Origin Story Interview W/ Allen Himes, Indigo Energy

Origin Story Interview W/ Allen Himes, Indigo Energy

Brighter Future

 / 

Aug 16, 2023

#BrighterFuture #entrepreneurship #Sustainability #ClimateChangeSolution #originstoryseries #seekthechange #engineeringservices #solarenergy #engineeringinnovation #solarservices #RenewableEnergy #SolarPower #CleanEnergy #EnergyTransition

Brighter Future

We’re here with Allen Himes, founder of Indigo Energy. Based in Southeast Asia, Indigo Energy provides engineering services to solar energy projects around the world.

Thank you so much for being here, Allen. Do you think you could introduce yourself and your business?

Hello! My name is Allen Himes, and I run Indigo Energy. We focus on providing engineering services to solar developers worldwide. We have clients in various countries, including the US, Australia, Japan, Singapore, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Europe. Before the recent military coup, Indigo Energy had a more localised focus and primarily engaged in construction and IPP (Independent Power Producer) projects within the country. Because the coup rendered further investment in the country unattractive, we decided on a change of business direction. As a result, we shifted our model to an outsourced engineering services approach.

Technically, my background is in engineering, but you might say I officially joined the Dark Side when I enrolled in business school to pursue an MBA. My goal was to become an entrepreneur, and this I did; I started my own business while working full-time as an engineer.

Although it was an okay experience, it became evident at that early stage that I lacked the necessary knowledge to succeed in the business world. My reasoning had been that if I could learn engineering in school, then I could learn how to run a business in school.

Apart from that, I was interested in renewable energy and recognised that graduate school could serve as a stepping stone to help me transition into that field.

Do you have a larger goal in your work?

I’m mostly motivated by the act of creation. In the earlier version of Indigo Energy, which I refer to as IE 1.0, our main focus was providing electricity to rural areas and villages. But this didn’t excite me as much as building a team and witnessing daily improvements. So my main interest lies in the process of creation. This is my ultimate goal.

How did the name Indigo Energy come about?

I grew up in rural Mississippi, where my family had an indigo plantation over a hundred years ago. Indigo was used for dying fabrics blue before chemical dyes were invented. I was thinking about how I could connect my personal roots to the energy sector, and I had the idea to reference that. And the alliteration of the name— Indigo Energy, two primary “En” syllables— sounded appealing. So, that's how I came up with the name.

When did you first realise you wanted to work with energy or renewable energy?

It was after I graduated from university. While in school, renewable energy was still a relatively new and theoretical concept. At that point, I didn't fully understand its details, only knowing about solar panels, global warming, and other related topics. It wasn't until after I had started my first job that I began to think more about renewable energy.

I grew up in a rural area, and I’ve always been interested in nature and the environment. As a child, I enjoyed reading books about animals in the forest, and they were the main characters in my favourite magazines. So this interest in the environment has always been a part of me.

Interestingly, your love for animals and environmentalism combines your passion for technology and building. Did you always know you wanted to do this, or did it happen naturally while you were in school?

Well, it just happened naturally. I've always been very independent. My mother would say I'm quite stubborn. From a young age, I knew I wanted to work for myself and not for someone else. But of course in high school I didn't know what that meant or how to achieve it. It was just a concept in my mind. I never asked myself the question, “How am I going to earn money?”

It took time for me to understand the world better and realise there are opportunities if you're open to them. Selling things or starting a business are just some of the possibilities.

What life experiences and early career moments gave you the confidence and knowledge to start your own business?

After finishing business school, I completed an internship in Hong Kong. While it turned out to be a mundane experience— it just felt like riding up and down elevators daily— I remember thinking, as I got the plane ticket to Myanmar, that I knew no one, didn't speak the language, and had limited knowledge of my role in the energy industry. How was this going to go?

Although an engineer, I had yet to work in the energy sector, and only studied it in business school. Despite my doubts and uncertainties, I took the plunge and boarded my flight.

A little while later, standing in the lift one day and wondering what I was doing, I recall reading a quote from a Zen Buddhist that stuck with me. He said, 'we could not do otherwise because it's in our nature'. It resonated with me, and I knew that starting a business was the path I was meant to take. I cannot explain precisely why I felt this way, but I knew it to be true.

