Russ: [00:00:00] Thanks for downloading show 108 of the C Suite, podcast, the 5th in our special series of episodes that we’re recording in partnership with the European PR agency Tyto and their own Without Borders podcast, where we are interviewing leaders of unicorn companies to find out about the key issues, pain points and challenges that startups face and how they can address them with a strategic approach to marketing and communications. My name is Russell Goldsmith and once again I’m co-hosting the show with Tyto’s founder, Brendan Craigie. And joining us online is the CEO of one of the most recent businesses to achieve unicorn status in the UK, which they achieved just a few weeks ago in May this year. And that’s Greg Jackson of Octopus Energy. So welcome to the show, Greg. How does it feel any different being introduced as a unicorn CEO?
Greg: [00:00:45] I think on a personal level, it’s something to be proud that we’ve achieved a public milestone. But I think the reality is that I said this is really just fuel for stage two of our mission. And, you know, where, what we’ve got about five percent market share here in the UK now. So, we’ve got way to go in the UK and then we’ve got the entirety of the rest of the planet. And by the way, during that journey, we’ve got to decarbonise energy generation and transmission systems. So, the mission really has only just begun.
Russ: [00:01:16] Just a few things to be getting on with. Well, let’s start by getting you to give us a quick overview of the business.
Greg: [00:01:23] So, yeah, Octopus Energy was found in 2015. And we kind of saw the opportunity to use technology to drive a dramatically more efficient system, not just here in the U.K., but globally as it’s happened in so many of the sectors. And I think energy is probably just about the largest undisrupted sector globally. Not only can we use the technology to drive down prices, notoriously energy suffered from terrible service and tech can really help fix that. And then, you know, at least as importantly, possibly most importantly, we think technology may be the key to helping make the switch to renewables faster and cheaper than anyone thinks. So that’s kind of the reason we started the business. And we 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 like Zoopla LOVEFiLM, Secret Escapes, and it goes on. So, we’ve got great investors. And I think we had a really important mission we can be proud of. But we had a bit of a mountain to climb. You know, I think people even just four years ago looked at the energy sector and said how can you take on the incumbents? That kind of massive might. But I think the reality is, like so many sectors, if you really focus hard on what you want to achieve, for example, in our case, dramatically better customer service, dramatically greater efficiency and the fight against climate change. If you’re really focusing on what’s really important, you’ve got a fair chance. And I guess where we are today then is got about one point five million household customers here in the UK. We got about 700 team members. We’ve just opened in Australia and we’ve made an acquisition in Germany. And, you know, we’re beginning to take this kind of British tech success story in the world of clean energy global.
Russ: [00:03:22] But your background’s not energy or utilities, though, is it?
Greg: [00:03:25] No, nothing. I mean, the people at Uber didn’t come from Addison Lee, Jeff Bezos wasn’t a bookstore keeper. I think the reality is that when I’m from a tech background, my co-founders and I 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. And what we spotted was in every sector, as you went through that kind of digital revolution across the early 2000s, people said it’s not going to happen to us. So, remember when clothing retailers said, you know, obviously online is fine for books, but people need to try on clothes. And of course, then we saw ASOS and how many others, I remember, you know, talking to the marketing director of a pub chain who said, I don’t really care about the Internet because I want people in my pubs not at home using computers, you know. And I showed her that there were 200,000 searches a month just in London for pubs that serve food. I was like, look, this revolution is happening in every sector. And when we started in energy, people said, you know, look, new technology doesn’t matter and energy is a commodity. And of course, I’ve heard that so many times before. It was almost like that is the proof there’s an opportunity. So, I think to bring technology into a sector that is not used to it, into a sector almost rejects it, has been a tremendous opportunity for us.
Brendon: [00:04:58] Think about that, Greg, you obviously helped other industries with their kind of digital transformation. Were there any kind of mistakes you made in your previous life that when you came to build Octopus Energy that were helpful to learn from?
Greg: [00:05:14] Yeah, you know, I think it was fantastic to have learned multiple times particular challenges of digital disruption. So, for example, 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, I think, you know, a good lesson for me was when I looked at Uber, you know, the first four or five years, Uber didn’t allow you to book a car in advance. Now, anybody from the taxi industry, anybody would have said, look, 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. Now, what happens if that driver gets stuck in traffic or doesn’t turn up? You’ve got to suddenly look after that. You don’t have to do that if it’s all real time. And so I think we took a lot of the same kind of insights that said, look, we’re not going to have every knob and whistle. What we’re gonna do is focus on creating astonishing user experiences and real digital innovation on what matters for decarbonisation. But loads of people are gonna be saying to us, can you do this? And what about that? And we’ll you know, we will kind of resist that in order to deliver successfully the stuff that really matters.
Brendon: [00:06:28] That is a really great insight. How do you how do you kind of distinguish between things which aren’t the things to do now versus the things to do in the future? What process do you go through to make those calls?
