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For the fifth in our special series of interviews with Unicorn leaders, that we’re recording in partnership with the European PR agency Tyto and their own Without Borders podcast, we were joined online by the CEO of one of the most recent businesses to achieve unicorn status in the UK, achieved in May this year, Greg Jackson of Octopus Energy.
Greg began by explaining that on a personal level, becoming a unicorn CEO is something to be proud of. They have achieved a public milestone. However, he said that the reality is that it is really just fuel for stage two of their mission. Octopus Energy now have about five percent market share in the UK, but according to Greg, they still have got a way to go in the UK and then the entirety of the rest of the planet. They also want to decarbonise energy generation and transmission systems.
Octopus Energy was founded in 2015. Greg said that they saw the opportunity to use technology to drive a dramatically more efficient system, not just in the UK, but globally. He believes that energy is the largest undisrupted sector globally. Not only can they use the technology to drive down prices, notoriously energy suffered from terrible service and tech can really help fix that. He added that, most importantly, they think that technology may be the key to helping make the switch to renewable energy sources faster and cheaper than anyone thinks. That’s the reason they started the business. Greg said that they were backed by Octopus Investments who have got three or four billion pounds invested in renewable generation. There’s also Octopus Ventures, which is the VC behind some of the biggest UK tech success stories, such as; Zoopla, Love Film and Secret Escapes. He explained that they have really good investors and a very important mission, but they also had a mountain to climb.
Greg said that even just a few years ago, people were sceptical of the energy sector taking on the incumbents. However, he believes that if you focus hard on what you want to achieve, such as dramatically better customer service, dramatically greater efficiency and the fight against climate change, in the case of Octopus Energy, you have a good chance of achieving it. Today, Octopus Energy have around 1.5 million household customers in the UK, 700 team members, they have just opened in Australia and they have made an acquisition in Germany. They are beginning to take this British tech success story in the world of clean energy, global.
Greg explained that his background is not in utilities. He added that the people at Uber didn’t come from Addison Lee, or that Jeff Bezos wasn’t a bookstore keeper. Greg comes from a tech background, he said that his co-founders and himself, previously built a business which built tech platforms for a variety of enterprises, usually large enterprises, which helped them develop ecommerce capability, or go through the digital transformation themselves. They spotted then, that in every sector, as you went through that digital revolution across the early 2000s, people said it’s not going to happen to us. He recalled when clothing retailers said, obviously online is fine for books, but people need to try on clothes, but then we saw the emergence of ASOS and many other online retailers. He also told the story of working with a marketing director of a pub chain who didn’t believe that the internet was useful to them, until Greg showed her that there were 200,000 searches a month for a pub that serves food in London, proving that this digital revolution was happening in every sector. He added that many people believed that technology won’t matter in the energy sector as it is merely a commodity, but Greg believes that bringing in technology where it is almost rejected, has been a huge opportunity for them.
Greg believes that it was fantastic to have learned, multiple times, particular challenges of digital disruption. For example, he said that one thing you learn when you’re building tech is tech can do anything. So, every idea you have, you can build it, but before, you know it, you’ve created these great, big, unwieldy beasts full of every option and idea that no one ever uses, but you’ve got to maintain them. So, Greg said he thinks a good lesson for him was when he looked at Uber, for the first four or five years, Uber didn’t allow you to book a car in advance, which anybody from the taxi industry would have said, the first thing you’ve got to do is take advanced bookings. But what Uber knew, was the problem with advanced bookings is it creates an enormous number of workflow complexities. For example, what happens if that driver gets stuck in traffic or doesn’t turn up? You’ve got to suddenly look after that, but you don’t have to do that if it’s all real time. Greg explained that they took a lot of the same insights, they’re not going to have every knob and whistle, but they will focus on creating astonishing user experiences and real digital innovation on what matters for decarbonisation. He added that lots of people will be asking ‘what about this?’ and ‘what about that?’ which they will have to resist in order to deliver successfully the stuff that really matters.
