02 Aug Becoming a Founder – the skills you need and the skills you learn Sarah Merrick, Founder of Ripple Energy
Sarah Merrick is the Founder and CEO of Ripple Energy, a business established in 2017 to enable energy consumers to part-own large scale wind farms and solar parks and have the clean, low-cost electricity they produce supplied to their homes. Sarah was formerly Head of Public Affairs for UK & Ireland at Vestas and Market Economist at RES and has held a number of Board positions in the industry. This blog is based on a POWERful Connections Breakfast Sarah hosted for aspiring women in energy in April.
Starting your own business can be a roller-coaster. But seeing your idea come to life is fantastically rewarding. And when it’s something you’re passionate about, you work through the challenges and are driven to succeed.
Ripple was born when, working in renewable energy, I saw the potential for households and businesses to own part of their local wind or solar farm for their energy supply. Today it is flourishing but it hasn’t always been a smooth journey. Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way.
Have a big idea you believe in and then lean in
Twenty-three years ago, when I was in my first job at a large energy trade association, renewable energy wasn’t really taken seriously. Some large companies were dipping their toes in but, at only around 1% of the market, people thought it would break the grid if it ever got to 10%. To some of us, however, it was the cool and exciting sector and, moreover, we could foresee the huge potential for growth.
That was the start of my passion for renewables and it’s where I’ve spent my career, working for some of the leading developers and manufacturers, like RES and Vestas, and sitting on industry boards, influencing policy.
But I have always felt that people should be involved and that was the seed for starting up my own business. In 2015 the wind industry was having to think about operating without subsidy. Contracts with big corporations like Google were a solution, but it seemed wrong to me that only big companies could get to access this cheap source of energy. So I did a back-of-the-envelope calculation and thought: it’s a no-brainer – individuals could own wind energy too. My economics background, my knowledge of how markets work, and my wide network of contacts had given me a strong foundation for starting my own business but it was this big idea that I needed, and it had to be something I believed in.
I considered the idea for a while, assuming someone else would do it as it was so obvious. But they didn’t, so I thought – OK, I’ll do it myself! I was already learning to ‘lean in’ to opportunities more, taking myself out of my comfort zone to put myself forward for Chair roles, for example. So I leaned into this. Sometimes ideas need to be manufactured and sometimes it’s about recognising one that comes along – but if you don’t run with it, you’ll kick yourself!
Decide when to make the leap
Timing is always a big question. I knew I wanted to create something but, with a family, I had to consider the need for a steady income. It’s important to recognise that, as a founder, it’s a few years before you can start paying yourself.
So I worked on the idea in the evenings and at weekends while I was employed, but before long it needed more time. At that point I was no longer the main wage earner, my partner had a good income, and the kids were a bit older. I took the leap and quit my job in spring 2017. I took the summer off to have fun with the family and then, from September, started working full-time to set up the company.
Age-wise, the advantages of starting later are your experience and good network of contacts. But the advantages of being younger are that lack of a decent wage is not such a shock and if your first idea fails, you’ll have learned a lot for your next venture. As someone suggested recently, just setting up a side hustle of some kind at uni teaches you so many entrepreneurial skills.
So don’t wait for the perfect moment, to be asked or for someone to give you permission – women have been told for years to be patient – as you might regret it. There’s no better time than now.
For a while I was on my own, still working up ideas, and that’s when my network came in useful. I got advice from some fantastic lawyers and others in the industry and started to bring people on board, starting with an old renewables colleague and my partner’s ex-boss.
The next vital step was to get funding. We needed a strong legal framework, due diligence and so on, so we needed money straight away. I started with friends and family, then found an angel investor (a random friend of a friend wanting to invest in cleantech start-ups) and with that first bit of money the three of us took the business a long way.
In June 2019, we issued our first round of equity crowdfunding. This enabled us to build the platform, hire a small team and nearly a year later, launch our first, single turbine wind farm. We have done four more rounds of crowdfunding, all on the Seedrs platform. We have nearly 4000 investors in Ripple the company.
Our first wind farm has now been operating for over a year. We have a second, much larger one under construction and a large solar park that is about to begin construction. The three projects are owned by around 15,000 people who will all get the green, low-cost electricity they produce and savings off their electricity bills.
Attracting investment in start-ups can be one the biggest obstacles. Investors are interested – you need to demonstrate why your idea is the best and why you’re the best person to do it. But it’s a sad fact that less than 2% of investment goes to female start-ups, with a further 6% going to mixed start-ups – meaning that over 90% of the investment market is unavailable to someone like me, and it’s not getting any better. We need to stop venture capital going to the same white men, and getting more women into VCs themselves might help.
Speed of growth is determined by other factors too. When we launched, Covid happened – but as a start-up just needing our laptops, we could switch our way of working overnight and didn’t skip a beat. But it’s worth remembering that you’re also only as fast as the companies and people you rely on for the big decisions.
Enjoy building and learning
I have learned how incredibly important it is to bring the right people in who fit with the culture and are experts in their field, because in a small company there’s nowhere to hide!
At the start I had to be prepared to muck in on everything – like doing the web chat until late into the night. I learned a lot, from marketing and customer service to software and the law. But then at each stage of the business’s growth you hire in experts who can do those things way better than you can and you learn to delegate. I’ve learned how to manage people and communicate my ideas, leaning into public speaking.
You must also be resilient because there will be the days that you don’t put on LinkedIn, when you feel like giving up. And that’s when it is so important to believe in your vision. Ask yourself if you could bear to not see your big idea happen – if you can’t, you’ll stick with it.
Create the company you want to work for
We are now 30 people in the company and teamwork is central to success. When we launched our solar project, literally every single person in the company made it happen – software engineers, product managers, marketeers.
And one of the best things about running your own business is that you get to create the culture you want to work in. It’s a small team and the three of us leading it trust each other implicitly. That’s important – you need people you can talk to when things inevitably get tough. It’s really important to me to be my authentic self. If you want to work in a lovely happy place, then create that lovely happy place, and I think we have done that at Ripple.