Greg: [00:06:43] Yeah, the first thing has got really clear mission, right. Our job is to use technology to drive better value, fairer pricing, better service and the green revolution. So, if things are not consistent with that, they’re quite low down the priority list. Right. So, there are loads of things we could do that wouldn’t help in that mission. I think the second thing is in our business, we kind of have an inverted pyramid. So, in loads of companies, what you do with things like that, you know, you’d have a big team preparing deck after deck and they turn up at management and they present this 500-page deck and you give them all the feedback. They go back and you waste months and months doing it. And that process really typically, unnecessary ideas gaining traction, because by the time you’re getting that kind of really that kind of feedback coming down that ladder, you can’t kill everything. So, what we do instead is we say, look for us, it’s an ongoing conversation in a very flat company so that the people talking to customers on the phones and via email have access to what we call the ‘comms channel’ on Slack, we’ve got one for tech as well. And every time a customer makes a remark about something we have, we haven’t got something that isn’t clear or whatever it goes into those channels and it gets typically same-day feedback from someone who’s basically director level. So instead of, like going through a big requirements gathering session we continue to gather the requirements, continually filtering what we think is important. And then when we make decisions that are really, really well-founded. So very flat structure where managers don’t say like, you know, middle managers or teams of prod developers go and build a 500-page deck. Where we actually get our hands dirty means that we maintain a consistent focus throughout every, we don’t have many levels, we don’t even have an organogram. But let’s assume we had an organogram, then throughout every level in the business, you’ve got kind of people getting their hands dirty and taking responsibility. And that way the machine doesn’t run away with itself.
Russ: [00:08:47] Sounds like it’ll be like a really very long horizontal sheet for you.
Greg: [00:08:52] Yeah. It’s also by the time you’ve written it out it will be out of date, you know. So, I think for us, I’m really proud that we don’t have an organogram. You know, 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. And it’s very, very non-hierarchical.
Russ: [00:09:09] Brilliant. Let’s come back to this topic of becoming a unicorn. I asked at the start, you know, if it made a difference to you personally being introduced as a unicorn CEO. What about, you know, the impact that that milestone has had in terms of changing the perception of the company as a whole?
Greg: [00:09:26] Yeah, it’s interesting. I think, first of all, you know, I’m incredibly proud that we kind of became a unicorn right in the middle of the worst bit of the COVID crisis in the UK. So, you know, we got an international investor. Over the line. When we were kind of facing uncertainty and meltdown, you know, to the extent that we haven’t been able to shake hands on the deal yet. But I think what that meant was we were really sensitive that the last thing we wanted to do, as some companies do, is go out there trumpeting the unicorn status and instead be very cognizant that this is a long-term mission. The investment here is merely to enable the next stage of driving our transition to a cheaper, greener energy system. And it’s is kind of given us, I guess, a proof point, that international investors believed in our approach on that mission. But what we haven’t done, you know, in and of itself is not success. You know, I guess one of the great business philosophers of all time, Kenny Rogers, the country and Western music singer, there’s a line in one of his songs, which is, you know, you never count your money when you’re sitting at the table. And I think it’s not about money. It’s about you can’t declare any level of success while you’re still in the game. And I think for us, that is such an important part of this, that having the external validation from real experts, you know, it’s Australia’s biggest energy company in this case. And, you know, there are a dozen others who were in the final stages, is helpful, but no more than that.
Russ: [00:11:13] I think when Brendon and I started this series, we weren’t expecting quotes from Kenny Rogers to come into it.
Brendon: [00:11:19] It’s a good quote. You talked a little bit earlier, Greg, about how, you know, there’s always been this kind of skepticism about different, more traditional sectors being or industries being disrupted. And we’ve seen that happen very successfully within financial services. And, you know, like I guess probably when you started out, probably people looked to energy as being this very traditional set to be hard to disrupt. How did you sort of go about approaching that?
Greg: [00:11:49] So, how do we go about disrupting energy? I remember sitting around the table when we 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, very skeptical. But there was one who totally got the focus on customer, focus on technology and the focus on driving, speeding up the Green Revolution was something that, you know, is a distinct mission, they gave us a chance. And that person was Simon Rogerson, who is the founder and the chief executive of Octopus Group, our investors. And, you know, 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? We did. And at the time, you know, they said, look, how are you going to displace the big six? And I think now I look at it as being it’s like a Godzilla movie poster in that, you know, you kind of we were the little guys in the street in Manhattan and you’re looking up at the skyscrapers are the big six. But behind the skyscrapers, you could actually see the real threat, which is societal changes. 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. And that’s the kind of Godzilla threat upon that sector. Right. And so our job really has been to like look at those things and say, look, they’re not big, strong, kind of robust, built to last structures the way you think they are. They’re actually facing absolute imminent threat. And it is our job, right city to recognize that threat and to be the opposite of those companies, so that as they start to crumble. So we can grow in their place. And I think that’s what’s happening. You know, I don’t take any pleasure in the in the kind of travails of rivals. But I do look at that and say, look, you know, if they’d under invested for 20 years and their customers and their software and, you know, someone went as far as to deny climate change. All right. They’re stretching the elastic too far. And so what you’re seeing now is, you know, here in the U.K., public lists ones. You’ve got share prices that are multi-fold, lower than they were five years ago. You got kind of increasing consolidation and acquisition. And there’s just gonna be more of that. I guess my proudest moment in this business actually was helping make the energy price cap happen. I am an entrepreneur. I hate government interference in markets. Let’s be clear. 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.
