“Dare to dream big.” Interview with Enpal Founder, Mario Kohle

Enpal earned the distinction as Germany’s first green unicorn when in October 2021, it secured 150 million euros from the world’s largest tech investor, Softbank. 

Based in Berlin, Enpal is making it easier for homeowners to switch to solar energy by offering a complete package consisting of a solar system, energy storage, its own green electricity tariff and smart home environment on a subscription basis. Founded in 2017, in just 4 years Enpal became the largest provider of solar solutions for homeowners in Germany, with over 12,000 customers.

We caught up with Mario Kohle, Enpal’s Founder & CEO to find out more about scaling a unicorn, his personal entrepreneurial story (which includes some twists and turns), and the rooftop revolution Enpal is instigating. In this inspiring interview, Mario also shared that Enpal is currently embarking on a bold and exciting mission: to supply one million households with their own solar system by the end of the decade and become one of the largest green energy platforms in Europe.

Before founding Enpal you were the CEO of startup Aroundhome. What motivated you to pivot and launch Enpal, taking on another sector?

In 2008, during the economic crisis, a school friend I founded the internet marketplace Aroundhome, which provides products and services for all aspects of the home such as kitchen construction or stair lifts. In 2019, the leading German media group ProsiebenSat.1 acquired Aroundhome, which at the time generated external sales of €1.5 billion. 

I left Aroundhome in 2017 because I was increasingly concerned about the climate crisis that we’re already facing every day. I just wanted to do something about it – but with the skills I knew best: building a successful company from scratch . 

At Aroundhome, I already had a lot of touchpoints with companies that sold rooftop solar systems. I quickly realised the great potential of the renewable energy market. Buying your own photovoltaic systems is still very complicated, complex, and expensive, and there is a lot of bureaucracy involved. This can be very frustrating and overwhelming for customers. With Enpal, we wanted to make this whole process super easy and offer our customers a no-brainer solution. So I asked two of my best friends, Jochen Ziervogel and Viktor Wingert, if they wanted to join. 

By the way: Our company name “Enpal” is a combination of “energy” and “pal”. That’s exactly how we see ourselves: as a good friend that helps you switch to your own green energy. 

Do you have any advice for first-time founders or founders who want to change direction/pivot into new products or sectors?

Always use a crisis as an opportunity: We have grown so much as a company during Covid because we wanted to come out stronger, which we did. This doesn’t mean that we were only chasing high evaluations. When you think of yourself as somebody that made it in the world, you stop becoming somebody. I live with this mantra every day and so does everyone working at Enpal. We always aim for the next step possible, and we are driven by how we can offer our customers the best experience and product, how we can build a great company, and how we can make our impact on the world.

Practice a good amount of productive paranoia: All founders should know this catchphrase by Jim Collins. Always think about the things that can go wrong, aim for the best outcome possible and prepare for the worst. Only then you can  react quickly in times of crisis. A good rule of thumb: If you think everything is going well in your company, you probably just haven’t noticed how much is actually going wrong.

Have a dream: Especially in Germany people are often seen as crazy if they say that they want to change an entire industry. Because according to some, to do such a venture would be “far too expensive, far too complicated, just not doable”. Only 20 years ago, fossil energy companies printed advertisements saying that only 4% solar and wind energy is possible in Germany. Today, we have 50% renewables. With Enpal, we want to fight the climate crisis, start a rooftop revolution, and connect people to the biggest renewable community in Europe. Is this vision too big? I don’t think so. Every company only grows as big as the shell it grows in. My advice: Dare to dream big!

Enpal was founded in 2017, what milestones so far do you consider the most significant? Has anything changed along the way?

When we founded Enpal in 2017, we started with renting photovoltaic systems, then we added batteries and soon after our own green electricity plan. Along the way, we also developed our own smart home ecosystem to connect all of our devices. In the near future we plan on launching a wallbox and expanding our portfolio even more. Hence, we went from an MVP to an intelligent and fully integrated energy system for electricity, mobility, and heating. At this point we’re thinking beyond just growth and want to develop a product that provides more value for our customers. 

We are very proud that only 4 years after founding the company, we have installed over 14,000 rooftop solar systems, so we’re  one of the largest solar companies and the first Greentech unicorn in Germany. Besides rooftop solar systems, we offer storage units, our own Enpal Energy plan, an IoT and smart home system as well as a customer’s app. Together with our over 1,000 employees, we work hard every day to make a change in the world. 