Greg stated that their job is to use technology to drive better value, fairer pricing, better service and the Green Revolution. Therefore, if things are not consistent with that, they’re quite low down the priority list. He said there are loads of things they could do that wouldn’t help in that mission.
At Octopus Energy, they have an inverted pyramid. In many companies, they have a big team preparing deck after deck and they turn up at management and they present this 500-page deck and they get all the feedback, they go back and waste months and months doing it. That process typically leads to unnecessary ideas gaining traction, because by the time you’re getting that feedback coming down that ladder, you can’t kill everything. So, what they do at Octopus Energy instead is say, it’s an ongoing conversation in a very flat company. For example, the people talking to customers on the phones and via email have access to what they call the ‘comms channel’ on Slack, and every time a customer makes a remark about something they haven’t got, or something that isn’t clear, it goes into those channels and it typically gets same day feedback from someone who’s basically director level. So, instead of going through a big requirement gathering session, they continue to govern the requirements, continually filtering what they think is important and then they can make decisions that are really well-founded. It’s a very flat structure where managers don’t say to middle managers or teams of product developers, go and build a 500-page deck, where they actually get their hands dirty means that they maintain a consistent focus throughout every level, even if there aren’t many levels. Greg added that if you have people throughout every level of the business who got their hands dirty and took responsibility, then the machine doesn’t run away with itself. Greg added that he is really proud that they don’t have an organogram – people know what they do, they know who they work with and they know what they’re responsible for, but they can make their own decisions. He said that it very non-hierarchical.
Greg said that he is incredibly proud that Octopus Energy became a unicorn in the middle of the worst bit of the COVID crisis in the UK. He said, they had got an international investor on the line when they were facing a lot of uncertainty, to the extent that they haven’t been able to shake hands on the deal. He added that, that meant that they were really sensitive, the last thing they wanted to do was go out there trumpeting the unicorn status and instead be very cognizant that this is a long-term mission. He said that the investment was merely to enable the next stage of driving their transition to a cheaper, greener energy system. It’s is kind of given them a proof point, that international investors believed in their approach on that mission. Greg added that this isn’t necessarily success in and of itself. He gave an example from a Kenny Rogers song [The Gambler], a line which said ‘you never count your money when you’re sitting at the table’, Greg said that he interpreted it as, it’s not about money, it’s about you can’t declare any level of success while you’re still in the game. He said that is such an important part of this, having the external validation from real experts and being Australia’s biggest energy company is helpful, but no more than that.
When asked how they went about disrupting the energy sector, Greg said that he remembered sitting around the table when they were getting the first tranche of investment and there were about 20 people around the table, many of them from an energy background that were very sceptical, but there was one who got the focus on customer, focus on technology and the focus on driving, speeding up the Green Revolution was something that is a distinct mission. They gave them a chance. That person was Simon Rogerson, who is the founder and the chief executive of Octopus Group their investors. Simon is an entrepreneur and he could see that what really matters is, do you have something distinct for customers, for the market, for society? Octopus Energy did. Greg added that at the time, they asked ‘how are you going to displace the big six?’ He said that he looks at it as being like a Godzilla movie poster in that Octopus Energy were the little guys in the street in Manhattan and you’re looking up at the skyscrapers which are the big six, but behind the skyscrapers, you could actually see the real threat, which is societal changes; it’s customers who are so unhappy, it’s governments who feel these large companies have failed to deliver their part in the mission to fight climate change, to transform the system and climate change itself. That’s the Godzilla threat upon that sector. He said that their job really has been to look at those things and say, look, they’re not big, strong, robust, built to last structures the way you think they are. They are actually facing absolute imminent threat. Greg said it is their job to recognize that threat and to be the opposite of those companies, so that as they start to crumble, Octopus Energy can grow in their place. He believes that that’s what’s happening. Whilst he doesn’t take any pleasure in the travails of rivals, Greg can look at that and say, if they’d under invested for 20 years and their customers and their software and someone went as far as to deny climate change, they’re stretching the elastic too far. What you’re seeing now is, here in the UK, public lists ones, share prices that are multi-fold lower than they were five years ago, increasing consolidation and acquisition and there’s just going to be more of that.
