People seem to be more receptive to invitations seeking advice than they are to invitations seeking sales. This strategy has been very effective for us, and we continue to use it today, even after we’ve built our product.
Ty Benefiel graduated summa cum laude from Wabash College in 2008. After graduating, he worked at Angie’s List for four years, where he managed a team of six marketing analysts. Ty graduated with distinction from the Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management with an MBA in marketing and entrepreneurship in 2014.
While at Angie’s List, Ty worked on a project that verified the positive correlation between customer engagement and customer lifetime value. The idea that engaged customers are valuable customers stayed with Ty and reemerged during a Northwestern University class focused on energy and entrepreneurship. Ty wondered whether the relationship between customer engagement and customer value was present in the electricity industry and, if so, whether a product could be created that increased engagement with these customers.
It was this basic idea that led him to co-found MeterGenius with four other Northwestern University students in 2013. MeterGenius is a free website and mobile app that helps residential users engage with and lower their electricity usage. It provides electricity providers a modern and effective way to increase customer satisfaction and retention, reduce overall electricity consumption, and manage peak demand usage. Ty currently serves as CEO.
MeterGenius has competed in and won awards at multiple local and national startup competitions, including the Clean Energy Challenge, Arch Grants, and the MIT Clean Energy Prize. MeterGenius is also a member of the Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative and was in the spring 2015 class of Capital Innovators.
Where did the idea for MeterGenius come from?
I worked on a project at Angie’s List that confirmed the positive relationship between customer engagement and customer lifetime value. This idea stayed with me as I earned my MBA. I also wondered whether this concept could be applied to the electricity industry and had the idea for a product that increased engagement with electricity customers.
Originally, the product was going to be hardware-based, but my team quickly realized people weren’t ready to purchase hardware solutions to become energy efficient, given the low costs of electricity. After meeting with several industry executives, we homed in on a software solution that utilized the data from smart meters to present electricity customers with an engaging web and mobile experience.
What does your typical day look like, and how do you make it productive?
As the CEO of a startup, I juggle a handful of responsibilities, including sales, finance, business development, marketing, and PR. To ensure each task is completed, I plan my week ahead of time, allocating blocks of time to certain areas. For example, I conduct industry research and write blog entries on Mondays and call prospective clients on Tuesdays. Luckily, I have a co-founder, Yan Man, who runs the product development side of the company and needs little guidance from me. We’ve split the responsibilities so I can focus on growing the company and he can focus on delivering a high-quality product.
How do you bring ideas to life?
Our team believes in the Lean Startup methodology, and we follow it when we have new ideas. We run every idea by real customers, whether it’s end users or electricity executives, and we use their feedback to develop the product or feature. Once the product or feature is built, we go back to the customers for testing and more feedback. We follow this iterative process through many cycles to develop the best possible solution for the customers.
What’s one trend that really excites you?
The widespread adoption of the Internet of Things is incredibly exciting for MeterGenius. For the first time ever, technology has allowed us to take control of our electricity consumption and become smart energy consumers.
Right now, these devices only create intrinsic value for end users through their aesthetic design, remote control of certain devices, etc. If these devices could communicate with a platform that makes real-time decisions that create real value for another entity, such as the user’s electricity provider, some of that value can be shared with the user. Smart thermostats are the best example of this at the moment, but as more and more appliances are built with wireless connectivity, the value created from a truly smart home will be immense.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
Planning is the most important habit for me as an entrepreneur. Planning out my week ahead of time is the only way I can get everything done without missing something. More importantly, planning out the next three weeks and three months allows me to make sure I prioritize each week’s tasks in a way that will drive the company toward its overall goals.
It’s easy to get caught up working on what seems to be most important at that moment, but when you can step back and see how a given task fits in with the company’s long-term goals, you can better prioritize and allocate your time, which is the most limited resource for entrepreneurs.
If you were to start again, what would you do differently?
