E01: Smart Wind Energy Startup
How do you stand out in a market that runs on air? On this week’s #GNPLaunchpad webcast, Nathan Harris talked to WindESCo’s CEO Blair Heavey about becoming the platform of choice in wind energy. Blair’s a startup guru who’s grown companies across a vast range of industries. Now he’s making major waves in renewables. He ribbed Nathan for calling out his years (and years) of experience. But their fast-paced chat was packed with wisdom for everyone.
We pulled out some of Blair’s most salient points below, but there’s a lot more to explore. Watch the complete video or read through the transcript for the full interview.
WindESCo is the leading renewable energy performance analytics company. Their innovative software solutions help wind plants make the most of their data. With a complete understanding of the factors affecting their wind plant, operators can implement impactful optimizations to boost their annual energy production — and their revenue. They serve as a dedicated partner that guides their clients toward smarter, more efficient energy production.
About Blair Heavey
Blair Heavey is the CEO of WindESCo. He has a long history of success in scaling up companies across a broad range of industries, including software, healthtech, fintech, and and most recently cleantech. He has successfully lead startups and Fortune 100 teams to achieve outstanding results, including multiple acquisitions and IPOs valued in excess of two billion dollars.
Key Points from the Interview
It’s Better When Wind Turbines Talk
“The WindESCo platform unlocks the hidden value of wind plants today and enables the next generation of smart wind plants in the future. Think about it as wind turbines communicating. Instead of a standalone wind turbine, you’ll see a thriving community of turbines talking to one another, driving increased performance.”
Solve the Market Need (Even If the Market Doesn’t Know It Yet)
“The market need we solve is the reduction in power prices globally and reducing operating margins. Driving wind plants to be more efficient, to drive more revenue and get to their full potential, so that the wind operators and the investors have smiles on their faces. Most of our customers don’t even know the extent of their revenue loss until we get in there.”
Dig Through the Noise and Find Your Space
“It’s a tough space. A noisy space. There’s a bunch of different companies that will say they can help either optimize on the top-line revenue or optimize on the bottom line — like, ‘Let me help you predict that your turbine or something in your wind farm isn’t going to produce.’ Most of that stuff we’ve seen in the market is pretty much noise. You’ve got to dig through and find out what space you own — what’s your unique differentiation as we go into the market?”
Delivering Is Your Proof Point
“I’ve had a lot of experiences scaling companies across multiple markets. But I didn’t have any renewable experience until WindESCo. And I didn’t think there were as many players in this market that speak to similar things and throw those things out there without many proof points. What we’re doing is driving the proof points that we’ve delivered all of these things to the market. Our wind farm operators and our growing list of customers want a trusted platform that has all of the algorithms and analytics and data but is also forward-looking. You know, ‘I want to hitch my wagon to somebody that has data, has expertise, that can help me improve today, but also in the future.’”
Trust is Doing
Think about all these wind turbines communicating with one another — smart wind plants, smart social plants. That’s why they want to work with us. It’s like, ‘You’ve become trusted because you did what you said you were going to do. And we like that, we’re going to expand with you because of that. Nobody’s talked to us about what we can continue to do in our outer years on wind plants. You guys did, and you’re going to keep providing more and more of these things.’ And you become that platform of choice.”
Ready for launch
We’re thrilled to begin the GNPLaunchpad because we’re passionate about the stories you tell. We love to hear about businesses that are disrupting their industry’s status quo and bringing change for the good. Have a great story for GNPLaunchpad? We want to hear it. Contact us today. And be sure to follow the hashtag #GNPLaunchpad so you never miss an episode!
NATHAN: Welcome everyone, I’m Nathan Harris and this is the Green New Perspective Launchpad, the show where we talk to leading voices in the startup world and hear their stories and challenges they face on the path to rapid growth.
With me today is Blair Heavey, the CEO of WindESCo. Blair has guru status within the startup community. He’s helped scale companies in a broad range of industries, including software, health tech, FinTech, and now cleantech. Blair has worked with over 25 companies as an operating executive and a board member to help them innovate and grow. Blair, thank you for spending some time this afternoon.