And so when we identified that pricing practices and we graphed them and we got the media interest and we took it out, the government and the government took action. What you really started to see was all of that pent-up customer annoyance, frustration turned into legislation that rightly made their lives hard. Right. It didn’t make their lives hard because the government were being unfair. The government was 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. Customers win. And companies on the side of the customer benefit from that. So, I guess that’s kind of how we’ve looked at this market. The reason that’s my proudest moment is. Yeah. Look, we saved one and a half million households, many, many of whom would’ve saved money anyway, because they kind of know how to engage in the market. Not all though, but through the price cap, 11 million households saved on average a hundred pounds a year. And we were a major part of making that billion pound a year saving to UK, households whilst driving the fight against climate change.
Brendon: [00:15:51] Fantastic. Congratulations on that. It’s a huge success. You kind of like hinted a little bit about the fact that you have kind of a very unique company culture and you know, you talked a little bit about the flat structure and having no org charts and just reading a few articles about your business and how you structure things, especially in order to kind of support that ethos around customer service. It sounds like you’re doing a lot of very cool and interesting things. Could you kind of maybe share a little bit about that?
Greg: [00:16:24] Yeah. First of all, it was a quote. Kenny Rogers. Many guys say it’s like more conventional, I think it was Drucker, the business writer and expert who said culture eats strategy for breakfast. Right. And I think we had the opportunity in this business to start off with an absolute focus on creating the right culture. And over the four or five times I’ve been a CEO, every time I’ve learned more and more about kind of how to do a better job. And this was the place I got to, like, deploy everything I’ve learned. And let me give you a couple of quick stories. That’s right. So, I once ran a small business, that had previously been owned by large enterprise. And Tina, who was on reception, was also the person who did customer service. We looked after a number of small retailers. And one day, Tina was on the phone to a customer and I was walking through reception. There were few people around. And I heard her on the call and I’d been through Procter and Gamble management training. So obviously, as a bright graduate from a great university in P&G management training, I kind of had a lot to help with. So, I leaned into Tina and I whispered, some words in her ear to help with the call. And when she finished the call, kind of I mean, consummate professional. Put the phone down. And then she gave me an unbelievable death stare and she, forgive me for the language here, you might want to beep it. But she said, 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, and I love the company more than you do, you don’t need to tell me what to do. Right. And this is this kind of 30 seconds of stunned silence particularly as there were a lot of people around the room. And I just realized she was right and I gave her the biggest hug. And that moment, she taught me to trust people. And I think one of the biggest things for me is that, you know, most enterprises have incredible recruitment programmes to find the brightest, most motivated people, who’ve got ideas and energy. And then they bring them in and they drown them in process and instructions and rules. And actually, they lose all of the magic that is inherent not only in everyone, but especially the people who they have just hired. And the job, really, of a company like ours is that we set the mission, the direction. And we’re absolutely clear about what we’re meant to achieve what are standards are, but then set people free to deliver it. And I think that has two or three really big benefits. First of all, you know, 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, you know, we’re ceasing to be ourselves. And on a purely human level, to be not yourself for eight or 10 hours a day is not a cool outcome. But then actually, 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 or whatever it might be 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. And then you end up with this great virtuous spiral because productivity is higher. Attrition is lower. You get the right kind of people wanting to join you. People who they then want their friends to join. We’re not perfect. 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, that’s all cool. But for most people, this approach works incredibly well. And for us as company works well, but it changes everything we do. So, for example, our CTO, one of my co-founders, you know, one of the design missions of our technology platform, Kraken is at the core of everything we do is that internal users are as important as customers, it’s got to be a joy for our team to use because it is enabling them to deliver great customer outcomes and enjoy their jobs. And if a small tweak in Kraken makes their lives easier. That’s incredibly important. So, for example, one thing we do is something called ‘Yagering’, and it does some film project, Yager, in which two people collectively drive a machine. And when we do a Yagering session, what happens is our tech team come and sit with our ops team. And they sit together looking after customers and the tech people learn how well the platform is delivering or not on all the things that our team needs to look after customers and then they go away from there because as tech people will know, I saw that happen a lot. And I can automate that or. Wow. You know, we should have a bit of machine learning to prevent something ever happening. So, what you then do is you have a self-reinforcing cycle of elevating the internal user, to, James Ciccio says godlike status, and it’s our job to serve. Now, the reinforcing cycle, is to make the platform better so they’re happier. They look after customers better, which enables us to get the permission to make the platform better and so on. So, couple of examples there, about the way you work.
