Walking the (Product) Talk with CPO, Bram van der Wal
On today’s FACES, episode 5, we are shedding the spotlight on Bram van der Wal, Chief Product Officer (CPO) at NET2GRID. With significant experience leading strategic product direction, product marketing development and product innovation at Consumer Electronics, SmartEnergy and CleanTech corporate environments, Bram is ready to share his lessons from more than 15 years of experience in smart home and energy technology, present NET2GRID’s newest product developments and his strategic ambitions for the future.
Could you tell us a bit about your professional journey? How did you come to be CPO at NET2GRID?
I had the opportunity to get my early career experience at Philips Consumer Lifestyle working on concept development and product innovations for high tech consumer electronics products. I learned from the best, in an international environment while I was developing product features for new connected products with Internet services like Smart TVs, connected domestic appliances, and so on. However, due to the nature of the industry, mostly shaped by persuading people to consume and buy more, I couldn’t feel enough satisfaction, in the long run, trying to make the world a better place.
With the gained knowledge, I moved to Essent and Innogy (now E.ON), where I was building new smart homes and smart energy propositions for their consumers to save energy at home and increase their living comfort.
At the center of these propositions stood the B2B2C data-driven business models approach that I have a great deal of expertise in. This is when I saw for the first time, the potential of applying smart meter data in combination with AI and machine learning to bring energy bill transparency for end-users. All due to a pilot conducted with NET2GRID. Realizing that this can change the user experience, allow energy suppliers to start interacting with their consumers effortlessly while giving them tailored saving advice, and even improving living comfort was an eye-opener. The power of data analytics coupled with marketing tools could be a huge advantage for energy suppliers willing to participate in the energy transition and optimize their internal operations using AI-generated customer and house profiles.
For me, it was evident that this type of service has the potential to change the way energy suppliers and others like hardware manufacturers and financial services can benefit and how cool it would be to work with many more companies on this latest cutting-edge technology myself!
Therefore, I approached Bert Lutje Berenbroek, CEO at NET2GRID and I shared with him my great interest in the product and the impact the solution already had for E.ON. I strongly believed I could contribute to the product’s success because of my experience and network. Within no time, I was offered a position to work on product strategy, portfolio and marketing topics at NET2GRID!
You usually say that 3 of your favourite work-related questions are ‘what, why and when’. How did those questions help you shape leading products and solutions at NET2GRID?
As CPO, at NET2GRID, I work very closely with our Chief Technology Officer (CTO), Peter Broekroelofs as we share the same common goal; to build and deliver the best possible experiences for clients and subsequent value for our company. Strategically, and through my knowledge, I focus on the what’s, why’s and when’s of a product, while the CTO focuses on ‘how’ the product is going to be developed.
For example, collecting and evaluating client insights along with valuable user data helps me with product development, sales, marketing and partnership building. To be successful, I need to have both a micro and macro focus on making things better and coordinate between multi-disciplinary teams and other C-level executives. It’s essential to get things done in the short term while inspiring people to improve the core product over time. At NET2GRID we handle a 60-30-10 rule of managing our development efforts following the central product roadmap that I manage. 60% of our efforts are spent on our core product improvements and deployments, 30% is spent on new feature development and 10% is spent on new product development and R&D technology projects.
For all of the above the ‘what, why and when’ rule is for me a key method to move forward, set priorities and have a transparent company-wide product development process in place that is shared, aligned with and followed by everyone.
For quite some time, you worked in the utility sector, sitting on the other side of the table. Now you are making products that help utilities remain relevant, deliver real value and keep up with digitalization. How have your past experiences in the field helped you to shape products that correspond to utilities’ needs today?
I know very well how big corporate energy retailers' processes work, like the stage-gated product development, the marketing campaign deadlines, the long-lead times in deal-making with suppliers, churn reduction, small margins, dependencies on IT PI planning, the resource limitations, etc. At the same time, new entrants are willing to experiment and co-develop as they have different needs and want to differentiate with the incumbents. Our white-label service delivery platforms, open APIs, in-house developed hardware, and the pilot mobile app really help us to adapt so within no time we have a new proposition for new clients, rolled out in their local market.