BLAIR: Thanks for inviting me, always a pleasure talking to you.
NATHAN: For those who are unfamiliar, could you please share for the listeners what WindESCo does?
BLAIR: I think I’ll start first with, you know, I joined Mo Dua, who’s the founder of WindESCo. And really I joined him to partner with helping WindESCo expand and grow and in the really exciting renewables energy market.
The WindESCo platform unlocks the hidden value of wind plants today and enables the next generation of smart wind plants in the future. So think about it as wind turbines kind of communicating between themselves. And instead of a standalone wind turbine, in the future, you’ll see a thriving community of turbines able to talk to one another, connect to one another, and obviously, drive increased performance.
So the market that we solve is the reduction in power prices globally and reducing operating margins. It’s a really, really kind of tight organization, and is driving wind plants to be more efficient. They need to drive more revenue. They need to be able to get to their full potential so that the wind operators themselves are fine, the investors who invested in all of these plants are happy and they have smiles on their faces. And when we go into our customers, most even don’t even know the extent of the revenue loss that they’re having, until we get in there. And then we help them to generate anywhere from $2,000 to $8,000 per megawatt annually, which is in the low millions of dollars of annual revenue production on each one of these little wind plants that they didn’t even know that they had.
NATHAN: I wanted to dig in a little bit on some of the challenges that WindESCo has been facing recently. And if you want to expand on any in particular which you have overcome, I’d love to hear more about that as well.
BLAIR: I don’t know whether we’ve overcome these challenges. So I’ll kind of hit you with a couple that I know we’re trying to overcome right now. So one is, you know, kind of around that thought leadership, which is consistent and crisp messaging. I think we’re iterating and evolving kind of towards that. So we’re certainly getting a lot better. But I don’t think we’ve cracked the code fully there. It’s a tough space, but I would say it’s a noisy space, right? In that there’s a bunch of different companies that will say that they can help either optimize on the top-line revenue, or gonna optimize on the bottom line. ‘Let me help you predict that your turban or something in your wind farm isn’t going to produce.’
And most of that stuff that we’ve seen in the market is pretty much noise in the market. But with noise, you got to kind of like dig through all of that stuff. And, you know, define kind of where do you play? What space do you kind of own? And what is your kind of unique kind of differentiation as we go into the market?
NATHAN: Looking backwards for a moment, what’s been one of the biggest surprises you’ve had over the last six months?
BLAIR: I think probably the fragmentation of the wind market. So you know, I’ve had a lot of experiences across multiple markets and scaling companies across those markets, but I don’t have any renewable experience until WindESCo. And that’s what the team’s experience plus my ability to scale. You know, our goal is one plus one equals three there. But I didn’t think that there were as many players in this market that speak to similar things, and just kind of throw those things out there without, you know, as many proof points. Driving the proof points that we’ve delivered all of these things to the market. And not only do we deliver it for those wind farm operators that we have today — we have 22 customers and growing — but they want to see a trusted kind of platform that certainly has all of the algorithms and analytics and data that’s there, but also is kind of forward looking. I want to kind of hitch my wagon to somebody that has data, has expertise, can help me improve today, but also in the future.
So that’s why, when we think about all of these wind turbines communicating with one another — these smart wind plants or smart social kind of plants. That’s why they want to work with us. It’s like, ‘You’ve become trusted because you did what you said you were going to do. We like that. We’re going to expand with you because of that. And nobody’s talked to us about what we can continue to do in the outer years on wind plants. You guys did, and you’re going to keep providing more and more of these things.’
And [with that trust,] you become that platform of choice, from what I’ve seen in past lives, because you have trust, you’re growing the platform, you’re delivering more and more value, rather than just a point product solution that I think, from my fairly limited time and the renewable space and the wind market spaces, is most of the people out there just trying to get a point product solution and not kind of looking at the best interests of the farm itself, the investors, and the companies that are working with them.
