Nobody Wants to Hear Their Baby is Ugly

By Liz Maberry

Being at SXSW Eco recently and interacting with the people there has me missing my days as a startup co-founder. Attending an event that brought together big business and small startups in such a successful way was exhilarating.

The conference once again reaffirmed that startups and entrepreneurs are being sought out as companies try to identify disruptive ideas and opportunities to unlock innovation. The question is no longer why should your business innovate, but rather in what ways are you innovating and how quickly is this happening? Liz

During the various Startup Showcases, SXSW Eco’s startup speed dating event and meetings we were able to connect with startups focused on data analytics, big data, connected home, and distributed generation. The speed dating event was particularly interesting, as we received handfuls of elevator pitches and business cards during a series of 7 minute meetings that left us inspired. There were a lot of great ideas discussed, and if this year is anything like last year’s conference I suspect we’ll wind up doing business with a startup we met in Austin.

A standout session for many was Erik Steeb’s talk on “Landing That Elusive First Pilot Demonstration” during the Startup Bootcamp. The director of the Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator discussed the crucial steps required to prove to the world that your startup’s game changing innovation really does what you’ve promised.

Learning about Erik’s story while also being able to share my own helped me take some of the people I met with down memory lane, back to when my company was being bought by a major corporation…

A group of us thought it was a good idea to found a business, Bounce Energy, in 2008, despite it being probably the worst time in recent history to start a business. The financial markets were collapsing, credit was non-existent, Hurricane Ike had left our home base of Houston in shambles, and on a personal level I had just found out I was pregnant with my first child- so it seemed like the perfect time to leave a comfortable job for something that would probably fail, with no health insurance.

As I told attendees during Eco, there truly is never an ideal time to start a new business. What should have flopped ended up thriving, with all the requisite hard work. Within a couple of years we found ourselves being pursued for purchase by much, much larger energy companies and, because of our unique approach to the market - focused on marketing digitally to key underserved segments with a rich and robust e-commerce platform, eventually were acquired at a strategic valuation by Direct Energy. We then came into a company that wanted to embrace digital as a core competency and chose to acquire those systems and talent as opposed to building it out internally. Basically, we found ourselves once again approaching things as a startup within a larger organization.

While we had executive support for what we were doing, that did not automatically trickle down in such a large organization.  We spent a good percentage of our time in the first days, weeks, and months winning over key stakeholders in other areas of the business that we needed in order to be successful.

After my presentation, the question I got most often was how do you integrate? Is it hard to go from being a founder, with all of the control and all of the accolades (and all of the anxiety and nail biting), to being an internal employee who may be dealing with resentment, fear, etc…?

The truth is that obviously there isn’t any one way to “fit in.” For us, the time spent planning, showing early success and starting to influence the culture from the inside out was key. I’m not going to lie, it can be very difficult to walk into a situation and say the way you’ve been doing things isn’t working.

Nobody likes to be told that their baby is ugly. If you come into a situation where your technology, ideas, processes, or culture are going to clash with what is currently in place with a purchaser, it will be tough to navigate without a few scars along the way. However, with a clear direction, a well-executed plan, and transparency – going from the startup culture to being bought can in fact be successfully accomplished.

Liz Maberry is the Senior Director of Innovation for Direct Energy. She joined the company as the result of the acquisition of Bounce Energy, of which she was a founder. She has years of experience building startups, and was thrilled to be elbow to elbow with her peers at SXSW Eco.