Ali Zain Banatwala, from a former :agile startup was a welcome surprise visitor to the :agile office in Germany recently. We took the chance to chat to Ali about his :agile journey.
Ali, who now lives with his family in Pakistan holds a Masters degree in Electrical Power Systems from the University of Bath, as well as a Masters degree in Finance from the London Business School. Talking to Ali, you quickly get a sense that he’s very driven and tenacious, and not afraid to challenge the norm - attributes that are common among our :agile startups.
The :agile journey started for Ali when he joined the energy trading and commodities side of E.ON SE back in 2008. By 2015 he was pitching his startup idea, and then he spent 2016 developing ‘Wattworks’ as part of the :agile accelerator program.
His idea, which he says came to him spontaneously, was to optimise the grid distribution systems with intelligent software while sharing all the energy expertise, knowledge and experience within E.ON, externally. In Ali’s words ‘don't spend time and money developing and testing solutions from scratch. Take advantage of E.ON's expertise with tried and tested low-risk solutions for network modernization.’
Ali’s idea still lives on today. The software proved too problematic because of data needed from distribution businesses, but Ali’s energy consultancy business, Joule Tech, advises clients such as the Asian Development Bank and the Ministry of Water and Power. Ali uses his industry experience to advise them on everything from power systems modelling and analysis, to energy systems optimization and grid integration of renewables.
When Ali looks back, he found his year at :agile the most useful for his own personal growth and development. ‘It’s intimidating having to make your idea happen, but if it’s going to be easy it’s pointless. If it’s going to be challenging, you will learn and grow.’ For Ali, the pressure gave him more focus. ‘With :agile, the clock is ticking. It’s your idea so succeed or go home!’
Here are Ali’s top tips for making the most of your idea and the opportunity that :agile presents.
Start with at least two people if you can. Ali found it challenging as he was on his own. ‘I had to do everything – prepare presentations, pitches and business plans, make contacts, and try to sell.’ There were however some advantages. ‘I could change whatever I wanted to without discussion and make decisions quickly.’
Don’t get side-tracked. ‘When I did my demo:day, E.ON UK showed a lot of interest so I got pushed into that direction.’ With hindsight this was a distraction for Ali and took him away from progressing his core idea.
Spend more time building your network. Especially at the start. This makes everything much easier as you go through the journey as you have contacts to call on and people to test and challenge your idea.
Focus on the business model first. ‘Most people start with the product. But if you work more on the business process, how you’re going to build your product, and who you’re going to sell it to and how, everything becomes easier.’ Ali feels that this is where you uncover challenges early, so when you do make your product, you know that it will be right for your target customers.
Make the most of your time with :agile. Ali misses the fun working environment that :agile gave him. ‘Don’t underestimate the benefit of the freedom you have to focus solely on your idea without anyone burdening you with the daily tasks you have when you’re an employee.’