by Divina Paredes

Simon Pohlen of Flick Electric: The CTO with disruptive innovation on his mind

Jun 21, 2016
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As businesses get larger, it gets easier to worry about internal stuff rather than worry about what is good for the customerSimon Pohlen, Flick Electric

“There is no magic formula for disruption,” says Simon Pohlen, chief technology officer at Flick Electric. But having been involved in a startup that is providing an alternative to traditional power companies, he believes a shift in mindset can help any organisation in the digital era. “Embrace the idea that in the digital world, the customers have got all the power,” says Pohlen. “Let that guide your decision-making, that is how digital businesses become disruptive.”

This was demonstrated by Uber. “They have given all the power to the consumer and completely disrupted the taxi industry.”

“As businesses get larger, it gets easier to worry about internal stuff rather than worry about what is good for the customer,” he says.

If you can figure out something you can do for the users as a business, you can be successful with your model. Then I think you are probably halfway there.” He says this shifting balance of power is also happening in the electricity supply industry.

Flick Electric was launched almost two years ago and claims it has delivered 18 per cent average savings, more than $2 million, so far, to the company’s customers. The electricity retailer won the innovative services category at the 2016 Hi-Tech awards.

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Digital models are about transparency and that is what customers did not have previously.

The company provides its customers access to the wholesale price of electricity direct from the spot market and then charges a transparent fee as a retailer.

Flick’s web and mobile apps and unique weekly billing system give customers key information about their consumption and price patterns, which inspires behaviour change, helps with budgeting and avoids bill shock.

“With Flick, the disruption is really about the business model primarily and then secondarily, about the technology,” says Pohlen. The business model provides complete transparency for all costs and also enables people to choose if they want to use power when it is expensive or not expensive, he adds. In the same way, customers are also alerted when there is a shortage in the supply of power in the market, with a price spike. “We built a solution that sends people alerts when the price goes up. “That is what digital models are. It is about transparency and that is what customers did not have previously.” He cites an example of a household that might be paying a certain amount per kilowatt of power, but the cost of that power is going up and down all the time. “You don’t get any choice about that,” he says, on the way the traditional companies charge the customers. “I think it is coming more and more to the forefront, as more consumers adopt the idea they can be in control.” He says the Flick platform is also a preparation for the upcoming use of programmable, self-learning, sensor-driven devices. “If you could now have another input into that, the current cost of power, it can enable a whole new level of decision making how you consume power in your home. Flick could provide a feed of the power price to the device, he says. “It can enable this automated decision making about managing cost.”

We have to change IT itself from ‘information technology’ to ‘innovating together

Photo by Divina Paredes

One of the things I really find fascinating about Facebook is that it has managed to build this complex application. They have got over a billion users and I don’t think they ever ran a training programme for customers.Simon Pohlen, Flick

A diverse career

Pohlen joined Flick last year from Loyalty New Zealand, which runs the FlyBuys programme, where he was head of technology and new capabilities.

“I had an odd career,” he says, with a smile, reflecting on the diverse roles he took in traditional IT from data warehousing through to digital and advertising. He says his “accidental career path” was paved by his interest in “new and different things”. Pohlen finished an MSc in software engineering and began his career as a programmer. He worked at analytics company Datamine for 10 years. He worked with Flick CEO Steve O’Connor, whose brother had founded Datamine.

Pohlen says he also worked at the marketing team of New Zealand Post and in an advertising agency, the Clemenger group as head of data strategy. He says this combination of traditional IT, digital and marketing will become increasingly common with the continuing digitalisation of companies. His advice for up and coming ICT professionals? “Programming or development programming is the new literacy,” he says. “In the future if you are not able to do development or understand development, your world is going to be smaller. “The breadth of what you learn is really important,” he adds. “If you try to have too narrow a focus, it won’t be successful.”

His other advice is around having the ability to work with a team, as “nothing gets built and delivered on its own”.

“Your ability to work with other people and get along and respect different people’s views is really important. “Diversity is important,” he adds. He describes the people at Flick as an “interesting mix.” There are those who have worked in the electricity industry for a long time. “They are really valuable because of that. “We also have people that have never worked in the electricity industry,” he states. “They will say ‘Why are you doing it that way? It is not going to work.’ Having that diversity of opinions is really essential.”

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C-change Pohlen also shares insights on working with executive peers. If you are at C-level, you are expected to be not just thinking about your area, he says. “Your responsibility is to have a view and be helpful across others areas of the business. At Flick he says the technology team sits right next to marketing.

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Having the ability to work with a team is important as ‘nothing gets built and delivered on its own.’Simon Pohlen, Flick Electric

“I spend a bunch of time in digital marketing as I do about technical stuff. I also spend time thinking about the customer experience, what we can do to look after our customers. “The GM of marketing, for instance, is interested on what the technology is doing. We have conversations on how marketing and technology can deliver stuff at Flick. “The days of IT and marketing being separate is gone, they just have to be close together and really work well.” Because the office of Flick is “not massive”, they are able to sit near the call centre and listen in on the conversations with customers. “You get real insights about the things customers expect you to do in a digital way. “I expect my tech team to be building software for our people internally that’s as easy to use as Facebook.” This is important, he says, “if you want to transform your business and have people as productive in a digital sense then they have to have tools that are easy to use. “One of the things I really find fascinating about Facebook is that it has managed to build this complex application. They have got over a billion users and I don’t think they ever ran a training programme for customers.”

For Pohlen, this underscores the importance of simplification and “how often simplicity is on the far side of complexity”. “If you think how much work they put into making complex work more intuitive and simple, and then compare that to the tools people are using internally, then that gives you a clue how you can transform an organisation from inside out.” He has the added advantage of having Steve O’Connor as his CEO, a colleague from his time at Datamine, who has a healthy attitude towards “failing fast”. “From an agile perspective, we fail fast on a bunch of stuff. I am lucky to work in an environment where that is accepted.

He will say, “You failed, it does not work, let us move on. What is the next thing we are going to try?”

Flick’s senior management team: Nikki Bloomfield, Simon Pohlen, Steve O’Connor, Jurjen Geerts, Shannan Hargreaves and Jessica Venning-Bryan.

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