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Podcast S16E08

In conversation with… Nick Woolley,

Nick Woolley

In this episode, Jon Slowe talks to Nick Woolley, CEO and Co-Founder of Nick last joined Talking New Energy in 2020, and talks us through the progress his company has made in their mission to deliver a simple, straightforward EV charging experience, enabling customers to recharge their electric vehicle at home and outside the home, using the cheapest and greenest energy from the grid.

Episode transcript

[00:00:02.490] - Jon

Hello and welcome to the Episode. Today I'm talking with one of the guests who joined us in an earlier series. Again today. It's Nick Woolley, who is chief executive and founder of Hello, Nick.


[00:00:17.340] - Nick

Hi, Jon, great to be here.


[00:00:20.060] - Jon

Welcome back. Now, you last joined us in 2020, 2 and a half years or so gone by since we last spoke. So I'm really interested to talk to you and hear about how has been doing, whether your vision or plans have changed at all, and reflect a bit looking back on where you've got to, what's been hard, what's been easy, what surprised you, and look forwards, of course, as we always do, to where you're going.


[00:00:49.510] - Nick

That'd be great.


[00:00:51.940] - Jon

So, Nick, let's start with a quick elevator pitch for for listeners that might not know you, although you're becoming more and more well known. So hopefully those numbers are dwindling.


[00:01:03.940] - Nick

Yeah, sure. Happy to introduce, we're a software platform that manages electric vehicle charging. And the mission behind the company is we want to get every electric vehicle owner or every driver that transitions across into an electric vehicle to deliver a really simple, straightforward charging experience that's backed by as much green and cheap energy as possible. We believe our vision is really that everything needs to electrify to get us on that route to decarbonisation. And the great thing is, transport is electrifying really, really, really fast, and we're playing a role, providing a charging service that enables customers to recharge their electric vehicle at home and outside the home, using the best energy from the grid. So instead of electric vehicles being a strain on the electricity grid, they actually become an asset to the grid that we can use to integrate more renewable energy into the grid and decarbonise the energy grid even faster.


[00:02:14.210] - Jon

Okay, and let's put some metrics around your journey. So when did you start?


[00:02:21.640] - Nick

Yeah, so we've been going for about four and a half years now. So middle of 2018 was when we were founded.


[00:02:30.560] - Jon

Describing your size, today, employees, number of customers, and your platform, number of utilities. You're working with any of those?


[00:02:37.120] - Nick

Yeah, so we're about 65 people at the moment inside the company. In terms of the number of utilities that we're working with, there's about 30 that we're just about to kick off, or already working with across the globe. 30 energy companies and a further twelve charger manufacturers and installers and distributors where we put our software alongside their charging infrastructure and then we ship any of the energy service out to those drivers. I guess the big metric that we always think about, Jon, is around the numbers of drivers on the platform. So we're approaching around 100,000 registered drivers on the energy platform across multiple markets. We are a UK company, very proud to be a UK company. I think in the energy system, it's actually a bit of a competitive advantage being the UK market is relatively advanced and its not often a competitive advantage to be a UK company. But it is UK started, but we're working in the US with a lot of energy companies as well. We're also working in Germany with some big energy companies like E.ON and Volkswagen Group as well, and also as far away as Australia too.


[00:03:57.040] - Jon

So scheduling your calls with the US with Europe and Australia must be a bit of a challenge.


[00:04:03.030] - Nick

Yeah, it is a challenge. The US is not so bad and I think post covid it's slightly easier because you're generally at home, so working in the area is not too bad. The worst time zone, not to call them out as work with, but like, the worst time zone is Australia, because there's just no good.


[00:04:29.560] - Jon

There isn't a good time. So let's look back on the journey to date, four and a half years. Where you've got to today is hugely impressive in terms of customers, number of drivers on your platform, geographies you're in. Two things I'd like to ask you. What are you proudest about in that and maybe related, what's been harder than you thought? So start with proudest. What achievements give you the most satisfaction or what you're proudest by?


[00:05:06.330] - Nick

Yeah, so it's a great question. I think growing a company what I'm really proud of is growing a company that's now scaled up from sort of an idea that was just a couple of people's idea, myself and my co-founder, Chris's idea, into a company of 65 people. And it's really heartening to see when those people within the company are just executing things and bringing things forward that I know nothing about.


