Starting Y
Starting Y

Episode 12 · 9 months ago

Zolar wants to put solar cells on 100.000 roofs every year


“The goal is: Cover 100.000 houses with solar cells each year” Alex Melzer, founder and CEO of Zolar

Our Intro is based on Quantum Jazz’s piece “Orbiting a distant planet”, published under Creative Commons

Our Guest:

  • Alex Melzer (,      the founder and CEO of Zolar ( Zolar helps homeowners to get solar cells on the roof of their house, by helping them to plan and work with a network of installation partners. They also enable homeowners to rent solar cells for their houses with Zolar Wow.

The Host of this Episode:

  • Jörn is a podcaster, startup scout and entrepreneur, who is based in Frankfurt, Germany. He has a      background of more than 12 years of management consulting, with a focus on financial services and capital markets, mainly in Europe. He hosts an English startup podcast, covering the German startup scene ( You can learn more about Jörn “Joe” here:

You can suggest questions here, use #startingy

Twitter Michelle:

Twitter Jörn:

Or send us a message via Anchor:

This is a starting why podcast. Here we ask entrepreneurs, actors, investors in the native and hardest on the why, why they are doing what they are doing, what motivate and drive them and why can't they stop? We will start in five, four, three, two one. Hey, folks, this is Joe and you are listening to the starting why podcast. I am very happy to welcome another entrepreneur, this time from Berlin here. Hey, Alex, how you doing? I'm really good. Thank you. Hey Joe, how are you? I have to admit I'm a little bit nervous because we talked before the interview and what you do with you recruiting is very exciting because when people, when you invite them to the first interview, actually what you do is you sent them over podcast so they can learn something about a company, and you told me you don't have anything in English yet. So this is going to be your English recruiting podcast. So we have to make you shine right and great head. That's the idea today. Exactly. Great, so let's see if we get some awesome cakeouts. So, as always, I've been looking at your linked in profile and the people who are year is can go down here in the show notes. Wherever you're listening to this, this is an all the only podcast, just out of habit of my other podcast. Wherever you're listening to this, you can go down in the show notes, there will be a link to your linked the profile, so people can even have a look what the founder and CEO of solar has been doing before. And we just try to make it clear. This is like solar, but instead often as it starts with a set, so it should be something like solar. How do you pronounce it? Yeah, that's we actually left that when we came up with the name. We actually left it up for interpretation. So people, depending on where they come from, they pronounced it definitely. At the end of the day, it's important, Dan Smith, of what we're doing and we're big advocated. Were big pusher of solar energy. That is good, but take us a little bit along your Entrepreneurship Journey, what you've done before and how you ended up with a Solo company based in Berlin. I've seen you attended technical university and you did something I'm not sure you know a lot outside of Jeremy. You did a degree code via CHUFT's engineer, which basically means that you have a dual mature in business end in engineering. What did you do there and what did you learn? Yeah, so I did, I guess, the translation of be...

...somewhat industrial engineer, and I think it when I started it, this was a lack of making a decision what I actually wanted to become. There's there's people that are excited to become doctors or they become, you know, teachers and stuff like that. And as an industrial engineer you you have engineer, you have business person. You're not really a business first, but you're not also not really an engineer. And so for me this was perfect because I'm always curious to learn and to learn different things. And what I did as a master or as a specification was finance and controlling on the business side, but then on the on the engineering side, I did energy and I actually learned a lot about nuclear energy, coal fired energy, gasped her binds, like the good old world of fossil energy. So that this was my education, and that basically turned you off so much that you decided you're not going to do this at all in the future. Right. Well, you could look at the death this way. So education in Germany, especially university, education is for free, so I could say I waste a tax money on teaching me something at that I would never use in life. Because actually, while I was working in the university as I also started working for a Solo Company. And Times are changing right. So, fifteen years ago, fossil energy was still the way to go in order to produce energy. But but over the last decade we all have learned that, due to climate change, we need alternatives, and that's why I started to work and a solar company and learned the basics of solar energy, how a module is produced, how you create energy, and so times have really changed and I was lucky enough to start working very early in this exciting industry. We may add for the audience that Germany has a renewable energies law that has been modified quite extensively since, but basically the idea of chancellor shrewder with to have a law that subsidizes renewable energies and the money for the subsidies comes from the consumer of the energy. That's a basic idea, and so that led to a big boom in renewable energies, I would say, starting sometime around the early two thousands, and made Germany a real powerhouse in renewable energy producers, companies, wind mills, solar and so on, ands or forth. Admittedly, not all of this state, I do believe especially solar panels are right now barely produced in Germany anymore, but a lot of the know how is still here. Would really make me curious with you worked for something like three and a half years in a solar company, I assume, somewhere around Rason. Why you went to university, by the way, a beautiful city, and then, for whatever reason, you just started it to Ronto, because that makes me curious...

