Ty Benefiel Co-founder & CEO, President, MeterGenius
"Make sure you team up with people you trust that have the same work ethic, desire and end goal as you. Your initial team is very important to the success of your startup."
Ty Benefiel is in the business of making you come back for more. After leading the marketing team at Angie’s List, Benefiel saw the value of customer engagement. To stick around, customers needed to feel involved.
When Benefiel started taking energy and electricity classes at Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management, he was surprised to learn that some suppliers had attrition rates as high as 50 percent. He saw an opening for his skillset in the energy business, which appeared to be losing customers at an alarming rate.
Enter MeterGenius – an interactive smart meter application that gives you real-time usage data and analysis, crafted by Benefiel and three other Northwestern graduate students. Currently an app and website, MeterGenius also gives tips for reducing energy consumption, making clients more conscious of their savings and more loyal to their suppliers. Thus far, the team has been able to increase customer retention rates by 27 percent for companies like Infinite Energy.
How did the idea for MeterGenius come about?
Before I went to Northwestern, I worked at Angie’s List and I led the marketing team at Angie’s List, and one of the projects I worked on was quantifying the value of customer engagement. So what we were able to do was figure out that the more engaged the Angie’s List member was, the more likely they were to renew their Angie’s List membership. When I went to Kellogg, I started taking courses on the electric and energy industry. I learned about competitive electricity suppliers, which I didn’t know anything about prior to coming to Illinois because Indiana is a regulated state. So I learned that these electricity suppliers had very high attrition rates, as high as 50 percent. As we learned about this, I started to think about how we could get customers engaged with their electricity. Could we get them to stick around and increase retention rates?
What were some challenges you had to overcome as an entrepreneur?
We sell to electricity companies. They're big companies with big contracts, so there’s a long sale cycle. Managing expectations within the sale cycle, without knowing exactly how long that was going to take, that was a big thing. Also, my team had to develop sales skills to concisely and easily articulate the value propositions that we delivered to customers, make sure customers understood, and listen to their needs. By no way are we there yet, but I think we’ve done a really good job of improving our skill sets in that area to help us get some of the contracts that we’ve landed.
How did Northwestern influence your journey?
Northwestern was very helpful to our company. The Kellogg Entrepreneurship program and the Zell Scholar program was very, very helpful to us. They gave us funding and great mentorship, they had some great programs around entrepreneurship. The Institute for Sustainability and Energy was very helpful making introductions, they also gave us money. They were and continue to be involved with this.
Where do you see MeterGenius progressing in the future?
We’re continuing to get new contracts in both the competitive electricity supplier market but also in the regulated utility market. We have a deal with ComEd, they’re in Northern Illinois. That’s our first regulated utility market—we hope to expand in that market. We're going to keep engaging with electricity customers, really changing their behavior and the way they interact with electricity. Right now most of that is through behavioral changes, but we want to integrate some of the latest technology like smart devices and connective devices to make those behavioral changes easier and even automatic. There’s a big trend in the industry moving that way, and we think we can help electricity suppliers, both regulated and deregulated, take advantage of those technologies and really maximize their value.
Do you have any advice for other aspiring innovators?
A few words of advice – in school, make sure you team up with people you trust that have the same work ethic, desire and end goal as you. Your initial team is very important to the success of your startup. Following the lean startup methodology for us was so helpful. Again, that’s something that none of us really knew prior to coming to Northwestern – but really, the idea of developing your product for the customer, going out and talking to customers, really understanding them. Really invest in customer development first. That has paid off and would be by far my number one suggestion.