Greg explained that his proudest moment in this business was helping make the energy price cap happen. He said that he is an entrepreneur, he hates government interference in markets. But the energy market is basically designed by the government anyway, largely with the help of those large enterprises, because their greatest strength is not customer support, it’s lobbying. So, when they identified their pricing practices, graphed them and got the media interest, the government took action. He continued, what you really started to see was all of that pent-up customer annoyance and frustration turned into legislation that rightly made some companies’ lives hard. It didn’t make their lives hard because the government were being unfair, the government were just making up for the fact that when you got an opaque pricing market with lots of people who’ve tried, for example, switching energy company and found they just went from one to another, that was bad as each other. Eventually, government takes action and customers win, companies on the side of the customer benefit from that. That’s how Octopus Energy have looked at this market. The reason that’s Greg’s proudest moment is that they saved one and a half million households money. Many of whom would’ve saved money anyway, because they know how to engage in the market, but not all, through the price cap, 11 million households saved on average a hundred pounds a year. They were a major part of making that billion pound a year saving to UK, households whilst driving the fight against climate change.
Greg gave us a quote from Peter Drucker, the business writer and expert, who said “culture eats strategy for breakfast”. Greg said that they had the opportunity in the business to start off with an absolute focus on creating the right culture. He explained that over the four or five times he has been a CEO, every time he has learned more and more about how to do a better job, Octopus Energy was the place he got to deploy everything that he had learned. He then went on to tell a story of a time when he ran a small business, that had previously been owned by a large enterprise. He explained that Tina, who was on reception, was also the person who did customer service. One day, Tina was on the phone to a customer and Greg was walking through reception, there were few people around, and he heard her on the call and – adding that he had been through Procter and Gamble management training, so as a bright graduate from a great university in P&G management training – he had a lot to help with. So, he leaned into Tina and whispered some words in her ear to help with the call. When she finished the call, she put the phone down, gave him an unbelievable death stare and said, ‘for f***s sake Greg, I bring up two boys and I’ve got an unemployed husband. I do this on the poxy salary this company pays me. I was here before you and I’ll be here when you’re gone. I love this company. If I can do everything I do, I love the company more than you do, you don’t need to tell me what to do’. There were 30 seconds of stunned silence, with a lot of people around the room. Greg said that he realised that she was right, he then gave her the biggest hug, and, in that moment, she taught him to trust people.
Greg added that one of the biggest things for him was that most enterprises have incredible recruitment programmes to find the brightest, most motivated people, who’ve got ideas and energy, they bring them in and then they drown them in process and instructions and rules. But, actually, they lose all of the magic that is inherent not only in everyone, but especially the people who they have just hired. The job of a company like theirs is that they set the mission, the direction and they are absolutely clear about what they are meant to achieve what their standards are, but then set people free to deliver it. That has some big benefits: First of all, we’re all people, we come to work as a human being, if we hang our personality at the door, if we cease to be motivated by the intrinsic desire to deliver success for ourselves, our customers, our colleagues, then we’re ceasing to be ourselves. On a purely human level, to not be yourself for eight or 10 hours a day is not a cool outcome. But then, if you’re working for the things that matter to you, not because a boss is standing there with a carrot and stick or you’ve got a bunch of KPIs you’ve got to report on in Monday’s meeting, if you’re working there because you want to deliver the thing that really matters, you’re going to do a better job and you’re going to do it with more joy. You then end up with this great virtuous spiral because productivity is higher, attrition is lower, and you get the right kind of people wanting to join you. Of course, sometimes this doesn’t work, five percent of people don’t want to do a great job, ten percent of people might just want to do a great job, but they want to put really tight boundaries around it, and Greg said that that’s all cool. But for most people, this approach works incredibly well, and for them as company, Greg added, it works well, but it changes everything they do. For example, one of the design missions of their technology platform, Kraken, is at the core of everything they do, internal users are as important as customers, he said that it’s got to be a joy for their team to use because it is enabling them to deliver great customer outcomes and enjoy their jobs. If a small tweak in Kraken makes their lives easier, that’s incredibly important.
