Anson Zhang, Co- CEO & Co-Founder of Discover Energy, is one of Australia’s most successful young entrepreneurs (ranked 62nd on the 2021 AFR Young Rich List). In 2013 he co-founded One Stop Warehouse, turning it into Australia’s largest solar equipment distributor in just 8 years ($600m+ annual revenue) after recently selling over 2.5GW of solar panels since its inception in 2013 powering 600,000 homes.
He has since founded Discover Energy, an innovative energy retailer focused on smarter, greener power. Anson’s vision is responsible for allowing consumers to store excess energy and trade it back to the grid at peak prices through Virtual Power Plants (VPPs). As well as going green, Discover Energy customers are eliminating bills and are instead making on average $85.65 per month from solar feed-ins and trading energy.
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Table of Contents
Let’s start with a brief introduction first. Introduce yourself to our readers.
Anson Zhang: I started my career as a Product Manager for ASUS Australia for a few years, before I moved on to establish One Stop Warehouse in 2013 and Discover Energy (DE) in 2018.
Our audience is interested to know about how you got started in the first place. Did you always want to become a CEO or was it something you were led to? Our readers would love to know your story!
Anson Zhang: After years of working for others, I became motivated to work for myself. And more importantly, I wanted to be in an industry that was constantly evolving and innovating, which led me to the solar energy industry.
The path to solar energy was a stroke of luck – my business partner, Jeff Yu, and I had a friend who was involved in roof-tops (solar installation work), and that was our first introduction to the industry. I was attracted to solar because I thought it could be a pathway for me to fulfil a personal dream – to give back to the environment – after having experienced first-hand the harmful effects of air pollution back in China. The solar business is a very capital intensive one, the challenges of finding a way to be successful, always searching for the blue-ocean strategy kept us motivated and always moving to new goals.
“Selfmade” is a myth. We all received help, no doubt you love to show appreciation to those who supported you when the going got tough, who has been your most important professional inspiration?
Anson Zhang: One book that really inspired me and has acted as an anchor for which I’ve based the ethos of my businesses is Zero to One by Peter Thiel. This book shows entrepreneurs how to anchor singular and innovative ideas and manifest them into thriving startups and businesses for the long run. One Stop Warehouse is a testament to Zero to One with our origins as a two-man band to becoming Australia’s largest solar distributor. However, the ideology of creating something really new is really Discover Energy’s as it is developing truly new tech and helping create fundamental disruption to the carbon-intensive way Aussie customers currently consume energy.
Another inspiration is Elon Musk because of his ability to manage a demanding personal life with a large family, being a philanthropist whilst managing concurrent successful and innovative businesses.
How did your journey lead you to become a CEO? What difficulties did you face along the way and what did you learn from them?
Anson Zhang: When I started the One Stop Warehouse, my objective was simple – I just wanted to make a living and create a company and business that I believed would have longevity. As I mentioned, I was tired of working for someone else and wanted to immerse myself in an industry that was still emerging. Prior to this, I was working in the laptop industry then and that was not exciting anymore because everyone was going mobile.
As the business grew, our skillset had to grow with it. As a small start-up, it was relatively easy, because you have only yourself and a small team to manage. As we expanded and had teams located across the country, remote management presented a new set of challenges including keeping the teams focused and motivated. I confess that I am not an expert in every function across the organisation, but the key is to lean into other people’s expertise, have an open mind and capitalise on sound ideas and opportunities.
Tell us about your company. What does your business do and what are your responsibilities as a CEO?
Anson Zhang: One Stop Warehouse is currently the largest distributor of solar panels and systems in Australia raking in $600 million dollars revenue last financial year. Discover Energy is an energy retailer and was established when we envisioned how we could help thousands of Aussie households save on electricity costs in a highly regulated energy retail industry, while also advancing the revolution of green, renewable energy. Discover Energy leverages OSW’s extensive solar network, and also hinges on AI, machine learning and deep solar data to allow our Virtual Power Plant (VPP) customers to participate in energy trading.
As CEO of both Discover Energy and One Stop Warehouse, my current responsibilities involve the broader corporate management for both companies, specifically focusing on capital raising, engaging potential investors, and business partners to integrate new businesses and strategies into our current business model. I also place a lot of emphasis on talent acquisition as it is important that our team members in key strategic positions set the pace and standards for the business.
What does CEO stand for? Beyond the dictionary definition, how would you define it?
Anson Zhang: Jack of all trades, hopefully, master of a few? As a co-founder who built these businesses from scratch, I want to see them succeed. Success is measured not just in financial terms, but also by having a close-knit team that works together towards the same goals and being rewarded for their hard work.
When you first became a CEO, how was it different from what you expected? What surprised you?
