Vodafone xone Innovators Series: Solar Bright's Pat Martin on not letting anyone tell you no

To mark the arrival of the Vodafone xone business acceleratorIdealog is interviewing a whole heap of established New Zealand innovators, as well as the founders of the 10 startups selected by Vodafone to receive mentorship, funding and the potential benefits of working with a global network. One of the lucky ten is Solar Bright, makers of life-saving, solar-powered road lights. We chat with co-founder Pat Martin.

What is Solar Bright, and where did the idea come from?

Essentially, Solar Bright was a company that I set up. We put solar power with LEDs to make streetlights, sign lights and things like that. Then the idea came to me one day when I was driving through the desert road, in the early hours of the morning. I hadn't been in New Zealand long, and I just thought how dangerous it was and why somebody didn't do something. That's where the idea started.

What happened that made you realize that you could turn that into a business?

I originally went back home to the wife and sat down and said ‘I've had an idea,’ and she said ‘Oh, that sounds good’. I thought ‘Well, where do I start?’ I had a month off work, and I drove around all the councils in New Zealand to try and talk one of them into buying a couple of lights that I was going to make. I eventually came across Kaikoura District Council, who were fantastic. They bought two lights off me, the first two lights. That was how the business started.

What sort of decisions did you have to make in order to turn the idea into a business? Did you have to, quit a job, remortgage your house, anything like that?

No. Well, fortunately, I was self-employed, anyway. I got time in between contracts, initially, to actually work on the project, and I flew to China and had a look around what was available to buy and what I could put together. We just financed it ourselves, to start with.

What prompted you to look for external help?

I guess, the first thing was when I had, after I had started doing the lighting and we'd made a few sales, me and a friend of mine, Paul, who lives in the UK, we were driving in the van, and we were talking about ice and everything, and we decided to make something that detected ice. Then, the company needed an investment, because once we'd had the idea, we started to spend money on patents and developing the product. We financed it as much as we could ourselves, but we had to take external investment then.

What have you learned from your experience with the Vodafone xone?

So far, it's probably been one of the best things that's ever happened to us as a company. It's just been brilliant. They're so forthcoming, and their ideas, and all the people that work there are so helpful. So far, it's been a fantastic experience.

What are you doing differently now that you've started working with a mentor?

I guess we're not really doing anything different. We've just got the tools, if you like, and the credibility to get this product out. Obviously, some financial backing as well.

What's the key thing you know now that would have made the biggest difference to get Solar Bright to where it is now?

I don't really know, because it's been a long hard road for the last 9 years, and because we sell so many different products now. We've got a big product portfolio. Actually, working with Vodafone now has given me a chance to sort of take a step back, if you like, and concentrate and get this product done and ready to go.

Is there a piece of advice you would give someone else who's driving around with a really good idea that wants to turn it into a business?

Look, you only get once chance in life. You've just gotta follow your dreams, and, if you work hard and believe that you can do it, you can do anything. That's the key. Don't let anybody tell you no, basically. You've got to have that mindset of ‘I am going to do this’. If you can take that attitude, you can do anything you like.

Solar Bright's cat's eye

With me now is Nicole Buisson from Vodafone xone. What's unique about what Solar Bright is doing?

This is a product that doesn't exist anywhere else in the world. It's really a proper example of a Kiwi first. It's a unique product for road safety – a cat's eye that flashes when it's icy, it's something that's really relevant to people.

What's impressed you about the way Solar Bright has gone about developing their ideas?

It's never easy being geographically isolated from the world in New Zealand, where we need to sell our products to the world. They've done a really fantastic job just getting out there, sourcing products from China and selling to international markets.

What have been the biggest challenges they've faced?

One of the challenges is they're operating in a very highly regulated industry. It's about road safety. Sometimes it takes time to get through those processes.

What's been the key thing the Vodafone xone has focused on when working with Solar Bright?

There's a couple of key things. The first is that Solar Bright is a business that needs to sell their products to the world. Vodafone, we're operating in 60 countries, so we can really help them get out there through our network and sell those products to the world. The second is they have these cat's eyes that are flashing when it's icy. Wouldn't it be great if the transport agencies knew where it was icy directly from these cat's eyes. If we can connect those cat's eyes up to the internet, then the transport agencies know exactly where on the roads they need to grit.

Are there lessons that other innovators can take from the Solar Bright story?

Pat and Nicola are just true entrepreneurs. It's get out there and just do it. We think about Steve Jobs and Silicon Valley, starting out in his garage there. Pat's developing these products in their garage in Christchurch.

What do you think is next for Pat and Nicola?

I think really growing the business on an international scale, which I think is the maker for Kiwi entrepreneurs.