...for several reasons. First, why Canada? When you look across the Atlantic here from Jemmy, it's usually the US. And secondly, was it really a Solo Company in Canada? And can you actually do this really efficiently in Canada? Yeah, that's really good question. So, yeah, I finished up university and in two thousand and nine and then worked another year in drest and for this, for the Solo Company. And the real reason why I went to Canada is that after the university, my English was pretty bad and so I realized that if you want to be successful in your career or in life, you have to speak good English, right. So yeah, I basically applied for a company and they opened up a new office in Toronto and because they wanted to build up a factory, a solar module production factory in Toronto, and that's exactly what I did. So I went over there, was the first employee over there and my boss was a former CIO from Siemens Asia, and so we built up this factory in Toronto started to produce modules. And to answer the second part of the question, a lot of people perceive Canada as if you think of Canada, you think of like cold and you think of reindeers and you think of, you know, a really harsh winter, which is absolutely true. But actually Toronto is on the latitude of Rome, or a no than Spain, right, so the Sunlight Ontario gets is actually forty percent more than the sunlight that we have in Germany. So actually putting solar in Ontario makes a ton of sense, and that's what we were doing with a lot of project development at the time. We're driving around and in Ontario. I got to know Ontario really well, all the the backcountry, the school we were scouting areas where we could place so module farms and it was a really exciting time and I started to love Canadians and in hindsight I was happy not to go to the US, as much as I love to us as well. Very interesting story. I'm a little bit curious when you first set foot in Canada as the first employee of this company there, how did it feel a who was like your first tasks? The actually have to find an apartment, that you have to find office space. Who is it like to actually start there completely new? That's yeah, that's a good question. So the Canadians always say, oh, you're fresh off the boat. That's that's actually an expressions. Or if you're new to Canada, they use that you're fresh of the boat as as if we're still in like one thousand nine hundred and ten or something. We took the titanic to get to Canada. And so but what this country has there really welcoming to to foreigners right and especially, for some reason, also to Germans. Were really open minded and really curious and want to learn and they'll help you to get settled. And so for me actually to integrate into the Toronto scene was quite...

