Wednesday, June 22, 2011
Interview with Robert Schaefer, AlsoEnergy
For today's interview and profile, we talked with Robert Schaefer, the CEO of Boulder-based AlsoEnergy (www.alsoenergy.com), a provider of solar power monitoring services and software. Bob told us the story behind the business, how he and co-founder Holden Caine took the firm from idea to fruition, as well as where the firm hopes to go to next.What does AlsoEnergy do?
Bob Schaefer: AlsoEnergy was founded in 2007. What we do, is provide a service that monitors photovoltaic installations. As you probably know, our anchor customer is Morgan Stanley, the Wall Street investment bank. We work with Morgan Stanley and Main Street Power, providing a monitoring service for photovoltaic installations, both domestically and internationally. We're really excited about that relationship, and are now growing significantly. In addition to Main Street Power and other solar power developers, we also have a relationship with inverter manufacturers. Inverters basically take the large voltages you get from a field of photovoltaic panels, and convert that into the power around your house or commercial environment. On that side of the world, AlsoEnergy is also providing OEM and branded software for those inverter manufacturers. We provide that software to Satcon, the largest commercial inverter manufacturer in the United States. I'm excited to be part of that. The systems we've monitored around the world now range from small house installations all the way to installations in the 17 megawatt region, which is quite a span. Finally, from a regional perspective, we do monitor sites here in theU.S., but also in Canada, Germany, Spain, France, the Czech Republic, Greece, and most recently Australia.
How did you get into this business--it looks like both of you were in other parts of the high tech industry before turning to energy?
Bob Schaefer: It's an interesting story. As you know, we came out of the technology side of the world. I spent a lot of time in the high tech world, doing things with high volume, online transaction sites like Walmart. Holden has a great software background, and has a spectacular record working in that world. I came out of more of the storage and hardware side, but I've been in the tech community in Boulder since 1983. I think what we both did, is we got to the point where we wanted t move our careers forward, and give back to the community. I think, in a lot of ways, it's time to really change how the world lookst at energy, and make some changes and impact things in a positive manner.
Was it tough to switch industries into energy?
Bob Schaefer: I tell you, it was really tough. What we did is we talked to lots of people. We talked to people in the energy business, and with the help of the Boulder Innovation Center we created an advisory board, which had a number of folks with a great background in energy. We looked to the community for support in that respect, and were able to talks to lots of people to help identify opportunities and try to fit it all together. What we did, in some ways, is applied the best practices out of the high tech industry we were familiar with, in an arena of monitoring systems, remote systems, and database structures, and so on.
What's the biggest thing you've learned so far from the startup process?
Bob Schaefer: The biggest thing we've probably learned going through this, is you have to be both persistent, and be doing the right thing. There are four elements to what I see has happened that made it all possible. First, we work in a great community, which is supportive of energy and entrepreneurship. That helps you go through and go forward. The second thing, is we've been able to have some big customers who have helped us understand what we're doing right and wrong. The third thing, is we've had some great folks working for us who have made this possible. However, things just don't happen in a vacuum, even if you have the right people and environment, and persistence, which helps you with the fourth thing, which is luck. There's always that element of luck. But, it's all exciting, because very rarely do you get opportunities to make a difference, and create a business at the same time.
Has it been helpful to be located in Boulder as a startup?
Bob Schaefer: I've lived here for a long time, and it's always been a hotbed for people startup things. I think there are a number of things why. First and foremost, the support here in Boulder is great, including the Boulder Small Business Development Center, which we are active in and excited to be part of. There's the Boulder Innovation Center, the people at CU, the Entrepreneurial Law Clinic. I think Boulder really has a nice group of support organizations, which help you get through the exceptionally trying times of a startup.
Finally, where are you going next with business?
Bob Schaefer: We're growing very rapidly. One of the things we're about to do, is look at international markets. We were over in Europe last week at Intersolar Munich, to understand the competitive landscape out there, and to determine if we could work with a few key partners out there to penetrate the market. The energy business is 20 times larger in Europe than in the U.S. We are also looking for new partners, continuing to develop partners, developing manufacturers, and looking at the non-US market as we go forward. That's kind of the next piece of the puzzle for us.
Thanks, and good luck!