"Spotting An Overlooked Opportunity"

Colin Palmer,  Windcluster

Colin Palmer, Windcluster

Colin Palmer, Windcluster, Shalfleet

My turning point was spotting an opportunity that others had overlooked.

Years ago, in the early days of renewable energy production, I was developing wind energy sites. I had to search for suitable areas. In those days, we used folding maps to find possibilities and check them in person. 

We became very active and successful in Cumbria, but the sites were running out. How could I keep the company going and use our experience elsewhere? I thought about Cornwall, but it was already full of competitors. 

I then realised that no one was working in the Fens around Cambridge, because they all thought that the winds there were very weak. But I had lived there as a child, and had a hunch that this was wrong. I went and checked the wind, found lots and moved work up there. We succeeded.

It was just as well – I'd started the business with no money, little support and no guarantees!

The decision was partly inspiration, partly logical thinking, and then checking the evidence. So I felt quite confident about bucking the trend.

Now in my 70's, I manage a windfarm on the mainland by email and telephone. Technology means you are not limited by the Solent any more. The Island is attracting more digital entrepreneurs – it's a more supportive environment to grow a new business than an inner-city office-block!

Another Door Opens...

Commentary by Dave Simon

More mature people are starting up their own business.

Sometimes it can be redundancy that triggers it. But more often, it is a wish for excitement and self-expression.

It seems the average age for founding a successful company is 40. For those people, taking responsibility is not a worry, and they tend to be good at organising.

They often bring more resources to the venture than younger people. Funds, contacts, experience, support and an understanding of risk-taking.

All you need is ambition, a laptop and the right mindset, they say.

To start-up, that mindset includes enthusiasm, courage and determination/ discipline – all free, but sometimes difficult to hang on to!

During the early days, you need enough all-rounder skills. Only later, when you can delegate, can you shrink your job and focus on leadership or innovation or whatever-your-strength-is.

If you are interested in going for it, take advice:


A New Calling

I've moved sideways in my career, several times. I originally trained as a naval architect, expecting to find a job as a yacht designer. I ended up in the hovercraft industry and learnt about how businesses work as well as how hovercraft work.

I became interested in wave energy. At the time, the Government thought that was the way forward and there were lots of grants available. And then I got involved in wind energy, pioneering turbine blade manufacture.

Renewable energies has been a growth industry over the past three decades. I saw some stats recently that showed 4000% growth in 27 years – and it's still rising! Entrepreneurs do best in growth industries.

My Early Steps

I'd been offered a partnership in a large civil engineering firm and declined. I really wanted to go my own way. That was my biggest decision. Strangely, many years later I hired them to work on a project for me...

But that first business didn't work. It was a classic case of too-narrowed skill range. We were expert at what we did, but not at making any money at it. I learnt a lot from that!

I sent a year 'resting' as actors describe it. I was working with a friend in his marketing business and I decided to buy a Mac with a laser printer so we could create very professional print-outs. That enabled him to go for bigger contracts than before. And the experience taught me about marketing, which changed my approach to building business in the future.

Changing My Direction

As an engineer, it had always felt natural to set about designing the products first and then try to sell them. Now I started to think about business development the other way round – finding customers first and then fitting the product to them. It was not necessarily easier, but it worked much better.

So I became joint Managing Director of a global company employing 250 people, finding sites to install wind turbines. That was where the Cambridgeshire fens helped so much! I realised my customers were farmers and planning authorities. Without them onboard, there was little point in starting the next stage.

Mature Entrepreneurs Succeed

I think our success was partly due to that marketing approach. The wish to start a business of my own came out of a strong desire to make things happen. I wanted to be sure that my ideas actually changed things. With that freedom comes responsibility, of course.

It may be that running a business becomes more attractive as you get older. Research says that it's easier to be successful when you develop new businesses in the same industry as your previous one. That way, your experience helps you to save time and be right in your decisions more often.

Persistence is all. The more you get right, the longer you persist, the more success you have.

Start With Aspiration

Aspiration is essential. Without something to aim for, you cannot develop any momentum.

Engineering is so important, but it has not had the support it needs recently. But as our appetite for new products – innovations, improvements and fashion-led designs – increases, we need more engineers. 

So we need support for education to boost youngsters' aspirations. Engineering is probably where the biggest Added-Value contribution is made to products. Transferable skills in engineering are always going to be in demand.

Island Aspirations

I really hope the College's new CECAMM Centre is a success. Making use of all the experience we have here makes sense to develop the future for Island youngsters.

If I were King of the Island, I would support the RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce), the Chamber of Commerce, Geoff Underwood's Technology Initiative and all our hi-tech businesses here. These are the accelerators for jobs, money and hope.

It's been said that it is better to be a small part of something big rather than the opposite. That's the ambition I would encourage for all of us.

Make sure you get email alerts for future Interviews - plus other useful business-boosting ideas and email-list-members special offers - by signing up here. You can unsubscribe easily anytime you want to.