Russ: [00:21:46] It sounds like you got an incredible relationship with the team. Well, I was thinking, as that team has increased, I mean, you said you’re now at 700 people. How do you navigate that need to communicate with individuals and different parts of the company versus addressing, say, the entire team especially? I mean, again, you mentioned, you know, you’ve got now offices in different regions as well. And also, even in your current office where people are now currently working from home during the pandemic.
Greg: [00:22:15] Yeah, we can talk about the pandemic separately in a second, if you like. I think the first thing is there’s a couple of interesting external measures. You know, our Glassdoor [rating] is four point six, or four point eight out of five, our TrustPilot [rating] is four point eight out of five. It’s not coincidence that they both kind of high together because I think, you know, that is, again, back to self-reinforcement. And typically in a good companies, three point five out of five, our rivals are sort of three point two three point six. So, you know, I look at a space that’s working well. Don’t get me wrong though, there is absolutely zero hubris or arrogance about that, got to be humble because it can all go wrong tomorrow. So, it’s your question about how do we do it? And it’s kind of an absolute constant focus on what are the things that are working and not working organizationally, because I think if we get the organisation right, if we get the people right, the business will follow. So, time and again, it’s like, particularly if we’re recruiting new managers, it’s helping them understand. I would rather we lost as a team than we won as individuals. Right. If someone gets something wrong, the first thing you do is put your arm around them because they probably feel terrible about it. Right. The most important thing is 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, the ones who, you know, won’t make those again. Right. So, let’s welcome it. And I think so that focus on both micro macro versions of the things that drive culture is incredibly important. You know, we have a super high bandwidth communication so every customer can get hold of every director, every team member can. And we get the whole company together every Friday for what we call family dinner. We used to do it from the office locations linking them all by video and I’d talk through what’s worked well in the week, what hasn’t and where we’re going. And, you know, kind of what’s important. Now we’re doing it by video during COVID, by Zoom, a 600-person Zoom call on a Friday afternoon. It’s pretty special, actually. Incredible atmosphere, the chat panel alive with everything from people being proud or celebrating each of the successes through to a banter and amusement of different backgrounds. And I think really all of us. Everything is about remembering. Every company faces the same risk organisationally and most fall prey to it, which is, you know, the people in technology, people in I.T. will start to hate the people in the business. You know, they keep doing this. I keep having to go and do it. And then the people in the business, people in business will say, look, technology never delivers, always late, functions don’t work and this platform never works. All that stuff. And, you know, operations say, they let marketing keep doing these things, they never tell us we have to deal with all the chaos and marketing will be like operations can never deliver what we sell to customers and you got all these things. 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 we can. And we’re all great people. And so when we see something go wrong, for example, know our platform. Every now and then, we’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 we’re really sorry. We take massive responsibility delivering this for you. But of course, we’re developing stuff at 100 miles an hour, we’re changing the wheels while the cars moving in support of bringing in more customers more efficiently. And delivering a better platform. If we all understand that and we remember how great each other are. Then we don’t end up with those kind of organizational barriers where every function starts kind of losing respect for each other.
Russ: [00:26:10] You explain the how you know, obviously COVID is impacting internally on the business. What about externally? What’s been the impact of the last few months?
Greg: [00:26:20] I mean, the first thing is, you know, as a business, we support one and a half million people. And among those are people whose health is worse. People who have died of COVID, right? Sadly, in Britain, too many. And then there are those whose health has been impacted, really suffered and our 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, you know, what companies are going to do at the end. We don’t know whether we can experience the deepest economic recession of, you know, since we started recording these or whether we’ll have a V shape and bounce back. And businesses we’ve got business customers who, if you’re in the pub and leisure sector, for example. I mean, it’s brutal. There is nothing you can have done. So, I think for us, the first thing is really recognizing the impact on so many people in the population. The same thing, by the way, is with our team. You know, we’ve got people on our team who have had relatives who’ve been impacted. Plenty of them. Although. We’ve ensured everybody stayed fully paid and fully employed where they’re not in direct contact with the public physically, and even there we’ve 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 our customer base is massive on some of our team is big. And then we’ve got to recognise this is the most unequal thing I’ve ever seen happen. For people who 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 on Pret, you know? 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’ve had to spend four housemates, you know, each in a single room trying to work all day with access to one shared kitchen, they each got a couple of hours. I mean, you know, I’ve never seen anything so brutally unequal. And I think 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 us, in our conversations with government, with the regulator, with our own team and with our customers, really trying to ensure that we focus on helping those who truly need it most and recognize that some people are actually better off, it’s gonna be a really important part of delivering us a united recovery. I think the biggest issue for me, if I look externally, you know, is you’ve got a choice at times like this. You know, do we come together? Do we unite in recovery or do we divide one person against another? We’ve seen that so often in recessions. And then similarly, you know, 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? So, I think for me, when I’m looking externally and really talking to stakeholders as well as making investment decisions in this business, you know, I’m really working hard to drive this kind of united. We’re in it together recovery, driven by investment in a green future.
Brendon: [00:29:57] On that point, Greg, you’ve obviously mentioned that you’re involved in some discussions like at a policy level and influencing policy. What’s your sense of the mood, the broad mood? You know, like are you kind of like an outlier, or do you think that there’s a broad consensus around that?
