CEO Secrets: 'Master every aspect of your business'

By Jeremy Howell
Business reporter, BBC News

media caption"Master every aspect of your business" says windfarm CEO Sarah Merrick

Sarah Merrick had worked in the wind energy industry for 20 years when she had an idea for a business of her own. What if she were to build wind farms, owned not by energy companies but by householders?

"Big companies were able to own wind farms to get the electricity they wanted to generate but individual households weren't. I thought that was really unfair. So, I set up Ripple to correct what I saw as a really big error in the market," she says.

Sarah started Ripple Energy four years ago. It is currently building a wind farm in South Wales, which will start operating in December.

So far, 730 members of the public have put up £1.5m to fund it. In return for the power the wind farm puts onto the grid, they will get reductions in their electricity bills. Ripple Energy runs the wind farm and makes its money by taking fees from the shareholders.

"It's the first consumer-owned wind farm in the UK," says Sarah. "We've set up a co-operative company which owns the wind farm. The shareholders pay into [it] and we give them the benefits through that company."

image copyrightRipple Energy
image captionRipple's first wind farm is a pilot project, Sarah plans to build and operate many more

Sarah says it was complicated to establish a company that builds wind farms, generates electricity and that also looks after the interests of hundreds of shareholders.

She was a shocked to find out how many business skills she would have to master to get her firm off the ground: "The biggest challenge for me was just how many hats you have to wear as the founder of a start-up.

"I worked for large companies previously, where you tend to get pigeonholed. You do one specific thing. Whereas, obviously, as the only person setting up a start-up you have to do pretty much everything - writing a business plan, marketing, business development, product development. You have to do it all."

For six months, Sarah took courses on how to start up a company. She studied in the evenings and weekends, all the while doing her full-time job at the Danish wind turbine company Vestas, and looking after her two children.

But, she says, mastering aspects of business such as company law and accountancy have been worth it: "Being involved with every single aspect of the company really paid dividends.

"You have an amazing overview and understanding of the company, because you can just see how everything fits together. You can see how marketing fits in with business development, and how that fits in with investor relations."

image copyrightRipple Energy
image captionMastering all aspects of a business means your foundations will be secure as you scale up, says Sarah

Sarah says the Welsh wind farm is only a pilot project. She plans to build and operate many more wind farms - and to move into solar power, as well.

"Mastering all aspects of running a business means your foundations will be secure as you scale up the company," she says. "You will see everything around you that's happening and see how the company can grow."

Currently, Sarah employs 11 people at Ripple in specialised positions. However, she argues that it is vital for a CEO to have first done their jobs herself, or himself.

"There comes a point when you will have to employ other people like a lawyer or an accountant, but if you have done that job yourself, you will know what you want of them.

"You can be very specific about what you are asking them to do. When a contract comes in, for example, you can critique it really, really well and you are not purely dependent on what they say."

Sarah says there are risks for new entrepreneurs who try and duck learning about what they see as the complicated aspects of management.

"You might feel that you cannot do something like reading a contract," she says. "But you need to try. You might be good at it.

"With a start-up, you haven't got much money and you need to be really, really efficient. And by not understanding every single aspect of the company, you might miss something. That could lead to a lot of wasted time and effort."