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Podcast S15E02

In conversation with Charlotte Blou Sand – scaling, being acquired, and growing

In conversation with Charlotte Blou Sand – scaling, being acquired, and growing

In this episode, Jon is speaking with one of our previous guests, Charlotte Blou Sand from True Energy in Denmark who joined the first series of Talking New Energy 3 years ago. Since then, True Energy has been on a journey, developing, growing, and changing ownership. Charlotte shares more about how True Energy has grown, what has worked, and some of the challenges they faced along the way.

Episode transcript

[00:00:04.750] - Jon

Hello and welcome to the episode. Today I'm speaking with one of our previous guests, Charlotte Blou Sand from True Energy in Denmark. I spoke to Charlotte a few years ago. I think it was on episode number eight of Talking New Energy. So quite a long time ago. And since then, True Energy has been on a journey, developing, growing, changing ownership. And I'm really looking forward to talking with Charlotte and hearing about how True Energy has grown, what's worked, what’s some of the challenges, war stories to share with other people going on similar journeys. So hello, Charlotte. Welcome back.

 

[00:00:47.990] - Charlotte

Thanks a lot, Jon, for inviting me back.

 

[00:00:51.170] - Jon

Well, some of our listeners probably didn't listen to episode eight of the first series. So for those of you that those of our listeners that don't know True Energy, can you start with a very brief introduction to who you are now, and then we may look at some of the things that have changed over the last few years?

 

[00:01:08.750] - Charlotte

Yes, so basically, we produce an app that integrates to electrical vehicles. And with the app, we automatically postpone the charging of the cars to the hours where electricity is cheapest and most climate friendly. And on top of that, we aggregate all the EV batteries and provide that as a demand response balancing service to the TSO.

 

[00:01:32.990] - Jon

Okay. And one of the changes from three years ago is when we spoke originally, True Energy was an energy retailer, if I remember right. So you were not only offering the smart charging, you were offering the tariff as well. You don't do that anymore.

 

[00:01:49.730] - Charlotte

No, that's true. That was kind of to prove the concept. And after a couple of years, when we had the number couple of hundreds electricity customers who were also using our app for smart charging and who were earning what we call cable discount because we used our cars for balancing the grid, then we decided, well, the concept was proven. So now we needed to scale. And when you want to scale, you also want to focus. So we want to focus on our technology development, and then we hand it over the electricity customers to one of our partners.

 

[00:02:32.030] - Jon

Okay, so now are you selling that capability to other energy retailers? Is that your model?

 

[00:02:41.890] - Charlotte

Yes, exactly. We enter into a partnership model. So we have other electricity resellers in Denmark, Norway, and Sweden as our partners. So they provide our app to their customers in a risk inversion. So it includes their logo and their electricity customers feel like it's an app from their electricity reseller. And the money we earn from the TSO, we pay that to our partners. So the partners can include that as a discount on their utility bills to their customers.

 

[00:03:22.130] - Jon

Okay, so you yourselves are aggregating that flexibility across all of the different electric vehicles, and then you have a commercial relationship with the TSO to sell that flexibility.

 

[00:03:33.590] - Charlotte

Exactly. One even is not enough to provide flexibility, you need many more. So that is exactly the aggregated role that we do.

 

[00:03:43.740] - Jon

Yeah. And you're now looking beyond electric vehicles at other flexible loads in the home.

 

[00:03:51.470] - Charlotte

Electrical vehicles are still very much at our core, but we also do provide the smart home services. So via the platform, IFTTT we do integrate to a lot of different household appliances so you can start your dishwasher, for instance, automatically during the night whenever electricity prices are low or carbon emissions is low. And for EV and PV owners in Denmark, on top of doing the smart charge based on the smart prices, we can also make sure that if their solar panels produce more electricity than their household consumes, we can direct that electricity to the car instead of to the grid and that is the financial beneficial for the private household.

 

[00:04:47.530] - Jon

So maximising the self consumption of the electricity from PV.

