UK energy newcomer raised £487,000 through reward crowdfunding

UK energy newcomer raised £487,000 through reward crowdfunding

The UK consumer energy market is dominated by six companies who between them supply over 90% of the market. Newcomer and disruptive brand People’s Energy raised almost £488,000 last year through reward crowdfunding on Crowdfunder UK, and started trading in August 2017.  They needed startup cash, and offered savings against future bills as rewards. Their eventual aim is to really shake up the market through acquiring a million customers who will all be shareholders, making company decisions and receiving a slice of refunded profits.

Here’s the “gap in the market” they want to exploit. None of the current “Big Six” energy companies are recognisably customer-centric. There is a generally critical public perception that they offer complicated tariff structures making it difficult to find the best prices or to compare different suppliers, and that they deliver similarly uninspiring levels of customer service – no more than 43% of any of the Big Six’s customers would recommend their supplier.

There is also public resentment over their “profits before people” ethos: consumer prices never drop when wholesale energy prices do, and energy prices have risen at three times the rate of general inflation over the past 20 years. Amid unproven accusations of collective price-fixing, in April 2017 the Government put in place a price cap on each suppliers’ top tariffs, possibly remaining in force until 2023.

A relatively uncompetitive market dominated by a few large, unresponsive companies who lack customer trust is a ripe target for disruptive new entrants, which is what People’s Energy aims to be. Karin Sode, People’s Energy’s head of marketing, kindly answered some questions for me.

People’s Energy launched by using donations-for-rewards crowdfunding to raise over £487,000 and generate 2,055 customers. What was the thinking behind this?

We differ from all the other suppliers in that we want to give our customers shares in the company and pay back the profits to them, not to some other faceless shareholders. For that reason, we turned down potential investors who wanted equity in return for their investment.

Equally, equity crowdfunding was not an option because although it would have been easier for us [than reward-based crowdfunding] it would dilute the model and our unique offering of ownership to customers. We knew that it was a tall order but we were determined, worked very hard at it, and are pleased that we succeeded and were able to launch the company on 1 August 2017.

Was it difficult to get an operator’s licence given you will operate very differently from the Big Six?

Ofgem (the UK energy market regulator) has been very welcoming and appreciative of the very different model we offer to help shake up a market that suffers from real trust issues. Getting the initial licence was not the hardest thing, a bigger challenge was one of initial funding to get started, and we resolved that through our crowdfunding campaign.

After receiving the licence, we then went through a probationary period called ‘Controlled Market Entry’. We could take on only a limited number of customers while we proved to Ofgem we had the operational capability to serve them well. We went through that period fast, and successfully, and I’m very pleased to say we are now fully licensed to operate and welcome as many customers as we can.

A stated aim is to put 1 million people in charge of their own energy as shareholders in People’s Energy. Will you need to raise more money to achieve this?

We will operate on a “cost plus model” based on wholesale prices and our fixed costs, plus a small buffer that allows us to be robust. We’re a new business with no legacy costs to have to cover. There will be a single tariff for all customers, with our prices always in the lowest 30% of other tariffs on offer. Right now we’re in the lowest 10%. We are now broadly self-funding.

However, there will be a need for some further funding to realise other ambitions to invest in innovative renewable and energy storage solutions. In the meantime, a key interim aim is to sign up 20,000 customers within 18 months of our launch, which is a deadline of February 2019.

Where will People’s Energy customers come from?

We hope to appeal to younger customers through our sharing economy model. Market research shows that the more innovative companies operate in a more community/membership way, such as Giffgaff (a mobile/cell network) and Monzo (banking services).

We plan to build out the community approach and encourage people to share what we offer through personal endorsement to their contacts. This will help us grow the numbers at pace. In addition, we are currently in talks to establish partnerships with various bodies that will help drive up customer numbers more quickly.

A sharing economy newcomer aims to disrupt the UK consumer energy marketIn terms of offering your customers control, what sort of issues will they have a say in?

A key aim is to rebuild trust between consumers and energy providers. That can’t be done through words and promises but has to grow through the actions we take. Offering customers an element of control is therefore a direct attempt to make people feel heard and valued, really given a voice.

We want customers to have a say in whether or not we use the profits to purchase renewable generation facilities (including wind and solar farms), invest in development of power storage, or if they prefer to have the profits repaid to them.

We also plan to consult customers on whether they want profits shared depending on their energy usage or if every customer should get the same rebate. The latter option would support individuals in lower income households, but may not be considered fair for people with large usage such as small businesses. We believe the customers should have a chance to decide for themselves rather than us deciding on their behalf in a remote boardroom.

People’s Energy will provide electricity only from renewable sources. Will residential prosumers be able to sell back to you energy they produce from renewable sources?