...easy, I would say, in Hindsights and I remembered the first job, which was way out of my comfort zone, was we were at a trade show and we were handing out business cards and made contacts of stuff and collect the business cards and then afterwards I had to call up these people, and so my English at that time was still really crappy and I remember really almost as shitting my pants to call up these people and trying to sell them solo modules. And but it's a good learning and eventually we come we came through and we we sold solo modules to people. But that's that's how we just did it. We just started. I actually also heard that Canada's very welcoming to foreign business. Admittedly, I lived in the states for approximately a year from my senior year in college, but I never set foot in Canada, even though I have relatives there. So at one point I really really need to visit. What is the best time to visit? Is it like spring, when everything is blossoming up, or is it full when you have this Indian summer where all the foliage turns those shades of red and orange and Brown? I mean, Canada is so huge it really doesn't matter when you go. It's such a beautiful country. It has so much nature right. So even if you go into winter, you go into the Rockies, you go skiing and it's just amazing. If you go in the summer, you can go to the coast, to Nova Scotia and it's beautiful. Yet the fall, Indian fall is is absolutely stunning. So it doesn't really matter when you go. I think it depends more what's the right kind of part of the country during the year, where to go to. But honestly, my favorite part of Canada is probably the rockies and so to be out west and do two have that the wilderness, is something that we don't have in Europe and so that definitely impressed me the most. To close out this Canada story, two more questions. The first one would be did you get into Canadian Food and, if yes, what is this stuff you miss most? Is it something like Poutine, for everybody who doesn't know that, that is French fries with a brown sauce over it? And secondly, why did you leave Canada? Yeah, so interestingly, Putin is probably the the only food which you would tribute to to Canadian food, and so the cuisine there is so diverse and I actually used to live in Korea town in Toronto. So I really miss good Korean food. So beaman Bob and all the good stuff. You you can get it in Bilin, but it's not a it's not the same as sitting in like a Korean shack while all the Korean families eat. That's...

...yeah, so the created food was really good in Toronto. Admittedly, I'm personally also a big fan of Indian food and there's also big Innian community in Toronto. I think I would go for it. In fruit of the first few months of my time. They're absolutely it also great and in feud there. And so the reason why I left is I had a, if you want, a bucket list, and I said I wanted to travel around the world for one year before I turned thirty, and so I basically, after four years, just quit my job and I went traveling, and this travel actually led me then to South America, were I did a bike trip from Santiago, that Chila all the way to the south and we basically biked for three months, and this is where where I get kind of the initial thoughts and the initial drive to actually start solar so this one, quitting my job in Canada, going traveling for a year. It gave me the freedom to really rethink what I wanted to do. And then then, I think the next step was was solar I'm a little bit curious about this bike tripe because I didn't know that before. How far did you go south in Chila, really to like the most southern tip of South America? And how long, like in minds and Kilmajors, did you actually drive on your bicycle? Yeah, so we took us all together three months. So we flew to Santiago and it was a stupid idea in the first place from me and my buddy, and so we bought bikes in Santiago and we had never done a bike trip before, right. So, and I'm not even a big bike even to today, I'm not a big in two bikes. And so we just flew downder, bought two bikes and then just started biking. And but what's great about Sun Chila is the the nature is just amazing. I always say Chila is like Norway, but just on steroids. It's incredible the nature. And so while we're biking, and I think a total was somewhere around two and a half to threezero kilometers so while we were biking that the three months we were outside the entire town. So we camped outside. We just camped next to rivers. There were stretches of two three hundred kilometers we wouldn't see a single person. And then there's in three hundre kilometers, so there's a little town, you get some supplies, but then you have another two on a kilometers where there's nobody. And so being really remote and experiencing the nature, I realized how much nature is already hurting from climate change right and and that's where I decided for myself, is that whatever I want to do, I want to dedicate my life to protecting the environment. And and that was back then when I still thought what we need to protect the environment, we need to protect the earth, but actually what we need to do is we need to protect us, right, because the earth is not going to care...

