Engenie: Disrupting the market through successful innovation

Meet Ian Johnston, CEO, Engenie

Businesses are constantly at risk from disruption in markets that require adaptation and change. Ian Johnston, CEO of Engenie, joins us to talk about the impact that innovation and disruption have had on his businesses journey.

In this episode:

  • How Ian has dealt with disruption
  • Potential sources of disruption Engenie are likely to face
  • What differentiates businesses that deal with disruption from those who cause the disruption
  • How Ian deals with political and economical risks associated with disruption
  • Ian's top tips for business owners and managers looking to find innovative solutions

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This episode is part of our straight talking business success podcast series. Learn more about the series and what we cover. This podcast is available on iTunes, Spotify and Soundcloud.

Read the transcript:

Host: Welcome to Straight Talking Business Success, your guide to growing and developing your business. Today I'm joined by Ian Johnston, CEO of Engenie. Engenie are a specialist developer and provider of rapid charging for electric vehicles. Thanks for coming along today. To begin with, can you just introduce yourself and tell us a little more about what you do and about Engenie?

Ian Johnston: Great. Absolutely. Thank you for your time today. My name is Ian Johnston, as you say. I've been the CEO of Engenie for about 18 months now. Prior to this, I spent eight years working in the car industry with Volkswagen and Audi. I then made a big change and moved to the renewable industry where I spent eight years developing and building wind farms, solar farms, and biomass projects. Two quite different worlds that collide really in EV where you're seeing the electrification of vehicles and the renewable generation and delivery of grid-connected sites for those charging stations, which is what Engenie do.

Ian Johnston: Engenie's business is all around deploying a nationwide network of rapid charging sites for the average man and lady on the street. There's so much terminology which is confusing for EV charging, but in essence rapid charging is where you can get around 80 miles in half an hour, and you'll typically find these sites in public car parks, retail spaces, and on major highways.

Ian Johnston: Engenie's purpose is to fully fund, deploy, and manage that network across the UK. We grew last year from having around seven sites, when we were in our pilot phase, to where we've got to by Christmas, which was to have 100 sites nationwide, including London's first EV charging hub. So it's a rapidly expanding space, and it's exploding all over the UK at the moment and across Europe. It's a very exciting time.

Host: Obviously, we're speaking on the back of our conference around disruption and innovation. We see the EV space, I think, is at the forefront of that and that is a fact that is disrupting some established market.

Ian Johnston: Absolutely.

Host: It's also experiencing disruption itself.

Ian Johnston: Yeah, it is.

Host: What does disruption look like in your industry?

Ian Johnston: I think, as you said, our industry is disruption in itself. I think what you have with the car industry here is one of the biggest industries in the world with some of the biggest companies in the world being turned on its head.

Ian Johnston: The switch to electric vehicles is forcing global giants like Ford, Volkswagen, Toyota, to change or die in a way that they've never seen before. What I think is most interesting from a disruption perspective is that the disruption is not affecting just the car industry, but three giant global industries.

Ian Johnston: As well as the vehicle manufacturers, the disruption is of course affecting the oil majors with the likes of BP and Shell facing the imminent demise of their core business. They, too, therefore have to change or die. Obviously, last year we saw Shell rebrand themselves as the world's biggest energy company, not an oil company. So you've got the car industry, the oil industry changing.

Ian Johnston: Then, thirdly, the disruption engulfs the utility and electricity companies for a number of reasons. We've now got a number of vehicles running on electricity instead of liquid fuel. So you have Shell redefining themselves as an energy company competing now with traditional electricity companies. But also, people are primarily recharging their vehicles, refueling their vehicles, at home on the home electricity bill, which means that actually now the vehicle and mobility is going to be a ginormous part of utility companies' businesses as well.

Ian Johnston: Is BP your petrol company or your electricity company? Is Volkswagen your car company or are they your electricity provider? It's all merging in this huge explosion of a race to survive and then to lead in the new world of emobility.

Ian Johnston: I think where things get most exciting for new businesses and challenge of businesses like us is where these global giants are too big to react, or are too arrogant, for want of a better word, to listen to the change, then that gives us huge opportunity to disrupt the market.