 

[00:04:52.220] - Charlotte

Exactly.

 

[00:04:56.070] - Jon

Now, not only have you been on this journey from being an electricity retailer yourself to the reselling model and broadening a bit from EVs to other devices as well, you've changed ownership as well. Do you want to tell us about that and what that was like and why you chose to do that?

 

[00:05:15.940] - Charlotte

Yes. Well, a couple of years ago we started raising money for our next funding round and then we came across Landis & Gyr from Switzerland and pretty fast it seemed like the perfect match. They are in the same industry, they produce meters and other intelligent grid appliances. So they understood our products and services. They were not a competitor, but they could definitely see the potential. From our perspective, it was super interesting that they are a global organisation, hence they have global sales organisation that could allow us easier access to many more markets. Of course it takes time to prepare the entry of every market, but still it's much faster way for us to scale than to just go one market by the next one.

 

[00:06:15.530] - Jon

Yeah. When you think back to three years ago, electricity retailer in Denmark, hundreds of customers only in Denmark, only doing smart charging of EVs. How clear was your strategy at that time? Charlotte was - do you feel the route you've followed since that time has been perfectly matched to the strategy you have? Did you have a strategy at that time or how clear was it? Have you changed direction from the direction you thought you’d go?

 

[00:06:51.150] - Charlotte

We definitely had a strategy and I would say the good thing is that we have stick to the strategy. But you were saying the negative side, we have not been able to accomplish at all all the goals we had. Maybe that is typical for a startup. You want to do so much, you want to change the world in a day, so you grow up, you become more realistic. And that is also why I say EVs are at our very core of our heart and our services the smart home solutions we have. And the PV solutions we have there are thinner whereas the EV solutions we have is fundamental for our strategy and that is very advanced. So we stick to the strategy about making it easier for the end user to use electricity whenever it's cheapest or most climate friendly. That is always at our hearts and still is the speed of our development and market entry. We had hoped that it would be faster.

 

[00:08:13.230] - Jon

Yeah looking back at the lessons you've learnt, why it's taken longer? I'm quite interested to maybe unpick one or two things for maybe as you say, that real world understanding and you have these great ambitions and you learn and things always take longer and never quicker. But what specifically looking back do you think did take longer or has proven to be harder than you thought?

 

[00:08:45.510] - Charlotte

I think one thing that is really different in this market from for instance the technology market is the level of regulation and the lack of speed that regulation is updated because everybody agrees and knows that the kind of services that we are providing will be part of the grid in the future. But the regulation is based on something that were in the market years ago so we are in case a lot of dialogues and advising authorities it is, but it still take a lot of time to actually update the regulation to existing opportunities. I'm just surprised by the lack of speed.

 

[00:09:33.130] - Jon

Yeah because you're an IT or tech person by heart, aren't you Charlotte? Exactly, not an energy person.

 

[00:09:39.470] - Charlotte

Yeah.

 

[00:09:42.030] - Jon

And is that speed being in Denmark or has it been another countries you've tried to enter or a combination of both that you found the regulatory changes are taking too long?

 

[00:09:57.010] - Charlotte

I guess it's all over the place. There's definitely some open minded individuals and also institutions that have embraced what we are coming with and want to insert the partnerships and want to try out things and that is extremely important for us and has been of great help and also in authorities there are very forward looking people so I would say it's in general that the system is just slow and I understand that it has to be because the grid is not something you can change from one day to the other. Sometimes I'm like okay, does it really have to take this long time, the detailed things. but also across borders that's taking even more time?

 

[00:10:50.290] - Jon

What have you learned about trying to speed up that change or can you influence that change? Is that speed you just have to live with or is the advice you could give to other companies like yourself about okay, I've learnt that actually doing it this way or focusing on that or relationships or do you just have to accept speed as the speed?