Greg: [00:30:16] Yeah, I’m actually really pleased that here in the U.K. and in many countries, what we’ve had we’ve had a taste, actually, of a better environment. You know, we’ve all seen the photos from space. We’ve seen the stats about reduced carbon emissions. We’ve seen empty roads. We see streets that kids are playing in. And we’ve seen, you know, people beginning to cycle so much more. And even in energy, electricity generation, UK, has never been greener, in fact it’s been so green, we’ve been so heavily biased towards renewables during this period because total consumption is down. Renewables have been a bigger and bigger proportion. There’ve been times when we’ve had excess green energy and we’ve been able to give it away for free to customers. So I think the you know, these taste, these glimpses of what a green world can look like, have actually been quite appealing to many policymakers and stakeholders, and I’m quite optimistic that, you know, we don’t build back as we were, but we build back better.
Brendon: [00:31:16] Yeah. So, you think you actually don’t think that the, a potential economic downturn is going to have a detrimental effect on the environmental agenda?
Greg: [00:31:28] There’s a risk that in the very short term it could, because you know what? We’ve seen oil prices plummet, natural gas price the same. And that is going to make it so tempting place for the early phase, the recovery. But I think the medium to long term, what we’re going to see is there’s still so much private capital available, we just need to unlock it into green investment. And again, that’s the UK, globally. You know, in the UK, there’s 300 billion pounds in ISAs, never mind the money from, you know, large funds and high net worth. I mean, now 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 make simple policy changes to unlock enormous amounts of money to drive that recovery. Now, that recovery will create jobs. Those jobs get us out of recession and we’ll grow into a greener future.
Russ: [00:32:22] You’ve still got to rely, though, on that human, I guess, understanding. I mean, I’ve seen pictures as soon as the people were heading down to the beach and they disappeared. It was a complete and utter mess. I’ve seen reports about how many facemasks are currently in the ocean now. I mean, there’s still so much education isn’t there to be done?
Greg: [00:32:45] There is. I think it is really interesting. We were educated for decades about carrier bags, right? Time and again, governments and campaigns would show us photos of dolphins, the carry bag on the nose or whatever, everyone still bought carrier bags. Right. Because we don’t think we can make a difference on our own. But as soon as the government brought in the 5p charge on carry bags, demand for carrier bags dropped 90 to 95 percent. Let’s put that in perspective. You’re buying 20 pounds worth of shopping and you will struggle home with it. You’ll be balancing the eggs on your elbows as you try and lock your door because you didn’t want to spend 5p on a carry bag. Right. So, what we need is, yes, education is fantastic. And education, if it generates pressure from politicians and companies to change the rules and change the things they create is very effective. But I think as individuals, everyone looks, saying, look, I would love to make a difference, but I’m not going to do it on my own. So, what we really need is governments and companies to take that action on a mass scale. We’ve seen it with masks. Fascinating things with masks. Right. Tons research on this now. So, COVID face masks, if you make a rule, you’ve got to wear them, you get almost total compliance. If, on the other hand, we rely upon individuals, a relatively small fraction, 20, 30 percent of people wear them because no one wants to look like a doofus. All right. No, you’re not really looking like doofus, but you don’t want to be the first mover. There’s tons of research on this in crime prevention. You know, like if you see someone being mugged, if you see something in the street didn’t like, no one wants to be the first mover. But as soon as you know, the others are involved, you’ll join, too. And I think, really understanding relatively simple insights like that are going to be the key to unlocking a green future.
Russ: [00:34:23] Well, let’s stick on this. This environmental topic. At the end of May, you announced that you’re aiming to launch your future energy research centre in autumn. I was doing a little bit of reading on this or I should say the fall for US listeners. It sets out to develop new models for a clean energy system is what they release was saying. You want to talk us through how that shaping up?
Greg: [00:34:44] Yeah, this is a great example, actually, of where with relatively modest investment, companies can make a massive difference. I used to work at a large FMCG company, and one of things that really hurt me was when we created a new product that had to be tested on animals. And I hated that, but if we didn’t create new products then our company would fail because our rivals would create them and they’d get the market share. So what we needed to do as a company was to actually campaign against the thing we were doing. So as a company, we should have been campaigning to say no company should test on animals. That way, we and our rivals are all on the same level playing field. But it’s a much better one than the one we were on at the time. And I think, you know, if we’re looking at things like climate change, we need to do the same, companies, you know, as a company, we sell a lot of natural gas. I don’t want to sell any. I want to get to a world where we’re not selling gas, but where people’s energy needs are met by renewable electricity. All right. There may be other things as well, but but where we met by renewables.
So to create that world. I can’t do it 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. That’s hard for governments to do that, 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, hey, look, gas is great. Is it clean? Or whatever right. But actually, what we want to do is create the model that lobbies for the world of the future. And so what we want to do is open source a bunch of econometric models, a bunch of data science, a bunch of 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. It 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 we’re 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, you know, going to be cheaper right when we get it right. It’s complicated because, for example, there are so many interdependencies.
