It’s been documented in many articles that the energy sector has challenges with gender diversity. This has seen the sector less open to new ideas which puts into perspective just how big a challenge Labrador CEO Jane Lucy has overcome to get her venture off the ground.
Labrador, a London founded energy tech firm, has raised more than £1m from over 30 investors including Ian Marchant, the former CEO of SSE Plc; Stephen Beynon, ex-British Gas Residential MD; and Hambro Perks. The firm has created a smart device, which once plugged into a mains and router, constantly tracks a household’s energy consumption while monitoring the market for better deals.
Labrador makes both energy comparison and switching simpler and more accurate, and also empowers consumers to take control of unlocking smart meter benefits.
Jane herself admits that she has achieved this, even though she has never run a startup before, is not a technical founder, and is a single mum to her son Julian. She has done all of this without waiting for or expecting regulatory change but has used her legal background to create her own opportunities for consumers.
This is not Jane’s first endeavour in championing the cause of the consumer, having worked previously with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall to create the first collaborative communities around money and land and took on the supermarkets.
Editor in Chief Paul Bailes caught up with Jane to find out what really makes her tick:
PB: Hi Jane, how did you get to where you are now?
JL: I think it’s fair to say that I haven’t had a traditional path. Really I guess I’m on my third career which is increasingly becoming more common. It is a line of direction that actually makes sense at the end but it will sound unusual as I describe it.
I was admitted to the bar to practice law at 21 and I practised for about 7 years, mainly as a criminal defence lawyer in Australia. I really enjoyed that but it was something that after several years I really couldn’t imagine doing for another 30 odd years. I was interested in doing something more creative and I came over to London on a typical Australian working holiday visa and I became friends with a number of people working in the television industry. That obviously seemed incredibly exciting in comparison to law so I went back to Australia and went and retrained at the Victorian College of Arts School. I left there and I started working in television.
I made a documentary film for SPS television in Australia but the industry in there was such that it was difficult to make a full time change of career from law to television. So I decided to move back to the UK, and started work full time in TV for another 7 years, and I ended up working with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, celebrity chef. It was particularly an interesting time working in TV when the internet created an new opportunity to think about engaging audiences differently and over a longer time period than just an overnight broadcast.
That is what led me into technology and I started doing cross-platform campaigns with Hugh such as Fish Fight and Chicken Out. They were hugely successful and I believe they set some social network records for Channel 4 at the time. But they essentially boiled down to using technology and the internet to aggregate the influence of consumers to effect some kind of market change. With Chicken Out, it was getting supermarket consumers to consider choosing free range chickens and get the supermarkets to change their welfare standards. Fish Fight was to try and influence change to European laws for fishing stocks. I became really excited about the potential of using technology to affect some kind of market change. I felt it was very powerful and as you know, Hugh was driven by sustainability issues and so it seemed to make sense to think about whether or not there was something we could do on energy. We did a couple of energy specific projects after working with Hugh. One was with British Gas around energy efficiency and local renewable communities. Another was a collective switching initiative in partnership with uSwitch. I could see first hand that these big players in the industry were not particularly agile and had a different view to me about what innovation might look like and about how to go about trying to solve some of the issues in the energy market.
By this time I was not particularly interested in media as a business model and I was keen to try a proper start up business model so I left Hugh and set up Labrador. I guess what made me think I was on to something was when the government announced the smart meter roll-out and crucially it was the customers that owned the smart meter data and not the energy suppliers. I could see all of a sudden that there was potential for customers to own an asset which they could leverage to significantly change their place in the market and their relationship with energy on tariff and pricing and things like that. Again, coming back to this idea of collectively empowering consumers to change the market, with smart meter data being the tool to do that.
PB: That’s very interesting and obviously there seems to have been a meeting of minds with Hugh for a while?
JL: Yes – he’s a fantastic guy and it was really, really enjoyable to work with him. As I say, it was more that I wasn’t a passionate story teller and I think you need to be to work in media. I became much more interested in the power of the internet and thinking quite differently about how you might approach that.