[00:05:43.840] - Jon

So, to begin with, you were driving everything, it was all you and your partner. And now we created a snowball rolling downhill, building momentum.


[00:05:54.360] - Nick

And I think if I didn't come to work tomorrow, the business would still continue to execute. I'm not saying I'm completely irrelevant to the business, not redundant, but it is amazing to see and it's amazing. It's just a real privilege to come to work and work with all of those people around me because they're so passionate and enthusiastic about the mission and the vision that we're trying to deliver together and we're all just pushing in that same direction. So that's about building the company. I think the other thing that I'm really, I guess what may be proud and also slightly unexpected, just being very open, I think you mentioned about the energy companies we're working with. Actually, a lot of those energy companies are based in the United States. So I think one of the things that has gone a lot faster than we expected was our pace of international expansion. I think when we started, when we started the business, we were looking at some of the reference companies that existed in the sector, probably some of the hardware companies that exist. So, like, obviously charging hardware existed a long time before charging software.


And there were companies like PodPoint, ChargePoint, etc. Who were just big companies within, but they often got big within their local market and there was often a different leader in each of the different local markets. So it seemed quite hard to sort of traverse the international boundaries and scale. And I think maybe because we're software, we realised pretty early on that you could just sell software in multiple different international markets. Actually, it is like you said about the phone calls, it is actually possible to do business with Australia, with the US and deploy your software in Australia around the US.


[00:07:49.090] - Jon

And if you're a hardware company, you'd have so many more challenges to exporting that licences, et cetera.


[00:07:56.520] - Nick

And so we have scaled internationally. I think my original approach to this, I think naive approach, perhaps, was, well, I was thinking, well, we're a UK company, we'll grow our business in the UK and then we'll get to a certain scale and then at some point we'll say, oh, we need to now expand into multiple international markets. But we sort of started and then pretty quickly went international.


[00:08:19.760] - Jon

Did people come from the US come to you? Or was it a little bit of marketing that actually got some really good leads, or a bit of both?


[00:08:28.290] - Nick

So I think it was slightly lucky. We got into an accelerator called the Free Electrons Accelerator, and that was a global accelerator full of a bunch of energy companies. And through that we went sort of travelling around the globe. We started in Dublin, then we went to Ohio, then we went to Hong Kong, and we talked with all of these different energy companies from all over the world about our software. And we realised, great, our software is actually really, really important and resonating with these energy companies. But then they also were very willing to do business with us, which was amazing.


[00:09:05.590] - Jon

But you make your own luck, I guess, Nick. You got onto that accelerator, but you make your own luck.


[00:09:10.390] - Nick

Yeah, and I suppose I guess that gave us the confidence to then build from that accelerator and say, okay, maybe we should look at the US. There's a lot of energy companies in the US. There are about 150 that serve over 100,000 residential customers, a big long list of energy utilities, and we've got a bit of traction there. Maybe we should actually start and do that properly and yeah, just commit to it and go, we did. And then I guess we've scaled to where we are today.


[00:09:42.640] - Jon

What about challenges and unexpected challenges? When you look back, what's been harder than you thought, or what challenges are cropped up that you didn't anticipate?


[00:09:54.560] - Nick

Yeah. So I guess as a startup founder, I don't know every startup founder if you're like this, Jon, but like, I'm quite optimistic about timelines and what we deliver and all of those good things. And I think the perennial challenge is like everything just takes longer than you think. So whether that's building like a component on the platform or selling to a selling to a new customer and then running an RFP process that then says that it's going to end on the 5 December and then runs for the next three months and you don't really.


[00:10:38.400] - Jon

All it does end, but then you have three months of contract discussions.


[00:10:42.110] - Nick

Of contract discussions. And so I think as a founder you have to be very optimistic and you have to keep pushing that kind of vision forward and you have to keep the faith really that things will be okay and you can get through those things but it does just take longer than you think. And that means I guess especially working in this space, which would be great to get your thoughts on. But we're working with energy companies and in the market with big energy utilities that have been around for sometimes like decades or maybe even longer and they tend to just move a little bit slower.