What we notice most is that with our AI solution, the sales challenge to gain new customers is about ''to see is to believe'', although the technology of disaggregation has become more known within the industry. With new clients it is sometimes like we are performing some sort of magic as it's really advanced; while it’s easily explainable on paper and with data proof points that it works very well, the moment that a client gets convinced is when their own customers and marketers are raving about the solution in a pilot or when users give the product an NPS score of 60 and willingness to recommend to others by 95%, as we see happening with our clients. What we have developed is a world-class energy transparency solution. At the core, stands user profiles derived from energy insights, from which we can recommend and predict across Digital Experience, CRM and Meter2Cash systems at utilities and energy retailers. In my view, it is one of the best instruments to get end-users engaged and prepare your energy company to lead for the next 30 years at least. Our solution is the enabler for Energy-as-a-Service type propositions, where our clients are using that same analytics data in e.g. energy load forecasting or demand response programs. Many energy retailers spend millions on buying marketing user data, or energy procurement hedging risk fees. If they see the facts of our solution, collaborating with NET2GRID is the natural next step.
Working at energy retailers, I learned first hand their challenge is to deliver profits for their shareholders every quarter, while continuously optimizing their costs, growing the customer base (and keeping the high-value customers) plus staying relevant. Investing in a solution from NET2GRID can ensure that balance; bringing direct financial benefits in the short term, via e.g. churn reduction, while accelerating revenue growth and improved operational excellence in the long run. Our product offering is tailored to those challenges and we are at the sweet spot where we deliver high-impact solutions against low prices for energy retailers and utilities who find themselves in various phases of their digital transformation journey.
How we got in this sweet spot is e.g. because each quarter we have roadmap alignment sessions with our clients to get their strategy as input while sharing ours as well. It helps to set priorities, identify common goals, and new topics are added to the central roadmap so that all our clients can benefit from new-developed features. Simultaneously, we optimize our development without wasting time on non-scalable developments.
4. Would you like to share some of the newest product developments at NET2GRID?
In the last half year we have deployed our new Engage service to new customers. The product is based on consuming standard smart meter data, whereas our existing real-time data based InControl service is further scaling with existing customers. The advantage next to our existing real-time InControl service is that the new Engage service is very low cost, delivers similar customer profiles, does not require extra hardware and can be truly delivered as a one-button-push SaaS. Having both service options, allows variety for clients to directly start with a fast, scalable and deployable solution to achieve customer engagement and new proposition building on top of the existing benefits we deliver. Within the same platform, they can upsell the InControl service to prosumers, already being on an Engage service.
Next to the Engage service, we also developed a new Energy Forecasting service which helps energy retailers forecast the aggregated energy load of their customer portfolio and producers of energy. The service is being tested by some customers and the results look very promising in terms of forecasting accuracy. Intra-day, day ahead and long term energy load insights incl. disaggregation events like EV charging and heat pump loads, PV production delivery as an additional control stream for existing forecasting systems is included. Worldwide, we are pioneers on this forecasting approach which, next to the existing smart meter data offering, generates a high value business improvement tool.
Being able to help energy retailers boost their processes by deeper understanding their customer’s behavior by e.g. predicting with high accuracy when spikes and outliers in demand will occur is revolutionary. I am proud of our development teams adding value using our existing knowledge and infrastructure on smart meter data machine learning and making our product portfolio stronger.
5. Lastly, from what one can see on your LinkedIn profile, you have been a pro-mountain bike cyclist. How does racing mountain bikes resemble the race of remaining ahead of the curve in your field of work?
Racing cross-country mountain bikes in the past all over the world during my studies seems to be a completely different life from what I live today, however, the principles that I learned and applied in those days still help me today.
Performing sports at the highest elite levels is highly competitive which I am still today if I am honest. It’s about being in the front of a race to keep the overview and being able to anticipate what happens amongst the leaders of the race. You need lasting endurance so training and determination are important, rest well and have a solid ‘roadmap’ plan so that you keep believing you can win or at least take a podium spot. While in the middle of a race, you need to stay flexible so you can pivot your strategy and get back to the front when needed. And last but not least, mountain biking is about having fun in nature with friends and fellow passionate people, having the same goals, ethics and celebrating successes with your team members. The same principles apply to me being competitive at a startup or even within a big corporation.