Recently, Greg Robinson, the CEO and co-founder of Drift, chatted with Bill Nussey, host of the “Freeing Energy” podcast, a show that tells the stories of local energy champions and leaders in the world of renewable energy. Below is lightly edited and condensed version of their conversation. You can listen to the whole interview here.
Bill: You fell in love with clean energy early in your life. Tell us how and why.
Greg: When I was studying physics at the University of Washington, my favorite class was about electricity and magnetism. I was also a professional musician at the time. I was just studying physics because I wanted to build recording studios. But then, a professor really inspired me to learn more about the future of energy. He talked about how we’re going to start using wind and sun more to operate the power grid. I thought, “That will be impossible.” When I graduated, I was like, “I’m not going to play music for the rest of my life. I’m going to go into the energy business.” And so I joined a company called Quest. We worked on dual axis solar tracking systems.
I spent five years really thinking and talking to people who wanted to install solar to get more clean power. In 2013, I realized the energy industry was missing a technology platform like the internet. We wanted to help farmers sell power to their neighbors. But the challenge was matching buyers and sellers. It was hard to find buyers who actually wanted it to happen and finding sellers who could make it happen. So in 2014, I left Quest and started to put together a team that could build the tools to match buyers of clean energy with sellers of clean energy.
Bill: What motivated you to get into an industry that — at least from the outside — seems very daunting?
Greg: I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I knew that I talked to buyers and sellers all the time and they were excited about it. I knew that we talked to local co-op municipalities and they were really excited about the idea of creating these peer-to-peer networks of buyers and sellers. I thought we hadenough enthusiasm from the players. Everyone thought there just needs to be an aggregation platform or a virtual platform or a software platform that creates price transparency.
Bill: Surveys show that Americans and people all over the world have a preference for clean energy. But I think that very few people have a sense of empowerment. Generally speaking, they feel like they have very limited choices. It feels very arm’s length. You have given people the opportunity to buy the kind of electricity they want and to do so with a lot of control and transparency. How did Drift come to fill this role?
Greg: It all started with a farmer in eastern Washington who wanted to sell solar to his neighbors. And we found people who were willing to buy it. But when companies came along and told these people, “We can help you buy clean energy,” they hesitated. They didn’t really know what they were buying. They think, “I already buy energy. How is clean energy different?”
All of our pricing on Drift is based on the actual impact energy that’s put onto the grid. People can set a monthly budget. We will take that budget and claim clean energy across the United States power grid. That helps those clean energy producers compete hour by hour against coal to kick as much coal power as possible off the grid. And then we offer a way for people to buy clean energy directly from power producers. And then there’s 24/7. That’s mainly for companies who want to buy clean energy 24 hours a day seven days a week.
Bill: So your platform is serving both consumers like me and businesses. And it sounds like you’re taking an approach that meets both of their needs. How are you able to do both?
Greg: The people who buy clean energy for companies and the people who buy clean energy for their homes are typically the same people. And so the product ends up being really the same.
Bill: You’re increasingly a household name. Your recent partnership with Budweiser made a mind-blowing splash during the Super Bowl. This really puts you guys on the map for a lot of people that may not have heard about you. Can you tell us a little bit about what you and Budweiser are doing together?
Greg: We formed the partnership at last year’s Climate Week in New York City. Budweiser is one of those companies that have built an amazing sustainability team. Budweiser has done a lot of the things that are necessary to be able to buy clean energy from a real power maker. Drift is trying to do for the masses what Budweiser does. And so this is like a brand partnership. They understand how hard it is to do what we’re doing. So they put us in the ad because they wanted us to receive credit for the work we’re doing.
Bill: What did you learn about raising capital that you can share with other people who want to build companies?
Greg: I was turned down 125 times before we raised our seed round. You just have to continue to get out there and tell the story. It helps to have a supportive family. My wife would always send me videos of my kids and give me pep talks as I was flying around. I couldn’t afford a lot of things. One time when I was in Silicon Valley, I slept on a couch in the airport because I couldn’t afford to fly back home, then come back out the next week for a second meeting. If I hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t have gotten their funding. When I was walking out of the second meeting, they said, “Should we send you a term sheet or do you want to send us yours?” And I was like, “Oh my God. Jordan at the buzzer.”
Bill: What’s the biggest thing that surprised you relative to your original vision?
Greg: We thought that we were only going to serve little buyers and little sellers. We thought we’re going to be the trading platform to connect farmer Dave to his neighbors. Now we’re partnering with Budweiser on Super Bowl campaigns and we’re serving companies in the Fortune 100.
Bill: What do you think will be the single most important change in how we generate and distribute electricity in the next five years?
Greg: Continuing to bundle the cost of the power grid into the services that we use.
Bill: What would you say to someone who asks, “What can I do to help make the change to clean energy happen and happen faster?”
Greg: Make sure that when they’re buying clean energy, they’re paying for the impact. Pay the full value of renewable power. Don’t overpay on underpay. I really demand transparency for the impact that you’re having. There is a lot of work that we have to do at the state level to make sure that we’re creating an economic environment for clean energy to grow. Get involved with energy groups or push local lawmakers to focus on creating an environment for small local clean energy producers to be able to get onto the grid.