We are not yet able to accommodate this, though it is absolutely something we want to facilitate as soon as we possibly can. For now, after switching over to People’s Energy for their energy supply, people will be able to continue to sell back surplus energy they produce to their current supplier.

If you are considering a crowdfunding project, whether offering equity or providing rewards, please get in touch if you’d like an objective assessment of your ideas from an independent crowdfunding adviser. Please email me at [email protected] or contact me through Twitter, @Cliveref.

Update on 20th March 2018
CrowdFundRES is a European project that contributes to the acceleration of renewable energy growth in Europe by promoting crowdfunding for financing renewable energy projects. It has published a practical guide for crowdfunding platforms, project developers, investors and policy makers on “Crowdfunding Renewable Energy.” You can access it here.

 

How to have more by owning less

How to have more by owning less

Mass digital connectivity and the personal tools that have enabled the sharing economy to flourish have created a climate of transformational change in which many business sectors have been disrupted almost beyond recognition.

Many retail brand names have virtually disappeared from urban high streets as book, record and camera shops are largely bygone relics of the age when shopping experiences were concentrated there. Renting videos and DVDs in person, going to a bank, saving up to buy a car and searching for affordable hotels to stay in are actions that are either obsolete or in decline now that we can go online to use LoveFilm, Netflix, Spotify, banking services, Uber, Airbnb and many other time saving, on-demand and improved value services that a myriad of entrepreneurs want to offer us.

Or if we are among the people with a spare room, attic space or a car parking space to rent out, or even largely unused clothes and furniture, then we can earn some money by offering them for hire to people we are matched up with online. A surplus of personal residential space (a big house!) and a wardrobe of designer label clothing are still regarded by many people as status symbols, helping them feel comfortably higher up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Now they are loaned out to strangers.

In crowdfunding – the ‘alternative finance’ area in which I operate as an independent crowdfunding adviser, mentor and personal trainer – those with sufficient disposable income are prepared to support startup businesses launched by people who in some cases they have never even met, either through ordering products that can be at still a prototype stage or for equity in a company they like the look of but which provides no guarantee of successfully providing a return on investment.

So it’s not just a case of technology and connectivity making it easier to behave the same way that we did before. There has been a well-documented and fundamental shift of attitudes towards more emphasis and value on what we can do with money that makes us feel good about ourselves, rather than primarily what we can buy and keep to ourselves to support and project our self-esteem.

Two news items I recently came across in the crowdsourcing/sharing economy heartland of cars and accommodation brought this home to me.

How to have more by owning lessUber commissioned some research among a sample of 2,000 Londoners. 34% of Londoners used an app to book a car in the last 12 months, rising to over 55% of 16-34 year olds. 22% of current car owners would consider giving up their vehicle if they could even more easily get a car on demand by app. 13% of adult Londoners under 30 don’t have a driving licence and have no intention of getting one. London may well not be typical of the whole UK, though the trends appear deeply entrenched among a population that is bigger than that of countries such as Austria, Denmark or Hungary.

While working for a client in the construction sector I read about planning permission approval for a 19-storey tower block in Stratford, London, the main venue for the 2012 Olympic Games. This would be a residential tower block with a difference. Personal space in the 250 units will be scaled down to a minimum that can still satisfy privacy and security issues, to the point of each unit having a “kitchenette” without some of the supposed essential white goods we rely on. The trade-off for limited personal space is that residents will have access to a comprehensive range of communal facilities that not so long ago were the lifestyle trappings of only the better-off. These include a gym, cinema, roof terrace, sauna and hot tubs, library and a food market. It will open late 2018 or early 2019 and rooms will start from £230 a week including utility bills, council tax, wifi, cleaning and gym access

I have spoken with people from several large property developers recently. Planning and building design trends include wider corridors to make it easier to more regularly bring furniture in and out depending on whether a multi-purpose spare room is going to need a hired bed for friends to stay over, or a borrowed table and chairs to invite guests to dinner. In response to recent public consultations, residential projects at planning stages are also often reducing the amount of car parking space to provide more provision for safe and secure storage of bicycles.

These signs of largely Millennial-influenced lifestyle changes may not be for everyone, though they are certainly more than passing fads. This includes using more money, perhaps through supporting crowdfunding projects, to feel good by helping others achieve a personal ambition rather than pursuing a blinkered path more restricted to the acquisition of personal possessions.

If you are one of the growing number of people who seek funding to transform a personal business ambition in to a satisfying reality, then please get in touch for a free initial discussion (in person in London or via Skype) on whether some form of crowdfunding could do the job for you: [email protected], an independent crowdfunding adviser.