One thing they do is it to get their tech team come and sit with their ops team. They sit together looking after customers. The tech people learn how well the platform is delivering, or not, on all the things that their team needs to look after customers and then they go away from there because as tech people will know the way to automate certain things, or add a bit of machine learning to prevent a problem. He added that you then have a self-reinforcing cycle of elevating the internal user to godlike status, and it’s their job to serve.
The reinforcing cycle is to make the platform better so the people working on it are happier, they can look after customers better, which enables them to get the permission to make the platform better and so on.
When it comes to navigating how to address different parts of his team, or even the entire team, Greg said that the first thing is that there’s a couple of interesting external measures; Octopus Energy’s Glassdoor is 4.8 out of 5, their Trust Pilot is 4.8 out of 5, he said that it’s not a coincidence that they are both high together. He added that he thinks it comes back to self-reinforcement, and that their rivals are at around 3.2, 3.6. There is absolutely zero hubris or arrogance about that, Greg said that they have got to be humble because it can all go wrong tomorrow. They achieve this through an absolute constant focus on what are the things that are working and not working organizationally, because if they get the organisation right, if they get the people right, the business will follow. He explained that he would rather they lost as a team than won as individuals. If someone gets something wrong, the first thing you do is put your arm around them because they probably feel terrible about it. The most important thing is to think about how they feel, because if we look after them now, then first of all, people know not to be defensive, they know not to feel threatened, but the people who made mistakes today, won’t make those again. That focus on both micro and macro versions of the things that drive culture is incredibly important. Greg said that they have a super high bandwidth communication so every customer can get hold of every director, every team member can as well. They get the whole company together every Friday for what they call ‘Family dinner’. They used to do it from the office locations linking them all by video and Greg would talk through what’s worked well in the week, what hasn’t and where they are going and what’s important. Now they are doing it by Zoom during COVID, a 600 person Zoom call on a Friday afternoon, it’s pretty special, he said. It’s an incredible atmosphere, the chat panel alive with everything from people being proud or celebrating each of the successes through to banter and amusement of different Zoom backgrounds. Everything is about remembering every company faces the same risk organisationally and most fall prey to it, which is, the people in technology, people in I.T. will start to hate the people in the business and then the people in the business will say, look, technology never delivers, they are always late, functions don’t work and this platform never works. And, operations say, marketing keep doing these things, they never tell us and we have to deal with all the chaos and marketing will be like operations can never deliver what we sell to customers. But if you bring people back together and you have really high bandwidth communication, what it does is it reminds you that when something goes wrong, it’s not because they’re incompetent, it’s not because they don’t care, it’s because we’re all striving to deliver the best thing they can. So, Greg explained, when they see something go wrong, for example, on their platform every now and then, they’ll have an outage and the tech team will write up what’s gone on and they’ll put it out there for everyone who used it to know what happened, because that transparency, non-defensiveness says that they are really sorry. They take massive responsibility delivering this. But of course, they’re developing things at 100 miles an hour, changing the wheels while the cars moving in support of bringing in more customers more efficiently and delivering a better platform. He said that if they all understand that and remember how great each other are, then they don’t end up with those organisational barriers where every function starts losing respect for each other.
On the impact of COVID, Greg explained that as a business, they support one and a half million people and among those are people whose health is worse, people who have died of COVID, sadly, in Britain, too many. Then there are those whose health has been impacted or have really suffered and their customer base has a lot of people in those categories. Then the people who’ve lost jobs or got uncertainty about what the future holds, even those who’ve been furloughed and don’t know what companies are going to do at the end. He said that we don’t know whether we can experience the deepest economic recession since we started recording these or whether we’ll have a V-shape and bounce back. Octopus Energy also has business customers in the pub and leisure sector, for example, and Greg said that it’s brutal.
For Octopus Energy, the first thing is really recognising the impact on so many people in the population, including those within their own team, who have been impacted by the virus.
