For Aart van Veller, a trip to the Arctic ignited the drive to do something about climate change. The key to solving this problem, he concluded, is our energy consumption. And so Van Veller started his own sustainable energy supplier: Vandebron.
‘In my third year at university I submitted a business plan that won me a spot in the Climate Change College. In this programme, seven international students– including myself – went to this region, led by Arctic explorer Marc Cornelissen; once there, we explored the area with the local inhabitants. We saw how the region is changing as a result of global warming; we measured the thickness of the sea ice.
I had idealistic reasons for studying economics in the first place: I wanted to make the world a better place somehow, and it struck me as more useful to understand the economic system and learn how to work with it effectively, than to oppose it entirely. That trip with the Climate Change College was the last little nudge I needed to take action myself.’
‘No, by then I had found a few partners and started Wij Zijn Koel (WZK), a consultancy firm aimed at climate-neutrality in entrepreneurship. In no time, I had ten people working for me. I didn't have time for studying.
In 2008, hardly anyone was thinking about the concept of carbon footprints, the CO2 your company produces. WZK was among the first consultancy firms in this area. Business was good, but after 4 or 5 years, other – much larger – consultancy firms started to jump into that market as well. Since we decided we would rather market a tangible sustainable product, we shut down the consultancy firm.’
‘What happened is we brought our product to market too early. LED lighting was just starting out; the technology wasn't quite good enough yet to deliver high-quality, yet affordable LED bulbs. The most important part of entrepreneurship is good timing – you have to jump into the market at exactly the right moment. We had done that with WZK, and we did it again with Vandebron.’
‘I already knew my partners Remco Wilcke and Matthijs Guichelaar, having worked with them on earlier sustainability projects. It became increasingly clear to us that energy consumption was an important key to solving the problem of climate change. We wanted to supply renewable energy, delivering it straight from the owners of wind turbines and solar panels to the consumer, without a middleman. According to the principle of the sharing economy, in other words. Existing energy companies operate according to an outdated model; they profit when people consume as much electricity as possible. That doesn’t make sense. Our way is the best option for accelerating the transition to fully sustainable energy supply.
We went live in 2014, which was really great timing. At that time, more and more misconceptions in the energy market were coming to light, such as “green” energy being revealed as grey. And other successful businesses based on the sharing economy were emerging, things like Uber and Airbnb. More and more people were becoming aware of the necessity of sustainable energy as well. I think that most people are looking to make the world a better place; they’d just prefer to not have to work too hard at it.’
‘Through venture capital investments. The first three times we pitched our idea, we heard reactions like “You must be out of your minds, you’ll never make this work.” We basically got sent home with our tails between our legs. But we were confident that we could, in fact, make it work. We had a 140-page business plan, supported by market research showing that consumers were eager for an idea like ours. While it was great to finally secure financial backing, that was only the beginning: we then had to actually deliver on our promises. In the first six months, we didn’t grow quite as quickly as we expected. People needed time to gain confidence in our concept. I didn’t sleep all that well in that period. Luckily, things gained strong momentum after that, and we started growing according to plan. Today, we connect 100,000 consumers with renewable sources of energy.
‘An entrepreneurial spirit is part of our culture, but truly daring to “think big” – I'm not really seeing that yet. Here, we lack the mindset that says: I can make a difference in the world. As far as that goes, we could use a few Elon Musks in the Netherlands. I'd also like to see top-tier entrepreneurs give guest lectures in the Economics and Business programme, for example, to inspire the students.’
‘Try to discover what it is that matters to you, what your purpose here on earth is. Making money and being successful is nice – but ultimately, something that contributes to the world you live in will make you much happier.
And a practical tip: know thyself. Know what your weaknesses are and gather people around you that can help fill in your blind spots. For myself, for instance, I know I can be too optimistic at times. Which is why I surround myself with people who take a realistic, grounded approach.’