...if we are going to be extinct. The planet will survive. But really making an impact against climate change is something that started to ripe in my head on that bike term. And then he came back to Germany working again for a Solo Cell Company. Issue just a short stint, and then you decided to actually go for solar. Yeah, so after finishing the bike trip, I got an opportunity to work on a large scale solar farm in Chilli, because I was biking down there. Already was in Chili. So the company was it was actually Koreer and company and we had a German engineering team in Berlin and we had people on the ground in Chili and I was the project leader for is a desert project, I'm sure if you ever seen this on TV, like the large scale solar farms and the desert, and we were planning to build one in the northern Chile and and since I've already been down there, that was kind of a fascinating job to do and I just said, okay, let let's do this for six months and it was really exciting to actually had such a large and complex project. But one thing I realized, and that's maybe a relevant to to the audience here, one thing I realized is that I'm certainly not a corporate person, because it took me, I think, half a day to actually get permission to go traveling or something like that, and I thought about this, this is stupid, and so that's why I decided for myself, okay, I can work in a corporate I need to find a different way to make an impact against climate change, and that's when we started sold. Okay, you talked about we started solar. So it was not only you. Who you cofounder is and what was the idea you set out to realize with the company? Yeah, so my cofound is Gregor. We knew each other from university, where she lived together university, and he was also working the solar industry, right. So we're both coming from the solar industry and the reason why we started in and Greg and I we always felt the same frustration about our current job. So when we build these big solar farms or when we build commercial solar projects, it was great because there was more solar energy on the planet, but at the same time we realized that the people that live around these solar farms, they don't change their behavior and if you really want to fight and solve climate change, it needs a human behavior change, right. So we need as we as humans, need to change the way we consume and the way we use energy. So that was the trusting a part of our jobs, and then we decided what we need to create a company that actually changes human behavior and I'm a big Fan. I don't believe in laws and I don't believe in that you don't let people do things. I'm a big believer and incentivizing and putting positive things around stuff and then people actually do something. And so this is exactly the case is with solar. So if you own a house and... put solar on your roof and you start saving eighty percent of your energy bill. So instead of forcing people to do it, let them understand that they can save a ton of money and they do something good for an environment and that's a much better case to the consumer and that that was the founding idea of toler and how did it develop, because you running it for now almost six years. At the time we going to publish this, likely in December, it is going to be almost six years. So can you take us a little bit along your journey and things you have discovered as an entrepreneur when you started to build up solar? Yeah, absolutely so. Literally, we started with an empty piece of paper and we try to sketch out what we could do. And back at the time there was you couldn't buy a solar system online and we asked ourselves, well, I can order basically anything on Amazon, but I can't order a solar system online. And and that was kind of the founding, kind of first hypothesis, if you will. Could we sell a system which costs you twentyzero euros? Could we sell this online to someone? And so people looked at us that like you're crazy, like who purchases twentyzero euros online? Nobody does that, right, and that was our hypothesis. It was the challenge that we wanted to do, and so which just started to put a little MVP together than we did it. We marked a couple of customer phone calls and we really try to just sell it online and eventually we ended up building a and online configurator. So it's so similar to like a core configurator, which is still the the heart of our sales and of our customer experience today. We put this online configurator which allowed people to experience the solar product, to understand it, to play around with it, to calculate the savings. And Yeah, we just one step led to another and then you just started. So bottom line is, people are buying from you solar installations worth tens of thousands of euros or you, as dollars for the very simple reason first, you now have a track record and, secondly, you have a simulator on your website where people can actually have the experience of already owning this. Would that be the bottom line? Yeah, exactly. So, if you own a house, a solar system, and when I say solar system, I also mean a battery attached to it, right, so it's the solar panels on your roof and it's the batteries in your basement where you can store the solar energy. And bottom line is, none of these people have ever bought a solar system before. All of our customers are first time buyers. It's not it's not like buying a car, where you know what a car does. You have been sitting