Anson Zhang: I started as a CEO of a two-man band, now we have over 150 employees. I wanted to make a living, but now I play a big role to help others achieve their goals. As the business grew, our vision had to be bigger, and our skill set had to keep pace. Before I could do it my way, but now I have to see things from the teams’ perspectives. I never had to do any public speaking or media interviews or socialising, but I guess, the business environment forces you out of your comfort zones to do the things you have to do. It is like maintaining a work persona and a personal persona.
There are many schools of thought as to what a CEO’s core roles and responsibilities are. Based on your experience, what are the main things a CEO should focus on? Explain and please share examples or stories to illustrate your vision.
Anson Zhang: External trends and drivers, and internal housekeeping. I cannot stress enough how important it is to be on top of market development and influence. We saw the opportunities to expand the OSW B2B business model to capture the Discover Energy B2C market. Because of our focus on these pillars, there have been so many opportunities and synergies between the two businesses.
Strategies and opportunities cannot be sustained if they are not executed properly, which is why it’s important to employ a diverse range of people to be able to support you to execute them where you do not have the experience required.
In short, internal housekeeping – financial planning, human resources, IT mapping and execution, compliance work – all work hand-in-hand to ensure success in execution so it’s important to constantly be working out solutions and developing resources to achieve your goals.
Share with us one of the most difficult decisions you had to make for your company that benefited your employees or customers. What made this decision so difficult and what were the positive impacts?
Anson Zhang: There was a time when a manufacturer went bust, and our customers had no valid warranties for their product. We had to replace the products at our own cost. It was an extremely costly exercise, but we felt it was the right thing to do. In hindsight, the benefits from these customers’ long-term support and trust have outweighed the costs.
On a smaller scale, it’s important to ensure you are empowering your team which is why even when it may not be the most efficient or cost-effective way to do things, it’s crucial to allow moments and concessions like this for them to be able to learn and develop.
How would you define success? Does it mean generating a certain amount of wealth, gaining a certain level of popularity, or helping a certain number of people?
Anson Zhang: As I mentioned earlier, success to me is not measured purely in financial terms. For me, it’s measured through a solid circle of support, suppliers, customers, team, families and friends, and having a goal that is sustainable long term. Being able to wake up each morning to say, one step greener.
Some leadership skills are innate while others can be learned. What leadership skills do you possess innately and what skills have you cultivated over the years as a CEO?
Anson Zhang: I’ve been lucky enough to have a strong understanding of numbers which helps when it comes to business bottom-lines and identifying opportunities. When faced with a problem, I have the capacity to pinpoint issues and work out solutions rather quickly. Being able to make quick decisions to progress situations, even if it is not the perfect solution, has meant the business has evolved rapidly.
While start-ups may be one of my strengths, understanding the corporate world has been an area I have worked hard to understand given it’s not an environment I have spent a significant amount of time in. Over the years I have made deliberate efforts to learn and grow my businesses from the efficiencies of incorporating structures and procedures from my network.
How did your role as a CEO help your business overcome challenges caused by the pandemic? Explain with practical examples.
Anson Zhang: In the last few years, prior to the pandemic, we had already transitioned many aspects of our business operations online, such as a digital system and app for sales, inventory tracking, finance invoicing, and employee KPIs. The systems have since matured which made transitioning to pandemic conditions much easier and managed to avoid any major adverse impacts or having to stand down any employee.
One team I have to give credit to is our marketing team. They lead strong and creative marketing activities, including series after series of webinars, giving opportunities to our suppliers and customers to co-promote their brands with us. As people had fewer distractions being locked down at home, they had more time to focus on the product combos we have on offer and went away with more product knowledge than pre-pandemic.
Do you have any advice for aspiring CEOs and future leaders? What advice would you give a CEO that is just starting out on their journey?
Anson Zhang: It can be easy to get carried away with work and your ambitions but it is so important that no matter how busy you are, you always make time for what is most important to you. For me, I always make time for family – watching them grow and develop as quickly as they have has made me realise how precious these moments are and that they don’t last forever so appreciate them and be present.
Thank you for sharing some of your knowledge with our readers! They would also like to know, what is one skill that you’ve always wanted to acquire but never really could?
Anson Zhang: On a personal level, swimming. I’m still working on this but have not been able to overcome my phobia from a childhood drowning scare just yet.
Before we finish things off, we have one final question for you. If you wrote a book about your life today, what would the title be?
Anson Zhang: Finding the value in the small things
Jerome Knyszewski, VIP Contributor to ValiantCEO and the host of this interview would like to thank Anson Zhang for taking the time to do this interview and share his knowledge and experience with our readers.
If you would like to get in touch with Anson Zhang or his company, you can do it through his – Linkedin Page
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