What differentiates Enpal from its competitors? 

Besides the wide range of products that we offer our customers as a one-stop shop, one of our main USPs is the Enpal Academy – our training facility for future solar system installers. At Enpal, we train every career changer that is up for the challenge to be a craftsman helping us to install rooftop solar panels. We employ people that worked as chefs before and are now installing solar systems. 400 of our 1,000 employees are actually in-house trained installers and the number is going up every month. This year, we’re aiming to at least double the number of our in-house trained installers. 

Can you tell us about Enpal’s Solar-as-a-Service business model?

Enpal offers solar roofs via a subscription model — in combination with a solar system, electricity storage, its own green electricity tariff, and an app that allows customers to monitor their electricity consumption. The solar system is owned by Enpal, and the roof owners pay a constant leasing rate. This eliminates the need for high up-front investment or a bank loan. 

With our all-round carefree package, we handle all the bureaucratic hurdles. In the event of technical problems or defective components, we step in and rectify the issue immediately. Thus, providing a low-risk solution for those interested in solar energy. 

Customers can freely consume all electricity produced and are compensated for any excess electricity fed into the grid. After 20 years, the system can be taken over, and usage continued, for a symbolic euro. 

The Installation is carried out by our own Enpal installation teams or by certified installation partners. We train our  installers in our academy to guarantee  the highest quality standards. This way, we ensure that the solar transition in Germany does not fail due to a lack of specialised workers. Our proprietary AI-based software plans the solar installation in a matter of seconds.

Our Solar-as-a-Service business model is very essential to our growth because it makes solar energy attractive for many homeowners. But it’s not just about growth, it’s also about constantly improving our products. Renting your rooftop solar system at Enpal is like buying a car with a pre-installed software system: The car is still the same in 10 years, but your software has been upgraded for free again and again with a lot of additional features that make your driving experience even better. 

In October 2021, Enpal picked up a mega funding round of €150 million. How has this impacted the company?

The funding round with SoftBank is different from our previous fundings because it made us Germany’s first green unicorn. This has helped us enormously in raising attention for our company and goals. At the same time, a very high level of expectation is placed on us. When I heard the news that we had become the first green unicorn I was obviously excited. However, whenever I take a shower in the morning, I think about other, perhaps more important stuff, such as giving our customers the best possible experience and product while building a great company.

So, what’s next for Enpal?

We try to think big and act boldly. For most people, it would simply make more sense to have a solar system on their roof than not having one. So we’ll continue our rooftop revolution and further disrupt the energy market. Our dream is that everyone has a solar energy system on their roof, an electric car in front of their door and a storage unit in their utility room, and that all of these people will be brought together in a huge network in which everyone is independent from large electricity enterprises and helps each other energetically. By the end of the decade, we want to supply one million households with green energy and connect people via a renewable community. 

What do you think is the biggest challenge in energy production and consumption that still needs to be solved?

erman bureaucracy should no longer hold back energy transition. Our children will never forgive us if they ask: Why haven’t you done anything against the climate crisis? And we’ll have to answer: It was too much paperwork for us. Bureaucracy takes up a lot of time, money, and resources for both us and our customers. 

The grid operator registration is way too complicated, for instance. There are 900 grid operators in Germany alone and all of them have different rules. Some of them only accept their own forms or won’t accept forms because they have different layouts. The jungle of different rules makes life difficult for everyone.

Another example: smart electricity metres. They have a few technical requirements that are simply not practical. In order to store them in a room, protective walls with a minimum thickness of 10cm must be guaranteed. In addition, the room must be lockable with a cylinder lock, and no one is allowed to enter the room without a qualified installer. This is how the BSI (Federal Office for Information Security) requires it. Such rules may help if you want to implement IT security like a secret service, but not if you aim for a nationwide energy transition.

What tips do you have for building a solid team? 

As a founder, you tend to believe that you can do everything best yourself. Hardly a thought is so wrong! If you think like that, you get caught up in too many details and lose your focus. My advice: find people who understand more about certain topics than you do and get them on board. As a founder, you should only concentrate on the things that are most important for your business. Don’t try to solve too many problems at once, but one after another.