On to something new, or: How to create innovation?
At my farewell party in beautiful Cologne-Ehrenfeld, which will otherwise remain shrouded in mystery, a colleague asked me what I was going to do now. "Something new, I guess" was my answer, without shrugging my shoulders, without fatalism. "Yes, but what?" she followed up. "No idea," I returned. The new is always unknown, I think to myself, and you just have to open up to it and it will come.
Today, people don't talk about “new” so much as about disruption, about innovation. And we at Next Kraftwerke have also won various awards for our innovations, which have truly changed the electricity market in the last decade. Most of the time, as a founder and CEO, you stand on a stage or in front of a camera, you're then supposed to say something clever and come across as completely innovative, you may get moist hands or maybe even eyes, but secretly you sometimes think to yourself: I haven't written a single line of code here. I haven't traded a single megawatt hour of electricity here. I didn't develop any algorithms or billing concepts, or plant schedules or remote control units. All of this was achived by the best team in the German energy industry. And I was right in the middle of it, witnessing our vision become reality.
Okay, before this starts to sound too much like an exercise in understatement: Of course, I've been actively involved in the last 13 years, and first and foremost, the then new idea of a VPP had to be put on the road. On my way out, it's now time to reflect on how it all worked out. How it was possible to turn a two-man start-up into a company with hundreds of colleagues, a company which is now one of the largest Virtual Power Plants in Europe, networking around 15,000 decentralized plants. What are the reasons for successful innovation in general? And what were the "secrets of success" for Next Kraftwerke in particular?
Become part of the VPP
Today, I am deeply convinced that most innovations do not suffer from a flawed idea, but simply from the fact that no one starts implementing them. You have to get started, even if you don't know how it will work out, even if you know there are dozens of reasons why it might not. Hendrik and I were two students with an idea. We didn't have any money, nor did we have any contacts in the energy industry. Just the enthusiasm to get this thing off the ground. And then, fortunately, we soon found partners and teammates who believed in our idea and wanted to build something together with us.
Be fast and agile
Most of the time, you're not the only person with a good idea. Often, you're not even the first person to have that idea - the rough concept of Virtual Power Plants existed well before 2009, the year Next Kraftwerke was founded. It's just that no one had built one until then. And only the first company to build a Virtual Power Plant is considered innovative. The second and third one is already a copycat. By the way, speed and agility helped us not only in founding the company, but also in constantly adapting to new situations and market conditions - and grabbing opportunities by the collar when they were there.
Expect failure and move on
As mentioned above, with any idea, there are dozens of reasons why it might fail. Countering those reasons with a big "nevertheless" is a prerequisite for innovation, but of course it's far from a guarantee that everything will work out the way you want it to. Our first business plan from back then does not have too much in common with what Next Kraftwerke eventually became. Every point at which we have failed in the meantime, or rather been allowed to grow - in the market, in sales, in technology, in regulation - has resulted in an adjustment. At the end of this chain we today have built a company that has achieved a great deal and is still far from resting on its laurels.
Invest in the idea and grow
Uncertainty is the sign of startups, it is the accompanying shadow of innovation. One is therefore constantly tempted not to go "all in", since one does not know whether it will work. But hedging, saving, outsourcing is not the right answer to this conundrum. For example, we set up our own electricity trading back in 2012 and no longer traded through third parties. A big gamble, also financially. Today, Next Kraftwerke is unimaginable without its own team of traders. Just as unthinkable, by the way, as a company without our in-house IT specialists and technicians who maintain and further develop our systems. And the many people who drive forward new projects at Next Kraftwerke or maintain the existing ones and fill them with life every day. Which brings us to the next point.
Don't think in hierarchies
It doesn't matter who has a good idea, a new approach to a solution. If the idea is good, it will be tried out. Why should I, as a CEO, by default know more about intraday trading than a new team member we hired a few months ago? This is the vibe that has been noticeable at Next Kraftwerke from the very beginning, and still ensures that the team remains curious, able to adapt new things quickly and with an open mind. This attitude gives team members the confidence that they are not just a cog in the wheel but can really make a difference.
The Power of Many
Last, but absolutely not least, one of the most important factors when we talk about the success of Next Kraftwerke in particular: From the very beginning, the Virtual Power Plant was based on the idea of networking, the idea of the "Power of Many". Only by convincing many, many operators to entrust us with their renewable energy plants was it possible to build one of the largest Virtual Power Plants in Europe and to challenge conventional power plants. And let me correct myself: this is not just about Next Kraftwerke's success, of course, but about the success of the energy transition as a whole. We need the "Power of Many".
So innovation is not an idea, but a living culture. And when this culture prevails in an organization, innovation often arises all by itself, drives itself forward. That's why I'm convinced that Next Kraftwerke will continue to be as innovative in the coming years as it has been in the past. And so I will continue to watch. This time no longer in the middle of things, but rather from the sidelines - but of course with the same enthusiasm and curiosity about how Next Kraftwerke will keep on innovating the energy industry.
Disclaimer: Next Kraftwerke does not take any responsibility for the completeness, accuracy and actuality of the information provided. This article is for information purposes only and does not replace individual legal advice.
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