Series W talks to Elena Lucas from UtilityAPI


utility

At UtilityAPI, we’re building the universal API for energy data. Our customers are top solar and energy storage companies. We get data out of utilities and into the hands of companies that can use it, such as solar (like SolarCity), energy storage (like Tesla), and energy management companies (Fitbit for energy use). We have paying customer and excellent growth. Access to utility data means a larger sales funnel, a frictionless customer journey, and easy data verification for financing for new energy technologies. We are making money and conveniently saving the planet at the same time (addressing climate change).

1) How did you develop the idea for UtilityAPI?

I was working at the utility and saw many opportunities for improvement, one of them was how expensive it was for the utility to share data with consumers who wanted it. Call centers and data request channels were flooded and it was preventing clean energy projects from getting the data they needed. My cofounder was working at a company that put solar on schools and he saw this from the solar company side. He was so frustrated that he had to submit a paper authorization form and wait 4 weeks for messy data to be sent to him.

 

2) How did you make the decision to take the plunge and start your own company?

Back story as told by Heather Smith at Grist (I couldn’t say it better):

“Three years ago, Lucas worked at PG&E — a low-level gig that she’d taken because she assumed it was a first step toward becoming an integral part of the renewable energy revolution. It wasn’t. It was more like sitting at a desk far away from the renewable revolution and finding out that your repeated requests to transfer closer to the revolution had been blocked by some hidden layer of bureaucracy.

 

“What happened next seems a little self-helpy because, well, it is. Lucas studied up on the motivational stylings of high-powered women in tech like Sheryl Sandberg (COO of Facebook) and Kate Purmal (co-founder of numerous tech companies). “Lean in,” said Sandberg. “Cultivate your vision,” said Purmal.

 

“Lucas put her own spin on both. She didn’t just imagine her ideal career five or 10 years into the future, she organized a group retreat to do so. She started a Lean In circle — sort of a consciousness-raising group, if a consciousness-raising group met regularly to hold its members accountable to the principles of Sheryl Sandberg. And she went to events run by groups like Young Professionals in Energy and Women in Cleantech & Sustainability so often that she developed her own calendar of Bay Area tech and energy events, and began sharing it with people.”

 

I was laid off of a job in August 2014. SoFi career services helped keep my spirits up and coached me through some interviews but – here is the side story: In July 2014 I helped host a Women in Cleantech and Sustainability happy hour during an industry event. Daniel, my to-be co-founder, attended. I gave him my card and told him about my newsletter of bay area energy events. He signed up for my newsletter. In August, when I asked people in my newsletter if they’d like to join me at a proto-hack, a no-coding hackathon. He replied “but I like to code…” and we met up at the hackathon. I didn’t even remember him from the happy hour. We built a MVP at the hackathon and were top 5 out of 40 teams. We learned that we worked really well together. We talked a bit more and went into business together in September.

 

To be clear, when I first heard the name UtilityAPI, I didn’t know what an API was. I attended my first tech event in June 2014 and I co-founded a tech company in September 2014. Until that event in June, I didn’t know the difference between a front-end and back-end developer.

 

3) How did you fund the business? What do you spend most of your funds on? Knowing what you know now about how to raise and spend funds, what would you have done differently?

 

$10k from the Powerhouse solar software accelerator program

$120 in “friends and family” but it was from Better Ventures. We didn’t have any friends or family with money. $775k Convertible note in May 2015. $100k non-dilutive (grant) from Dept of Energy SunShot Catalyst. $760k award from Dept of Energy SunShot. We’ve had some funds come in on another convertible note as well. $75k from the Energy Excelerator in Hawaii.

 

As a female entrepreneur or anyone that is not a young white male, the most important thing I learned is to observe and notice if people weren’t taking me or the idea seriously. You can always tell within the first two minutes, or even the first two sentences if someone is going to take you seriously and could possibly invest or be a partner.

 

Nearly all the money is spent on paying employees.

Take money when people offer it.

 

4) What has been your greatest WFIO (we’re f*****, it’s over) moment so far?

We’re in a highly regulated space. Utilities are 100 yr old companies and move slowly. It’s our opportunity, but we also have to mitigate the risks. We keep an open dialogue with utilities, regulators and policy makers so all parties are aware of the benefits of what we’re doing. We aren’t flashy or directly challenge the incumbent companies  like Uber and AirBnb, so it’s a smoother ride, but there can still be some bumps.

 

5) What has been the most exciting moment so far?

$760k in non-dilutive capital!

 

6) What resources have been most helpful to you in starting up?

 

The community. Get out and talk with people. Build relationships with interesting people, even if you don’t see a direct benefit of the relationship right now.

 

Here are some resources I put together:

Taking the awkward moments out of networking

Power networking: Tips for finding funding and power networking at pitch events

How to find a fulfilling job, especially in clean energy

 

7) Tell us about the relationships you have formed with partners? Tell us about how you’ve learned about your customer base?

All of our customers started with our personal network. Going to energy events, we’d meet potential customers or at least one person from each of the big solar companies. My co-founder and I both planned events. I’d been networking in the Bay Area energy space for over two years,

 

I’m on the board of Women in Cleantech and Sustainability (they plan events and it costs $100 to be on the board). It gave me credibility in the community. I’ve taken over the cleanweb mantle in the Bay Area. Events are a great way to become a leader in the community and a way to engage with potential customers and partners.

 

8) If you could give an aspiring entrepreneur one piece of advice, what would it be?

START NOW. If you waited to know everything, you’ll never start. Taskrabbit founder Leah Busque said she only knew about 2% of what she needed to know to start and grow a company. She learned along the way (is there any better way to learn?) and surrounded herself with people who knew the right things to compliment her skillset.

 

Start finding great people now and stay in touch. You’ll need a technical co-founder!!!! Start finding people who are good developers/ potential CTO candidates now.

 

You’re SO ahead because you’re at HBS. Connect with EVERYONE in your class. With great power comes great responsibility. Use the HBS connections! Even if you’ve never spoken with them! Guys will.
I know an HBS alum who raised $4M with small checks from people in the HBS community. He had 7 min phone calls with several hundred alumni and the fundraising round was done in 6 weeks.