[00:11:21.270] - Jon

Well I remember talking once to a Canadian utility and talking to one person there and asking well, how long have you been at the company? And he said, oh, I'm a newbie, I've been here ten years. So not that's slightly different from what you're talking about, but similar, I think, in terms of the speed that energy companies move out, I think many are now learning to move at a faster speed, but inherently, they're quite rightly being relatively conservative companies moving, it's making small numbers of big decisions that they de-risk to the hilt and take their time over. And in the new energy world making large numbers of small decisions with lots of uncertainty is tough. It's not in their DNA or their culture.


[00:12:14.310] - Nick

Yes, and I think that's what we perhaps can bring to them as well. And I guess that talking back at the free electrons accelerator, that was one of the reasons we were trying to kick start-ups with this fast moving culture, with the utility that's perhaps typically a little bit slower moving.


[00:12:31.760] - Jon

Have you been caught by the phrase death by pilots? Because that's cropped up a lot of times in my discussions with the industry that the easiest thing for a utility or energy retailer to do or DSO is oh yeah, we'll pilot it and then what happens next can take well nothing might happen or you can spend all your time in pilots. So has that been a challenge for you? How many of those 1000 customers you talked about, would you say pilots or have you managed to avoid that trap of death by pilot?


[00:13:07.240] - Nick

I think the way the energy companies like to approach things is they often like to do a pilot first and then they like to move on to a bigger programme that may be capped in some way and then they'll move on to us. So it's very, iterative along the journey. I think maybe we're slightly lucky again in so much the EV market. The timing for our solution within the EV market is, I think, quite good because EVs are growing in pretty much all developed markets. They're growing at growth rates of 30% to 50% per annum of somewhere of that order of magnitude. And I think what that's creating is that's creating before, like maybe a couple of years ago you said it was like, oh yeah, we can see all these EVs coming and we might need to deliver some services to them now. It's like there's a pressure building. And you can see all this pressure and we can see this pressure in the news relating to the energy crisis that's going on in Ukraine and the fact that National Grids are running a demand flexibility service this winter to avoid blackouts and EVs could be part of the solution to help provide services to the energy grid.


[00:14:25.610] - Jon

Yes. You're lucky with your timing, aren't you? Because if you'd been a few years earlier, you might have had lots of pilots.


[00:14:31.350] - Nick

We would have been difficult to move them on..


[00:14:37.710] - Jon

Now I think people have to jump to solutions quite quickly because they can see how fast the market is.


[00:14:41.250] - Nick

They can see and I think nobody one of the good things about where I guess what we're pitching is sometimes with a startup, I guess you have to pitch and you have to say, the market looks like this and it's going to grow like this. Nobody disputes the market for electric vehicles is going to grow. Everybody I pitched to, whether it's a utility, whether it's an investor, everybody agrees that the market is going to transfer and it's only a matter of time. And so there isn't really a utility in the world that doesn't have a head of mobility, that isn't thinking about how they can build out and deploy solutions like


[00:15:14.010] - Jon

And everyone knows that the more you can influence the timing of people charging, the better value for your customers, the better value, the more value for the energy system. So then it's the choice of how and who, I guess.


[00:15:29.140] - Nick



[00:15:29.680] - Jon

So you just use the word platform a few times in your introduction - in terms of how you think about or try and position You think of yourself as a platform business with two sets of customers. Is that how you articulate it?


[00:15:49.750] - Nick

Yes, I feel very strongly. So what we're doing is we're managing electric vehicle charging, so we're turning off and ramping up and ramping down. And then in the future, vehicle to grid will mean exporting and importing energy into an electric vehicle. But to do that, we need to work with a driver. So that's a person like you or I Jon, and we have requirements, which means we need to the basic requirement is I need to then use the car at a point in time to go and make a trip somewhere. And so we need to, as have to have a conversation with that driver to enable our service. We need to have a good conversation with that driver so that they build trust in to control and manage charging and get them ready for the time at which they need to drive their car. So that's one side of the platform. And then on the other side of the platform, we're working with the energy companies because what we're doing is we're taking each of those individual drivers and we're aggregating them up into a fleet of electric vehicles that then the energy companies can use to control and manage electric vehicle charging.


[00:17:10.090] - Jon

You've got this two sided business model, or platform business model, looking in two directions. That's two quite different skill sets plus the software skill set to build this. So you've got to know the energy system, you've got to build your platform, have all the software skills around that, and you've got to create something that's compelling for customers. Out of the three of those. This is maybe an unfair question, but I'll ask it. How would you rank those in terms of what's hardest to achieve or which are the hardest skills or where your real USP stands out? You can tell me it's not a fair question if you want.


