Who's That Gal: Tess O'Brien of EnergySage
Occupation: Clean Energy Marketer
Current Role: VP Strategic Partnerships, EnergySage
Hometown: Princeton, NJ
Current ‘hood: Charlestown Navy Yard
Favorite color: red
Book Suggestion: Visit Sunny Chernobyl by Andrew Blackwell
How did you find yourself in the field of environmental sustainability?
I grew up spending time outdoors in the Adirondacks with my parents and older brother. A lot of my defining moments happened there and in hindsight really laid the groundwork for the environmental career path.
I went to the biggest high school in New Jersey and then went Gettysburg College, where I ultimately found my passion as an environmental studies major. It was a blend of science, policy, and business which allowed me to see the field from different perspectives. I studied abroad in Copenhagen through the Danish Institute for Study Abroad, where I was first exposed to renewable energy. It was inspiring to see clean energy and sustainable practices as such a natural part of society. Someone from the Danish Wind Energy Association spoke to my environmental business class. This all really planted the seed for me. I really loved wind - the technology is both beautiful and smart, I find wind turbines to be incredibly graceful.
After getting back home, I was interested in working in renewables. Another alumna from Gettysburg worked for a company called Community Energy near Philadelphia, and she hosted me for a week long job shadowing experience. The company developed wind energy projects and marketed wind power to electricity customers. I really liked that team and what they were doing, so stayed on with them part time until a full time job opened up. I then moved to New York City and managed their green power programs for several years before being promoted to Marketing Director.
I earned my MBA in Managing for Sustainability from Marlboro College Graduate School, which I finished in 2012. After that, I started my own business, CleanPowerPerks!
What was it like starting your own company with Clean Power Perks?
After working in the clean energy marketing industry for about six years, I noticed a gap in the market. There were hundreds of green power programs around the country, millions of people signed up for green energy and thousands of brands voluntarily supporting renewables. But these groups didn’t know about each other and there was no sense of community. I wanted to connect these audiences to bring greater awareness to what was already being done to support clean energy and also make it easier for people to find out about green energy options in their area.
The goal of CleanPowerPerks was to bring green energy to the mass market. CleanPowerPerks is a web platform that connects people and brands that use clean energy. By highlighting what big household brand names were doing to support renewables, we could make it more accessible to more people.
I started by having lots of conversations with different groups – green power program managers, brands using clean energy, green-minded people – and garnered a lot of interest. But I had to make it real in order for anyone to actually get on board, so I developed our MVP. That enabled me to get our first partners and we launched to members with brand partners in 2014. I was very passionate about the concept and that passion fueled my endless work and ideas. It was a thrilling time but was also one of the hardest things I have ever done.
What is Energysage? What do you do there?
EnergySage is the largest online marketplace for solar. It’s often described as “the Kayak.com for solar power”. We help people compare options for installing solar on their property and offer completely unbiased resources. Our tools are free and our mission is both to help homeowners go solar for a fair price from a reputable company.
At EnergySage, I work on strategic partnerships. We help companies, utilities, towns, non-profits and universities educate their stakeholders about solar energy. We work with Staples, the World Wildlife Fund, National Grid, The City of Cambridge and dozens of other great organizations that want to empower their customers in the sometimes confusing process of going solar.
Any advice for our budding environmental entrepreneurs?
Starting your own business is like preparing for a marathon. It is very hard, in part because your mindset is a constant sprint. Creating the path as you go is incredibly challenging. In the beginning, it isn’t necessarily clear what step to take next, but it’s important that you take a step and keep moving. Eventually you’ll gain clarity. And it’s important to have trust - in both your idea and in yourself. That said, it is also really fulfilling to see all of your hard work come together into something that you can share with people. Getting the first couple of customers is exhilarating. I got a chance to work with some awesome brands like Timberland and prAna, who I truly admire. It’s easy to stay focused on what needs to happen next, but it’s also crucial to take time to celebrate progress - even small wins.
Overall, here are my main pieces of advice:
Stay focused. As an entrepreneur, you get drawn in so many different directions and you have so many ideas that it is hard to simplify. With CleanPowerPerks, I tried to tackle two big ideas and looking back, I wish I had focused on just one at first.
Trust your idea. You put a lot of thought into it (right?) so don’t get clouded with other people’s opinions. Remember that no one knows your business as well as you do. So take every piece of advice and look at it objectively. But ultimately trust your gut and stick with your vision!
Find support. Mentors will help see things clearly and make it so you don’t feel alone during the process. Especially if you don’t have a business partner, it is imperative to have people you can trust to turn to for advice.
Say no. A lot of side ideas, opportunities and projects can be a time-suck. Be strategic with your resources, especially your time. And re-read #1.
Get out. Starting a business from your apartment is tough. Getting into a coworking community (I joined ImpactHub in downtown Boston, which I love) can be so helpful - providing support and encouragement, structure and a separate space to associate with work so your home doesn’t. I was able to connect with a lot of entrepreneurs and meet a lot of new friends that way.
Do three things every day. It is easy to feel overwhelmed by everything you have to do, but if you’re always making progress, you’re good. Follow the 80/20 rule for figuring out what is important to do.
Focus on selling. You’re not going to get far if you’re not actually sell your product or service. Most other stuff can wait - and won’t matter unless you can sell.
Stay inspired. You will get sucked into the nitty gritty, but every once in awhile it is beneficial to come up for air and revisit the big picture of what you’re doing. This is especially important for environmental entrepreneurs, as it’s easy to lose sight of the mission when you’re in the weeds.
What are some ways you “walk the talk?”
Living in the city scores major points! That’s definitely a lifestyle choice. And of course, supporting renewable energy! My guilty pleasure is hot showers, I need to work on that one.
What inspires you to keep working despite all the “doom and gloom” that surrounds environmental issues?
The doom and gloom is actually what inspires me. It keeps me motivated to make change. Climate change is one of the most concerning problems of our time and there is always work to be done, though the how continues to change as the market becomes more educated and new solutions arise
What’s next for you?
I’m really content right now focused on helping EnergySage reach more households. We’re in talks with lots of potential partners and I’m looking forward to working with them to scale solar adoption. It’s an exciting time for our business and industry. This year marks 1,000,000 solar homes in the US!
I also need to define the future for CleanPowerPerks. There will no doubt be other concepts I pursue down the line, I’ve got a million and one ideas. Bringing renewables to emerging markets has always been of interest to me, so maybe someday I’ll pursue something in that direction. And I continue to be excited about a passion project I’ve had for years - helping folks early in their careers navigate their job search and the working world. I hope to properly launch TheNewRealWorld to break it down and share some really practical career advice.