NATHAN: I’m curious what it been like for you to foster the culture of content that WindESCo’s demand generation is heavily reliant on with a team of engineers and experts who may not have had that experience prior. What’s that been like for you?
BLAIR: It’s interesting that they have the incredible subject matter expertise, and incredible attention to detail. And how do we package that with both business messages and market messages that are more easily digestible? So we talk a lot and the group with WindESCo is we want to be a little bit more kind of Silicon Valley-like, [rather] than Boston where we’re based, right? And you know, that can scratch the heads with it for about that, like, What the heck does that mean? We need to be visionary, we need to be kind of bold. And we know that we’re going to deliver the best product platform out there and need to be proud and a little bit bold about the messaging that we have to that market. And I think the guys are really realizing that that makes sense to them. I think it’s out of their comfort zone a little bit, right? Because we are a Boston-based company — like, yeah, we are. But you know, we need to have a little bit more there.
NATHAN: So imagine for a moment that money grew on trees and it was not a concern for WindESCo. What would you like to be doing differently if you could?
BLAIR: I think there’s probably like two main things that if I had all the money — at the right valuation, Nathan — to do that, I think we’d add to our R&D and in customer success teams to advance that product faster. They say time is the enemy. And we need to move as fast as we can on product innovation that we’re driving, as well as the love and value that we get back from customers because of the customer success team. So making sure that we have enough people to go do that would be one.
I’m super excited about the team and what we’re able to put together in the roadmap. And the best part is the team is energized and aligned behind that. And in my experience — you aged me and dated me with all the 25 different companies. But that’s that, I’ve been around the block a few times. And it’s that team excitement and enthusiasm that drives innovation, because that’s what you want in the startup. And we have a great team of PhDs and engineers that are super passionate about the space, super passionate about the customers, and are driving probably harder than they’ve ever driven in their careers. Because they believe in the product, they believe in the customers, and they want this to be delivered faster and better than anybody else can do it in the market. And that’s what’s great about startups and innovation in my experience, is those almost rabid teams that are bound together to go solve a gnarly problem and do it in a really, really quick way.
NATHAN: What advice do you have for a startup that’s struggling to get their sales and marketing teams to align? I know you have a lot of experience here, and I’m interested in the words of wisdom that you have to share.
BLAIR: It’s, you know, making sure that they understand what that crisp message is [and] understand that they are, in a lot of ways, the eyes and the ears of the organization. And they need to kind of understand that. In a lot of ways, early startup guys, on the sales side, are kind of like Swiss Army knives. And I refer — I think I’ve talked to you about this before — the Navy SEAL versus the army infantry person. In an early-stage startup, we’re still fighting, we’re learning. We learn every day, and we need to bring that in.
So the Navy SEAL can adapt, like a Swiss Army knife, right? ‘Here’s what we think is the plan, salesperson: x.’ And it’s steps one through ten. And if it blows up at step three, that person knows how to adapt based upon the structure and then also eyes and ears to quantify what’s happening within that market and bring it back into the company. Versus somebody who, ‘Here’s steps one through ten. I am going to kill one through ten, even though I might get killed in the process.’ And that isn’t as effective, I think, for startup stuff.
NATHAN: How about on the hiring side? How do you approach the difficult decisions around when to onboard new team members and when it makes the most sense to take a time out and wait?
BLAIR: It’s a really tough one. You don’t want to overhire, because then that burns your cash faster than you thought. And you have to go back with that potential surprise to the investors like, ‘Remember I told you I wasn’t going to come back here for two years? But I’m coming back before.’ Yes, usually they don’t like that.
So what I tried to do with our teams is stretch as much as we can without, you know, killing people. But we’re a start-up, and we work hard and we try to play hard and have fun as well. But you have to kind of stretch out, try to maximize the nickels and the dimes with infrastructure. You know, making sure that you have systems that machines can do what people could, if you can. And I try to have flexible outsourced partners that you can kind of turn off and on, that have hopefully have a lot more experience than your team. They can get things done in a much faster and shorter period of time, that you can kind of flex in and out of that when you need to.
