Pedal to the metal

 
Annabel Denham
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Annabel Palmer meets POD Point founder Erik Fairbairn, who’s helping drive the electric car revolution

IT’S RARE to find an entrepreneur who, just midway through growing a business, is entirely candid about their exit plan. But Erik Fairbairn – founder of POD Point – plans to create 10 companies “this lifetime”. At 37, and already on his second in a decade, he might just make it.

POD Point specialises in all aspects of electric vehicle (EV) charging. The business has three arms: public charging (on street or in car parks – for which units cost around £2,500); home charging (where units cost an average of £500), and his software solutions business – which runs his network of users. “At the early stages of the business, we’re trying to build that network as fast as possible. Today, most of our activity is selling the hardware. In ten years’ time, that will likely be a small part of what we do. Instead, revenue will come from monetising our existing network.”

SERIAL ENTREPRENEUR
I meet Fairbairn at POD Point’s Aldgate offices – where in a small, modest back-room, cluttered with prototypes, the magic happens. It was here that six engineers designed and built the latest POD Point model, and developed the technology for the first ever pay-as-you-go system for drivers. A mechanical engineer graduate with a passion for all things auto, Fairbairn has stuck to what he knows. His first venture was an exclusive supercar club, which was built over three years and sold in 2008. At that point, Fairbairn took a well-earned holiday. “The day I got back, I got to work on POD Point.”

Fairbairn’s formula for entrepreneurial success is simple: the idea matters less than the execution. “The notion that electric cars will need a petrol pump in the future is not a mind-blowing discovery.” But there’s something to be said for spotting an opportunity and running with it. According to figures from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, there are now nearly 10,000 electric cars on the road, with 1,200 electric vehicles sold in March, compared with 270 in the same month last year.

“By 2020, we forecast that EVs will form 15 per cent of all car sales. Move forward another five years, and almost everyone will be driving them. I don’t see any other technology with the potential to replace internal combustion engines.” But with increased sales will come greater competition. Already, the likes of Chargemaster are keeping POD Point on its toes. “That’s why we have to continue to execute well. We’re not worried – if you do something and you have no competition, that should be a warning sign.”

CHALLENGING ENVIRONMENT
Yet EV uptake in Britain still lags behind the rest of the world (in Norway, Fairbairn tells me, 20 per cent of all cars sold are electric), in part due to a lack of charging infrastructure. Just last week, Renault-Nissan chief executive Carlos Ghosn acknowledged that last year UK sales were four years behind target. Even today, POD Point is not entirely demand driven, with CSR or environmental budgets still accounting for some sales.

But it’s a chicken and egg situation. “The biggest obstacle we’ve faced is matching the growth of the sector with what we’re doing. If I had put £100bn into this business in 2009, it wouldn’t actually have helped me. You’ve got to grow the infrastructure slightly ahead of the vehicle rollout, but not massively. It’s what I call throttle control: taking a punt on when to accelerate the business.”

While Fairbairn expects most of his ten ventures to last from three to five years, he accepts that building an infrastructure-based company will take a little longer. “My advice to any entrepreneur is not to choose a new sector that needs hardware and software. If I’d really thought about that in 2009, I may not have gone ahead with it.” But before his 2019 deadline, Fairbairn has big ambitions for POD Point. “We’ll have an enormous network across the UK, with hundreds of thousands of publicly-accessible charge points.”

LESSONS LEARNED
Fairbairn doesn’t subscribe to the “Silicon Valley approach” to building a business – by moving forward only once a seed round of investment is secured. He bootstrapped both his ventures, using existing resources and keeping overheads low. But it helps that POD Point limits the amount of investment it needs, by selling each charge point it builds. “It’s much better that we don’t own all the assets,’ he says. “We can grow faster by taking a bit of everyone else’s funding.” To date, it has sold just over 10,000 units.

Rewind a decade, and Fairbairn was working at Britvic. But a summer course at Cambridge’s Entrepreneurship School inspired him to take the next step. Today, he takes any opportunity offered to talk to young people about life as an entrepreneur. “If you’re serious about building a business, it’s a life choice. It’s all encompassing. My job is my passion – but my brain is never switched off.” Finally, I ask, does he drive an electric car? “I’ve got a BMW i3 on order,” he grins.

CV ERIK FAIRBAIRN
Company name: POD Point

Turnover: £5m

Founded: 2009

Number of staff: 25

Job title: Chief executive

Age: 37

Born: Surrey

Lives: Coggeshall, Essex

Studied: Mechanical Engineering, at the University of Sheffield

Drinking: Coffee. Constantly.

Reading: The Everything Store, by Brad Stone

Favourite business book: Rework, from 37 Signals

Talents: I don’t think too much about how hard something might be – I just get on with it

First ambition: To build things I’m proud of

Motto: Doing nothing is always wrong

Heroes: Elon Musk

Most likely to say: Go Go Go – what are you waiting for?

Least likely to say: Let’s hold back, form a committee, see how it fits with our strategy plan