If we assume that instead of the way it works today, where people basically 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. But if you look at renewables word and then say, look, when the wind’s blowing and the sun’s shining and there’s loads of electric cars, people would charge their batteries. Right. 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, and eventually you end up with so much renewable generation that you can handle the stuff that people worry about today like, what do you do when there’s not much renewable on the grid? It’s like, look, what’s going to happen is there are gonna 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, it’s very expensive. Well, let’s model that out. Optimize the system so that low income households get access to cheap energy to heat the households in winter. High income households can pay extra and everyone can benefit during the times when it’s windy and sunny. That’s a different system, right? Someone’s got to model it. So, we’re going to do that.
Brendon: [00:38:25] Pretty exciting, I think often when you get these kind of like recessionary stages of the economy. It can be like the moment of reflection that kind of inspires an entrepreneur to go out and start a new business. You know, either out of necessity or because, you know, like it’s you know, it’s that moment of reflection. How important you think it is in the world today that, you know, all new businesses need to have a clear social purpose, that benefits wider society.
Greg: [00:38:57] It’s a great question. Right. I talk about this a lot, we’re a startup. Right. And that means that we didn’t have to retrofit purpose and mission to whatever it is we happened to be doing. For us we started to do this and that makes our purpose a mission absolutely clear like it’s the skeleton upon which we build the flesh of the business. And I think there are plenty of entrepreneurs who just want get rich quick, 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. That’s fine. But if you want to create real value, focus on the fundamentals, focus on stuff that has, 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. And I think you’ve got a greater chance at creating something that is scalable, that is going to deliver real shareholder value in the long run.
And, you know, at times like a recession, you know, there are loads of industries that are going to get fractured is the time to find new forms of value to replace those that are disappearing. So I 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 kind 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. All right. That’s your job, your job to say, look, this is how the world is, I’ve got to invent a new path through it. I can’t try and go back to the old world.
And it’s easy to say that. I can give you an example, actually, back in 2007, 2008, when the financial crash hit, our biggest client, I had a business that time, building technology platforms and building, essentially what we built them was marketing websites and they suddenly experienced a massive drop in demand for, you know, companies going through transformation, because of the financial crisis no one was investing. And the guy who was managing the relationship was at the airport on the way back from their HQ. And he phoned me up. He said, they’re cutting every single agency, including us, because they can’t afford to spend on, essentially marketing anymore. You know, it felt like a hole in the ground had opened and swallowed me up. Our biggest client was gone like that. And. That night, I sat down, just thought, look, they’re getting rid of us because we’re cost centre, if we were a profit centre, then they might not get rid of us. And that night we formulated a plan to say, look, let’s turn these marketing websites into e-commerce platforms and drive sales for you and not drive sales in a sort of wishy-washy wave our hands around, you’ll actually be able to measure them as they go through the checkout. And we’ll sell training courses and we’ll sell consulting packages and things that back then they weren’t selling online. And over the course of the next couple of weeks, they loved the idea it was going to generate revenue. And that meant that when they chopped every other supplier in our category, we were retained, not only retained, but we grew through it. And so I use that as an example, because it’s easy for people to say like, you know, when the world changes. Think hard about your new path. That’s what we did.
Back to what I was saying earlier the reason we were the right partner for that was the fundamentals for us hadn’t changed. We were totally client-centric. We thought about the customer, not about ourselves. And that’s what we did even through that period and that we built incredibly efficient, fast moving, agile technology, which meant that’s what clients used to buy from us. And when we had to change the kind of technology we’re building, we were agile to that. And so I think what we did, what we started out on, that we got the fundamentals right. And it meant we could handle that very big change. And actually, you know, we grew through that crisis. And when I look back at it and I hope there’s some hope here for people who are facing challenge at the moment, you know, when I look back on that, it actually was, it’s nothing we’d have wanted, but, actually, our business benefited. And as we look to, even this business today, probably would have existed if we hadn’t been through that change.
Russ: [00:43:40] There’s lots of things, though, you know, changing in the world quite rapidly at the moment. I want to pick up on something I read on your website. And that was so there was a blog post from when you started in 2006. It says, what does it take to create the energy company of the future? And on that post, there’s a picture of your leadership team, and that consists of five white males. And I was just wondering, A) Has your leadership team changed since then? But, you know, if you were starting now and that’s only four, five years ago, would that make up be different?
