Tell us about yourself?
I grew up in Calgary, a born-and-raised Calgarian, and have lived here my entire life. As a fourth-generation Chinese-Canadian, I grew up watching my parents work to ensure that we could have the opportunities they didn’t.
That mentality remains with me to this day. I also come from the world of classroom education, which has framed my approach to managing a business. As a teacher, you gain an appreciation for individual needs that are constantly shifting, whether those are the needs of students, parents, or colleagues.
You also develop a sense of advocacy for the work you do, which has translated into a passion for the work our company does.
What do you think is the single biggest misconception people have when it comes to startups?
That a dream isn’t enough. Sure, capital investments are nice to have, but if you’re not envisioning your own success and dream for the future, what’s the point?
We were told over and over that we would fail, that what we were doing would never work, but we persevered and now we can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with corporate giants.
If you could go back in time to any moment from your journey, and give yourself one tip, what would it be?
“Embrace the fear.” It’s a scary thing to stand up and say, “my business has value, and deserves to be here.” But by doing a daily gut-check and really looking at what is bringing on the fear, you can truly address the needs of your business.
A healthy dose of fear keeps you on your toes and pushes you beyond your comfort zone, and that’s where innovation and inspiration lives.
What makes you stand out as an entrepreneur?
I’m a listener. In any group setting, I’m listening, observing, and analyzing. You can learn a lot about what people’s needs are simply by actively listening to what they say – and that goes beyond surface level talk.
In my experience, a considered approach, based on information and data, is usually more effective than a knee-jerk reaction.
But that also means seeking out opposing ideas, critiques, and complaints. It’s that engagement piece that makes all the difference.
What are some of the best working habits you’ve gained over the past couple of years?
Using a daily planner has vastly improved my ability to multi-task and manage multiple operations simultaneously.
I’m partial to a physical daily planner which allocates one page to each day of the year so that I’m free to put as much detail down as possible.
I also review my day each night so that I have a visual representation of my accomplishments.
That positive reinforcement keeps me going, even when things get so busy it’s overwhelming.
Give us a bit of an insight into the influences behind the company?
Our company, UTILITYnet, is a family business. We also operate like a family – which is why some of our staff have been with us since the very beginning despite our long history.
UTILITYnet is built on data management – by that I mean we know how to leverage the data we’ve acquired to provide our clients with the information they need to make informed decisions. We also pride ourselves on the cleanliness and accuracy of the data with which we work.
Knowing how to treat data with respect so that it can truly work for you requires a dedicated team to constantly be checking its validity. In addition to our data management core, we also saw an opportunity to be the little guy in an industry ruled by giants. Alberta’s deregulated market means that anyone can play in the sandbox, you just have to know the rules.
We have taken what was once an almost insurmountable entry roadblock, and made it seamless for other entrepreneurs to get in the same. Our network of Energy Marketers is the most expansive in the province, and encompasses customers in over 470 communities across Alberta.
Moreover, we made that possible without outsourcing, thus we’ve been able to keep development of our company 100% local.
Where do you see your business in five years?
UTILITYnet prides itself on energy and data management, to that end, we will be the competitive retailer of choice across Alberta. Our custom back-office systems allows us to continue to grow our business with minimal scalability issues.
Our Energy Marketer program has grown steadily since its inception in 2008. We now have over 25 Energy Marketers retailing electricity, natural gas, and Internet services to Albertans in virtually every corner of the province.
We aim to provide exceptional choice to consumers by allowing them to keep their money local, with great rates and even greater customer service.
We also aim to play a bigger role in Alberta’s path to net-zero. Through our Solar Club, we are engaging solar PV microgenerators in the conversation around greening the grid with a goal of exporting over 100 million kWh of solar energy back into the provincial grid.
What do you think the biggest challenge will be for you in getting there?
Let’s be honest, utilities are not interesting from the average consumer’s point of view. You pay your bills on a monthly basis and that’s it.
Our job is to engage customers to help them take advantage of Alberta’s deregulated market and fund community initiatives at no additional costs. But if the average consumer can see the advantage of supporting local simply by paying their bills, then that’s a win for us.
Talk to us about your biggest success story so far?
Our Energy Marketer program has grown to be a major competitor in the utility retail market. With nearly 30 Energy Marketers operating in the Alberta market, customers have more choice than ever.
UTILITYnet’s back-office systems, allow them to seamlessly plug into the market and retail electricity, natural gas, and Internet services.
Moreover, our Energy Marketers work as a team to ensure Albertans are getting the best possible service and rates.
How do clients and customers find you? Are you much of a salesperson for yourself?
Most customers find us via social media and a utilities advocacy website called the Utilities Consumer Advocate.
We operate digitally by avoiding paper bills wherever possible, and communicate primarily by email. Our customers are also fantastic at referring us to their families, friends, and neighbours.
I also really enjoy engaging with customers directly when they contact us by email, and letting them know that as a family-business, our goal is to give them that ‘feels like family’ experience.
What one tip would you give to fellow startup founders?
Show up. Whether that’s for your clients, customers, staff, or contractors, they all need to know that you’re there for them. An open office layout helps in this regard, giving anyone the ability to pop by and talk.
And finally, what do you hope the future brings both you personally, and your business?
For me, just knowing that our business is providing not only for our staff, but also for our clients and customers is satisfying. Family is everything, and we aim to keep it that way.