We Caught Up With A Raleigh-Based Mobile Startup @SXSWECO

I wanted to share a recent SXSWECO briefing I had with JouleBug, a Raleigh-based mobile app maker focused on energy management and conservation. Now I could have said the “sustainability” sector,  but your eyes would have glazed over.

Technically, though, they’re a data and gaming platform, which is why I wanted to share some of what they’re doing. And this stuff isn’t just for the candles and sandals (can’t take credit) crowd, it’s for anyone that wants to save money and eliminate waste.

“We’re really an award program for sustainability actions,” said Founder Grant Williard. “It’s educational, but it also touches on our competitive spirit.”

Williard and company have taken a mobile-first strategy, in part because that’s probably the only way people will track all the world-saving tasks they’ve completed.  As expected, the app also has a strong social media element, allowing you to invite people through Twitter or Facebook.  For the green braggarts, you can even tweet or share what you’ve completed on Facebook. But as Jigar Shah said in one of the keynotes, you can’t reshape the energy crisis by liking a Facebook page.

JouleBug’s strongest piece is the integration it provides with your utility and gas company. They’re betting, with many others, that freeing up data and making it more digestable can spark behavior change.

If you’re provider is set up, you can easily suck in your utility bill and get a snapshot of your usage. And the more data the better. Soon customers will have a year’s worth of data from both their utility and gas company. From a design perspective, JouleBug says its data visualizations are something that really sets them apart. Customers will also see With the badges you’ve earned along with  recommendations based on past usage. That’s where whole recommendations piece gets interesting. When companies like JouleBug start predicting actions around energy consumption and conservation, you can bet they’ll raise some eyebrows.

But even with all that, getting people to use something daily is tall order. Look at Foursquare, they’re years into the model and it’s still unclear whether gaming can carry it. But seeing Foursquare cut a recent deal with OpenTable gives you a sense of how they and JouleBug might evolve. Both companies’ aspirations are well beyond the consumer, and it starts with integrations and alliances.

 “We’re focusing our business development efforts first and foremost where the value is the highest and where the biggest energy and cost savings can take place, ” explained Williard.

And they’ve made some progress, recently announcing a deal with the City of Raleigh. That partnership allowed Raleigh to tailor the platform to include everything from credits for taking green-oriented city tours to waste diversion and composting. The city says it’s been a real catalyst for raising awareness around sustainability, and even used the momentum to implement a Green Restaurant certification program.

The Raleigh partnership gives JouleBug some momentum as its newest offering, JouleBug Communities, becomes widely available by the end of the year. That package will target municipalities, companies and universities and will help entire cities track and understand the effectiveness of their sustainability strategies. I asked Williard about implementation and pressed him again on adoption, this time in the context of the other Raleighs of the world. He said other municipalities are bringing their leadership onboard first. As citizens and peers see usage from core users, the competition heats up.

The other area where JouleBug shines is around its technology stack and capabilities.  For one, Williard brings some enterprise solidity to the company, having sold his previous endeavor to Adobe.  He says they’ve really focused on building a strong app development team to bulletproof its IP.

Beyond straight-forward application programming interfaces (APIs), there’s also the Energy Department’s Green Button initiative. The goal of that program is to standardize the way energy data is represented and delivered. And with some of the largest U.S. utilities already participating, it’s that type of reach that’s in front of JouleBug. Williard estimates the coverage map is close to 25 million people.

Numbers aside, there’s plenty of room for a few players in this space. The data and gaming combination isn’t going away, it’s more about who can innovate on top of those disciplines. And at some point,  there will be plenty of companies ready to buy a head start over the competition. JouleBug appears to be in an interesting position.

About George Dearing

George Dearing writes about technology, startups, and sustainability.
He advises clients on strategy and communications. You can follow him on Twitter here