[00:17:54.210] - Nick

No, I do think it's an unfair question. I think it's a reasonable question. I think - which is hardest? So when I think about the reason we're doing that, the reason that we're working with the drivers and then building that into the energy system, we want to unlock the flexibility for the energy partners that we're working with. I'll talk about why I think that's hard and then I'll come back to why I think it's hard to work with the drivers. And then the middle part was, I think, the connection to various devices as well, which is also quite hard. I think the trickiness of the energy companies is regulations vary in every single world. Every single world, every single region. So when you're working in the US, there's like lots of different energy markets within the US. They all have different rules and regulations. And the other thing is that they haven't created those rules and regulations for electric vehicles yet. So they're building all of those.


[00:18:55.710] - Jon

Yeah, it's dynamic.


[00:18:57.660] - Nick

It's all dynamic and we know what the direction of travel is, but we have to influence and push them that way. And then we have to get the energy companies on board and then work with them and collaborate with them to deliver that. So that requires quite a lot of technical, heavy work to build those partnerships with the regulators and then also the utilities to enable that to happen. And I think when I look at our internal structure as a company, I mean, I used to work in the utility industry, so we have quite a lot of expertise understanding those energy markets and we understand the difference between a regulated energy market in the US versus a fully competitive one in the UK and all of those things. On the other side, I think coming back to this idea that when I think about drivers coming back to this idea of working with, working in the UK market and why that might be an advantage, actually, one of the advantages is the UK market thinks quite a lot about the customer, actually, because it's a fully competitive market. And so us having to think about the end user of those services is actually quite a typical mindset within the UK market.


[00:20:09.000] - Nick

And it is really, really hard. And that's why we have invested. We have invested in like a customer success team that talks with our customers on a regular basis. We've invested in product and engineering that build our app. And you can download the app for free. And we can get lots of users on that app so we can learn what it takes to engage with different drivers and learn the different types of drivers and learn what their wants, needs and fears are so that we can work with those drivers effectively when we go back to the energy company. And then the middle bit is hard as well, like connecting to all the IoT devices. There are many and varied IoT devices, so there's lots of different chargers coming onto the market. I get contacted on a frequent basis by a new manufacturer that's cropping up in a new market that might take a leadership position in a new European market or the US market. And so keeping on top of all of those different integrations is really, really tough too. But I think what this all means together is, because it's so fragmented, the energy side is really fragmented, the charger and hardware side is really fragmented.


[00:21:25.630] - Nick

And then learning how to engage and delight drivers is really, really challenging. There needs to be a platform that can manage that stuff.


[00:21:32.250] - Jon

Yeah. So my guess would be the energy system part, the regulations, the market structures influencing those, that's a lot of work to go through, all of those. But there's probably enough people that understand that and that's understandable and a case of working through it. And I see other companies doing I don't think that's unique to I think a lot of companies are doing that. The two bits that feel to me like the most unique are creating that compelling customer proposition, which I think the energy sector doesn't do particularly well. Even in the UK, where it's more customer centric, it still has challenges. And that bit in the middle around the plethora of standards of different devices to connect to. So my take on what you said would be I'd put the custom proposition part and the IoT part in the middle, as probably that would be my guess, as the biggest challenges for you.


[00:22:40.770] - Nick

Yes, I think that's fair. I mean, I do think they're all challenging, but I think that they're all hard. We get feedback from some of the utility partners that we're working with and they say, we really like because of the way you understand customers and have engaged with customers and you've got a track record of doing this. And they also like working with one software vendor to access a variety of devices, which is the value of the platform as opposed to a utility just wanting to install one charger because they won't want to do that. Because they have a mix of charges regardless of whether they just decide they have a mix of charges already within their service and they want a platform that can just provide one universal interface.


[00:23:30.410] - Jon

Thinking of platform businesses, if about food delivery in the UK, there's a handful – Uber, Just Eat, Deliveroo would be the three ones. And the theory of platform businesses is there's a handful of platforms that dominate. You don't end up with ten or 15, you end up with just a few. Do you think it's going to go that way in the EV charging world? Smart charging world?