 

[00:11:13.670] - Charlotte

Yeah, I would have to say pick your fight because you can spend all your time in workshops and meetings and hearings and whatever with authorities, they have so much time. But as a startup, you need to focus on your customers. So we have participated in some and then we have engaged with the industry organisation and I'm in the board there, but then we have the industry organisation working for us instead of doing it ourself. Yeah, you could say that is one advice. And I would also say it has been super important for us to connect with open minded people and we have found them in many different places and they've helped us a lot. And one good connection in the Danish community can open the door in the Norwegian one, and it's also a closed industry, you could say everybody knows each other.

 

[00:12:12.410] - Jon

Yeah, okay, so it's closed, but it's important to get in there and then use those connections.

 

[00:12:20.390] - Charlotte

That was actually also one of the benefits of starting out as an electricity reseller that immediately took us inside the industry. We’re not just an upcoming IT company, there are so many of them, but being actually certified reseller, then you have the right stamp and you are one of us. Even though you're new, you're one of us and we invite you right inside the industry.

 

[00:12:44.870] - Jon

Yes, I really like that approach because it's easy to be a tech company knocking on the door of energy retailers and saying, hey, look what I can do for you. But if you can show you've been there and done it, then was that important in making conversations with electricity retailers easier. Did it help you to establish those partnerships to get in the door in Norway and Sweden?

 

[00:13:13.410] - Charlotte

Definitely. There's no question, because we knew by heart what we were talking about. So I know what a utility bill looks like, I know the kind of questions that utility customers call about because I've been there myself. So now we could say when they ask about this and that, you can say this, and we will suggest you use this benefit as something you can use in your campaigns, et cetera. So help that we spoke the same language.

 

[00:13:48.920] - Jon

Definitely, yeah, I've seen a number of companies do that. You could look at Octopus in the UK with their own using Kraken and their own billing software or their own IT system, and they're now selling Kraken commercially to other energy retailers in other markets. But it's a much stronger position for them because they can show how they have used it. As an energy retailer in the UK. I can't think of many examples, but I can't think of a small number of examples have done what you've done. And what about getting into the door with other energy retailers? I imagine your growth, your scalability, is dependent on the number of partnerships and the speed in which those retailers manage to sell or engage their customers with your software. So how looking forward, what's your views on that scalability, both in the number of partners and the speed of adoption?

 

[00:14:56.530] - Charlotte

You're totally right. We have scalable models, so the more partners we win, the bigger our potential is. So we constantly work on entering into more partnerships in the countries where we already present and we also plan to enter new countries. And then when we have established the relationship with the partner, we also try to support them in their marketing efforts or whatever kind of activities they have, or in their communication with the users, their customer support, et cetera. Because it can be a complex product to understand and explain, especially when people start asking questions. So we want to help our partners to succeed.

 

[00:15:47.530] - Jon

And you're not the only company offering this type of product or capability. You might have been early in one of the first. So when, let's say you're approaching electricity retailer, why? I'm interested in what the bigger challenge is, maybe the wrong question, but is it demonstrating the need to have software that helps their customers to smartly charge their EVs? Or is it choosing your product over someone else's product? Or is it something else in that decision making to say, yeah, I'll sign up with True Energy?

 

[00:16:29.750] - Charlotte

Yeah, that's actually something that has changed since we talked last time and it's also different from market to market. When we started out four years ago, we had to just explain what are we doing, why we're doing, why does it make sense? There were very little competitors that you just mentioned, but when we entered into Norway, they are all driving EVs already and all the partners we talked to they knew and understood everything from the beginning and it was more a discussion about if our products was the one that best fitted their needs and how to relate it to their existing app. So very different kind of questions and communications. I would say the Danish market is moving in the same direction as the Norwegian is, but it's interesting to learn from the markets that are more ahead.

 

[00:17:30.990] - Jon

And what about other markets beyond that you mentioned? Denmark your home market, Norway, Sweden with being part of Landis & Gyr. Does that accelerate how quickly you can go to other countries or how big are your ambitions or what's next?

