 40 iterations of our Luci Original product, and I went on to develop the rest of the iterations after Jason moved on to be CTO of another company. Now we’ve been joined by Seungah Jeong, who started in an emerging market, turned herself into a multi-continent employee of Procter & Gamble, studied environmental development, and also had startup experience at Nest. She had all the right levers for product, for development, for environment, and for a very wide range of logistical challenges. We’ve worked well together as partners.
SP: MPOWERD defines itself as a “mission-based” company. What does that mean to you?
JS: Many people don’t understand that idea of mission-based, but that’s okay. Here’s an example, though. We recently started giving lights to the Boy Scouts, because we want to ensure that the next generation is taught at a very young age why clean energy is important and why it makes more sense for the planet. We feel good that we’re not just resolving current problems, but potentially impacting folks in the future.
Sometimes people ask us “Why aren’t you just selling in New York and California?” Well…if you’re selling to someone who’s progressive and understands the consequences climate change (as they live on a coastline), that sale might not be as impactful as selling to someone who might not. But once they get their hands on a solar light, they might say, “Hey, this just reduced my reading light energy at home.” So you might have more of an impact getting your light into the hands of someone who just needs some more information on how solar can affect their life. We look at our products as beautiful, helpful, fun, exciting, and also educational. It’s not just one or the other, all of the above.
SP: There’s been a drastic change in purchasing habits over the last half-decade, and buying from a good company seems like much more of a priority for consumers.
JS: We’re right on trend there, so we’re lucky. Luck is important in life. Being humble about your luck is important in life. Understanding that we’re also lucky on technology. Everything kind of about where we are, from community, to participation, to technology, to need, we’re in the right place at the right time.
SP: What do you think about items that are marketing as “outdoor chic?”
JS: I think chic is cool, camping’s turning into glamping. Folks in emerging markets have a lot of pay-as-you-go models now. And do they all buy lanterns? No. Many buy TVs. We’re all human. We all have desires for beautifully designed, functional, fun products.
As far as labels go, we’re agnostic. We’re in thousands of retailers in multiple verticals, from camping emergency preparedness, luxury lifestyle. We’re in the Guggenheim Museum. We’re in the Cooper Hewitt. We’re in many museums, which is interesting and fun if you go to New York. I used to throw pennies in the fountain of the Guggenheim, and then there we were, a Luci chandelier made by an artist named David Weeks.
SP: When the company started, did you meet any resistance?
JS: I think the cool factor of the product pushed that away. There’s plenty of larger organizations, global organizations, that create and allow for resistance based on the scope and size of the organization. It’s like moving a battleship, they’re slower to react…or not react.
We’re an early-stage company, we pivot very quickly. Large companies and NGOs like to work with companies like ours because we are able to integrate easily into existing marketing programs. We work with an amazing energy provider in Texas called Direct Energy. Not only are they forward-thinking and trying to lower people’s electric bills, but they also have invested into solar themselves and also Nest-type products, like the thermostats, to ensure people are being efficient with their energy.
SP: What’s the Give Luci program?
JS: Give Luci is another opportunity for consumers and corporations to participate. You or any consumer can go on our website and buy a Give Light. It’s that simple. And we’ll get it to the International Medical Corps, or Kids of Kathmandu, or any of the 458 organizations we’ve worked with.
Some of the largest retailers in the world are advocates of our product. We have a ton of social influencers and ambassadors on Instagram, on Facebook. We have advertising companies and production houses who all do things pro bono for us. We allow for companies to create their own buy-one-give-one marketing for Give Luci, so the program is fully funded.
SP: Do companies approach you to partner up?
JS: Absolutely. I use the term sustainable a lot, I know, but our Give program is sustainable in the sense that we find companies that fit with the mission. There’s value to their customers, so it’s a real value add to their numbers. We create content around these programs, they push that content out under their name, and the program becomes more sustainable for them and us. But also pushes the program so that others come to us. Companies acquire more consumers, we acquire more corporate partners, and it starts this wonderful spin where everyone’s in this circle of doing good.
SP: What do you think about the New York tech scene right now?
JS: It’s exciting. I think the private sector has to step up its responsibility today more than ever before. I think that local government has to step up too. I think the scientific community has proven out, beyond reasonable doubt, that climate change is real, and that we have to do something about it, and that it’s actually affecting people today.
I think NYSERDA (New York State Energy Research & Development Agency) and the city’s tax breaks into certain zoned areas are fantastic. I think, actually, we’re seeing something beautiful in our democracy. It’s becoming more participatory, and that corporations are standing up for science.
At the end of the day, consumers drive it. Look at a company like Unilever, they are pushing sustainability like never before. Procter & Gamble gives out pellets in packages for clean water in emerging markets. These are for-profit companies that are doing it because their consumers are demanding it.
SP: You’re a lifelong surfer, when did you start?
JS: I grew up on the ocean, so I bodysurfed immediately. I was first taught by my mother, the most important word in the ocean is “under”, so go under the wave. Then I bodysurfed and I became what’s referred to often by surfers as a sponger. So I boogie boarded and then I graduated. But I’ll bodysurf any day of the week. I love it.
My family has a house on Fire Island. So if it’s hurricane season, I can surf out there. One time I swam out with a ton of surfers in Manasquan in New Jersey and was basically roadkill for other surfers, but I didn’t care. I wanted to get out to the big waves, so I swam out to the second break, rode a wave all the way in. It flipped me on the end because that’s kind of how you get out of a wave at the shore break. I landed, and there’s this little kid standing there, looking up at me — he was probably seven years old — and his dad goes, “That was the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.”
SP: Do you bring any lessons from surfing into the business?
JS: Conversations among surfers are often more mundane than you can ever imagine. That said, there’s something when you’re out there alone or riding a wave when you’re just going with the flow. I’ve always felt that I’m not going to be the guy butterflying against the river. I’m going to get on my back and float with the riptide and relax until I get to shore.
So in a sense, going with nature, that helps in business more than anything. If nature is pushing you in a direction or the environment is telling you something, listen to it. If the market is telling you something, listen to it. If the wave is a left, go left. Don’t go right, get closed out on and towed. Right? Take off and dive, for any non-surfers out there. I think for me, surfing, to be completely honest, I’m pushing it a bit, surfing is a getaway. It’s a meditative experience. It’s fun. I’m lucky to be able to surf.
The Luci Light, just to tie it back, is used in Hawaii, en masse, on paddleboards. Folks that are paddle boarding and careful river mouths, and dusk for sharks.
SP: How big is MPOWERD?
JS: We’re global. In 90 countries, over 450 NGOs, thousands of developed world retail accounts, large accounts, REI, Amazon. Now it’s about ensuring that we continue to innovate, continue improving our products, continue our sell-through and not just our sell-in, and get our scale up to a point where we can consistently produce a beautiful, possibly more expensive-to-make, product at the same low prices for people that need it.
The energy problem is far from over. Three billion people have intermittent access to energy, clean energy. And it’s not getting better. So we need more people, businesses, corporations, governments to participate in supporting energy solutions. It’s essential.
SP: You’re a father now, does that change how you look at the business?
JS: JS: No, it just makes me more passionate. My son’s name is Dev, which means “spiritual leader.” I think we need more spiritual leaders. For the first time, I have a responsibility to help shape an environment of another human being, to be a positive, helpful human being and a caring individual.
Again, with what’s going on today in the world, I don’t shy away from it. I think if you’re quiet about it, you’re making a statement. I think it’s important to create that next generation and instill in them the idea that when you do something good for people, that makes you feel incredibly good.