Founders’ Reflections as ILLUME turns Five

Posted September 10, 2018 By Anne Dougherty Sara Conzemius

To celebrate ILLUME’s 5th Anniversary, Anne and Sara reflect on their first five years in business and take a look ahead at what’s in store for ILLUME and the industry in the next five years.


1. As you reflect on the past five years, what are you most proud of?

Sara: First, that Anne and I have been able to stick to our original vision of creating a boutique consulting firm that does forward-thinking and inspiring work in an industry we love. Second, I am proud of how ILLUME has become so much bigger than just Anne and I. When we started the company, we wanted ILLUME to stand on the talent and dedication of our team. Today, we have that – ILLUME is so much more than any one of us.

Anne: We wanted to intervene by changing the mindset that research is evaluation-only so that our clients could benefit from it throughout their business. I think we achieved that. But more than anything, I am also so proud of our team! Everyone is earnestly invested in producing high quality, smart, and effective work.

Sara: When Anne and I started ILLUME, we believed that we could realize our vision, but we also knew it would take commitment, a lot of hard work, long weekends, occasional tears, a lot of laughter, and a bit of stubbornness to get there. Looking back now, all those things were true, and it has been worth every moment of it!

2. What do you view as the energy industry’s greatest challenge?

Anne: Time. Utilities move slowly for a number of reasons, despite the talent and efforts of their teams. Regulation, deeply siloed departments, and misaligned incentives create environments that are not conducive to responsiveness and innovation. If the industry can figure out how to create environments for quick, iterative design innovation and embed learning throughout, then I think we can see real changes in the way customers relate to energy services. Making sure-footed, effective, and timely decisions is critical to surviving in a rapidly changing marketplace.

Sara: The convergence of energy efficiency, demand response, and distributed energy resources give customers greater control and independence and force utilities into new relationships with their customers. With the growth of the Internet of Things, smart homes, and artificial intelligence, utilities will have to find a place for themselves in these markets. Anne is exactly right–timely decisions will be critical to survive these swift changes.

3. In ILLUME’s initiatives, you’ve focused heavily on the customer. Why should the industry continue to place its focus there in the next five years?

Sara: Over the next five years, utilities won’t be able to count on a completely captive audience, so they will need to figure out how to be relevant to each customer. They will have to go well beyond five segment buckets to engage with a customer base that is not used to seeing them as a provider of anything other than a monthly bill.

Anne: Exactly. The customer is the only asset a utility has. Community choice aggregators in California are making that very clear. Direct-to-consumer energy transactions are happening now. Our largest energy markets are in moments of disruption and we expect these trends to spread to other parts of the U.S. So, how does a utility remain relevant? Through engagement. Through better, smarter services that are on par with truly competitive markets and aim to meet the customer where they are. If I am honest, most services offered now are just a bit to the right or left of an efficiency program. We need radical, open-minded thinking that can only be fueled through an intensive process of co-creation with the end user.

4. How do you think research can help the industry continue to evolve?

Sara: In the past, the energy industry has not been focused on the customer side of the meter. Research was primarily focused on program impact and process. As energy efficiency goals grow and the usual suspect customers have been reached, gaining a better understanding of who customers are, what different customer segments need, and what their drivers and motivations are is critical. Propensity modeling and traditional rote segmentation schemes that aren’t informed by qualitative research will continue to point programs to the same subsets of customers who have already participated. To get better insights, the industry needs to use new tools that unify qualitative research like Ethnography with complex data analysis such as machine learning and sentiment analysis.

Anne: Yes, and they need to use these tools at the right point in time. Research, when done well with the right methods, at the right phase in product and service delivery, is the foundation for strategic decision-making and adaptation to the market. For this reason, research should be along for the ride throughout the cycle of product development and delivery. Too often, our industry invests in research only after products and services go to market. If you bring research in this late, you’ve launched a product or service based on the thinking of your team alone. Basically, you’ve invested in an echo chamber. Embedding research throughout your work ensures that your investments remain sound.

Sara: We know loyalty is limited. Markets no one would have thought would be disrupted five years ago are seeing devastating effects from not evolving to meet customers’ needs. Brick and mortar retail, the hotel and taxi industries – cornerstones of customer service, who believed that they would sustain because customers had little other choice – are all scrambling to keep up with unexpected competition. By investing in understanding what customers need, our industry can better design products and services that meet those needs and stay competitive.

5. Finally, what are your hopes for ILLUME in the next five years?

Sara: My hopes for the next five years are built off the last five and our original vision. I want to further our commitment to our company culture and the well-being and growth of our staff. And I want to see our team recognized as leaders in the industry.

Anne: My hopes for ILLUME are simple, but ambitious. I want our clients to see this company that Sara and I built as the go-to team for innovation and problem-solving. I want our staff to remain engaged and excited. And I want to show up to work feeling confident that we are working to do exactly what we sought to do when we launched: align the dreams and aspirations of customers with the business needs of the energy industry to build a bold, thriving, and clean energy future.

Sara: Before Anne and I started ILLUME, we spent a day at my parent’s house, sitting in the sun room strategizing, visioning, and planning for what this yet-to-be-named dream would be. We painted a picture of what this would look like in five years. Today, as we hit that mark, I am often in awe at how this adventure has turned out, how it has twisted and turned in the most unexpected ways but how, at the core, we have stayed true to the original dream. We made it faster than we thought, and that is due to the good fortune of being joined by – hands down – the most amazing team in the industry. As we head into the next five years, it’s their dream now too, and I cannot wait to see where we go together.