In 2007, Ben Bixby cofounded MyEnergy with the belief that–with the right tools and rewards–he could make American consumers not only care about conserving energy, but actually do something about it. It starts with software–a proprietary system that can retrieve utility data for virtually any household in America, consolidating all your electric, gas, and water usage in one user-friendly online platform. From there, MyEnergy turns conservation into a game–users can compare their utility spending with friends and neighbors using social media, create and track progress toward savings goals, and earn rewards from partners for meeting those goals. “The interesting thing about the gamification of energy,” says Bixby, “is that it’s a game you’re already playing. We’ve basically invented the scorecard.” Five years after launching as a modest e-commerce play, MyEnergy has users in all 50 states and partners with efficiency programs throughout the country. Here, Bixby explains how his business model has evolved, and how a background in political activism and diplomacy informs his venture.
FAST COMPANY: You don’t have a background in energy or in business–how did you end up starting a business focused on the problem of energy?
BEN BIXBY: I attended the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, where I cofounded the student movement for Darfur, STAND, which became an international nonprofit. My work on that brought me in touch with a variety of folks with interests in energy and in the Middle East. After school, I found an interesting niche as an American officer at an Israeli agency in D.C., where I worked for 2 ½ years really doing translation–not language, but translating American culture to the Israelis and vice versa. It’s hard to work on the Darfur issue, or on Middle East peace without energy becoming a major factor in what you’re doing. Starting MyEnergy was to me a natural path of consistently trying to find a place where I had the greatest capacity to make a difference. As a junior person in a big organization, your capacity to affect change is often less than it would be when you’re driving just as hard from the private sector.
How has your business evolved from where you started?
When it was easy to get credit, back in 2007, my cofounder and I got a bunch of 0% APR credit cards and maxed them out to buy a couple of thousand high-efficiency light bulbs. There was no one place to get all the different kinds of bulbs at the time, and with the amount of money we had, an e-commerce site was something we could do. So we packed boxes full of light bulbs and sent them out with a statement showing customers how much energy they were saving with each order. That became a healthy five-figure business, but our big eureka moment in terms of how we could change the world on energy came through finding out how difficult it was to access energy-use data and put it in context.
Why was getting data on individual energy use so difficult? What interested you about that problem?
There are 4,000-plus utilities in America that all have different systems for tracking usage. When we got started, tracking energy savings involved a lot of estimating and guesstimating. But we knew that every household that consumers utility services gets a utility bill that tells you what you’re using, and most are available online. Instead of waiting for someone to create or impose a universal standard for accessing this data, we decided just to see the chaos as an opportunity and build our own technology to access those bills in whatever form they’re available. A common theme for me is trying new approaches that folks tell me are crazy or unattainable and finding through perseverance and passion and effort that 50% to 70% of the time they’re right–but in this effort we’ve been uniquely successful.
What skills and ways of thinking have you carried over from activism and foreign relations to an energy startup?
The capacity to operate on very little sleep is one. I can recall driving in motorcades going back and forth between D.C. and a major Mideast peace conference in Annapolis, and just passing out in the van outside to get some sleep on the side. In a startup, consistently creating more to do is an indication that things are going well. Your interests outside of what you’re immediately working on–including sleep–are necessarily curtailed.
The other big thing is realizing that what we’re working is behavioral energy savings. There are billions of dollars out there if people avail themselves of the opportunities. It’s easy to do from a command-and-control standpoint–if you have a networked thermostat in someone’s home, for example. You can make hardware and software that works but when you inject people into the equation–whether it’s the Mideast or energy–it’s a lot more difficult. How do you get people to care, and to do the right thing–I think that’s a common thread in terms of genocide, Mideast peace, and energy. I despair less of the opportunity in energy, though, because it’s more objectively clear what the right thing to do is.
You’re not yet 30 and you’re already on your second career. How are you going to keep this job interesting?
One perilous consequence of starting this company is that I might actually be in the same job for a while now. But today, even if in your one job, it would be an unsafe assumption to assume that you’re going to be working on any one thing for a long time. We’re very careful to remember that we’re disrupting this space, and that the opportunities to make a difference are still vast.
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