The way of Autarco
Read the story of our founder and how a start-up grew into a global brand.
Autarky: Derived from Greek αὐτάρκεια, "self-sufficiency"
I’ve always had a knack for seeing how things can be improved; as a teenager working on a farm in the Netherlands and later as a graduate working at Philips in Shanghai. Some say stubborn. But let me put it another way, I’m an entrepreneur by nature. It’s in my blood. I dare say that I prefer things my way and I won’t stop for anyone if I really believe in something.
In April 1982 I came into this world, born into a middle-class family with an entrepreneurial father and a traditional mother. My parents offered me a warm and happy nest and gave me with lots of freedom within the secure borders of the small village I grew up in. My parents taught me valuable lessons. The well-known Dutch saying “eerlijkheid duurt het langst” meaning that honesty will last the longest is deeply rooted in me. And that nothing meaningful will come easy. If you want to achieve something, you will have to work hard.
As a small child I wanted to become a veterinarian. Whilst working various part-time jobs in my teens my interests gradually shifted. At seventeen years old I worked in a factory with fully automated systems and was in awe of the intricate control processes and the company’s profits! I found out then, that I liked to analyse, diagnose and improve business processes and business models.
With this new found interest I decided to study industrial engineering at the TU/e University in Eindhoven. During my time there, I learned to view business processes from the perspectives of people, technology and organisation.
China - Shanghai
For my graduation, I went to the bustling city of Shanghai. There I joined the research department of Philips where I was asked to map the geographic dynamics of China, giving me a great opportunity to travel China and learn about its culture. Not wanting to return to Europe after my graduation, I accepted a job at Philips. My entrepreneurial blood had other plans for me though, and soon enough I realised that Philips was not for me. I felt like a small cog in a giant wheel and too junior to help improve the business.
I discovered the metropolis of Shanghai. I sucked up the energy of the city. Everywhere I went I saw cranes of new construction projects. My mind would race thinking about all the business opportunities I could be involved in. So I decided to leave Philips.
From that moment onwards I had to stand on my own feet. I started a sourcing company to help Western companies do business in China. China was then rising to prominence as globalisation and the internet broke down barriers for doing business internationally.
Some of my first customers were trying to buy renewable energy related products in China. They were buying full containers of solar panels without ever seeing factories or fully knowing who they were dealing with. Even if they did decide to come to China, not speaking the language posed many difficulties. The industry was young and everyone was shooting from the hip. It was my job to aid Western businesses in China, find reliable suppliers and do quality control.
And so I ventured into the world of renewable energy, a true cowboy market. In 2008, every Chinese company that made a profit, delved into the solar market. Whoever had the best sales guy, was successful. At one point there were about 5000 factories in China manufacturing solar panels. So many, that even the Chinese government admitted to have lost count.
During my years sourcing solar related products I saw two things. First of all the products were rapidly commoditising. Each factory making a component brand with the same dimensions, same general specifications and seemingly the same quality. The second thing was a growing share of distributed rooftop installation versus utility scale PV power plants.
When developing a large power plant you have scale to implement measuring devices, get 3rd party engineering expertise and the advice of a legal counsel to draw up very extensive contracts with component brands to hold them accountable for their product and agree on compensation when product guarantees aren’t met. You don’t have this scale when developing the much smaller rooftop PV systems, leaving the asset owner with substantial risk.
So I thought: “Rather than helping all kinds of Chinese component brands push their product, why not build my own brand?” A brand of complete solar PV solutions. Unlike all other brands that only produced a single component.
One brand. One complete solution.
During a holiday, whilst sitting on a porch overlooking the Great Barrier reef, I thought about an appropriate name for my brand. I chose the name Autarco, which stems from the classical Greek word autarky, meaning self-sufficiency. The thought of that name was the spiritual start of Autarco.
On July 4 2011 Autarco was founded in Hong Kong. I remember the day before we went waterskiing and as a result my forearms were in total agony. Signing my way through China’s incorporation bureaucracy was a painful ordeal.
From that moment I built up Autarco step by step. Our first customers came from my hometown. But my expat existence provided me with contacts all over the world. Soon we were making sales in Australia. A short time later our first salesman joined the team.
How positive it all sounds! In fact the first year of Autarco was not always easy. The clichés of one’s own business were applicable to me too. Solar PV was significantly more expensive back then and soon all my savings went into financing the supply chain. In the winter of 2011, I ate only fried rice for two months. Not a fun time, but it made me even more motivated to make Autarco a success. I never gave up. I kept thinking about what my parents had told me: if you want to achieve something, then you will have to work for it.
I knew I had not chosen an easy path, but I never once doubted myself. I truly believed that a brand would add value to its customers when it provides a clearer product offering and makes the value chain simpler. I knew this business model was sufficiently durable to build a brand around.
With dedication and hard work Autarco continued to grow. I’m an ideas man and I needed someone who could help me focus the energy and implement processes that would sustain our growth.
During this time I met Dan Horan, whom I had previously met at the Beijing Olympics. Despite having a successful career as a banker in London, he was looking for a new challenge. Dan started as chief financial officer a few months later. His financial background made us the perfect team. Together we had all the qualities required for success! Like a two-headed dragon.
The kWh guarantee: the most safe and secure investment in the solar market
Dan realised very quickly that providing a full solutions brand meant it was possible for us to provide products with measurable performance guarantees.
Component brands only give product warranty and no guarantees on the performance of the system in its entirety. This poses a significant risk to installers and especially the asset owners in the distributed solar market with no assurance that their solar PV system would work at its maximum potential. That is the core of Autarco’s innovation. We remove risk to downstream participants of the rooftop solar industry by providing complete solar power plants with measurable kWh yield guarantees.
From that moment we really steamed ahead. I had found the right partner to build a solid business with. Supplying our kWh guarantee meant developing powerful system design software so we know what is installed, how and where. But also asset management software. Autarco remains a stakeholder in the performance of installed systems so we need to know how they are performing. All this was developed in-house to make Autarco first and foremost a PV technology company.
We worked together in Shanghai for a year until we came to a decision that I should return to the Netherlands. The move back to my roots, proved successful. Operating from the Netherlands meant I was now physically closer to our European customers and could build stronger relationships with them. Autarco grew more than ever. A successful financial investment around that time helped us to cope with the international growth.
To really create the security that our customers deserve the next step was to remove the kWh guarantee risk from our balance sheet. At that early stage there was no insurance policy in existence that met all the requirements, so we needed to build one. Together with a specialist renewables syndicate at Lloyd’s of London we structured a brand new policy. It was only through the strong team we had built and the impressive track record that Dan was finally able to get Lloyd’s of London to underwrite our kWh guarantee as of late 2017, thereby truly creating the most solid and secure proposition in the PV industry.
Now, the Autarco team consists of many people. Everyone we employ shares the Autarco vision and wants to increase energy self-sufficiency around the World. This is something I believe everyone should be working towards urgently. We waste a lot of energy getting energy to where it’s needed. Commodities such as oil, coal and gas are extremely destructive to the environment and will be exhausted in a matter of time. It is much better for the planet if mankind can learn to be self-sufficient sustainably. If we can generate energy right where it’s needed using renewable sources the World will be a better place. I am proud that Autarco contributes to that goal.
Roel van den Berg