What stage were you in when you said, “I'm going to try it”? Were you in the sole founder or co-founder stage? What gave you the final push to start Indigo Energy?

Indigo Energy has gone through three phases. In the first phase, we worked in rural electrification; in the second, we worked in solar power in Myanmar. The third phase is what we do now with offering engineering help in solar projects. The first phase crashed because I ran out of money and was doing the wrong thing. The second phase came a little while later, when I had the idea of rooftop solar implementation. As I still wanted to run my own company, I talked to some prospective clients who validated the idea and motivated me to pursue it. I transitioned from full-time to part-time work, working from my kitchen table and desk to get started.

With the part-time work and some money I saved from my previous salary, I could hire one staff member, an admin, who worked from my kitchen table while I worked from another room. Soon after, we got an office and hired one engineer and another engineer as things started improving. Eventually we were able to get some projects and hire more engineers.

How long did it take for your business to become stable after you switched from a part-time job to running it full-time, plus or minus stability?

It took no more than a year and a half— I estimate between 12 and 18 months. I had to jump into it full-time because the part time job ended, and we made it work.

What fulfils you the most in your work?

While winning projects is exciting— particularly in construction, where only a handful are won in a year— seeing my team develop in the day-to-day work is more fulfilling. Witnessing progress in my team members, even if we aren't building a project or closing a deal, is quite satisfying. Some of my team members who started during our part-time phase in mid-2017 are still with us and have become leaders in the company. For example, two female engineers who joined at that time now run the technical and commercial teams. They stuck around long enough to learn and can now accomplish amazing things.

What were the biggest challenges you faced with Indigo Energy?

On a day-to-day basis, finding good people who are motivated and have the necessary skills is a common challenge in any industry. I have friends who run businesses outside the energy sector and encounter the same problem. We usually prefer to hire fresh graduates because they have yet to develop bad habits. Unfortunately, the education system in Myanmar has been poor for the last 50 years, making it difficult to find good people willing to stay for two to five years.

Nowadays, we are facing a different type of problem, which is a brain drain. Anyone who can leave the country wants to do so. For example, two of our best engineers left to pursue opportunities abroad— one went to the UK for graduate school, and the other went to Singapore for a job in a more stable country.

How do you feel about having your business based in a country that could be more stable?

I sometimes wonder about the decision and ask myself this question. However, problems exist in every country. It is just a matter of choosing what kind of problems you are willing to deal with. Many issues that people consider problems in the West do not present as problems to me at all. But on the other hand, there are legitimate issues here. Of course, the government may exaggerate some problems for their agenda, and people may do things that don't make sense. Nevertheless, something is always going on, and I always say it’s good to minimise the impact of the problems. You might get frustrated with their frequency, but you will never be bored.

In a way, you’ve got to have thick skin.

Absolutely.

What were the biggest mistakes you made, and what did you learn from them for the future?

I didn’t focus enough on money during the off-grid work with Indigo Energy 1.0. Considering that I went to business school, it may sound silly, but I viewed money as an abstract idea— invest your time and money, and more money will come. Although this isn’t exactly false, it comes with a contract and a bank transfer, which are mundane things which must happen.

So you might say my approach was too theoretical. I try to be more practical these days, focusing on where the revenue comes from, because having insufficient money in the business is not ideal. In the past, there were times when I had to borrow money from my friends to pay salaries, which I don't want to do again. I was fortunate to have good friends who could help me, but I don't want to impose on them or create uncertainty for my team.

How long has it been, from then until now?

About ten years— I came here in 2012. But I borrowed that money around five or six years later, so it wasn't so long ago. Nowadays, we're okay and have enough money in the bank, but I still remember it.

It seems like it has been a learning experience and something you never want to repeat.

It reminds me of my grandmother, who has since passed away. She was around 95 years old when she died. She grew up during the Great Depression in the US and was very thrifty. I remember she kept everything, even the bread bags she bought. She had whole drawers filled with them because they were reusable and sturdy. I have inherited her mindset of conserving things, particularly with money, so I don't have to face the same problems she did.

