When I started working in the energy transition domain, I thought that the climate crisis would be a challenge for my grandchildren, a far-away reality. Soon, I discovered that it’s a reality that already influences my children. Although I still believe that Earth will be a livable place during the course of my lifetime, I am worried about future generations. That was one of my main drivers when I decided to devote time and energy towards accelerating the energy transition.
In this blog piece, I want to reflect on a decade-long journey leading NET2GRID, an AI-enabled software company which empowers energy retailers to become energy transition leaders by unlocking value from smart meter data. I reflect on our successes and failures, on the challenges we faced and the opportunities that came along. Here are 10 lessons that I learned and that I would like to share with you.
Lesson No 1: Stick to your idea and keep moving forward
When starting NET2GRID, even when everything was still unclear, I was certain of one thing: that real time energy data is essential to fuel the energy transition. During the course of these 10 years, there have been times when things got tough to the extent that I even considered giving up. Nevertheless, I knew that I had to keep moving forward. And I did so holding on to my original vision about the power of real time data. And here we are today after 10 years of holding on to my vision: this year we attracted funding from Shell Ventures and APG allowing us to scale. Our unique know-how in being able to capture real time energy data and analyze it, results in the most accurate energy disaggregation services in the market. Our service is greatly appreciated by clients, partners and funders alike. Stick to your vision, keep moving forward.
Lesson No 2: Be Flexible and adaptable
Sure real time data is the name of the game. Yet, the majority of energy retailers are still not in a position to offer energy services based on daily smart meter data. Digital transformation is coming slowly in the energy segment. To help our customers unlock the value of smart meter data, we have used the information we derive from real time data to train models working on smart meter data deeper than competition can. We turned our technological future advantage into a benefit our customers can use today. That being said, had we monomaniacally pursued only real time data based solutions we would be evading reality. It was clear that in order for NET2GRID to scale we needed to put forward solutions based on smart meter data and not just on real time data. So without giving up on the idea that makes us unique, we adapted to the needs of the market.
It’s like driving a car; one needs to keep the eyes on the horizon – the long-term goal, but also pay attention to the dashboard, keep in touch with the car and adjust speed when needed, actions which are essential to maintain a great performance and reach the destination. Keep your eyes on the horizon, adjust your plan as needed.
Lesson No 3: Take risks
Risk is an innate concept in setting up a start-up. Nevertheless, some entrepreneurs are willing to take more risks than others. In my experience taking risks has led NET2GRID to growth. Specifically, back in 2016, NET2GRID was one of the companies within the network of interest of an EU FP-7 project and The Aristotle University of Thessaloniki was one of the project partners. After the completion of the project, one of the researchers approached me to talk about a possible collaboration on energy disaggregation. I decided to give him a chance. Today this researcher is our Chief Information Officer and Country Manager in the Greek office, Dr. Dimitrios Doukas and his colleague Dr. Antonios Chrysopoulos our Head of Analytics. I am so glad I took that risk and I gave them a chance to prove what they and their team could do for NET2GRID. This decision led to staffing NET2GRID with brilliant engineers from the Greek universities and what’s more I take great satisfaction in the fact that these engineers were given the chance to be employed on a good salary in their home town at a time when many young Greeks were leaving abroad because of the crisis. Be willing to take risks, you never know what new opportunities they will bring your way.
Lesson No 4: Don’t be ‘Bob the builder’ – Saying no, it’s OK.
When he was young, my son used to watch the cartoon Bob the builder – ’’Can you build it? Yes, we can!’’. In the early years of NET2GRID we would spend too much time developing bespoke products for clients instead of developing our roadmap. We quickly realized the risk of having more products than customers. Focus on execution of your own roadmap is of strategic importance. It’s also vital in scaling your company.
Lesson 5: Build strong partnerships
Companies leading in innovation are companies excelling in collaboration. The energy transition is a complex puzzle and we contribute a piece of it. Knowing our own capabilities and recognizing those of others, we are in a position to form partnerships which help us have a bigger impact in accelerating the energy transition. We have partnered up with companies such as Itron, Intellihub, Greenbird, AWS, SAP and others to amplify and multiply the ways in which we can help energy retailers become energy transition leaders. In the future, the successful players in the energy field will be the ones with the richest ecosystems and the strongest partnerships. No company can succeed alone in bringing about systemic change, so find the right players, partner up with them and get to work to multiply your impact.
Lesson 6: Choose comrades, not just employees
Throughout this journey, one of the things that I am really proud of is the team of people we managed to put together as well as the culture we created. Most team members find purpose in their work, this is a mindset that expands further than just earning a monthly salary. It’s the energy that you feel when you work together and strive for a common goal with like-minded people. It’s more than just choosing the perfect candidate to become an employee of the company, but rather choosing comrades; like-minded people that will stay with us for the long run.
Let me tell you a story. Back in 2014, we were facing some financial difficulties which forced us to let some of our people go. One of our traditions is to have a company Christmas dinner at a fancy restaurant. On Christmas 2014 though, I had to cut costs and I organized a home cooked dinner at my place. Most of the colleagues participating at that dinner knew they would be looking for a job elsewhere soon.. Nevertheless, that dinner was probably one of the best ones we have had so far, everybody helped in the preparations and had a great time. Fast forward a few years later, the very same colleagues that we had to let go are back with us today. They wanted to come back to a company that works for a mission they relate to and to a team that they enjoy being part of. Team members are comrades, choose them wisely.
Lesson 7: Dare to fail and learn from your mistakes
I can’t even remember how many mistakes we made over the last 10 years. The important thing to remember though is not how many times we failed but what we learned from those mistakes and how we grew as a company thanks to this knowledge.
When NET2GRID first started, we were a B2C company. We would sell energy insight solutions to consumers. Even though we had spent a considerable amount of resources in developing smart meter readers for many European markets, this endeavor never really took off. Looking back, investing in a B2C strategy was clearly a mistake, the market was not ready for such a product and it was way too early for consumers to adopt such services. That being said, we greatly benefited from the know-how we acquired in building our own smart meter readers. A know-how which was the decisive factor that a few years later E.ON Germany chose our solution over other competing ones as our hardware was the only one which could overcome the technical difficulties in the country. Dare to fail and learn from your mistakes, it’s the only way you can succeed.
Lesson 8: Ace your product-market fit
As mentioned above, selling an energy insights solution to consumers 10 years ago proved to be a mistake. The reason was that the target audience did not recognise the need to which we were providing a solution. It wasn’t a good market fit.
Make time to verify your product-market-fit with your customers and prospects on a regular basis. Make sure to understand exactly the needs and pain points of customers and design a product which solves real problems they report. Spend time in getting your product-market fit right, hire an external consultant to help with this if needed.
Lesson 9: Focus on the mission
Starting a company requires financial focus to support sustainable growth. When making financial decisions, always keep in mind the company’s mission. To me it was clear from the beginning, that our purpose is to contribute to one of the biggest challenges of our times, to transition to a more sustainable energy landscape. The energy transition needs to succeed now and we take great satisfaction in empowering energy retailers to help their customers in this transition. Finding a mission that drives you and makes you want to get out of bed in the morning is the key to success.
Lesson 10: Most people are good
I believe that most people are good and that’s why I give people a lot of trust, until they prove me wrong – not the other way around. Having such a positive attitude about life and people really helps in forming mutual and beneficial relationships with clients, partners and colleagues. Show people you trust in them and they will do their best to live up to your expectations. Obviously, not all people are like that, that’s why it’s also important to trust your instincts and find the people who respond positively to this kind of approach. Give trust and let your instincts guide you to the right people.