Ian Johnston: I think if you look at Tesla, for example. I worked at Volkswagen for eight years. If anybody had said back then that a startup on the West Coast of California would be the market leader in the executive saloon segment, you would have been laughed out of the building. We're all used to Elon Musk and Tesla now, but it's insane to think where they've come up in 10 years.

Ian Johnston: That's going to happen in the electric vehicle charging space in terms of whose selling the charges. I think many of the automotive companies think that we will always want to transact with them for our charge, but of course, consumer power is so important, and we will choose to engage through our phones with who gives us the best experience and the best benefit. It's an amazing time. There's so much disruption and change all over the entire industry.

Host: You mentioned there around the blurring of lines with traditional business models from those big energy providers and automotive manufacturers. You also touched on your agility being a root to competitive advantage. Can you give some examples of how that's helped you to run with that disruption, as well?

Ian Johnston: Absolutely. I think even within our industry, if our industry is a disrupter, even within it there is disruption that the pace of change is quite frightening at times. We came to market in a world probably where there were maybe 1000 public charging stations. Part of our DNA was absolutely anybody can use our chargers. We did that by having contactless payment on the charging units, which was a very new innovative thing to do.

Ian Johnston: Now, whereas the rest of the market was a subscription model, trying to get people to sign up and commit to monthly payments. So that changed the market in quite an important way and really set the bar on what customers demand and expect. That probably came to the market maybe two years ago.

Ian Johnston: Now, last July the government said this is now the norm for businesses. So that's now the standards. In the space of 18 months, the standards change of what customers expect and almost to the point where what the legality requires.

Ian Johnston: Now for those partners who moved early into the market, the likes of Ecotricity and Chargemaster, who spent millions deploying infrastructure in the UK, they now have to go back and retrofit, which causes a huge expense. The question is what will be the next requirement from consumer demand, or from law, which we're now going to have to retro fit.

Ian Johnston: We disrupted once, the challenge for us now is can we stay at the front of the disruption or will we be disrupted going forward.

Ian Johnston: It's almost shifting in, I'd say, probably it feels like a nine month cycle. It's moving now. So we spend a lot of time talking to retail landlords. I would say the first half of last year our conversations were trying to convince people that the EV boom would happen. It feels as if the world of work came back from the summer holidays last year and every board across the country, from fast food outlets to close clothes chains have realized that the EV boom is going to happen. In the space in nine months, it was on every board's agenda.

Ian Johnston: What happened this year is now the public will now change as well. So we're going to have to keep changing all the time. You've just got to be at the front of the disruption or you become irrelevant very quickly.

Host: Excellent. Okay, thank you. So, my next question there really was if we saw that electronic payment being was initially disruptive and now just a requirement, it's expected everywhere, what do you see as being the next requirement that's coming down the tracks?

Ian Johnston: I think when there are thousands of thousands of EVs on the road, what people will need is the confidence that they can get onto a charger. So they are going to be some really interesting behaviors that will have to be agreed with consumers across industry. Like if you book a reservation of a charging place. So you might say, I believe that I will be at Junction 15 Services in an hour and a half, I'd like to book my slot.

Ian Johnston: Now, what happens if there's a crash and you don't get there in time? What happens if you get there and you realize you don't need to charge, are there penalties? There's lots of etiquette that needs to be agreed across the industry.

Ian Johnston: With etiquette comes technological requirements. If you are reserving bays, you need your apps and your back offices to provide that service, there's a whole thing around penalty. So you need to be nimble in your custom policies and your business processes, but most important your technology, to keep giving the customer what they want. Because the customer will simply drive past you and go to the next site.

Ian Johnston: The one thing with EV infrastructure is that none of us are making profit today. It's a longterm play. You're putting a lot money in the ground today, and if the trend moves too quickly, people may never use it when the boom comes. I think that's the big risk to us, is we need to be on the front of it for where the customer wants the trend to go.

Ian Johnston: That means looking across industries for other trends. If you look at the changes with Oyster Cards and banks, like Revolut and Starling. We have to keep looking at what the customers want, how do they want to transact with us, and not look at the traditional models of automotive and oil.

Host: What is it that you think that differentiates the businesses that deal with disruption from those causing the disruption?

Ian Johnston: It's interesting, I've got graduates in my business who have an absolute disregard for the way that things had been done in the past, which is quite amazing. Even if you look at the way that we used to deliver projects connected to the grid five years ago in the renewable world, when I talk the grads how it's done, within weeks they'll come back and say, "Yeah, we've heard you, but we were going to do this way. It's a lot quicker. It's automated. We're going to use these systems."

