The way of Autarco

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THE WAY OF AUTARCO

Read the story behind Autarco and its founder Roel van den Berg. Learn how an innovative idea grew into the global brand that Autarco is today, and how it revolutionized the solar PV industry.

I've always had a knack for seeing how things can be improved

I’ve always had a knack for seeing how things can be improved; as a teenager working on a farm in the Netherlands and more recently as a young graduate working at Philips in Shanghai. Some say I’m stubborn. They may be right. I’m a 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 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 honesty will last longest, is deeply rooted in me. And that nothing meaningful will come easy. If you want to achieve something, you’ll have to work hard for it.

“I’m an entrepeneur by nature.
It is in my blood.”

My younger years

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 analyze and diagnose business processes. I realized I shouldn’t have a career healing animals, but companies.

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 organization. I wanted to instantly apply what I learned so I decided to start a company selling garage doors online whilst studying. I was the first garage door retailer with a proper website and using Google AdWords to find clients. I remember times when I would be having drinks in the pub with fellow students, and then a prospective customer would call. I would just run out onto the bar street and make a sale.

For my graduation, I went to the bustling city of Shanghai. There I joined the research department of Philips Asia 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 Lighting Shanghai. My entrepreneurial blood had other plans for me though, and soon enough I found that Philips was not for me. I felt like a small cog in a giant machine, too far removed from where the money was made.

“Everywhere I went I saw
cranes of new construction projects.”

Life in the big city

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. A few months before the end of my contract I quit 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 rising to prominence as globalization 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. They had no way to make sure they visited the factory manufacturing the products they were ordering. 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.

“Globalisation and the internet broke
down barriers for doing business internationally.”

A true cowboy market

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 present there are about 5000 factories in China manufacturing solar panels. There are so many, that even the Chinese government has admitted to have lost count.

After a couple of years sourcing I had an idea. Rather than helping all kinds of distributors sell Chinese brands, why not build my own renewable energy brand? A brand of complete renewable energy systems. Unlike all other brands that only produced a single component. Moreover, I saw opportunities for guarantees. Component brands only give warranty on a single component and not the system in its entirety. This poses a significant risk to the end user with no assurance that their system would work at its maximum potential.

“Why not bring all those separate
components together under one roof?”

The core of Autarco's innovation

There is a lot of greenwashing going on in the solar industry. Companies claiming to be “green” but not providing any measure to which extend they are. How their product makes a return on investment. If you do not specify that, then really you don’t know whether it is a sustainable option. My idea was to build a brand that does provide products with measurable performance guarantees. That is the core of Autarco’s innovation. We provide complete solar power plants with measurable kWh yield guarantees.

Because we take the responsibility for combining components and selling it as a simple solution, that solution finds its way to end users much easier. I knew this business model was sufficiently durable to build a brand around.

The true start of Autarco

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. Coming up that name was the true start of Autarco. Upon my return to Asia, Autarco was immediately 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 on, we have been building up Autarco step by step.

I knew I had not taken the easy path

The early days of Autarco were not always easy. All the usual clichés of running your own business were applicable to me too. I thought that within a year I’d make a profit. That was not the case. It took some creativity and persistence to make ends meet. 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 into 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 the easy path, but I never once doubted myself. I truly believed, as I still do, that a brand would add value for its customers when it provides a clearer product offering, integrates component warranties into a complete solution, and provides measurable performance guarantees.

Furthermore, thanks to our position in the supply chain Autarco is able to remove common obstacles preventing implementation of complex sustainable energy solutions.

“From that moment we really steamed ahead.”

With dedication and hard work Autarco continued to grow

I’m an ideas person and I needed someone to help me focus the energy and implement professional processes. 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 operational 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.

From that moment we really steamed ahead. I had found the right partner to build a solid business with. We worked together in Shanghai for a year until we came to a decision that I would 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. A well-timed financial investment enabled further international growth.

“We waste a lot of energy getting energy
to where its needed.”

Five years later

Now, Autarco is truly a global business. 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 depleting. As global energy demand increases, our methods to squeeze every last drop of fossil fuel out of our planet are getting more and more destructive to the environment. We must learn to be locally self-sufficient in a sustainable manner. 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
Founder & CEO
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“If we can generate energy right where
it’s needed using renewable sources,
the world will be a better place.”