Startup Spotlight: Tank UtilityApril 18, 2016
GH: What is Tank Utility?
Amos: Tank Utility is a Boston-based startup where we build smart metering and software for truck-delivered energy (typically propane or heating oil). With fewer than 1% of US tanks monitored, we are streamlining the delivery process by using actual measurements to run the supply chain instead of guesswork and modeling..
GH: How did Tank Utility get started?
Amos: Nick, my co-founder, ran out of the propane he was using to heat his house! A group of us were setting out on a ski trip and arrived at a house that was not just cold but also completely flooded because his pipes had burst. Coming from the electricity industry, we all started asking ourselves why there wasn’t a widely-adopted solution in place.
GH: How did you build your team?
Amos: Three of us met while working together at EnerNOC, a Boston-based energy services company, so we have a great base knowledge of how the data and inner workings of energy monitoring systems come together. We met our third co-founder, Dave, along the way when he started helping to build the first hardware prototype.
GH: What is the company philosophy driving your culture?
Amos: Coming from a clean-tech background, we’re really focused on transparency. In everything from our company’s internal workings through to the value we bring to the market, there’s value in being able to see and understand what’s happening, and that’s not possible without technology like ours. Being able to accurately understand energy usage and supply chain dynamics is a foundational component to reducing waste, cost, and frustration.
GH: Startup life is full of failures and ‘make it work’ moments – can you identify how you bounced back from one of yours?
Amos: Early in our history we were much more consumer-focused. We launched a Kickstarter campaign to presell our tank monitors to the consumer market. Though we came close, the campaign failed to reach its funding goal. However, the Kickstarter campaign helped attract propane distributors who were interested in purchasing our product in bulk. While we still openly sell to consumers, it was this “failure” that helped us realize the market potential of providing our service to the companies who deliver fuel – our primary business model.
GH: What did you learn from your first users?
Amos: We learned pretty quickly that Wi-Fi networks are still not widely understood, especially in our market! We also learned just how harsh and unpredictable the environment can be where our devices are installed – we’ve had to build for everything from full water submersion to cows and squirrels eating parts of our product.
GH: What has the Boston/New England ecosystem provided you?
Amos: Much of our early funding has come from Boston-based clean tech organizations focused on helping technology like ours survive! Both the MassCEC and the NE Cleantech Open accelerator have been hugely helpful in getting Tank Utility off the ground. MassCEC even has a program where they will fund up to two internships per season for early stage companies, and it’s been a great way to grow the team.
GH: What is the Boston/New England ecosystem lacking from your perspective?
Amos: Our ecosystem has phenomenal mentorship and advisory infrastructure for startups, especially those of us in clean tech! Organizations like MassCEC and Greentown Labs have made it possible for us to survive and thrive. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of early-stage capital, especially for hardware startups in Boston. A quick look at this roll-up of 22+ hardware investors yields 0 micro-VCs and only 1 traditional VC firm with offices in Boston other than Bolt (whose portfolio we’ve enjoyed joining): https://blog.bolt.io/who-invests-in-hardware-startups-d1612895a31a#.lcbs556cw
GH: What’s the best/worst piece of advice you were given along the way?
Amos: “Talk to 100 customers” is a mantra spoken by Mitch Tyson in many of his entrepreneurial talks, but many of our mentors have provided similar advice. I can’t think of anything more critical to starting a company than this – understanding your customers to the point where you can predict your conversations is critical to ensuring you are building the right business. One of the worst pieces of advice we’ve received so far has been to hold off on sales – while the intention was good (focus on product), cash flow and proof of market uptake is extremely important for an early business. I’m glad we didn’t follow that path!
GH: What was the best thing that happened to you last year?
Amos: We’re only 18 months old, so it’s hard to pick just one during that time! In 2015 we built out our entire team of 8, signed our first 6 commercial customers, took our first grant and our first venture investments, and released all of the products we currently offer.
GH: What does the future hold for Tank Utility?
Amos: World domination! At least for the delivered fuels energy sector… Truthfully, we believe this market will convert to a data-driven operational model in which both the devices and software we make are a foundational requirement for doing business in this space. The transparency of knowing exactly how much energy is being consumed is critical to both consumers and suppliers of the fuel, and we can shed light on it for both sides of the market.