[00:23:57.660] - Nick

I think what's happening in terms of the market now is there's a split emerging between hardware. There was historically a hardware plus software play, which is you install a charger with some software associated with it and now what's happening is that hardware layer is being separated from the software layer. And the reason that's being separated is because on the hardware side of things, everything's fragmenting really quite a lot. So there's lots of lots of different devices and therefore it makes sense to have a single or not a single actually we will never be a single platform. It makes sense to have a small number, a variety of different hardware devices, much in the same way as your examples. It makes sense for like there to be a single customer interface, for Just Eat to interface with lots of different takeaways.


[00:24:55.310] - Jon

I guess thinking of Apple as an example, you could end up with a company like Tesla building a walled garden for its ecosystem.


[00:25:04.990] - Nick

I certainly think so. I guess the question that I'm always thinking about is like, how many Apples could you have within the EV industry? I think there are possibly quite a few companies today who are maybe making that vertically integrated approach and say, well, we're the Apple, we're the Apple, we're the Apple. I think if you look at that.


[00:25:26.910] - Jon

Because a few of them have got the brand strength, a few of them have got really a number of them got very powerful brands.


[00:25:31.930] - Nick

And maybe we won't have a single global Apple. We'll have like, maybe even a local market Apple. There might be one that dominates in the UK market versus one that dominates in the US market, but I don't know whether you can have ten different Apples, which is kind of where we are right now with the vertically integrated approach. And I think inevitably that will consolidate with a platform that is able to or several platforms that are able to provide a service that will then consolidate access to a variety of devices back into the energy system and simplify all that complexity and regulations and rules and laws now around smart charging and other connectivity into the energy market.


[00:26:22.610] - Jon

So, Nick, times getting the better of us. We are looking forward in the discussion already, but I'll bring out the talking new energy crystal ball now. So just looking up the last conversation we had back in 2020, I asked you then for in 2025, the percentage of homes that would be smart charging and your answer then was we should be aiming for 80% to 90%. So whether we had - not 80 or 90% - the vast majority should be smart charging in 2025. There's a geographical element to that question as well, which market we're talking about. I'm interested in looking forward another five years. Let's look at that same stat again, see if your user changed at all and also maybe how you see in five years, what your aspiration is. I think we could probably deduce a lot of that from the discussion so far, but interested in how you articulate that and looking forward the biggest challenge you think and get it if you had to isolate one challenge, biggest challenge in getting there.


[00:27:34.920] - Nick

Yeah, I was thinking so we spoke two and a half years ago, so I think there's a couple of big changes that have happened since that conversation. So one of them is the energy crisis that's ongoing right now, which has put pressure on energy security, on hopefully our transition towards renewable energy, and also pressure on energy costs, obviously. And the other one has been around, there's been some regulations that have changed. So there's a new law now called the smart charging regulations. So, I mean, maybe on that latter point, just heading off the question of the 80% to 90% smart charging, I think, well, the law says now everybody has to install the smart charger and that charger has to be connected to the grid and responding in real time to signals on the grid. And so I would be very surprised given the majority of the volume is still ahead of us in terms of chargers, we should have 100%. It is now against the law not to install a smart charger.


[00:28:40.990] - Jon

I guess they'll be smart enabled, whether people use some smarting as a subquestion.


[00:28:45.990] - Nick

And I think there is pressure on us to make it super simple and straightforward so that it just works every single day. But the starting point is 100% smart enabled and then, yeah, probably similar levels, if not higher, of smart charging. But I think what the energy crisis has done is interesting because I think it's reaccelerated the growth in people thinking about how they can save money on energy. And I think that's re-accelerating the growth in other distributed energy devices like solar. And so one of the things I…


[00:29:24.070] - Jon

Think it's a terrible thing, but it's a huge opportunity for their energy transition, for people offering solutions to people to be more empowered about how they use, generate, manage their energy.


[00:29:38.170] - Nick

I completely agree. I think it is actually a massive opportunity. If we decarbonise and install more renewable energy across the world, that will actually help with energy security, it will help with energy costs and it will enable us to decarbonize faster. I mean, what's not to like it’s actually a really good story. And I think on an individual level, it's driven a lot of solar. And then coming back to EVs and what we do at, we have huge demand now for solar smart charging, which is enabling you to recharge your car and put sunshine into your solar panels and then into your vehicle. And people really love that because then you get 100% free energy flowing into your EV and..