PB: So the energy market is synonymous with being male dominated. What challenges did you encounter to get Labrador’s off the ground?
JL: To be honest, the benefit of being an outsider is quite an advantage so I think a lot of people in the energy market are just as excited as the consumer about seeing a potential change ahead. I think a lot of people find it refreshing there is a change under way. By setting up a start-up and sitting outside of the ‘Big 6’ and traditional players, obviously you have a level of flexibility to be different than what I suspect you’d have to be if you were working within these environments. So I’m pleased to say that as a start up in the energy sector I haven’t felt limited at all by being a woman. Where I did experience some challenges from being a woman was in fundraising as female founder compared to men. It is still unfortunately not on par and, you know, I think that you risk facing some investors, for instance, who like the idea of investing in people straight out of university that can work 90 hour weeks but as a parent – and as a single parent – that’s not the kind of person I can be. So in my position you need to find investors who value maturity (Jane laughs) that you bring to the business and are more accepting of having a life alongside running a business.
PB: I guess everyone is looking for something to disrupt as a new idea. Was that the excitement around your proposition – the disruption of a sector that hadn’t be disrupted?
JL: Absolutely! You think about the size and success of companies like uSwitch, Money Supermarket, Compare the Market and Go Compare, yet they are all competing against each other in a market where only 19% of households switch. So there is 81% of the market who no-one is serving. So the size of that opportunity is just enormous!
PB: With regards to investors, I read a report that highlighted around 50% of the wealth in the UK is owned by women yet in investment terms, there is a lack of female investors. What that your experience when trying to raise capital?
JL: Yes, it is true. It is not to say we don’t have any women investors but, to be honest, the majority of them are partners of men who are also investors rather than them coming in on their own. I think there is a definite absence of women investors. It’s not that they don’t exist but it certainly hasn’t been my experience of meeting the majority of them.
PB: You mentioned that smart meter data is owned by the consumer rather than the power company, do you think consumers know that?
JL: No, and again paradoxically, if they do know, the chances of them doing anything about it are very low. And that’s understandable – I mean, it is all part and parcel of the same reason why people don’t switch. They don’t have the time and energy is complicated. It can be quite confusing and people don’t necessarily have the confidence that they are making the right decisions… but finding the time to change is a big one. If you’re a working mother for example, you’re lucky to have an hour on the weekend to yourself. So are you going to spend that hour on website like uSwitch or are you going to watch Netflix or do something much more exciting. Netflix is always going to win so the idea that people are going to say ‘yes’, I’m going to make my data work for me’ is unlikely. But that’s not say that people don’t want to unlock the benefits – people would like to make more efficient financial and environmental choices but those choice needs to be offered to them in a way that makes it easier to engage in and which is more appreciative of what modern lifestyle looks like.
PB: Labrador is a great name, how did you come up with it and what’s behind it?
JL: Well, I did some research about the names of either competitors or organisations that are in a similar space and I think you basically have two camps – one camp which is very literal – the name is exactly what it does, like uSwitch for instance, or you have a name that has some kind of connection to the home, so Hive for instance. And I felt it was more appealing to have the connection to the home. Labrador is not a transactional service like your standard price comparison sites. It is potentially a life-time service of looking after you and therefore it felt more appropriate to have something less transactional in favour of something that will create an emotional connection.
Obviously the idea of Labrador appealed not only for having a connection to the home but also reinforcing a lot of the brand values we hold important; loyalty, trust and trustworthy. It was helpful to start with a brand where people might have a positive response to it before they even knew what it was about. Hugh was a big fan of the pun, and there are so many puns available such as retrieving data.
PB: There aren’t a lot of women in the energy sector, do you see that changing?
JL: I have seen in just the last few months a couple of groups emerging where people are wanting to champion women in energy. On International Women’s Day, I was invited to speak at an energy conference where there were only women speakers so I think there is a change under way and I think there is a lot of support and buy-in for that change. But as we know, these things take time before you see 50/50 split at the board level. I think though that there is more interest in trying to push more women forward to either at least be recognised in energy or encourage more women to get involved. And I think that despite being quite a pre-historic market in many respects, the flip side of that is opportunity; the whole point of the smart meter roll-out is to bring the energy market into the 21st century and be digitalised – it is one of the few remaining markets that aren’t digitalised. With that it provides enormous potential for innovation and change. Energy is a market where there is still so much that other people haven’t yet done which makes it exciting.
