February 14, 2019
Five Questions with Manuel Wiechers
contributor: Rob Goodier
It’s not the technology, it’s the people. That’s Manuel Wiechers’ advice for anyone launching a technology-based social startup. For a successful business, focus on the team, and for happy customers, be there with service and training. Mr. Wiechers heads Iluméxico, a rural solar energy venture that lights homes and powers schools among the 2.4 percent of Mexico’s population that does not have electricity access.
To date, Iluméxico has installed nearly 13,000 systems that generate a total of 1 megawatt for 58,000 people to use. The company has survived exploding capacitors in a design and manufacture error and persists today, setting itself apart from competition by providing both solar technology and “last-mile” distribution in some of Mexico’s hard-to-reach rural communities. Part of the distribution success stems from 12 centers that the company opened to sell and service systems in rural Mexico. And a large part of the company’s success thus far is its attention to people, Mr. Wiechers says.
We asked Manual Wiechers five questions.
E4C: What are some of the big challenges in your work, either on the technology side or the business side?
MW: Talent acquisition and retention. Hiring the right team, selling your vision to attract top talent in management, and at the same time generating the learning and development platforms for employees from the field. We are working in very remote areas and hire locally. If your team and your culture is right, and you implement the right processes, technology goes to a second-term priority.
E4C: Do you find that the limits of the solar technology available present a problem to your business?
MW: Not a limit. Was a limit 5-8 years ago related to affordability for customers. Today, efficient appliances are a greater challenge than the cost of solar. Battery technology could definitely be improved specifically going from lead acid to lithium for large-scale systems (due to cost).
E4C: What advice do you have for entrepreneurs interested in launching a social business built around technology?
MW: It is important to focus on the quality of your technology, and obviously the more you design your technology on knowing the customer perfectly, the better. However, my most important piece of advice would be that regardless of your technology, do two things when working with underserved communities. One, have service capabilities and always be available to troubleshoot and provide maintenance and repairs. (Technology will always have issues in remote and rural areas.) And, two, train local youth and your customers to give maintenance and basic troubleshooting for the technology.
E4C: In your work, what has been one of the most instructive mistakes you’ve made, and what did you learn from it?
MW: After our pilot project of 40 households, we did a retrofit for our systems so they were manufactured easier (created a surface-mount circuit design vs. our old circuit). We launched 300 systems for a large project immediately. They all failed (capacitors exploded, processors burned, etc.) due to a miscalculation in our circuit redesign and some manufacturing issues, along with a purchase we did directly from China of 1000 LEDs that also came with defects. Three hundred angry customers would get together with us every month, and we would try to explain, and replace their equipment, but we took time to figure out the initial mistake and many customers had 2-3 changes in components due to failures. We learned two key takeaways: One, you always have to start small and test your technology in a controlled environment, no matter the size or “simplicity” of a technology change; and, two, customers value the most that you are upfront and respond to them, even if tech is failing. These 300 customers then became long-term customers.
E4C: Would you describe a time when you knew you’re in the right line of work?
MW: Every time I go to a community and turn on the light for the first time in a household, and every time I see a new hire from our company. Could be someone from a community where we are their first job opportunity, at-risk youth who are now in our manufacturing and assembly line, or a motivated college graduate sacrificing a job at a consulting firm to become part of our team and continue to spark development through solar energy.