 

[00:17:49.690] - Charlotte

Because they're present in like 30 markets, it establishes some easier interests to more markets, but also at the same time we have to adapt the app every time we enter into a new market. Prices, new cabin forecast, etc, etc. So it's not that we want to go into the global market immediately. Also the penetration of EVs are very different from market to market. So it makes it easier and faster to what we could have accomplished ourselves. Every time it's a little bit of work.

 

[00:18:30.300] - Jon

Yeah, it's not just selling exactly the same product and marketing in a different country.

 

[00:18:36.170] - Charlotte

No for the flexibility service, it's different from TSO to TSO. So every time we have to live up to national requirements and we have to be approved in that specific country.

 

[00:18:49.900] - Jon

And that does take time.

 

[00:18:52.860] - Charlotte

Yeah it takes a lot of time. So they're working on Nord Extenders, but again, not approved yet. But of course we like national no, sorry, we like regional or even global standard that would be so beneficial for us.

 

[00:19:06.240] - Jon

For the scaling. Charlotte, how much of that still you in terms of approaching a new electricity retailer? It's your relationship, it's you doing that, and the rest of the organisation is still really an IT organisation or a tech organisation, or are you building or have you built a business development function in your organisation, a sales team doing that? Will you?

 

[00:19:38.990] - Charlotte

Yeah, I'm very happy. Like, three years ago we were ten people and now we are closer to 30. So I have many more colleagues and I'm very happy for that. And of course, we still have a heavy developer organisation, but I also do have commercial colleagues, so normally it would be our head of sales, or we also have a Norwegian country manager that will approach the partners and a couple of product developers. So I have quite a few also who are helping out on the commercial part. So that is extremely important for our growth also.

 

[00:20:23.640] - Jon

Yeah. And on the developer team, the tech part of the business, there's a lot of competition for talent in that area. Has that been tough or have you been able to find and attract and retain that tech talent?

 

[00:20:43.050] - Charlotte

It has been difficult for very many years to find the skill developers. So I would say in this matter, it was an advantage to come from the technology industry. So I think high number two was in India and Poland. So from the very beginning, we set up this offshore team, so most of our developers are from Poland or India, and then we have a few in Denmark. So it works very, very well. And they're all used to it before because that's the way the world is now. So I think we have some good places to source new talent and we can offer some interesting purpose. That's really one of our great advantages. Everybody wants to make the world a better place and that is actually what we are working for every day, trying to accelerate the transition to more climate centred energy.

 

[00:21:49.490] - Jon

Yeah. And that gives you a differentiation in that attracting talent. Okay, I guess that's another advantage you're coming from a tech background, is you had that experience of attracting developers. And I don't know if going to Poland and India was new to you or you've done that before.

 

[00:22:12.130] - Charlotte

Well, not these countries, but I work with people from other countries, so I was used to setting up remote teams, I was used to working the agile way that all developers mostly working. So I understand the language and I could also hire a project manager who has now taken over on that part. So I think that was an important advantage. And maybe also, you know, the industry would look at us like an IT company and like an energy company. So I like to say that we use the technology to provide energy solutions.

 

[00:22:53.770] - Jon

Yeah. What about the grid services part? So the aggregator role we touched on earlier, where you're aggregating the EV flexibility and selling that to the TSO. That does require some deep energy industry domain knowledge. So if you've got your developer team on one hand, you've got your commercial team that you described talking with the customers, finding new customers, have you had to build a third team about that really understands TSOs and the services they need?

 

[00:23:34.350] - Charlotte

Yeah. Our development work is divided into five, six different teams and one of them is specified in understanding the balancing services of the grid. And they're really hardcore engineers that understand the grid also. And electricity, of course, the developers have different profiles and some of them know more and understand more about the electricity than others.

 

[00:24:03.760] - Jon

Yeah. Thinking back to our discussion a few years ago, Charlotte, one of the things you mentioned then, one of the challenges was the lack of standards in terms of communicating with different electric vehicles and different OEMs. I'm interested to hear my guess is that it's still a big challenge, whether it's OEMs or using IFTTT to try and communicate with dishwashers and so on. But yeah. How have you found that over the last three years? As hard as it was before, or has there been any progress in that area?