Did you experience any big “Aha!” moments that drastically shaped you into who you are today, whether related to your business or in general?

I don't know. It feels more like a gradual evolution than a sudden revolution. When I think about my friends from high school or even my college ex-girlfriend, who I ran into last year, they seem the same as they were years ago. Living in a small town, three hours from her hometown, nothing has changed.

But of course I've moved on from that life. I'm no longer in Mississippi or even the US, and I've grown and changed a lot since then. That said, I guess I can't pinpoint a specific “Aha!” moment that caused a major shift in my life.

Was there anything in the business or climate space that inspired you, such as a book, speech, movie, or person?

Well, like I noted earlier, I printed out Theodore Roosevelt's “Man in the Arena” speech when I contemplated coming to Myanmar while in Hong Kong. I pasted it on the back of my door and read it frequently. It was very motivational for me at that time.

What was the biggest sacrifice or compromise you had to make to get where you are today?

Opportunity cost is real, particularly in terms of salary. For example, an engineering MBA in the US can make a good salary, and the lifestyle is often quite stable. In the past, I used to think about why I couldn't want that kind of stability or be satisfied with it. But I don't consider that a sacrifice or compromise because it was never an option. I couldn't envision that kind of life, so I never pursued it.

I like how you asked yourself: Why wouldn't I be happy with the ordinary life that many people are content with? It’s a great question. So, what is the difference between doers like you and people satisfied with a regular job?

I don't know. Maybe I’m just crazy. But it comes down to our nature again: there's simply no other choice. I can't help but be this way.

Do you have a plan to mitigate workforce instability in Myanmar?

I think we can work on that by opening an additional office in another Southeast Asian country. This would create a similar kind of structure.

Do you have a vision beyond your business, such as for Myanmar or the power industry in general?

Regarding the power industry, I'm not doing anything particularly original. I'm not creating new technologies or anything like that. My strengths lie more in taking action and making things happen rather than in theory or politics. My perspective has always been that there is no reason that things cannot be better, and I am here to build businesses.

That being said, businesses can have a positive impact on society. Look at Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and others who have used their wealth to uplift others. It's not just about making money, but about creating good jobs and fostering a positive mindset for the future.

Many of my former staff members have told me that the lessons they learned while working for me have given them an advantage over their peers due to their different mindsets, which is very encouraging. I may not be a democracy advocate or a political figure, but I do believe in using business as a force for good.

Where would you be drawn if the power industry didn't exist?

We actually pose this question to our interviewees to gauge whether the candidate has a clear sense of direction. Sometimes people have unrealistic ideas or a broad perspective that may not be suitable for an engineering position.

For my part, one thing I’ve considered pursuing is furniture making. I’m drawn to the idea of being a craftsman instead of working in an industrial setting like solar energy, which relies heavily on electrical and mechanical skills that can be applied in many other fields. If I made furniture, I think I could be a little more creative. I’d also always be able to improve in tangible ways. The work is an iterative process that allows for refinement and improvement over time— which I find appealing.

What advice would you give to an entrepreneur just starting or someone who thinks they want to build a business in the future?

It's always harder than you think it's going to be. Make sure you're resilient. These things are connected because it's hard, and it's often up-and-down. It's all on you: if you fail or if you succeed. Failure will feel bad, but success will feel great. It's kind of a bipolar thing, but you'll experience it either way.

Have you ever considered getting a partner or co-founder rather than having it all on your shoulders?

Actually, no. I've never really met someone at the right place and time. I guess it's the same reason I'm not married.

What is one lasting message you would like to share with the world?

My team emphasises continuous improvement, and I believe this can be achieved through self-reflection. A source of inspiration here comes from the quote attributed to Socrates in Plato: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Everyone benefits from healthy self-examination. I suppose that would be my prescription for the world.

I couldn’t agree more. Thank you so much for spending some time with us, Allen, and we hope your company’s work in solar energy succeeds beyond your wildest dreams.

To read more about Indigo Energy, please see www.indigoenergy.net.

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