Purpose Meets Scale: Ethical Electric Promotes Clean Energy, Environmental Causes
After Ethical Electric cofounder Richard Graves decided to install solar panels on his home in 2010, he and cofounder Tom Matzzie knew they needed a simpler, easier way to harness clean energy.
Ethical Electric was born out of this need to simplify. The D.C.-based startup uses renewable wind and solar power to bring consumers clean energy—and lets users switch over without the hassle of dealing with utility companies. The B-Corp is also devoted to supporting environmental causes and partners with other similar-minded organizations.
Graves, who has a background in nonprofits, says that in addition to Ethical Electrics b-corp status, the company’s scalable model has also been key to the company’s growth. 1776 recognized Ethical Electric’s smart business model and crowned the company as the energy winner of the regional Challenge Cup in Washington D.C. Graves then went on to pitch at Challenge Festival earlier this year.
“We wanted to marry that purpose and social impact [that nonprofits have] with the ability to scale and grow of an enterprise like ours,” Graves says.
And scale they have. Since Ethical Electric began marketing to customers in February 2013, the company has partnered with three dozen leading environmental and social organizations, including the Sierra Club.
“They have tens of millions of members together that buy tens of billons of dollars worth of electricity a year,” Graves said. “We can have those members put their power bill to work for good and move from dirty energy to clean energy and support the organization that they already support. It’s often a member benefit.”
Maggie Bruns had a similar experience. As clean energy project manager for the League of Conservation Voters, Bruns knew from the get-go that partnering with Ethical Electric would be mutually beneficial.
“This is a great opportunity to engage our list in new ways in what we consider a solution. They’re pulling more clean energy into the grid,” says Bruns. “We are constantly hitting our [mailing] list with what we are up against here. It’s good to provide them with something positive and something easy that they can do at home to fit in with what … they care about, since supporting clean energy is a top priority of … our members.”
So, what can happen when a significant number of people switch over from “dirty energy?” Plenty, according to Vice President of Data Services for Ethical Electric Daniel Murray.
“In some cities, like D.C., if you get a couple thousand customers, you suddenly have a percentage of market share. If you’re three percent of the meters in D.C., that starts to make a difference—and that’s after a year of marketing. Where’s it going to go from here?” Murray says. “We haven’t been around that long and we’re starting to things are really starting to add up in terms of our impact and name ID gets better every day. That’s a long process.”
Time is what it really takes to succeed. Although many startups would love to experience quick growth, Murray cautions against making big moves without solid research to back it up.
“I would not commit to building anything until you’re absolutely sure that that’s what is needed either for your staff, company or for the market,” Murray says. “We attended the startup challenge and a lot of people had apps they had made. I felt like they were stuck with those.”
Instead, Murray advises that startups should wait a bit and gather data to determine whether or not the market needs a particular company or product. If it does, take it to market.
This strategy worked out well for Ethical Electric. Murray told 1776 in an email that Ethical scoped out each market the company planed on entering. This gave the business an idea of the number of available households, the local cost of energy and an idea of how much energy the average household would use.
This research was key to snagging new customers since Ethical was well aware of working out the details with each utility—before the company spent a single cent marketing there. This research also helped the company expand as it moved into more complicated markets, Murray says.
Yet, quality communication is just as important as data-backed research. Matt Browner-Hamlin, Ethical Electric managing director for digital strategy, would advise startups that staying in touch with customers is key.
“There’s a lot of value in keeping people informed about what’s happening. Letting them hear from you after they sign up or make a purchase,” he said. “Giving them updates on what’s happening as it relates to the growth of the company. Not looking at it as you get someone once and you never think about it again.”
Browner-Hamlin says email is a great resource, but he also recommends that companies don’t just make all the content they push out about them either.
“Go at it with an attitude of being larger than just who your brand and what your product is. It makes for a deeper connection with the people who you want as your customers,” Browner-Hamlin says. “We have lots of allies that do work and run campaigns on energy policy issues. Go out and talk about other people and organizations doing things you care about.”
Browner-Hamlin says that Ethical Electric shares its partners’ content via Facebook and Twitter. The company also links to news stories that are relevant to renewable energy, climate change and energy policy. While Ethical markets across multiple channels, the cross promotion among companies is beneficial for all parties involved.
“It gets more people onto 100-percent renewable energy, it enables progressive organizations to connect their members to a service they may not know exists and it helps generate revenue for these organizations,” Browner-Hamilton wrote in an email.
And it seems that caring is crucial for a startups to thrive. After all, Graves says, most startups don’t fail because they don’t raise enough money. They fail because they run out of morale or are not interested enough in what they’re doing.
“When you’re working on a really big problem because that’s what you really deeply care about—not just because you think you’re going to make money—it’s a lot harder to run out of morale or do something that people don’t find interesting,” says Graves. “It’s very hard to do a startup so you might as well do something that, if it succeeds, makes a big difference and is something you care about.”
Teresa Tobat is a freelance writer and editor based in the Washington, D.C. area. View her website at teresaktobat.com.