Greg: [00:44:12] Yeah. Look, first of all, I’m glad we talked about this, right? It’s an incredibly important area, because I talk too about the importance of culture. You know, how can you build a culture where everyone feels kind of free to be successful when they look up the company and no one looks like them, right. And I’ve really learned that listening to the team. So, where we are today then, is in our leadership team, about 11 people, we don’t have an organogram so I can’t be certain, it’s about half women. There’s a lot of other diversity, there’s loads of LGBT, for example. But, you know, I mean, something that was highlighted recently by Black Lives Matter, was you know, there are no black or brown faces in the leadership team right. So, it is a complex area. But I think what happens with startups is whoever you start with, that’s kind of who you’re stuck with at the beginning. It’s what you do thereafter that really matters. And I think what we did well was, you know, we embraced pride, when we started to get senior women we found that, you know, immediately we were more attractive to more senior and because they could see people themselves. And now we need to be doing the same in ethnic diversity as well. I think throughout the company, actually, by the way, we’re increasingly diverse and where we’ve placed ourselves, we’re based in our offices that we’ve chosen are, the centre of Leicester, the centre of Soho and the centre of Brighton, you know, we’re aiming for melting pot communities because I think diversity brings real strength in the business. But our next focus now is to make sure that we’re reaching into, that our recruitment is reaching into a wider range of communities than we might have done in the past. And I’m going to put a lot of effort into that because I do want anyone joining the company to be able to look up and see someone like themselves.
Russ: [00:46:10] Listen on this topic of communications. As a tech startup whose origins are in Europe rather than, say, Silicon Valley. What’s been your approach to raising awareness and differentiating yourself in such a noisy and crowded area?
Greg: [00:46:25] Yeah, I think energy is quite easy sector to do it in really, I mean, it’s been desperate for fresh voices. The stale old ideas of energy companies, we’re just a commodity no one cares about us. It’s just lazy thinking. I used to work at Procter and Gamble where we sold washing powder. And if you make someone care about which brand they buy, week in, week out on a supermarket shelf. I can certainly make people care about which energy company they’re with, which one is going to rip them off. Which one’s going to, you know, try and rob them when they’re not rob them but, you know, put the prices up when they’re not looking. 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 I think that’s created a bit of a global splash for us.
So, over the last six months I’ve had visits from fifteen countries, well until COVID, in our offices looking at how we’re changing the energy sector. So, you know, if you’re gonna do it in any sector, this is great. I think the Silicon Valley question is interesting because I was shocked during our investment process that we had incredible investor appetite from the UK, from Europe, from Asia and from Australasia. The only place that we didn’t was actually Silicon Valley. It was really interesting because I think the US is, the US by the way is so backwards on energy. You know, most States you can’t choose your energy supplier, just like the DMV. You stuck with whoever the government kind of put in place, you know. And I think makes it hard for them to see the opportunity to revolutionize energy. So certainly Silicon Valley investment in deep tech in consumerisation of energy, which, by the way, is so key to decarbonisation. All right. Yeah. That is probably coming from every part of the world except the US.
Brendon: [00:48:12] Brilliant. That’s really interesting, isn’t it? Yeah. And having lived there, there are definitely areas of the US which are, you know, shockingly behind Europe, it’s quite interesting. Just one of the questions we’ve been asking people is just kind of like as the CEO of your company, how do you kind of see your role as kind of the external spokesperson representing the business? What responsibilities does that come with?
Greg: [00:48:42] Yes, it’s interesting, actually, that I think when you’re a small startup, you can afford to say and do anything. As the business becomes more significant, you’re responsible for hundreds, thousands of people. You’re responsible for a lot of investor money for millions of customers and for staying true to the mission you’ve set yourself. And I think there’s there’s a guy called Giles Andrews who started a company called Zopa, one of the founding team of Zopa, the world’s first peer-to-peer lender. I was lucky enough to be a non-executive for a long time. And 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 harder, that was true to his character. And I think that’s the important thing. You know, when you’re at the helm of a business that really seeks to create societal improvement. And so for me, I think as the spokesperson, I certainly move from a world in which I would just kind of, you know, throw hand grenades at the old guard to a world in which actually my job is not to do that is to build a really positive vision of the future for our company and for our society, not just here in the UK, but globally. And I think, you know, you build that platform and now you’ve got to use it wisely.
Brendon: [00:50:16] Yeah. So, I guess following on from that question, I think we’ve had a number of CEOs on our series so far. And you definitely come across as a very strong communicator. And I just wondered, is that something that you’ve always found natural?
Greg: [00:50:33] So I think I’ve always been good at talking. I had to learn to listen. So even back when I was doing my GCSE, my English teacher, Mrs. Granville, did. Yeah. She was assessing communication skills. And she said, look, Greg, communications meant be like a tennis match. You know, I knocked 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. Then when I was at P&G, there was an enormous amount of effort in training in how to listen and I hope I’ve learned that. By the way Mrs. Granville is now a customer.
Brendon: [00:51:06] Brilliant. Fantastic. One of our other questions is what’s the best piece of communications advice you’ve ever had? That is, the best piece of communication device you’ve had?