They have ensured everybody has stayed fully paid and fully employed where they’re not in direct contact with the public physically, and even there they have made sure they’ve been fully paid and retained. But some have got spouses, partners, other relatives who haven’t been so fortunate. So, the impacts on their customer base is massive and on some of their team is big too. He added that we then have got to recognise this is the most unequal thing he has ever seen happen. For people who have kept their jobs, worked from home, don’t have kids and got a nice house, they’re enjoying not having to spend money on commuting, they’re not spending lunch money, they’re not going out in the evenings, their financial position has never been better. But for others who, with no warning, lost their jobs, or, who have four housemates, each in a single room trying to work all day with access to one shared kitchen, they each have a couple of hours in. Greg said that he has never seen anything so brutally unequal. He added that as we look to recover from this as a society, as companies, we’ve really got to understand there’s very different outcomes because we cannot assume the impacts of COVID has been the same on everyone. So for them, in their conversations with government, with the regulator, with their own team and with their customers, they are really trying to ensure that they focus on helping those who truly need it most and recognise that some people are actually better off, it’s going to be a really important part of delivering a united recovery.
The biggest issue, Greg said, if he looks externally, is you’ve got a choice at times like this; do we come together? Do we unite in recovery or do we divide one person against another? Do we as a society deal with the economic impact by cutting? Does government cut expenditure everywhere to try and restore its ‘coffers’? Or do we invest in a brighter future, do we invest in a greener future and create jobs and economic recovery that way? For Greg, when he is looking externally and really talking to stakeholders, as well as making investment decisions in this business, he is really working hard to drive this kind of united, we’re in it together recovery, driven by investment in a green future.
Greg said that he is really pleased that in the UK and in many countries, we’ve had a taste of a better environment. He gave the example of the photos from space and the stats about reduced carbon emissions, the empty roads, the streets that kids are playing in and people beginning to cycle so much more. Even in energy, electricity generation in the UK has never been greener. In fact, it’s been so green, there have been times when they have had excess green energy and have been able to give it away for free to customers. He added that we have been so heavily biased towards renewables during this period because total consumption is down, renewables have been a bigger and bigger proportion of our energy sources. He believes that these glimpses of what a green world can look like, have actually been quite appealing to many policymakers and stakeholders, and he is quite optimistic that they won’t build back as we were, but they will build back better.
Greg said that there’s a risk that in the very short term a potential economic downturn could have a detrimental effect on the environmental agenda. He added that we’ve seen oil and natural gas prices plummet, which is going to make a tempting place for the early phase of recovery. But in the medium to long term, there’s still so much private capital available and we just need to unlock it into green investment, in the UK and globally. In the UK, there’s 300 billion pounds in ISAs, never mind the money from large funds and high net worth. That three billion pounds in ISAs currently can’t really be invested directly into renewable generation, so there are going to be lots of opportunities for governments to make simple policy changes to unlock enormous amounts of money to drive that recovery. That recovery will create jobs, those jobs get us out of recession, and we’ll grow into a greener future.
Greg explained that we were educated for decades about carrier bags, time and again, governments and campaigns would show us photos of dolphins with the carrier bag on the nose, but everyone still bought carrier bags because we don’t think we can make a difference on our own. However, as soon as the government brought in the 5p charge on carrier bags, the demand for carrier bags dropped 90-95 percent. Putting it in perspective, you’re buying £20 worth of shopping and you will struggle home with it, balancing the eggs on your elbows as you try and unlock your door because you didn’t want to spend 5p on a carrier bag. So, whilst we need education, and education is good if it generates pressure on politicians and companies to change the rules and change the things they create is very effective. But, he believes, as individuals, everyone says that they would love to make a difference, but they’re not going to do it on their own. So, what we really need is governments and companies to take that action on a mass scale. Greg then gave the example of wearing face masks that we are seeing now. He said that if you make it a rule to wear masks then you get almost total compliance, but if you rely on individuals, only a very small fraction actually wear them because no one wants to look silly, or no one wants to be the first mover. For example, there’s lots of research of this kind of reaction in crime prevention; if you see someone being mugged or something happening in the street that you didn’t like, no one wants to be the first person to get involved, but as soon as someone has made that first move, others will join in. Greg believes that really understanding relatively simple insights like that are going to be the key to unlocking a green future.
