You can hardly move these days for US start-ups crossing the Atlantic eager to disrupt the UK market. What’s not so common is an innovative UK tech business going west to America, very much against the prevailing commercial winds.
But that’s precisely what smart heating brand Hive – the one with the folksy ads complete with catchy jingle - is planning to do later this year. Run by MD and former McKinsey consultant Nina Bhatia, Hive uses a smart thermostat and wireless connectivity to allow its customers to control their heating, hot water (and, demonstrating the brand’s cutting edge Internet of Things intentions, recently-added smart plugs, smart lighting and motion sensors too) all from a phone app.
‘I’m always surprising my kids by turning the lights on and off,’ she says as she runs through the new features on the latest Hive app.
It may not quite have the instant appeal of an Instagram or SnapChat but it’s proving pretty popular with UK homeowners nonetheless – especially impressive considering most of them have probably never given their central heating much thought before. Some 360,000 have signed up to Hive, the latest generation of which costs £249 including fitting.
‘30% of the nation don’t even have a thermostat in their homes, and 30% of those that do don’t know how to use them’ says Bhatia. ‘But we have people using our app two or three times a day.’
Now she is hoping that Hive’s line up – suitably tweaked for the US market – will prove equally popular over there. ‘The intention has always been for this to be ain international business, and we’re starting with North America because we have a sister business called Direct Energy there. Our suite of products will be available there towards the end of this year’.
Hang on, what’s that about a ‘sister business’? Well as you may have guessed, the firm behind the Hive brand is not quite your average start up. It’s actually part of utility giant Centrica (parent to Britsh Gas), as its official handle British Gas Connected Homes reveals, a specimen of the oft-tried but rarely successful exercise, corporate venturing.
It’s a neat trick if you can pull it off – cuddly customer-centric Hive wins over the nation’s jaundiced energy customers with its slick new tech and great product design. Meanwhile behind the scenes it benefits from access to Centrica’s 10m-plus customers, clout and army of field engineers to help the roll out.
So the move to the US is being funded by a £500m investment from the corporate mothership – a big vote of confidence in Bhatia and her team from Centrica's new chief exec Iain Conn – and it is also being facilitated by access to Texas-based Direct Energy (bought by Centrica in 2000) and its 3.9m North American customers.
‘We have an installed base of customers and access to the channels, so why not? The US market tends to be a bit further along in terms of maturity that the UK so that gives us an opportunity, and also a different market to test our products in.’
What about competition for Hive, most notably from Google-owned (and even cosier sounding) rival Nest? Like the birds and the bees, these two systems may look similar but they don't talk the same language. ‘It doesn’t need to be compatible, it’s a competitive product’ she says. ‘Over time I think we will be opening our platform to other products and services but it will be strictly curated by us. There are lots of examples in the market of people who have allowed integrations which then haven’t worked. Our principles are around high quality products and the utter reliability of the platform.’
It's now run as a global business unit – a fully-fledged subsidiary whose numbers are now reported separately in the Centrica annual report (a document which reveals a loss of £23m on revenues of £12m for 2016, but 70% growth in customer numbers). Hive’s distinctive culture is evident as soon as you enter the Connected Homes office in London’s west end. It’s very much not the corporate machine you might expect from a big utility, the stripped-down ‘workspace’ feel more akin to the army of Tech City start ups found a mile or two east around the Old Street roundabout.
Nor is the tie-up only to Hive and British Gas’s benefit. Customers also appreciate the back up and reassurance provide by a big-name business, says Bhatia. ‘They understand that Hive is new and they like its cool Internet of Things credentials. But they also like the reliability of British Gas – this is a new category and you want to know that the company you bought it from is not going to disappear and leave you with a piece of dud technology.’
That combination of snazzy new tech plus the safety net of a big traditional corporate behind it has made Hive very popular with those who have signed up, she says. ‘We have a 90% customer recommendation rate – right up there with other consumer tech products. For a company like this coming from a utility background that’s really good.’
Bhatia is also something of a rarity herself of course – a female boss in a sector which even more than others is male dominated at the top. Why aren’t there more? ‘The sector is not alone in this and nor is the country, there are lots of dimensions. We have to start way upstream in education and ensure that STEM subjects are not just the preserve of boys, and provide more role models. That’s where girls who become women form their views.’
She also thinks that senior execs themselves need to take a more active role in seeking out the next generation of female leaders. ‘We talk a lot about mentoring but I think we should talk more about sponsoring. If you are a sponsor you have to do something, to spot people and create the career paths for them.’
Ultimately the concept for Hive – and for the Connected Homes division generally – is to move carefully into the wider market for home controls and security, as the coming and much-vaunted Internet of Things revolution takes hold. (A strategy secured by the purchase of AlertMe, the tech firm which provides Hive’s wireless home control platform for £65m.) But always, says Bhatia, with a very careful eye on privacy and data security.
So after America, what’s next? She won’t be drawn on any other potential overseas markets but does reveal that we can expect some more new Connected Homes products coming down the pipe soon.
No clues as to what exactly, but in an industry famed for its buzzwords and baffling jargon, her aim is to keep it simple. ‘I am on a drive to describe what we do in clear and simple language that doesn’t bamboozle people' she says. ‘Some of what we do is glitzy and high tech but in the end we are doing something simple – helping people to control their homes.’