 

[00:24:41.090] - Charlotte

Yeah, I almost forgot that this is one of the obstacles, but we're working with it every day. It's just part of our world. So I would say now there are more standards and more especially charges are compliant to standards, but it's not that. It's one integration that fits all, not at all. So there are still things in this area that could make it easier for us and it's still quite a lot of resources during the integration and considering what way is the best one. And there are some third party tools out there, so some of them work well, some do not realise, and it always takes time to realise what is the best choice in this area? I would say the more protocols now and more standards, but in five years it's going to be even easier.

 

[00:25:51.440] - Jon

So the direction is still not easy, but you've learned to live with it and the direction is moving in the right direction.

 

[00:25:58.460] - Charlotte

Yes, exactly.

 

[00:26:01.250] - Jon

It's a slightly detailed point that those in the electric vehicle charging sector will know and understand. But are you interfacing with the chargers more often or are you going direct to the car in terms of the timing of the charging?

 

[00:26:18.170] - Charlotte

We're actually doing both because some car brands will provide more data and allow for faster communication, others don't. And in this case, we will have to rely on the chargers instead. So we're integrating to both cars and chargers and trying to combine all the data in order to minimise the manual input.

 

[00:26:43.590] - Jon

Where do you think?

 

[00:26:44.920] - Charlotte

Make it specific. I mean, if we can get the data from the car about how much is the battery already charged, let's say it's at 40% and we get that data automatically, then we will not have to ask the user, how much is it charged? Then we will know it's just 40%. And if we have a max setting the user set at 80, then we can plan the charging from 40% to 80% without asking you to use anything. If you don't get the data, then we will have to ask how much is it already charged? And then we have to do so. It's about trying to reduce the dependency on the user and making it as automatic as possible.

 

[00:27:27.840] - Jon

And directionally, do you think the balance of going through the charger or going to the car directly, do you think the car more and more you will be able to go directly to the car in the future?

 

[00:27:44.010] - Charlotte

Yes, I would say that is the expectation we have now. Some years ago, it was only Tesla, to be honest, that was very mature and advanced, and most of the other car manufacturers were occupied with just producing cars. But lately more and more have picked up and have produced also more advanced APIs or apps for their cars. And that will allow us also to use more of the car integration.

 

[00:28:18.810] - Jon

Going forward. Charlotte, you mentioned that the EV being the deep area of focus and the smart home and other flexible loads in the home, being thin at the moment, you're active in there, but they're not your core focus. Is that going to stay the case in the next three to five years or do you see yourself doing a lot more with heat pumps, for example, or stationary batteries? Or do you think you'll stay primarily a smart EV charging company?

 

[00:28:51.300] - Charlotte

Five years? You know, that's an eternity for me. For the foreseeable future, I think we will focus on the EVs, enough to.

 

[00:29:03.220] - Jon

Go for the growth in that market is so big.

 

[00:29:05.600] - Charlotte

Yeah, exactly.

 

[00:29:06.870] - Jon

And is that what you're hearing from your electricity retailer partners as well? Is that what they want? Is it the EVs that's dominating their thinking ahead of other flexible loads in the home?

 

[00:29:20.850] - Charlotte

Well, they always want everything. I would imagine also a direction of integration between different providers of different services that's also, you could say, a prominent trend because it's not simple to provide flexibility based on heating pumps, for instance, and it's not simple to do it based on EVs. So you might expect different sources doing that and then have one interface for the user to make it easy for the user.

 

[00:29:55.610] - Jon

Yes. Okay, so that deep expertise you've gathered is very much in the EV space at the moment and that gives you a competitive advantage and a head start.

 

[00:30:06.210] - Charlotte

Yeah, exactly.