Future Energy Research Centre
When talking about the launch of a Future Energy Research Centre, Greg said that this shows that with relatively modest investment, companies can make a massive difference. He used to work at a large FMCG company, and one of things that really hurt him there was when they created a new product that had to be tested on animals. He said that he hated that, but if they didn’t create new products then their company would fail because their rivals would create them, and they’d get the market share. He explained that what they needed to do as a company was to actually campaign against the thing they were doing, as a company, they should have been campaigning to say no company should test on animals. That way, them and their rivals are all on the same level playing field. But it’s a much better one than the one they were on at the time. If we’re looking at things like climate change, we need to do the same, as a company, Octopus Energy sell a lot of natural gas, Greg doesn’t want to sell any, he wants to get to a world where he’s not selling gas, but where people’s energy needs are met by renewable electricity. But he said that he can’t create that world alone. What we’ve got to do is create policy frameworks and economic models that will enable governments and companies to adopt systems that drive the move to renewables faster. Greg explained that that’s hard for governments to do because what companies tend to lobby for is what suits them today. So right now, governments around the world are being lobbied by companies saying, gas is great, or something like that. But actually, what he wants to do is create the model that lobbies for the world of the future. And so what they want to do is open source lots of econometric models, data science and physics models that show how the system would be, for example, if we’d never had fossil fuels, if we’d just started out as renewable, that would have been normal. We’d have had a society that looks very much like it is today, only cleaner. But the only way we get to enable governments to create those policies is to create the models and bring together the scientists and the economists that will model that for them. So, Greg said that they are going to model it, publish it and then hope the governments around the world are able to start adopting those policies to create a fully renewable system, but one which is going to be cheaper when we get it right. He said that it’s complicated because, for example, there are so many interdependencies. If we assume that instead of the way it works today, where people use electricity without worrying about whether it’s coming from renewables or not, where it’s flat priced all the time, it’s always available in the same kind of level way, then, of course, you end up with the world we’ve got today. If you look at a renewables world, then say when the wind’s blowing and the sun’s shining and there’s loads of electric cars, people would charge their batteries and if they charge their batteries at those times, they’re making use of the cheapest possible electrons. Now, the revenue from those electrons is new revenue to the system, which lets you go and create more windmills and more solar farms, which puts more of those cheap electrons into the system, which enables you to fill more car batteries when the sun’s shining, eventually you end up with so much renewable generation that you can handle the stuff that people worry about today such as, what do you do when there’s not much renewable on the grid? What’s going to happen is there are going to be times when we’ve got vast abundances of it and it’s basically free or very, very cheap. And if that means that at times, we’ve got less available and it’s very expensive, well, let’s model that out. Optimise the system so that low income households get access to cheap energy to heat the households in winter and high-income households can pay extra and everyone can benefit during the times when it’s windy and sunny.
