By Tanya Gubbay
Thursday 10 May 2012
While studying at Imperial College Business School, budding entrepreneur Karl Harder came up with the idea for Abundance , an investment company that enables communities and individuals to invest directly in renewable energy projects across the UK and share in the benefits.
Having recently launched the company, after three and half years spent setting it up, Karl returns to campus this Saturday. He and fellow alumni who have also gone onto start their own businesses, will be sharing their experiences with staff, students and the public at the Imperial Festival which runs from Friday 11 – Saturday 12 May.
Tanya Gubbay caught up with him ahead of the Festival to find out how Abundance made the history books and why some unexpected news threatened a successful launch.
How did you develop your initial idea?
While studying for my MBA, I pitched the idea to the Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Design projects programme (IED) and luckily it was accepted. The programme gave me the structure to explore and develop the concept, as well as a team of people to work with on it. Critically, it also helped me to focus on designing the service around the needs of the customer rather than my own wishful thinking! Being in the IED programme also gave me access to external experts and networks, and opened doors for me that I would have struggled with otherwise at such an early stage in the business.
What challenges have you faced in setting up the business?
The initial challenge was getting regulated. When I started, I had no idea who or what the Financial Services Authority (FSA) was. We had to employ a team with experience in the financial services sector, but also one that understood the idea we had. In addition, we had to find lawyers and compliance consultants that would work without money up front, since we didn’t have any capital at the start. It took 18 months to get our authorisation and it turns out we were the first independent retail investment business to do so in the FSA’s history. I guess that explains why we found it so tough!
At the same time, we were also grappling with getting a method established for electronic payment. As our model is unique, we were initially turned down by providers, because they could not quantify the risk associated with it. We had to work closely with them and persuade them to adapt their policies so that they could accept our model. A process which normally takes two weeks, in the end, took us six months!
How has the launch of Abundance gone?
Very well in that we raised £135,000 within four days, with over 1000 people signing up. We had a whole range of investors with one person investing in wind projects as presents for other people, and another who invested a lump sum of £20,000. In terms of publicity, we had great coverage from the Sunday Times, Financial Times and the Guardian.
However, after a fantastic launch week, we were hit with the news that the turbine manufacturer selected by the developer of our first site had unexpectedly gone into administration. Although this is unlikely to disrupt the project in the long term, it has caused us a headache for now. We need to decide whether to select a different turbine manufacturer and have taken the difficult decision to suspend the offer until we have clarity on how the developer is going to resolve the situation.
What are you going to do in the meantime?
We are working to bring forward other projects and are on track for launching one or two in June/July. We are also fast tracking some of the website functionality which enables people to support projects that are pre-investment, so that we can build on the customer support already received.
It is important for us to focus on the positives. After three and half years, we have proved that our systems and processes work and that people are keen to participate. In a short time, we have built up a great customer base. Indeed, when we informed people of the suspension and returned their money, we received numerous emails of support, and many people have left their money in their Abundance accounts awaiting the next project.
The launch did not pan out exactly as we had envisaged, but there are many things to build on, including a flood of enquiries from project developers.
What advice would you give to other budding entrepreneurs?
Nothing is impossible and don’t give up. When you come across a problem, there will always be a way round it, just take your time and work it out. Don’t be afraid of asking questions, no matter how stupid they seem. In order to keep things moving forward, you need to keep asking questions, and don’t feel like you should automatically know all the answers. Always recruit the very best people you can - this is the only area you should never compromise on.