How to start a business in an industry that doesn't exist

New technology is not just disrupting existing industries, it’s creating entirely new ones. Today we speak with Erik Fairbairn, the man behind POD Point, the UK’s leading provider of electric car charging points...

Fairbairn founded POD Point in 2009, two years before electric vehicles were even on the market. Since then it has shipped more than 20,000 chargepoints to over 15 counties – charging 10 million miles of electric vehicle driving in the process. In 2014, and then again in 2015, POD Point turned to crowdfunding, where it raised a total of £3.7 million and the company has recently been featured in the Tech Track 100.

Freshly created sectors such as this present CEOs, like Fairbairn, with handfuls of risk, opportunity and challenges. So what advice would he give to start-ups trying to make their mark in such unexplored territory?

What challenges have you faced in getting POD Point up and running?

We launched POD Point in 2009. Unfortunately there weren't any electric cars available then; in fact the first widely available electric car, the Nissan Leaf, didn't arrive until 2011. It was then another three years until electric vehicles started to take off.

As you can imagine, selling electric vehicle charge points into a market which had no electric cars was quite a challenge!

Of course today the electric vehicle (EV) seems like a forgone conclusion, but back in 2009 it was quite a wild statement to suggest 85 per cent of us would all be driving EVs within 20 years. This meant that persuading people to join the POD Point team was immensely difficult.­ We were asking staff to take quite a risk on what was a rather outlandish prediction about the imminent arrival of the electric car!

What tips would you give to an entrepreneur looking to start a business in a new industry?

If you are an entrepreneur starting a business in a new industry, you are undoubtedly too early for the market, it is the innovator's dilemma, if you are innovative, you are early, it goes with the territory. Now what that means is two things:

1. You need to educate your market, you need to show them your product or solution, explain to them what it is, why it is the future and what value it creates.

2. You need to be patient, it will take longer than you think for your customers to see the value of your offering. What this typically means is the entrepreneur is over optimistic on how quickly their products will get market traction, it always takes longer than you think. People talk about POD Point as though it were an overnight success story, but in reality the company is seven years old, so we’ve been working on it for a lot longer than people think!

To solve this, you need your business plan to be tolerant of the big uptick in sales being further away than you expect,­ you need to find products to sell now, while the market is forming, and make sure you have money flowing into the business as soon as possible, even if doing that is slightly off strategy ­there is no point having a wonderful long term plan if you never get there!

What are the pros and cons of starting a business in a relatively new industry?

Starting a business in a new industry is a very exciting journey, but it is also somewhat challenging ; there is no instruction manual, no step by step guide, no roadmap to success,­ you are kind of on your own, you need not just to produce your product or service, but also you have to build your market and explain the need for what you do. This is not easy!

On the plus side, if you get it right, you not only get to build a business, but you get to define an entire sector. Think about Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs, they didn’t just start a business, or offer a project, they defined the concepts of social networks and smartphones respectively as they stand now, ­that is what makes starting a business in a new industry so rewarding.

What can we expect from the future of electric vehicles?

In the UK about two per cent of vehicle sales are electric and electric vehicles are starting to become a common sight on our roads. I believe this will be 10 per cent of new car sales by 2020 and 85 per cent of new car sales by 2030. It won’t be long before we don’t say "electric car" we just say car, and they will all be electric.

Is there anything that needs to change in terms of technology or regulation to encourage more people to start using electric cars? Or do you think it’s a case of waiting for the cultural shift to take place?

First off, the technology is there. You can buy a Tesla Model S today which does 250 miles on a single charge, and accelerates faster than a Lamborghini. With the Model S, they have demonstrated that electric vehicle technology is already available and that we can make electric cars which improve on vehicles with internal combustion engines in every way.

The two challenges we have are cost and charging infrastructure. We need the cost of electric vehicles to come down, and they are doing so, with the cost of batteries coming down about 15 per cent year on year, I see a future full of twos: 220 miles range, for £20k by 2020 ­ that is what electric vehicles will be like in four years’ time.

Secondly, we need more charge points... and not just a few more! We need them wherever you park for one hour or more. At home, at work, at hotels, at shopping centres, at your gym, etc. Basically wherever you leave your car, you’ll want it plugged in and charging.

So far we’ve shipped over 20,000 charge points, but that is just a drop in the ocean versus what we need ­ but don’t worry, we won’t stop until you can charge your electric car everywhere!

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