Greg explained that because Octopus Energy is a start-up, it means that they didn’t have to retrofit purpose and mission into their company. Their purpose and mission are absolutely clear because it’s the skeleton upon which they built the flesh of the business. Greg said that there are plenty of entrepreneurs who just want to get rich quick, they come up with a scheme for trading some Bitcoin in return for some in-game rewards, for a downloadable app with a surprise purchase on a page that catches someone out and that’s fine. But if you want to create real value, focus on the fundamentals, focus on stuff that is not going to change when the wind changes, when different governments get elected, when consumer habits change, focus on the stuff that really matters and bring value to society and wavering value to customers that’s where you’ve got a greater chance at creating something that is scalable, that is going to deliver real shareholder value in the long run. At times like a recession, there are loads of industries that are going to get fractured, it is the time to find new forms of value to replace those that are disappearing. He said that he can’t pretend to be optimistic about recessions, they’re awful things, loads of people lose their jobs. But for an entrepreneur, it’s really interesting. As an entrepreneur, when you run a business, there are times when the world changes around you and your first thing is a sense of dislocation. Everything you were planning has suddenly changed and you sit there going, ‘oh, no, our business, is gonna be a disaster’, but if you can stand back and say, look, the world’s changed and my job is to invent a new path through the world. We can’t try and go back to the old world. Back in 2007, 2008, when the financial crash hit, Greg said he had a business building technology platform, his biggest client had a business that time, he built them marketing websites. They suddenly they experienced a massive drop in demand for companies going through transformation, because of the financial crisis no one was investing. He said that his colleague who was managing that client relationship was at the airport on the way back from the client’s HQ, phoned Greg up and said that they’re cutting every single agency, including his, because they can’t afford to spend on marketing anymore. Greg said that it felt like a hole in the ground had opened and swallowed him up. His biggest client was gone like that. That night, he sat down and just thought, they’re getting rid of us because we’re a cost centre, but if we were a profit centre then they might not get rid of us. And that night he formulated a plan to say, let’s turn these marketing websites into e-commerce platforms and drive sales for the client where they will actually be able to measure them as they go through the checkout. We’ll sell training courses and we’ll sell consulting packages and things that back then they weren’t selling online. Over the course of the next couple of weeks, they loved the idea it was going to generate revenue. That meant that when this client chopped every other supplier in that category, Greg’s business was retained, not only retained, but they grew through it. He said that he uses this example, because it’s easy for people to say, when the world changes, think hard about your new path and that’s what they did. The reason they were the right partner for that was the fundamentals for them hadn’t changed, they were totally client centric and thought about the customer, not about themselves. And that’s what they did even through that period and that they built incredibly efficient, fast moving, agile technology, which meant that’s what clients used to buy from them. They started with the right fundamentals which meant that they could handle that very big change. Greg believes that they grew through that crisis, and when he looks back at it, he hopes there’s some hope here for people who are facing challenge at the moment; it was nothing they’d have wanted, but, actually, the business benefited. He added that as they look to, even this business today, it probably would have existed if they hadn’t been through that change.
Diversity & Culture
Greg agreed that talking about diversity is an incredibly important area, because he often talks too about the importance of culture. How can you build a culture where everyone feels free to be successful when they look up the company and no one looks like them? He said that he has really learned that listening to the team. Greg said that in their current leadership team of 11 people, it is about half women, half men as well as a lot of other diversity including LGBT+. He said, something that was highlighted recently by Black Lives Matter, was that there are no black or brown faces in the leadership team. It is a complex area, but he thinks what happens with start-ups is whoever you start with, that’s who you’re stuck with at the beginning. It’s what you do thereafter that really matters. He believes that what they did well was that they we embraced Pride, and when they started to get senior women, they found that immediately they were more attractive to more senior women because they could see themselves. Now they need to be doing the same in ethnic diversity as well. Throughout the company, Greg added, they’re increasingly diverse and where they have placed themselves is in the centre of Leicester, the centre of Soho and the centre of Brighton, they are aiming for melting pot communities because he thinks diversity brings real strength in the business. Their next focus now is to make sure that their recruitment is reaching into a wider range of communities than they might have done in the past. Greg said that he is going to put a lot of effort into that because he does want anyone joining the company to be able to look up and see someone like themselves.
Communications & Differentiation
Energy is quite easy sector to raise awareness and differentiate themselves in, it’s been desperate for fresh voices. Greg believes that the stale old ideas of energy companies, that they are just a commodity no one cares about, it’s just lazy thinking. He used to work at Procter and Gamble where they sold washing powder. If you can make someone care about which brand they buy, week in, week out on a supermarket shelf, you can certainly make people care about which energy company they’re with, which one is going to rip them off, which ones are fighting to create cleaner energy system, which ones are trying to give them great service when they phone up. The opportunity to differentiate in this space is huge and Greg thinks that that’s created a bit of a global splash for them. Up until COVID, he has had visits from fifteen countries, in their offices looking at how they’re changing the energy sector. He added that he was shocked that during their investment process, the only place that they didn’t get investment from was Silicon Valley. Greg explained that the US is very backwards on energy, in most states you can’t choose your energy supplier, it makes it hard for them to see the opportunity to revolutionise energy. So certainly, there is Silicon Valley investment in deep tech, but in consumerisation of energy, which is so key to decarbonisation, is probably coming from every part of the world except the US.