PB: There are a lot of industries that have initiatives to address inequality but do you think that more should be done by education/schools to look at the sector which is quite technology driven to do more to change mindsets?
JL: The quick answer is that I’m not sure… I think that I’m a big supporter of the STEM education that is going on in schools. I don’t know if you need to be that specific at that level. For instance, when I was at school, I found it really really hard to work out what I wanted to do. The reality is that I’m doing something that didn’t exist back then. So I am not particularly a believer in trying to really define career paths at that stage because I think it is too early to know what the potentials and opportunities that might be. I think there is something in the lesson of knowing how flexible different things can be. With regards the energy market, it doesn’t have to be thinking about how it works traditionally and what we are doing is completely untraditional. So enabling students to see the overall potential and flexibility of markets would be fantastic. I think equipping them with skills to be able to apply to any different market in any different way is what’s important rather than saying “this is a market and this is how it operates and this is the kind of job that exists today” is what you should start thinking about.
I’m the sole founder of a technology start up company and I can’t code and probably never will. You can work in technology in lots of different ways. You don’t have to be a coder so again, I think it comes back to this flexibility and making sure we are not defining roles, markets and technologies in a way which is too rigid as I think that then makes things feel like they are not as accessible to everyone.
PB: What drives you as a business leader?
JL: Well I think my son does a lot… I am quite a family driven person and my family is very important to me. The idea of being a role model for my son and making him proud is something that’s really important to me. I think broader than that, role models generally for people are incredibly important. The idea that I might have the potential to encourage people to do different things and to know that things are possible which they might not have otherwise thought, then that would be great.
PB: So talking of role models, do you have a business role model?
JL: My sister actually is incredibly impressive. She has gone more of the corporate route than start up. She definitely is the most impressive person I expect to ever meet. With regards the energy sector I spent a bit of time in the very early stages of setting up Labrador, or in fact, pretty much before I’d decided what Labrador was, with Pilgrim Beart, who founded AlertMe, which was one of the first connected homes businesses which was acquired by British Gas and became Hive. We have an advisory board as well which he sits on along with another person Lucy Darch who used to work at British Gas and then uSwitch and MoneySupermarket and now in the water sector. Our Chairman, Joe Mangion who works very closely with me. Certainly he puts in more work than a chairman would traditionally do! There are a lot of people that are involved in the business who are incredibly supportive and are great at being able to advise and teach in a way that is constructive and helpful.
PB: I guess a key thing that we come across as leaders is people enriching/continually learning themselves. What was the last thing you read that had a deep impact on yourself… other than a novel for your son?
JL: I don’t get as much time as I would like to read books to be honest. One of the things that was quite influential at an earlier stage was Jaron Lanier’s “Who Owns The Future?” That is very much aligned to this idea that there are customers being able to exert more control of data being of an asset that they can leverage.
PB: Being a busy person, do you ever get time for a holiday and to relax – how do you relax?
JL: It is limited… but I do sometimes sit there and think ‘what were my interests…? I can’t remember what they were’ as it was a while ago that I had the luxury of a hobby. But, we do go back to Australia every second year and my sister lives in US and we go there every year on holiday. Spending time with family and friends a lot and we do have a family Kindle and my sister and I have with a shared library which is great. There are books purchased every week so it is quite active.
PB: Finally Jane, what does the future hold for yourself and for Labrador?
JL: The future? I like to think I’m quite a pragmatic down to earth person so I try not to think too far ahead in terms of I don’t take anything for granted and whilst we’ve passed a number of big milestones, there are still a lot to go. I just hope that we continue on the path we’ve had to date of progressing forward and scaling up. I’m very much focused on the next year and growing our customer base and continuing to optimise and improve the service we can offer.