Ian Johnston: I think that disregard for the way things have been done in the past is amazing. It's almost a mindset. I think the true disruptors have a blanket desire to deliver what the customer actually wants.

Ian Johnston: In many cases we're borrowing what works in one industry and applying it to our industry. But the point is they don't wait to the point in time where they have to change. They don't wait for the status quo to be broken. They just get ahead and get it done.

Ian Johnston: It's a disregard for the way things are done. It's an unrelenting desire to just do it the way the customer wants it, regardless of what's come before. It's just a different mindset.

Host: Excellent. Okay. Again on disruption, there's a lot of uncertainty at the moment, politically, economically. How are you dealing with this? You mentioned some of the risks to your business coming up this year and how do you think businesses can better deal with that?

Ian Johnston: I think it's more important to have your sensors out and to be listing to customers and employees. It's the ability to listen to the early warning signals, but also to take them seriously and prioritize them. I think the great opportunity for startups and challenge of brands is the arrogance and the sheer scale of the market leaders.

Ian Johnston: If you can spot a trend that's moving quickly and apply it to your business, I think it gives you an opportunity because if you're smaller and nimble, you can change your customer processes and your rhetoric with your customers very quickly. But you've got to be listening.

Ian Johnston: I think that the dangers are so many of us disregard new tech and new methods of payment and the things as a fad. But if you look at the growth, as I say, of these new bankless banks like the Starlings and the Revolut, for the younger generation these things are adopted in a large way very quickly.

Ian Johnston: You just have to have your sensors out to be listing to what's happening and going on. Quite often it's the people on the front line, the people taking calls from customers, the people dealing on the site, on the ground, that pick these things up before the management team of course.

Ian Johnston: So again, it requires you to have a certain mindset of taking seriously the feedback you receive no matter where it comes from.

Host: Excellent. I think there's a point there you alluded to earlier is around looking at those changes, not just within your sector, your industry, and pulling those across.

Ian Johnston: Yeah. It's quite hard to define what we do. We're not a petrol station. Payment and accounts are so important. So quite often, we feel more like we're an online bank. We're not an electricity company it's harder to define yourself. You have to get everyone around you, everyone that you look and feel like, and see who in those spaces is doing well and what the customers expect.

Ian Johnston: You expect to open your app and download an account, interrogate the transactions you've had very quickly, and have the details there. So we should do the same because that in time customers would expect that whether they're dealing with their shopping or their clothes purchases. We have to look across all industries, I think.

Host: Innovation is key. What is your advice in for business owners and managers when they're trying to find innovative solutions to problems that they're facing?

Ian Johnston: I think pace is so important. Something we're trying to do is to collaborate with as many people as we can. When we realize that there's something we need to offer, or there's an additional service we need to offer, what we say is why would we take the time to learn to do it ourselves just so that we can own it all ourselves, when actually we could collaborate 50/50 with someone and own a pie that's twice as big.

Ian Johnston: What stops people doing that is a fear of giving away the crown jewels, or it's an ego where you want to own everything yourself and have the largest profit as early as you can. But I think collaboration is absolutely key to enable you to move at pace in industries.

Ian Johnston: I think the disregard for the way things have been done is so important. I think a lot about the... My 14 year old nephew teaches his IT teacher how to code. I think what the lesson from that is you have to accept that you don't know best. You have to listen to your customers, you have to listen to junior staff, and listen to those trends that gain pace, no matter how niche or fatty you may think they are.

Ian Johnston: I'm about to turn 40 so I'd still like to think I'm young, but you only need to spend, half an hour with the grads and you know that you are out of touch completely. When I take my Oyster Card out of my wallet and they laugh at me saying, "Why do you have an Oyster Card still?"

Ian Johnston: I think you've got to have your eyes and ears open and you've got to accept the disregard for the way things were successful five years ago.

Host: Excellent. Thank you very much, Ian.

Ian Johnston: Thank you for your time.

Host: Thank you for listening to Straight Talking Business Success. To find out more about the series, please visit From here you can subscribe for updates, meet our speakers, and get more information on all of the topics that we've covered.