Greg explained that when you’re a small start-up, you can afford to say and do anything. But, as the business becomes more significant, you’re responsible for hundreds, thousands of people, a lot of investor money, for millions of customers and for staying true to the mission you’ve set yourself. He gave the example of Giles Andrews who started a Zopa, the world’s first peer-to-peer lender. Greg was a non-executive there for a long time. He said that Giles has an unbelievable sense of integrity and what is right and at every junction in Zopa’s development, whenever there was a voice saying, there’s a quick win over here, Giles’ strength of character meant that he took the business in the path that may have been harder but that was true to his character. That’s the important thing, when you’re at the helm of a business that really seeks to create societal improvement. For Greg as the spokesperson, he certainly moves from a world in which he would just throw hand grenades at the old guard, to a world in which actually his job is not to do that, but is to build a really positive vision of the future for his company and for society, not just in the UK, but globally. You built that platform and now you’ve got to use it wisely.
When asked if being a good communicator came naturally to him, Greg explained that he has always been good at talking, but he had to learn to listen. He told a story of when he was doing his GCSE, his English teacher, Mrs. Granville, was assessing communication skills. She said, to him that communication is meant be like a tennis match; I knock the ball to you, you knock it back. But what’s happening here is I’m knocking the ball to you and then you’re running off with it. And then when he was working at P& G, there was an enormous amount of effort in training in how to listen, which Greg hopes he has learned. He also added that Mrs. Granville is now a customer!
Greg continued, he said that that was probably the best piece of advice he has had. However, he believes that the thing that was most impactful to him, wasn’t actually advice but something he spotted. He gave the story of when he was running a small business, there was a financial calamity; he was sat with one of the other directors when the accounting manager came in to tell them about the calamity. She was so stressed, so anguished, she was clearly looking down the barrel of the gun, the business was going to go bust, everyone was going to lose their jobs it was a disaster. When she told them about the issue, the other director listened to her carefully and they just smiled and said, don’t worry that’s fine. Greg explained that he saw her relax and she left the office so much happier. When she’d gone, he said to the other director ‘I can’t see how that’s fine’ and he said, ‘neither can I, but there’s no point leaving people stressed about it’. Greg said that was an unbelievable moment for him, where what he did was, he absolved all of her stress projected calm into the business. It meant that then they could sit together and try and solve the problem. He said that the problem was much easier to solve once they had absorbed the stress. The thing from this story that has stuck with him is that you are never going to be able to deal with a problem effectively if you are going to wind each other up.
Greg said that the hardest thing you ever do, is giving people bad news. He said that one time he had to go into a branch office, in a deprived area where the economy wasn’t very good and tell them that they had to close that office. But he said what was really important in that moment, was to remember that it wasn’t all about him. Whilst every part of him dreaded having to break that news, it’s not about him, it really is about them and having the generosity of spirit and the thoughtfulness, that actually, this is all about those people. He said it was by far the hardest thing he had ever had to think through. Ever since then, whenever dealing with bad news situations, it’s remembering it’s about them.
Finally, if he could go back in time and tell his younger self something, Greg said he would say that communications is actually about hard truths being better in the long run than easy evasions or even mistruths. He said that is actually the advice another colleague once told him, never tell a lie, because you’ll have to remember it forever. He believes that a lot of companies get some bad news and they don’t want to tell their employees, so they bury it and it compounds, so over time there are more and more things that can’t be spoken about openly and honestly. However, if every time there is an issue you can lean into it, then you’re not building this great big reservoir of things you can’t be open about. You can always be open and transparent. He added that even though sometimes in the short term, it is easier to duck an issue or even not tell the truth about it, it is dramatically better to stay open and transparent forever. You can’t put lipstick on a pig, as a business, it’s better to just not be a pig. If you’re going to be honest and transparent, it forces you to make better decisions. So hard truths and better decisions are the outcome of that kind of insight.