Manoj Bhargava, the founder of 5-Hour Energy, has pledged to give 99 percent of his $4 billion net worth to charity.
That's the opening hook of a new documentary about Bhargava called Billions in Change.
It is, to be sure, fascinating that Bhargava amassed a $4 billion net worth mostly on the strength of the so-called energy shots. Likewise, it's fascinating he'd still have $40 million left, after giving away 99 percent of his fortune.
But if you watch Billions in Change, from an entrepreneurial perspective, you'll find yourself just as captivated by Bhargava's philosophies around innovation. Here are some highlights from the 40-minute film:
The first question Bhargava asks when someone approaches him with a project. "Is it useful?" he says. "And if it's not useful, it better be entertaining. And if it's not useful or entertaining, there's only one other basket left."
Bhargava used his wealth to build a philanthropic invention shop. The shop, called Stage 2 Innovations, has its own facility on 5-Hour Energy's 10-building, 25-acre base in Farmington Hills, Michigan. Its mission, says Bhargava, is to "invent stuff that makes a difference in other people's lives."
Specifically, Stage 2 focuses on inventions that can "help the poorer half of the world make their lives better," he says. "That's what we define as a great invention."
Stage 2's invention philosophy is: Go big or go home. Jack Juni, a Stage 2 engineer in the film, says that Bhargava is constantly telling the engineers: "If it doesn't make a big difference, find something else to do."
Bhargava elaborates: "If it doesn't make us money but it really changes the lives of people, we're going to do it ... And if you come up with something cool that's not [useful], we don't do it. I have no interest. I don't want to be cool."
On what an entrepreneur's job is all about. "My job, I think, is to make complex simple," Bhargava says. "Whereas it seems a consultant's job is to make simple complicated." That sounds like a cliché, until you see the philosophy in action in the simplicity of Stage 2's inventions.
Stage 2 has built a generator that uses bicycle-peddle power. The film states that three billion people worldwide have no electricity or electricity for just two or three hours a day.
One of Stage 2's inventions is a hybrid bicycle that you peddle for an hour--and it creates enough pollution-free power to provide 24 hours' worth of electricity.
The bicycle is called the Free Electric. In its simplicity, you can see the creative imprint of Bhargava, especially when you consider what a simple (but revolutionary) idea 5-Hour Energy was. Stage 2 envisions the bicycle helping not only the poorer half of the world but also wealthier parts, whenever there's a blackout or natural disaster that knocks out the power.
On the only two things an entrepreneur needs. Common sense and a sense of urgency.
On whom an entrepreneur should study to learn about those two things. Your mom. "She's done more than your MBA professor," Bhargava says in the film. "She has this budget, she has kids running around, seven days a week. That's hard work, learning on the job."
Stage 2 is working on cables made of graphene that pull energy out of the earth's mantle. Why graphene? Because it's lighter than air, stronger than steel, and a better conductor than copper, notes Ravi Sajwan, CTO of Renew, an energy company housed at Stage 2. (Graphene itself is, essentially, a thin molecular layer of graphite.)
Once Bhargava's engineers told him that graphene had the power to pull energy out of the earth in an efficient, pollution-free manner, Bhargava invested resources in building graphene cables. The project is still in the testing phase. "This would be the greatest invention, maybe ever," he says. "Because if you can get unlimited energy from beneath the earth, pollution free--that's everything."
Here, too, you can see the connection between a game-changing Stage 2 invention and a product like 5-Hour Energy. They both involve energy, simple as it sounds. And they both are attempts to simplify a process that--for one reason or another--has become convoluted by human hands.
So by all means--watch Billions in Change for its compellingly philanthropic hook. But pay attention as you watch for lessons from an entrepreneur who's learned how to invent solutions to problems most of the world overlooks.