in the cars of your parents and when you get older and you buy your own..., this is a complete new product which you also don't really understand. Right, most people don't understand solared. There's a piece of metal sitting on my roof and and magically it generates electricity, right. And so making this experienceable for consumers so that they understand. Okay, wow, with this system I'm eighty percent independent from the grid and I'm saving thirtyzero euros over the lifetime of the system and my energy bill goes down. To make this moment of realization. This is the key of our digital online process. Are there any companies that do similar stuff like you guys are doing? Oh, there's definitely companies out there now that either have a similar approach to what we're doing or do it in in a different way. I think what has changed in the last six years, if you will, and a change to in a good direction, is there's more urgency on climate protection right and as we speak, right now there's the cop going on in Classgow and actually the world leaders have agreed to ban fossil cars, I believe, by twenty thirty or two thousand and thirty five. So so the progress that we have made as humanities in the last six years and in order to fight climate change are really significant. And but six years ago the climate change was not a thing that people talked about, right, and so even putting solar on your roof was was not a thing that people really did. This has completely changed in and I want to say that we have been contributed our part of that change. I secc just one more question. How many people are working with solar as of now, early November, twenty and twenty one. Yeah, so our model that we have is we have people in our headquarter and that's basically people that do sales, that do marketing, that do the system designs, do logistics, that do our partner management, and then then we have people out in the field which our installation partners, and these installation partners, which we control and that work with digitally, they actually install the systems under the roof. So and so our partner base a roughly, I want to say, two thousand employees that are out in the field and install my modules for us, and then at the headquarter we have roughly three hundred people are working for us. And do you have any idea about the impact you're making in terms of, for example, reducing carbon emissions? Yeah, absolutely. So, first of all, our mission is to put the solar system on every roof. So the way the future is going to look like is that we will have a massive electrification of the energy that we use. So today, if you if... take it any normal residential home, you have electricity in the home that you use for lights, in your dishwasher, etc. You have your commuting, so your car, which you fill up with gas, and you have your heat system, which is, in Germany, mainly based on natural gas. So all of these three things are currently powered by fossil fuels. This will completely change to renewables in the next couple of years. So what's each household is going to choose? They're going to put a solar system on the roof, they're going to buy an electric car which they charge with the electricity from the solar system. They will buy a heat pump to generate the heat for the home and not use natural gas anymore, and for that heat pump you can also use the solar electricity from the roof and they will have a storage in the basement in order to have electricity also at night when the sun doesn't shine. So this is how the future of a home is going to look like and what we do essentially is we bring the carbon dike seed footprint of each home basically to zero. Can you talk about numbers? How many homes did you already help to get close to or two CERU? Yeah, so what we do in the first place, when when someone signs up with us, the first initial step is to put the solar system on a roof. That's how we kind of anchor our consumers on that climate journey. And so you put the solar system on, we rove. All of a sudden you become from a consumer where you just use dirty crd energy. You become to it what we call a prosumer, right. So all of a sudden you actually also produce energy which you can use yourself or you can sell it to the grid. And here's the interesting piece. The moment when people start producing their own energy and they stored in a battery and they can use our APP and actually see how much power they have produced today and how much did they use themselves and how much money they have saved. All of a sudden dair behavior changes. All of a sudden they understand that with renewable energy from their home they can be independent and end actually contribute to the fight against climate change. And then interesting things happen. Once they do that, they think about all the other stuffs in their life sit so, for example, heating, and once the heating system is APP for renewal, they're not going to go natural gas anymore because they understood, well, wait a minute, I can produce my own electricity, I can run my heating on that electricity. Why should I continue to buy natural fossil gas? Let's just use the heating from the home so far. To answer your question was so far we've converted a couple of thousand homes and we're planning to do tenzero homes next here. But ultimate goal is to go up to a hundred thousand homes a year that we convert to fossil free. One hundredzero homes year. That's quite number.

