Gas and electricity retailer First Utility began life in 2008 with the proposition of billing people on a monthly basis rather than quarterly and using analytics to help customers lower their bills. It is now the UK's seventh largest energy supplier.
For CIO/CTO Bill Wilkins digital is all about interactions with the customer.
"Digital transformation is basically allowing customers to interact with us online. We put those digital interactions at the centre of every business strategy and tactic that we deploy," he said.
"Nine years ago we saw an opportunity to disrupt the consumer energy market by billing people monthly based on real data, making people aware of how much energy they were using and using that data to optimise the pricing model. So we started as a digital company, we acquire almost all our customers through digital channels, and we serve them digitally in the majority of cases in everything they do," he went on.
"For us digital means something different than what you'll find in a traditional supplier or in other companies didn't start off trying to be digital. I use the word 'trying' very deliberately because it's very hard to do. We've worked at it day in day out, doing everything we can for our customers to transact online. We're not perfect, and there are still gaps as to what we can and can't do."
Initially First Utility's digital business model was based around smart meters. Six years ago these were a still a rarity in peoples' homes, but seeing the opportunity they represented First Utility partnered with US SaaS energy analytics firm OPower to provide new free analytics services called My Energy that used smart meter data. This allowed customers to monitor and adjust their energy usage more easily. Other players have since arrived and the government is pushing smart meters as part of its wider digitisation programme meaning the firm has had to keep innovating to be noticed.
"Our differentiation has been eroded by other people entering the market, and more importantly the government programme making smart metering a de facto commodity for all energy customers by 2020," Wilkins said. "But we haven't sat on our laurels and let them catch up."
Perhaps fortunately for First Utility, the government's smart meter rollout has run into a series of problems, as covered extensively by V3, giving the firm a bit of breathing space. Wilkins is careful not to criticise the programme, though, pointing out that the government has a lot of different stakeholders to satisfy and any such rollout is inevitably going to be complex.
"As a start-up we only had to serve our customers as stakeholders, meaning we could narrow the scope of what we delivered and just provide an accurate billing solution. For the governemt it's an order of magnitude more difficult."
One of the major changes First Utility has made in order to consolidate its position was to end the partnership with OPower and bring the analytics tech in house. "As we learned more about the sector we decided we could do a better job," said Wilkins.
"So we built our own version of the energy analytics platform which had two very direct benefits for us as a supplier. One we were in control of it, so we could move it faster and further than our OPower commercial relationship would allow us to. Secondly, it allowed us to deploy more cheaply. OPower were were charging a lot for their IP and their infrastructure, and we could get a better solution for less cost."
The in-house stack is managed and run by DataStax, the commercial distributor of the NoSQL database Apache Cassandra. Wilkins explained that for this application renting makes more sense than buying.
"DataStax Enterprise has a package of multiple open-source technologies with a commercial support agreement and a consultancy service that contains Hadoop, Spark, Cassandra and a new graph database which we're experimenting with," he said.
"It's a very convenient way for us to access new technology. Rather than going out doing it ourselves - which of course we can do, and we do do in other areas - we made the decision that for particular application survey we would take advantage of what DataStax had to offer."
As well as enhancing the company's energy analytics services, the in-house platform is finding new uses across the company.
"It has allowed us to improve the capabilities of other parts of our business," said Wilkins. "We now use Cassandra across all of our web analytics, all of our product catalogues, we use it for smart metering, for our regulatory read store, and we are planning to use Cassandra as a graph database for our digital identity store."
The stack also offers new upselling and cross-selling opportunities based on intelligence derived from customers' consumption patterns, and First Utility is moving further into into the smart home market. Looking still further into to its digital future, the company is considering opportunities outside of its native energy market, taking the lessons learned from energy analythics and applying them elsewhere.
"We're looking at how do we take the My Energy concept and produce something similar," said Wilkins.
"Can we take telephony and broadband and cost optimise that for you too? It's very early days, but we're looking beyond energy."
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