A hot sweaty night in Pakistan led to James Trevelyan inventing a machine to keep people comfortably cool without contributing to global warming.
What’s your story?
I’m an engineer. There’s nothing that excites me more than the possibility of making life better for hundreds of millions. In the wee small hours one morning in May 2003 in Islamabad, I was woken by a daily air-conditioner thudding to a halt as the electricity stopped with load shedding. I lay in a pool of sweat, waiting for the power to return. I listened to the mosquitoes. I thought to myself, if I just had a breath of fresh air from a tiny battery-powered air-conditioner, I wouldn’t have to put up with this torture. That’s where it all began.
What excites you most about your industry?
In a warming world, air-conditioning will make the difference between vast areas of our globe being habitable or not. Air-conditioning itself is helping to heat the global climate: we have to stop that. That’s what excites me: we have the chance of doing just that. We can reduce global warming and make the world so much more welcoming for people everywhere.
What drives you in business to push beyond what other people consider normal?
Something I learned long ago, that true happiness comes from helping other people. I love my work: I feel so privileged to be doing something that I love. One day, maybe, I might make some money for my family from all of this. I hope so. But even if we don’t, I know we have achieved something special. That’s enough for me. And the thousands of people who are already enjoying the benefits of my invention.
What have been the most useful skills you have learnt and applied in your journey?
Perhaps two skills.
First, the ability to listen and get people to tell me what their lives are really like. I always find that fascinating. You learn so much by listening to people carefully.
Second, an idea that can be expressed in five words is infinitely more powerful than one that takes 10,000 words and a well referenced essay to describe. But it’s really hard to learn how to express an idea in just five words. Or six.
What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
I had the privilege of listening to Paul Polak, an entrepreneur who advised the Stanford University D-School headed by Prof. Bernie Roth, a friend of mine. He explained that if you plan to improve the world, you need to invent something that’s going to benefit at least a million people. And that magical invention has to create businesses for people who are going to distribute it. It has to be a commercial venture from the start. He also said it helps if you have experienced the need for it yourself.
Who inspires you?
Nelson Mandela. When asked what made him such a great leader, he replied “I just happened to be standing in front at the time. So I started moving forward and people followed.” Such a humble man, so powerful.
What have you learnt recently that blew you away?
When I analysed weather data for Australian cities, I was astonished to find that summer temperatures are rising three times faster than global warming. That’s the urban heat island effect which is exacerbated by air-conditioners. As cities heat faster, more and more people need air-conditioning, accelerating urban heating and global warming at the same time. We have to stop that!
If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
I never think about that. I always think about what I can change for the future. We can always learn from the past but the future is never the same. History doesn’t repeat itself – it just seems to sometimes.
How do you unwind?
I spend time at our farm photographing incredibly beautiful wildflowers. In Western Australia we are privileged to have so many unique flowers that are just stunning. Every year I try and take better photographs to share their beauty with as many people as possible.
What is a major mindset change, belief shift or ‘ah ha’ moment that you’ve experienced in relation to your business?
When I first took a prototype to Pakistan in 2013, local people were overwhelmed with excitement. They could immediately appreciate the value of an air-conditioner that would run on so little power. They asked me “how much would it cost to buy one?” I had no idea how to answer. So, instead, I asked them “how much would you pay for it?”
The answer nearly blew me away. Between $300 and $400, much more than I had thought they would say.
That was the moment that I realised that Close Comfort could be a commercial venture.
Everyone in business should read this book:
People Skills by Robert Bolton. It’s the best investment you will ever make.
Shameless plug for your business:
At Close Comfort, we cool people, not buildings. We provide air-conditioning that is so simple, convenient, affordable and sustainable. It’s proved it’s worth in the hottest climates of the world.
The world needs an air-conditioning solution for a warming climate that is affordable by all with minimal environmental impact.
That’s just what we invented and we are now selling it in more and more countries. It’s a great privilege to have been able to do that.
How can people connect with you?
Please write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We would love to hear from you. You get an answer in a day or two.
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This interview is part of the CallumConnects series.