If I were to start over, I would learn more about web development. Before Yan took over product development, I had to rely on outsourced companies to help bring our ideas to life. This was expensive, and because I didn’t know enough about coding, I didn’t know what was capable of being built. Even nontechnical entrepreneurs need a solid understanding of web development — at least to the point where they can build the MVP themselves.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
I love talking to people about my business and my product, and this helps me in multiple ways. First, it has allowed me to perfect my pitch. I can now quickly explain our product, market, and business model in a way that makes sense to people with little understanding of the electricity industry. The feedback is also important because every person I talk to uses electricity and is a potential user. But the networking that often comes from telling people about my product is the most crucial. For an entrepreneur, connections may be the most valuable resource. A warm introduction to a potential client, investor, or partner is infinitely more valuable than a cold call. By developing your network, you increase the likelihood of knowing someone who might be able to make that introduction.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
Customer development has been our most effective way of growing the company. From an early stage, we reached out to potential customers to ask for help and advice rather than a sale. This allowed us to get great feedback from potential customers so we could build the product exactly how they wanted. One of these potential customers actually agreed to a pilot before the product was built. People seem to be more receptive to invitations seeking advice than they are to invitations seeking sales. This strategy has been very effective for us, and we continue to use it today, even after we’ve built our product.
What is one failure you’ve had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
Even though the pilot results were fantastic, our first pilot customer didn’t renew his contract with MeterGenius or expand the program to other customers. The customer was thrilled with the product and results, but the company had already chosen another solution by the time our pilot launched. From that experience, I realized that our product needed to include some of the features the competing solution had and that I needed to do a better job of managing client relationships after the sale.
What is the best $100 you recently spent?
My Treehouse account is probably the best $100 I’ve spent in a long time. Treehouse offers a series of online classes that teach you how to build websites. I chose the PHP route, learning both front-end and back-end languages. After the course, I was able to write code well enough to actually include in the MeterGenius application. More importantly, I was better able to communicate with my development team.
What software and web services do you use? What do you love about them?
My favorite software of all time is Microsoft Excel. Excel is powerful and simple, and understanding its many capabilities allows you to be incredibly efficient. Coming from an analytics background, I love the fact that Excel allows you to easily digest complex data in whatever form works best for you, from simple visualizations to complex regression analyses.
As far as websites go, I spend nearly half of my day on LinkedIn. LinkedIn is crucial for any entrepreneur. I can figure out exactly whom I should be talking to at each company. I often begin those conversations on LinkedIn. I really don’t know how entrepreneurs conducted business before LinkedIn.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
Everyone should read “The Lean Startup” by Eric Ries, regardless of whether you’re an entrepreneur or working in a Fortune 500 company. Not enough companies embrace the concept of customer development, and it’s clear in the products they deliver. By involving the customer in every step of the development process, companies can save money by not developing features that customers won’t use, increase the likelihood their product will be purchased, and elevate customer satisfaction levels. While an idea might make sense to the CEO or product manager, if the customer doesn’t want it or doesn’t know how to use it, the product will never be purchased. In the end, all that matters to a company is that customers are purchasing its products.
What people have influenced your thinking and might be of interest to others?
I was lucky to work for some incredible entrepreneurs in my first job out of college. Bill Oesterle and Angie Hicks, co-founders of Angie’s List, had a lot of influence on my decision to start my own company. I hope to bring their passion for the company, their leadership style, and their reliance on analytics to make decisions to MeterGenius.
I also admire Tony Fadell, co-founder of Nest, and Elon Musk, co-founder of Tesla Motors. These two gentlemen made sustainability cool, which isn’t an easy thing to do. I have a passion for environmental sustainability, so I admire anyone who can create a product that helps the environment. But up until now, these types of sustainable products were targeted toward a small subset of the population, so the impact they could have on the environment is negligible. The impact that Nest and Tesla have on the environment will surely surpass any product targeted just at the environmentally conscious.