Erwin Spolders is the founder and CEO of REDAVIA, a solar rental company that provides rental solar farms to businesses and communities in West and East Africa.
1. Tell us about one of the toughest situations you’ve found yourself in as a business owner.
Every start-up business has near-death experiences as it grows to success: dwindling cash, a key sales lead goes cold, a major customer stops paying its bills, customs suddenly demands six times more import duty than budgeted, investors drag out their investment process to gain leverage, a key employee does not perform, yet refuses to leave on good terms – [the list is endless].
As these “near-death” episodes intensify, the path to success narrows until it’s just a tiny, winding foot trail. Company survival starts to depend on increasingly lower probability events going your way. The company feels like a slow-motion train wreck. Yet, the long-term fundamentals of the business are often sounder than ever, because through these periods of business risk, more and more key hypotheses on which the business is built are validated and/or fine-tuned.
As founder of REDAVIA, I have found myself faced with all of the issues above – usually all at the same time.
It’s overwhelming, at times, but the decisions we take (and the luck we have), determine whether we succeed or fail. So, when the going gets tough, the tough get going. Ultimately, the path to success widens again and we turn from defence back to offence, to prove out and grow our business.
There is a silver lining to this struggle: the only path to an epic triumph is through an epic struggle. There is no glory in an easy win.
2. Which business achievement are you most proud of?
REDAVIA is proving a new and highly scalable way of deploying distributed solar farms, and [is] on its way to changing the energy landscape in Africa – and beyond.
We have made an enormous impact already in terms of showing an anachronistic funding, equipment and project developer ecosystem what the energy system of the future looks like. We will continue to nudge the existing ecosystem towards this inevitable future. The trend toward productised, decentralised, pre-financed energy systems is irreversible.
The outcome is known. So, time is on our side.
I am most proud of our ability to stick with it, our steadfast belief in our fundamental business insight, and our operational achievement to turn our vision into reality.
3. Describe your greatest weakness as an entrepreneur.
Unfortunately, I have a long list of weaknesses.
It is therefore important for the success of the business to build a team around me with complementary skill sets. In my case, that means bringing in a chief sales officer with an amazing ability to build personal rapport with customers almost instantly. It means bringing in a chief financial officer with an unbelievable ability to retain quantitative details, and a heroic capacity for the hard work of taking care of the many operational and administrative tasks associated with running an international business.
Success comes to diverse teams, not to individuals.
4. Which popular entrepreneurial advice do you disagree with?
In my view and experience, the advice you get depends on who you ask. Where mentors “sit”, determines what they say.
Founders have a founder bias, investors an investor bias, corporate executives a corporate bias, etc. So, my advice is not to follow any particular advice – (ha!).
Still, I would advise to ask for advice, but from several, highly diverse people. And then listen more to the reasons and considerations, than to the final recommended actions.
Based on that, chart your own course and take ownership of your decisions, regardless of how they turn out.
Remember: the only way to avoid making mistakes is to use good judgment, and the only way to obtain good judgment is to make mistakes.
5. Is there anything you wish you knew about entrepreneurship before you got started?
I wish I had started earlier. Starting a business is a rewarding and potentially lucrative effort – and there is no reason to postpone starting your own epic journey.
6. Name a business opportunity you would still like to pursue.
Particularly in Africa, the economic opportunities and the potential for entrepreneurial success are almost unlimited.
For ambitious founders, I would focus on picking a business that fits you as a person. That means in a sector where you have experience and contacts; or in a field that you can be passionate about for 10 to 15 years; or solving a customer problem that you have personal experience with and understand.
Beyond that, I think every good business starts with a “bad” idea; no business starts with a fully-baked, perfect product-market-fitted proposition.
Rather, you start with an idea in a promising sector, where overall trends work in your business’s favour over time.
Then, you take your first idea to the customers who are closest to you; you listen carefully and see how you need to tweak the first idea to solve customers’ problems. You try to zero in on a replicable sale (i.e. one that’s sellable, profitable, and scalable) like a heat-seeking missile. Already then, just like that, you’re a founder.