Featured Founder: SaLisa Berrien of COI Energy Services
Welcome to our Featured Founder series, where you’ll meet startup founders from Tampa-St. Petersburg who are building and scaling their ventures to solve some of the world’s greatest challenges. We interviewed SaLisa Berrien, Founder of COI Energy Services, a platform that enables customers to monetize their renewable energy resources by buying and selling energy back to the grid.
Welcome to our Featured Founder series, where you’ll meet startup founders from Tampa-St. Pete who are scaling their ventures to solve some of the world’s greatest challenges.
What were you doing previously and what inspired you to launch your company?
Dating back to my Sophomore year at the University of Pittsburgh when I was first introduced to the world of energy through a Co-op, I was fascinated by the industry. It was amazing how so many roles were responsible for keeping the "lights on." I worked in the Distribution Department assisting with the design of new power lines. I recall being antsy the whole summer because I didn't have much interaction with the outside world. It was strictly a design position. Most engineers would have loved that role because it was perfect for the typical introvert. I'm an introvert all day and all night. However, I needed a role that would break the monotony. As a result, I ended up not returning to the Co-op the following semester. After graduation, I received an offer from my hometown utility company working in their Marketing & Sales Department. I was a Marketing Engineer responsible for marketing electric technologies to industrial and commercial customers to get them to switch from fossil fuels. I instantly loved the position because every customer had a different problem for me to solve. On a daily basis, I was met with new challenges that broke the monotony. Fast forward, I have spent over 25 years providing energy solutions to industrial and commercial customers. From promoting electric and gas technologies to smart grid solutions selling negawatt hours (negative kilowatt hours), I was able to assist small to medium businesses up to your largest industrial customer save energy, reduce their carbon footprint, and make money. In my lifetime, I was able to witness the evolution of energy from an old stodgy field to a more innovative industry. In 2006, I landed my first job with a startup in the smart grid space and found everything about it exciting. From being fast paced to having to wear several hats, it gave me a renewed energy (no pun intended) and passion like never before. I really do not know how to put words to how it made me feel. Many of my family and friends could not understand my excitement. They were like it is "just energy." Not until the day the company went public and I was standing in the front row with the founders as they rang the bell that they realized it was more than "just energy." I got the startup bug and from then on knew that this is where I belonged. I went on to work at three other startups before I launched COI Energy Services in 2016. I was inspired to start the company because I saw a gap in what customers were asking for and what providers were delivering.
What pain point is your company solving?
We are helping electric utilities engage with their business customers of all sizes to better manage the electric grid. In the U.S. alone, we waste over $30 billion a year on energy. That waste can power the entire United Kingdom. Just imagine if we used only what we needed and sold back any excess capacity to the grid or to our peers...Electric utilities would reduce the cost to serve their customers, they would have an alternative to building or delaying the need for power plants, they would have a cleaner source of energy, buildings would be more energy efficient, and businesses would get paid for being more efficient. In a nutshell, we are providing access to quality, reliable, clean and low-cost flexible energy resources as an alternative to generator power. In order to achieve this, electric utilities must engage more with their customers. For over 100 years, electric utilities had ratepayers and not customers so there wasn’t much of a need to engage. Now that customers have choices, they will no longer tolerate being treated like a ratepayer with no options. Hence, electric utilities must find innovative ways to engage their customers in order to solve the problems before them. Currently, the average energy user engages with their utility for eight minutes a year but engages on social media for 20 minutes a day. That's a huge gap! COI Energy helps close that gap to eight minutes a week by providing the best value any customer could ask for..."money in their pockets." Customers are motivated to engage because it will result in a positive impact to their bottom-line.
What gets you excited to go to work every day?
Knowing that the work we do is making a difference for our clients, the communities we serve, and the environment. We are not the coolest tech solution in the market, but we are truly making an impact that touches every aspect of life. I’m determined to make energy “sexy.”
Name the biggest challenge you faced as you’ve launched COI Energy.
I know this is what most founders probably say, but it is true to the core for me. My biggest challenge was raising capital to hire the resources required to scale the business. We all know the statistics for securing funding. Now take my background, it puts me in the toughest category for being funded. It is something like less than 1% of founders with my background get funded.
How did you overcome it?
I bootstrapped the business for two and a half years in order to prove our value to the industry and my personal commitment to making the business successful. I bootstrapped to my first million dollar contract.
Where do you see your company headed next?
We have been in discussions with some potential strategic partners that will help us grow at a phenomenal pace. Having Morgan Stanley invest in the company has definitely opened doors for us. I’m not one to say we have a blockchain solution because there are so many companies calling themselves blockchain and they are not. We can run our platform without blockchain. However, I believe as we scale, it is something to consider.
Give us a tactical piece of advice that you'd share with another founder just starting out.
Understand your company’s value and operate at that level of excellence. With your early hires, ensure they understand what sweat equity “is” and “is not.” The equity you give up isn’t charity. You’re not looking for volunteers. You’re looking for committed individuals that believe in your vision and willing to make sacrifices in order to help you achieve it. In the end, hopefully you build something valuable and reap the rewards together.