But you have to have a core amount of the right people around the table to help to drive the organization. And it’s an interesting balancing act, but you have to push the team as much as you can, try to innovate and get efficient with systems, and then outsource where you can to outside experts. I would say more on the go-to-market and finance side, I never say outsource the product or the tech.
People have their own lives as well, and sometimes it kind of does get blurred. And in COVID, when you can jump on a zoom anytime, I think people more and more want their own personal space at some point. So, we try to do as best we can, balancing between work time and off-work home time.
NATHAN: Let’s talk for a moment about the relationship and communication between leadership teams and the investment group. For those companies who are in the early stages of their growth and have received their first or second round of investment funding, could you share some tips on how to effectively manage this relationship between themselves and those they’re receiving funding from?
BLAIR: That is a very delicate subject. Once you take money from people, it’s like entering into a marriage. You have a partner. Whether you like that partner or not, you now have a partner that you have to be transparent with, open with. And also have them kind of do their job as well. They’re not just there to give you the money and then take off. They have roles. In early stage startups [they] help introduce you to certain customers that you didn’t know, maybe help you with a marketing message. Maybe it’s a technical person, and they can kind of help you with some of the product thinking there.
But it’s really important for a seed series, a Series B stage kind of team to align with those investors. This is where we’re going. This is why we’re going there. This is what we’re doing. These are the steps I’m going to take you through. And this is what I need from you to be successful, that you’re all aligned, because it is a big macro team.
I think too often, in the startups that I’ve advised in the past, people thought they won because they got the investment. No, that’s just the starting process. Or they thought that they didn’t have to listen to the investors once they got the money. This is my money, I’ll do with it what I want. No, you’ve entered into a marriage, right? And that’s a transparent, hopefully honest, upfront kind of team and partnership that you need to do, so alignment with those folks, understanding roles, and keeping crisp on what you’re doing so that they understand. A board member, or an advisor, or an investor never wants to get surprised.
Hopefully I’m not as grumpy as Bill Belichick, but I do believe his plan, which is, everybody has to do a job. We’re all on one team, we all understand our roles on that team. And we can kind of check our egos at the door and play our role so that the team wins. And outside of the grumpy part of it, I think the WindESCo team has really done that well.
NATHAN: So now look into your crystal ball. Looking into the latter parts of 2021, what does the year look like for Windesco? What are you most excited about?
BLAIR: It’s really kind of developing that future smart wind plan. It’s having the ability to track from an up market wind turbine. What are the wind conditions, what’s happening within the flow, communicating all the way down wind to the turbines. That will do two major things for the wind farm operators.
One is, I have to go capture more revenue. So how do I adjust my turbines dynamically and on the fly? Okay, great. The second is, maybe some of these turbines — we’re getting so much energy from the market, and the power prices aren’t where we want them to be. Maybe we can shut down a couple of these turbines based upon what they’re telling us, that sustain the life or extend the life of those turbines. So you can kind of help them on the bottom line as well.
I think it’s a super exciting time. Product is going into a new vision, or expanded vision, not a new vision. Messaging, we’re getting much much crisper on and our go-to-market strategy is getting much more traction. And we’re building out that team. So from the time I’ve been with the company for just about six months now, a little bit under that. And we will, by the end of 2021, we will over triple the size of the company as far as people goes, and greater in terms of revenue and product adoption. So it’s a super exciting time.
And it’s [an] exciting kind of mission too because we’re making the world a better place by allowing these wind plants to become more efficient, drive more revenue and, reduce our carbon footprint — not ours personally, but the world’s, because more and more wind energy is being used.
NATHAN: Excellent. So if someone wants to get ahold of you, what’s the best way?
BLAIR: I’m really good on email. So it’s email@example.com. You know we’re small and growing when we can still use our first names, although Blair is pretty unusual, so that’s okay. Or give me a call on my cell, my work cell at 617-494-0811.
NATHAN: I’d really like to thank Blair Heavey for being my guest on this episode of the Launchpad. I’m Nathan Harris, until next time.