TUM School of Management alumnus Maximilian Wilk knows how to manage a business. He founded a company with an idea that has the potential to help reduce energy consumption and sustainably shape the future of water treatment in households around the world. An innovation that hits the nerve of the time. We spoke to Maximilian to find out how AQON Pure can help solve some of the most pressing issues we face as a planet, and how entrepreneurs can stay ahead of their time.
We last spoke to you about your company AQON Pure at the end of 2021: What has changed since then?
On the one hand, we have grown significantly. Despite inflation, the war in Ukraine, and rising energy prices, we have achieved significant sales growth from just over 6 million to around 10 million euros in 2022. This means we have been able to significantly expand our market share further. On the other hand, we have once again substantially increased our network of installers. More than 700 installers can now work for us. We have also introduced a ranking system that rates this installation process according to friendliness, quality and speed, enabling us to always hire the best local installers. With success: in 2023 we were honored as one of the most innovative companies in Germany with the Top 100 Award.
Topics such as climate neutrality, sustainability and the energy crisis have recently been on everybody's mind. How can AQON Pure contribute to solving some of the most difficult problems of our time?
This can be calculated quite easily. There are 40 million private households in Germany, which together consume 644 TWh of energy per year. Most of this energy is consumed by heating systems. The second largest share, around 16%, is needed for water heating. This is precisely where our limescale protection systems come in. Limescale deposits in radiators increase energy consumption. Just two millimeters of limescale are enough to lead to a permanent increase in consumption of 12%. In addition, 40% of households in Germany have hard water, which means that significantly more limescale is deposited. By installing a protection system such as AQON Pure, deposits can be prevented and thus help to keep energy consumption in the hot water sector as low as possible in the long term. Therefore, AQON Pure is an important contribution to saving energy and thus to achieving the German climate goals in the building sector.
In a way, AQON Pure is a technology that meets the zeitgeist. How do you manage to always think ahead and remain innovative?
Of course, you have to go through the world with your eyes open and notice where other countries are driving innovation and Germany still has some catching up to do. During my studies in California in 2016, I learned that Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger had already passed a law in 2006 banning water softeners that use salt because the process emits too much chloride in wastewater. I don't think you have to reinvent the wheel every time, but there are many examples where you can just take a page out of someone else’s book.
What are your next goals?
We started internationalization this year, expanding into Austria and Switzerland. Making a name for ourselves in Europe will be the most important issue in the next five years. But we also want to enter other product segments. We are currently working on a project with a household appliance manufacturer who integrates our technology directly into its products so that customers have to use fewer chemical descalers in the form of tabs or liquids.
When we think about the chemicals that are produced in a building, for example through the use of cosmetic products, detergents, tabs for the dishwasher, and descaling agents, we see the need to dive deep into the market and try to reduce the wastewater pollution footprint of residential buildings in general. The goal is to offer environmentally friendly alternatives in a segment where you can't avoid using cleaning agents or cosmetic products. In the long term, we want to position ourselves as the specialist that ensures a wastewater-friendly home.
When you think back to your time at TUM School of Management, how did it prepare you for entrepreneurship?
The knowledge from the controlling classes on how to build a financially sustainable business model helped me a lot in the first years of running a startup. After all, we built the entire company without venture capital.
Besides, I learned a lot in entrepreneurship classes. I smiled at the time when Prof. Holger Patzelt discussed how to deal with failure. But he was right: at some point, you will be confronted with it. When we took over the company from our father, it was already trimmed for his retirement and barely making any sales. There wasn't much room to pay us a high salary. Also, it took an extremely long time for us to be successful. However, it was reassuring to know that this is quite normal.
Two years have passed since you took over the company from your father. What values have remained? And what challenges did you face in terms of the generational change?
The strongest value that has remained despite the rapid growth over the past two years is the classic prudence that medium-sized German companies are known for. Of course, there are always points that an older generation approaches differently. That starts, for example, with the level of inventories, or how much money you have in your bank account so that you can survive rough stretches, all the way to expenditures in marketing or the website. In other words: all the digital measures that were not quite necessary in our father's business model about ten years ago. I think the challenge is to find the balance between the cautious nature of a classic medium-sized company and the pressing future orientation of young entrepreneurs who simply think everything is possible and want to try things out fast – rather yesterday than today.
What advice would you give to students who are also thinking about starting their own business?
Start small and show that you are able to run a profitable business model on your own. Then you will have a much stronger negotiating position with co-investors or banks when you want to raise venture capital. Don't think you need a million-dollar investment right away, but rather invest a little more time. Maybe start your business while you're still studying, when you don't need that much money to make a living yet. Try out a lot of things. Over time, the steps will get much bigger even without outside investment. I think it's a great idea to show confidence and try it first without venture capital to keep a lot of control over the business in the long run.