 

[00:30:07.430] - Jon

Yeah. So, looking forward again, Charlotte, we get to that time of the podcast where we bring up the talking new energy crystal ball. You said it's hard to look forward five years as an eternity, but just like you had a strategy three years ago, I'm sure you have a strategy now. So let's go for 2025, three years time a bit closer. What do you want to achieve in the next three years?

 

[00:30:41.250] - Charlotte

Yeah, we definitely want to have more active cars, meaning that we want to smart charge and provide flexibility for more cars. So I expect the EVs to still be our focus. I expect we will enter into more markets and I will expect that we provide balancing services increasingly also to local grid owners.

 

[00:31:05.880] - Jon

Okay.

 

[00:31:06.490] - Charlotte

That's also a rising market with even more work to do on the regulation side. But there is an increasing need and there's been a lot of trials and projects going on in England, for instance, and also Norway, we have participated and that's a very strong trend I could see. And I will expect us to participate even more.

 

[00:31:29.100] - Jon

Yeah. And I think, in a way, they go hand in hand. The more electric vehicles there are, the more challenge they'll be on local grids and the more need they'll be for that flexibility for local grids.

 

[00:31:37.850] - Charlotte

Exactly.

 

[00:31:38.650] - Jon

Yeah. And your biggest challenge, or biggest top two challenges in the next three years to get to that future or vision you articulated.

 

[00:31:54.490] - Charlotte

There's always the speed of uptake. Can we manage to gain all the active EVs that we would like to, that we need to in order to provide these services and how much adaption is necessary for entering new markets?

 

[00:32:12.610] - Jon

Yeah. On that speed of uptake by customers, as we talked briefly before, you're reliant on your energy retailer partners to market that and engage their customers and get the customers using your technology. Do you worry about that? The ability of retailers to really explain this to their customers and engage their customers? Or from what you've seen, are you very comfortable that retailers will be able to do this really well?

 

[00:32:49.990] - Charlotte

Definitely. There is also a change in the last year with the increasing prices and also increasing volatility has created an awareness of electricity prices that we have not seen before. The users know much more and then electricity resellers are also able to become more relevant for their customers. I think, however, the background is that for us, it's a good thing that prices are now higher and there's increased volatility.

 

[00:33:21.170] - Jon

Yeah. It gets people to be more careful, be smarter with their behaviour.

 

[00:33:26.350] - Charlotte

Exactly. And I also realised it's really complex, so we need some technology to help us there.

 

[00:33:32.360] - Jon

And you've got some.

 

[00:33:33.770] - Charlotte

Yeah, exactly. I would say that's a good thing.

 

[00:33:37.610] - Jon

Yeah.

 

[00:33:38.390] - Charlotte

However, competitors are, they help us also educate the users and explain what is bud prices, what is smart charge, what is the flexibility, but before it was more on our shoulders. Now there are more parties in the market to do that. So I think actually it's a good thing.

 

[00:33:59.790] - Jon

So still market creation time at the moment, but there are now other people that work with you to help to create that market, just not all for you.

 

[00:34:09.640] - Charlotte

Exactly. The learnings we have in more advanced markets like Norway, we use them in Denmark, and you have some great learnings in England, especially by local flexibility, and that is also useful to cross markets.

 

[00:34:26.870] - Jon

Well, I don't think anyone would question, Charlotte, that we're going to have a lot more EVs in the next year and I don't think anyone will question that. It's absolutely critical to the energy transition that they charge as smartly as possible. And doing this in a way that saves customers money couldn't be more relevant than it is today. Yeah. Well, I'm sure we'll speak again, Charlotte, on this podcast. I don't know whether it will be three years or two years or four years, but thanks very much again for your time. Congratulations on your progress in the last three years and I look forward to welcoming you back again two, three, four years.

 

[00:35:11.010] - Charlotte

Thanks a lot, Jan. And thanks a lot for the talk today.

 

[00:35:13.980] - Jon

Okay, thanks everyone for listening. We hope you enjoyed that episode and look forward to welcoming you back next week. Thanks and goodbye.

 

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