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Can You Save the Planet and Still Make Money? Software Startup Simple Energy Bets Yes (Page 1 of 2)

Boulder, Colo.-based startup Simple Energy has an ambitious game plan: Help millions of consumers save energy through a combination of web networks, behavioral modification tools, and demand response.

Of course, the company would also like to make money. Apparently, many industry veterans think that they can: Simple Energy recently attracted $900,000 in seed capital from a well-connected group of angel investors.

Founded (and bootstrapped) in September 2010, Simple Energy now has four employees and is searching for four more. Founder and CEO Yoav Lurie says he expects that the headcount in a year will be somewhere in the range of 12 to 30.

The first version of Simple Energy's product was released in June 2011 -- and this was a radical departure from the founders' original idea. Which leads us to the first of several great tips from Lurie: 

Tip #1: Your idea may not be the right one, so listen up.

Last year, the Simple Energy founders visited a local utility company to pitch their Big Idea. 

"We actually went in with a slide show for a totally different business," Lurie says. "It was a hardware product that we'd give away for free. A thermostat. 

"The feedback we got was, That's not the problem we're trying to solve. We pulled out our mockup thermostat we knew could be manufacture for under $8. They pulled out a $500 thermostat, and said, 'Here's what we can give away, and no one is taking it.'"

Tip #2: When customers speak, don't just listen; jump.

In that initial meeting, the utility company told Lurie's team, "The problem is not that we lack cool tools that we can give away; the problem is that people just don't care."

And here's where Simple Energy's startup smarts shine through: "We tracked down Dan Ariely, one of the best behavioral psychologists in the world," says Lurie. 

"From him, we learned we need to get a focus that's more based on psychology and game technology. Most people don't want to engage in the data of their actual usage; they want to be presented with insights and learning about their data."

Tip #3: Before you build, talk to everybody.

"We talked to everybody we knew," Lurie says. "We called in every favor we had.

"Our youth and inexperience was our greatest asset. You have to engage the people. It's that simple."

Tip #4: Ask, don't sell.

"People try to sell me something multiple times a day and rarely get a response," says Lurie. "Other people come to me with a genuine question and want advice and help, and I'm much more willing to help."

Tip #5: Don't talk to the decision-maker; talk to his/her boss.

When you're still in the research and design stage, you shouldn't be talking to your prospective end-user, says Lurie, because they're too likely to get bogged down in specific software features. When you're still trying to nail down the problem to be solved, it's best to go up a level or two.

"The people we talked to were far above the actual decision-maker," he says, "and they were happy to give us 30 minutes of their time." 

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