Business, for me, is an adventure. A journey, rewarding you with a lot of adrenaline. DAWID ZIELIŃSKI – Founder and CEO of Columbus Energy
How was the idea to start your business born? Where did you get the resources needed to launch and initially operate the business?
During my studies, I undertook work for various companies abroad. I worked for Heidelberg Technology Centre in Germany and Air BP in London, UK, as an assistant manager, and also as part of a student internship for MARS Poland. When I came back, I already knew that I didn’t want to work for someone, especially not a corporation. It was then that I met my future business partners, young and hungry for success just like me. And I was faced with a choice then, whether to take up the attractive job offer at MARS or to set up a company. So either a corporate job or my own adventure, where you have the freedom of time, not just money. Because I think the difference between a high-level manager in a corporation and an entrepreneur who has managed to establish a company is that the manager has the freedom of money but not the freedom of time. And an entrepreneur has both freedoms.
In terms of funds, we had a very modest capital. It was a start-up. The only resources a start-up owner has are his or her time, commitment and hunger for success. If one has this thing called persistence, which is to say a positive fierceness, a thirst for a win, the financial resources will always turn up.
Why exactly this line of business? In hindsight, do you consider running a company in this sector to be a bull’s-eye?
I think that in every decade there are areas emerging that have great potential. My first business in 2009 was to provide energy performance certificates for single-family houses and commercial buildings. At the time, the law requiring buildings to have such documents was just getting introduced, but not many entities knew how to do it. We were one of the first companies to specialise in this. We provided such certificates for the large shopping malls that were being built at the time, but also for thousands of single-family homes. Today such certificates are commonplace, prepared by architects. Back then, however, there was no automation of the process, we hit a niche.
It was the same with the Columbus company. When we started our business, there were only a few dozen photovoltaic installations in Poland. Today, there are ca. 1.4 million PV installations, of which Columbus is responsible for more than 5%. When the photovoltaic farm segment started in Poland, Columbus was one of the first active companies in the market. Now, when the large-scale energy storage market is just taking off, Columbus is the first company to win the capacity market auction for the largest investment of this type. In conclusion – the greatest resource of a start-up or young organisation is the ability to hit the bells that have not yet been rung.
How does the state make it easier or harder to become and remain an entrepreneur?
This is a more complex issue and I would divide it into two questions: does the state make it easier to be an entrepreneur and does it make it easier to run a large enterprise. In my opinion, we live in a political system, regardless of which party leads it, in which Polish society faces many challenges when it comes to entrepreneurship. On the one hand, micro-entrepreneurship is thriving, as many people understand that it is worthwhile to have a business, because, in certain areas, they simply can earn more money that way. More cash stays in your pocket and the costs are more or less the same. Additionally, the changes in recent years, i.e. the pandemic, the war in Ukraine, have made people realise that an employment contract does not provide security. It is not the kind of security you had in the 1990s, it’s just handing over half of your salary. Today, few people can count on the pension earned from their dues being decent, given the dynamics with which the value of accumulated capital is changing and its purchasing power is declining. Because of these challenges, being an entrepreneur is necessary. Because everyone, even when working as a full-time employee, needs to be entrepreneurial – if only to maintain their household budget. So from this point of view, the state makes it easier to be a micro-entrepreneur.
On the other hand, if we are talking about managing an organisation employing 50, 100 or more people, it is much more difficult here. Entrepreneurs running medium-sized and large companies operate under the pressure of laws that change too quickly. It is difficult to keep up with the number of obligations, audits, reports, imposed by the state control bodies. We need a team of a dozen or so people responsible solely for ensuring that the managers did not make any mistakes. Moreover, we need to insure ourselves against not keeping up with changes in the law. Because if we make a mistake, we will be punished. Together with a number of large entrepreneurs, we are looking at how to set up an organisation that will engage in dialogue with politicians so that legal changes do not cause a butterfly effect. Because sometimes a small change in the law, which has not been properly consulted with entrepreneurs, can have a gigantic, long-term impact on the entire industry, and consequently on the entire economy. Many regulations introduced, although pro-consumer, often have a disadvantageous effect on employers, resulting in a negative impact on the economy.
Have you ever had any crisis situations that made you want to give up your business and take on something else?
At least once a week I have a thought like that, whether to ditch it all (laughs). Because anything that we are passionate about, that you put your heart, commitment and your whole self into – brings both happiness and disappointment. Just like love, family, sports or hobbies. Only he who does nothing has no problems. In making decisions, including business decisions, it is all about having more good ones than bad ones. I am glad that Columbus is not a company that has enjoyed nothing but success and 100% year-on-year growth in the last 10 years, but rather that we have gone through a sort of catharsis. It is important to pick ourselves up after a fall, after hardships, and continue to grow. We are one of the leaders in photovoltaics, heat pumps and energy storage for homes and small businesses, a leader in the transformation of large energy storage, and we are starting to be a Europe-wide company. An entrepreneur should always have a contingency plan, while also believing in his venture, in what he has built. Only then is he able to achieve above-average success.
What about the biggest failures you’ve suffered and which have taught you the most? What is your approach to failures in business?