[00:30:22.840] - Jon

That feels good.


[00:30:23.590] - Nick

Emotionally it feels good, but it also feels pretty good financially as well. Yeah, there is a big emotional angle to it. So I think perhaps what's changed since we last spoke is I would expect more of that, which is in the next five years, which would be really great in terms of where we'd like to get to. I was looking at smart charging as a whole. I think if we were to have a conversation in five years time, I would be surprised. I don't know whether it would be or another smart charging platform, but I'd be surprised if the virtual power plant, the collective virtual power plant of all of the electric vehicles on the grid in five years time, wasn't the biggest power plant on the grid in five years time. I think we’re probably seeing the size of Hinkley Point C in five years, which would be a really brilliant achievement.


[00:31:23.440] - Jon

For non UK listeners, that's a new nuclear power plant that's being developed in the UK.


[00:31:30.030] - Nick

Yeah. But I think I think it possibly will be the case in most Western nations as well. So that will be a monumental achievement that will help us to decarbonize really quickly.


[00:31:43.090] - Jon

And biggest challenge. So either from the sector, the smart charging sector, or maybe more interested in your challenge, Nick at, in terms of driving forward to become one of the leading platforms in this space, what's your biggest challenge to doing that?


[00:32:06.670] - Nick

Yes, I think from growing a start-up perspective, one of the biggest challenges I'm personally thinking through at the moment is how I mentioned about we've done quite a bit internationally, but really what we need to do now is do that further internationally. We haven't got a big presence in France and Germany in chargers. We haven't got as big a presence, so we need to do it. There's a lot of scaling of a company and growing a company ahead of us and internationalisation and market expansion. That will be challenging because we will then have teams in multiple different locations and growing and managing those teams in multiple different locations will stretch us as a company, but be very exciting, but really stretch us as a company. I think more generally and more broadly, the biggest challenge, some of the challenges that we've got ahead, not maybe not the biggest challenge, but we're talking a lot about electric vehicles. That's where we're very passionate and very excited. I am conscious this is only like one part of the decarbonisation puzzle and we need to then move on to other parts of it, like heat. So there are huge challenges that we need to overcome as a society to enable us to get to that fully zero carbon future that we all want.


[00:33:25.610] - Jon

Do you think your platform might do heat one day as well as EVs? Can you see that? Or do you think it needs that specialism and as far as you can see, it will be EVs?


[00:33:34.450] - Nick

I mean, there are some commonalities, clearly, like the interfacing with the energy markets, understanding tariffs, understanding what's going on in the rules and regulations. There are some similarities there. I think the bit that's different, though, is the interface with a customer. I often say, I don't know how often people think about putting their heating on at the same time as charging their EV. They're totally different things, because you think about charging your EV to go to the shops or to go and pick up the kids, whereas you think about putting your heating on when you sat like I am today, and you're like, oh, it's a bit cold, I need to put my heating yes. And I think also heat as well, keeping our houses warm, maybe there's different levels of flexibility within that in terms of you need to be careful. We all want heat when we want heat and we need to keep warm. And that's a slightly different problem to getting your electric vehicle ready for when you need it. Definitely commonalities, never say never.


[00:34:25.260] - Jon

It sounds like a maybe. But Nick, there's loads more I'd love to have talked through with you today, but that's been a fascinating discussion and it's very inspiring to hear about your journey, having started four and a half years ago, the way you scaled the business, both in terms of size, number of drivers on the platform, but internationally as well. So hugely impressive and perfect timing, I guess, to continue growing it into the years ahead.


[00:35:04.330] - Nick

Yeah, hopefully it will be fun. Certainly been a roller coaster ride and a lot of fun. And, yeah, there's lots of work to do, but there's a lot of opportunity as well, which is great.


[00:35:15.410] - Jon

Well, best of luck and I'm sure it would be great to talk again, whether it's in two and a half years or a bit longer or shorter. We'll see and hear how you've been doing.


[00:35:24.640] - Nick

Thank you very much.


[00:35:26.590] - Jon

Thanks, Nick. Thanks as always to everyone listening. We hope you have enjoyed hearing about Nick and his journey with and perspectives on the smart charging world and look welcoming you back to the next episode, next week. Thanks and goodbye.


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