I assume you cannot only do this within Germany. You have to target at least all of Europe. Well, interestingly, so I would say Germany is probably the most advanced country and in solar deployment per capita. Interestingly, we have sixteen million residential homes and only one point eight million have a solar system so far. So there's still fourteen million homes where we can put solo on and so it would actually take us a hundred forty years do it. If we did a hundred thousand homes year, would take us a hundred forty years to actually put all of Germany with solar system. So the market potential and the market change is so tremendous that even if we just focused on Germany, it would take us quite some time. I see. See. Well, then you always have the option to target, let's say, five hundred thousand homes a year. Absolutely, I mean this is a simple climate change is a very simple problem, right. So we just have to stop burning fossil fuels, right, because fossil fuel to the stuff that's in the ground that we're pulling out and we burn it and we're wondering that it gets hotter. Well, due to the fossil in the ground, this planet has become habitable in the first place. Right. So all we need to do, and that's the interesting piece, all we need to do is change our energy back to the sun, because the human species is the only species on this planet that doesn't live of the daily sunlight. All we need to do is change it back to the daily sunlight and we're good to go. Very simple problem, very simple solution. Talking about solution for problems, maybe not the easy ones. I tend to always ask my guests here about their philosophy as not entrepreneur, because I learned over time that many of them kind of developing their own rules, not necessarily like gibbs, but also the same in the same way that they have some at least rustics they are adhering to. Do you have a few rules you could share with our audience, stuff you have learned over time being an entrepreneur? Absolutely so. I think the most crucial and I'm sure if it's a rule, but maybe a learning, the most crucial learning I had is as a founder, you always need to learn faster than your organization. Right. So if you're two people sitting in a room, this is a different dynamic than running a three hundred people company, and it's a different dynamic when you're in you're on the Tenzero people company. So when you start a company, the person you are today is not the person you're going to be in five years or ten years, right. So you need to learn, you need to be open for change, you need to be open to always be outside of your comfort zone in order to develop and in order to be that, I think there's two main in character traits, and... is you have to be nimble, you have to be in the humble right, and the second one is you need to be desperate for feedback, right, because only with feedback you can grow, you can learn, you can develop, you can you can get great ideas. So I guess that has been I wouldn't say this this is a rule or a paradigm, but that says strong learning that I had, especially in the beginning, which I would recommend for for any entrepreneur to follow. I think as a rule, the most important thing is you need to know your why. Why did you start to company? Why do you do this? Why do you want to be successful? Why do you want to do this, this and this, and if the answer is money, then you're not doing the right thing. Money isn't side effect of the thing you do, but the really the why is the thing that keeps you going. For six years and I can tell you, Joe, there's been days where just want to jump out of the window and just not do this anymore. And I'm frustrated because things don't work and things is not going the way. It's a roller coasted going up and down and if you don't have your wist right why you do this, you will break. And I think this the separates the good founders and a great entrepreneurs from the the mediocre ones, that the good ones actually have the wise right. I seecccc. I would since you are, or you likely using this in recruiting for the people preparing for the first interview. Can you tell us a little bit about how you hired the very first crucial hires, meaning you build up a team and first of course you hire people you know, but the first few people you don't know prior to the interview. They are crucial to make or break your startup. So how did you hire the people and what could people learn from it? Maybe even the ones going to interview with you guys? Yeah, so I think, and Joe, we talked about is just before the podcast a little bit. So the first hiring your first ten people is in managing them. Is Easy, right, but what most people underestimate is the first ten or twenty people really define your culture. They become the bone, they become the DNA, they become the ambassadors of who you are and why you do the things you do. So I believe the first ten or twenty em police are crucial in order to build the culture, because only a culture will create a great company that can be successful in the long run. And this is beautiful saying that culture is strategy for breakfast, and I think this is this is so true that, especially in the beginning strategy changes, the market changes, the product changes, but one thing that doesn't change is the culture. And so when you build up, when you start a company, it's so crucial to define your own own culture which...

...makes you unique and that gives an answer to people why they should work for you. And so I think that's something I certainly didn't know when we started the company and something that I didn't purposely design, but we were lucky to have a great cause that we're working for, and the cause that we were working for is to really create a future that is clean, to create to have an impact against climate change, and that is a why which is the central element of our culture. And whenever we interview people, is something we really check very hard against if they actually want to contribute to our mission or do they want to just have another job? And so if they just want to have another job, we're not the right company, but if they say they really want to contribute to something bigger themselves and want to leave a footprint on the world, then we have the right job for them. Actually, there's nothing I would to add here. I would just say, Alex, thank you very much. Was a great interview. I was not true. If it would turn out to be that great use. Your CV is a little bit empty, but it turns out a very interesting conversation. So thank you very much for being such a great, impatient guest here. Thank you too, have great day. By Bye.

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