Technical failures are common; they are the consequences of bad decisions, choosing the wrong business partner, etc. On the other hand, I was most affected by human-related failures, when I was let down by people. Because when everything is great, people appear to be your friends, they deliver 150% commitment, for which they are of course compensated accordingly (150% :P). On the other hand, when things get worse in the company, when salaries have to be cut, costs have to be reduced, savings have to be made, then the circle of committed people is being verified. That’s when it comes out how hungry people are to latch on to success. When there are difficulties and challenges, they walk away, even though it seemed like they would be there for better or worse. That’s how I learnt that in business you have to take a large margin when putting trust in people around you.
Is entrepreneurship a job, a calling or maybe a kind of madness? Is business a win-win situation or a bloodthirsty race?
It is certainly not a bloodthirsty race, but it all depends on your point of view. If one’s aim is to make money or to achieve promotional success, then it is a bloodthirsty race. I am certainly not in such a race. For me, business is at the other end. It is not a job, but an adventure. Business is like an expedition into the mountains, where it’s the journey that counts, not the destination. It’s an excursion where you bring wonderful people along with you and go look for diamonds. And sometimes it’s not even the most important thing to find plenty of diamonds, it’s to experience a really cool adventure, to do a lot of good. And then, when you find those diamonds at last, there’s a reward. But statistically that doesn’t happen very often. There are very few people who come back with a trophy. We have such a trophy in Columbus, because we survived the market consolidation and today we are growing, we have a good future. Now we have to think about whether we can turn the diamonds we find into a mine that will deliver the necessary number of full wagons every year….
When there is no adventure, there is only hard grind, no joy. And when there is no joy, there will be no success.
It is said that a businessman works 24 hours a day? How much of this is true? Is maintaining a work-life balance even possible?
For me, there is no such thing as work-life balance. I don’t go to work – that is the difference. I am constantly on an expedition, so I don’t have to balance anything. I’m constantly living the adventure, meeting new, fantastic people. It’s about making sure that the path of this expedition intertwines the family life, leisure, social life, passions, sport. It all has to be related, but not balanced. Because you balance that which is opposite. And I don’t think the opposite of business is family, so I don’t have to balance anything. My biggest problem is finding time for everything. So I have to balance my time between my adventure and the people I care about and who need me.
Albert Einstein said “Try not to become a man of success but rather try to become a man of value.” What are your values in life and business? Can business be responsible, people and environmentally friendly?
In Columbus we developed values because we were not able to create a mission and vision. Because mission and vision is something that is constantly changing, evolving. Even if we define them today, they may be outdated in three months’ time because we are rushing forward, we are transforming quickly as an organisation. This is also our competitive advantage. In business, I’m not only interested in profit, but in living a great adventure with people. Ethically, though in a slightly crazy way, with adrenaline. If we consider ourselves to be people of good morals, we don’t need to confirm what values we follow, because it’s obvious. If our goal is not to gain fame and money, we don’t want to be celebrities of life, but to feel it, to experience it, to draw from it in handfuls, but in a balanced way – then we don’t need to define values, because they are inscribed in the premise, inscribed in our DNA.
Are you a happy man? What raises your happiness level the most now that you have achieved so much?
I consider myself to be a happy person and a lucky person. Because you have to be very lucky in life. The happiness factor in achieving success plays a very big part. I don’t know if it is 20%, 50% or 80%. The sad thing is that people are sometimes miserable at their own request. I understand that someone can be unhappy because they are ill, they have faced tragedy, they have experienced poverty. I have had a lot of difficult periods in my life: I am a type 1 diabetic, my first start-ups failed, I didn’t get a bag of money as a starter, and yet I managed to find layers of determination and self-motivation to get up every morning with a smile, enthusiasm, joy and a battery 100% charged. It is then possible to make the most of life and maximise your chances of success. The level of happiness can be measured in different ways. Certainly, it is self-realisation (here I am 100% happy), family and the people we have around us (here I am also 100% happy). It’s also important to remember that a person who has too high a level of happiness sometimes goes wild and makes wrong judgements and choices. And that’s when you need a balance, a so-called ‘soda balance’, to regulate your happiness at the right level.
Founder and CEO of Columbus Energy – the largest Polish company in the high-tech energy and RES sector. Graduate of electrical engineering at the AGH University of Science and Technology in Kraków, also holds an MBA degree from the Cracow University of Technology. He gained his managerial experience working for, among others, Heidelberg Technology Centre in Heidelberg, Air BP in London or MARS Polska.
He has been an entrepreneur since 2009. From the beginning, he has focused on energy efficiency and renewable energy sources, with a focus on innovation in his start-ups. In 9 years of Columbus Energy activity, he has led the development and transformation of the company, now listed on the NewConnect, achieving spectacular business success. Through Columbus, Dawid Zielinski invests in innovative start-ups, including Saule Technologies, a Polish company developing perovskite solar cell technology. He is also a member of the Supervisory Boards of Saule S.A. and Saly S.A..
A respected expert in the modern energy sector, he is a member of the Coordinating Council for the Development of the Photovoltaic Sector at the Ministry of Climate and Environment and the Programme Council of the UN Global Compact Network Poland. Winner of the prestigious competition EY Entrepreneur of the Year 2020 in the category New Technologies/Innovation, laureate of the Emblem “Teraz Polska”, he was on the list of 200 people who shape Polish economy (according to the ranking by RMF FM, Money.pl and 300Gospodarka).
Last Updated on August 16, 2023 by Anastazja