Greg: [00:51:19] It’s probably the best piece of advice I’ve had. But I think the thing that is was most impactful actually wasn’t advice, something I spotted. We were running a small business and there’d been some financial calamity. And I and one of the other directors were just in the office. The manager at accounting came in to tell us about the calamity. And 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 gonna lose their jobs it was a disaster. And she told us about the issue and the other director, listened to her carefully. And they just smiled and said, don’t worry that’s fine. And you saw her relax. The shoulders kind of relaxed. And she left the office so much happier. When she’d gone, you know, I said by the way, I can’t see how that’s fine. He said neither can I, but there’s no point leaving people stressed about it. And it was an unbelievable moment for me where what he did was he absolved all of her stress projected calm into the business. And then we could sit together and try and solve the problem. And actually by the way we solved and everything was fine. But it was a lot easier to do. Once you kind of absorb the stress. That thing, it stuck with me forever now, which is it doesn’t matter what the situation is, we’re never going to deal with it effectively if we wind each other up.
Brendon: [00:52:42] Yeah. I think that’s brilliant advice, isn’t it? If you can disarm a situation like that, it’s much easier to be thinking about solutions to problems than if you are kind of like, you know, really completely uptight. And along the way, you know, you’ve shed quite a few great little stories of your, you know, different times and different companies. But what has been the biggest communications challenge you’ve ever faced?
Greg: [00:53:07] I mean, the hardest thing you ever do, I think, is giving people bad news. Right. And again, in a small business, had to go to a branch office in a deprived town in an area where the economy was really not good and tell them we were closing the office. And I think. That was, you know, what’s really important, is remembering its not about me, every bit of me dreads doing that. All right. Every bit of me, doesn’t want that, they’re going hate me and its going to be horrible. And I’m doing this bad thing. It’s not about me. It really is about them and having the generosity of spirit and the thoughtfulness, that actually, this is all about you people. And it was by far the hardest thing I’ve ever to think through. And then ever since then, whenever dealing with bad news situations, it’s remembering it’s about them.
Russ: [00:54:01] I don’t if that answers our final question. But if — and then this is something we’ve asked all our unicorn leaders so far — if you were to go back in time and speak to your old self, what guidance would you give about communications? And also, what steps would you encourage yourself to take in order for you and the business to excel in communications?
Greg: [00:54:21] I think communications, actually hard truths are better in the long run than easy evasions or even mistruths. Right. It’s actually the advice. Another colleague once said to me, never tell a lie. Because you’ll have to remember it forever. And I think loads of companies have got these things where there’s some bad news. They don’t want to tell us. They kind of buried it and it compounds, so over time you’ve got more and more things you can’t talk about openly and honestly. Whereas if every time there’s an issue you can lean into it, then you’re not building this great big reservoir of of things you can’t be open about. You can always be open and transparent. And so I think 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. And, you know, sometimes I say, like, you know, the. You can’t put lipstick on a pig. And as a business, it’s bad just to not be a pig, right? So, you know what that does that if you’re always going to be honest and transparent. It also forces you to make better decisions. Right. So hard truths and better decisions are the outcome of that kind of insight.
Russ: [00:55:42] Greg Jackson, thank you so much for taking the time to join us online and record this today. I think we’re just coming up to the market. It’s been absolutely brilliant. So, yeah. Thanks again. Thank you. Thank you both. It’s been a really enjoyable conversation. Thank you.
Russ: [00:55:58] Well, Brendon, another great chat with it with a unicorn leader. Thoughts on what Greg said?
Brendon: [00:56:04] Well, I mean, I think this is probably been one of our longest episodes, but it really didn’t feel it as we were going through it. And I think the reason for that is just that, you know, Greg has just such an infectious passion for his business and also for the mission of the company that kind of you just it’s just very gripping. And then I guess in terms of other thoughts, I was just really struck by the way that he communicates with such compassion and empathy with his audience. I just don’t see that very often with a leader that is able to kind of communicate around what they do and why they’re doing it and delivering it in such a very authentic and compassionate way, especially around some of those difficult topics.
Russ: [00:56:59] Yeah. That’s what I was going to say. His tone changed. Noticeably changed. And I think that sounded very genuine.
Brendon: [00:57:08] Totally genuine. Yeah. I was incredibly impressed.
Russ: [00:57:13] Yeah. It was an excellent interview.
Russ: [00:57:19] Well that’s actually it for this fifth episode in this series with Tyto. So don’t forget, if you want to find out any more information about Octopus Energy, their website is very simply octopus.energy. We’d love to hear your comments on today’s chat and you can share them on our Facebook page LinkedIn, Instagram and Twitter feeds. They’re all linked from the top of our website at csuitepodcast.com, where you will also find all our previous shows and supporting show notes plus links to where you can subscribe for automatic downloads of each episode via the likes of Spotify and Apple. And if you’ve liked what you heard, please do give us a positive rating and review. We’re of course, available on all podcast apps. Just search for the csuite podcast and hit subscribe. You can also subscribe to the Without Borders podcast from our partners at Tyto and all the details for that or on their website. Just head to TytoPR.com and click on the podcast link in their top nav bar. If you are a unicorn leader yourself and you’d like to be part of this series, please do get your people to get in touch with our people via the contact form on the website at csuitepodcast.com. Plus, of course, anyone can get in touch with us as well to give us any feedback, just using the same form. Finally, you can also reach me via Twitter using @russgoldsmith, or you can find me on LinkedIn. But for now, thanks for listening and goodbye.