Pete Neal is the CEO at Powerpal, an energy gadget which connects to your smartphone and wirelessly tracks exactly how your home uses energy.
1) To kick things off, could you tell us a little about your career background and current role?
My background is in electronics and software engineering but I moved very quickly into business development after finishing my engineering degree.
I was very fortunate to land a position with a rapidly growing telecommunications company straight out of university (Dialogue Communications) and joined as their second employee in their newly opened Australian office.
Over the next 13 years we grew that business from a new market entrant to the dominant player in our space and my role evolved along with the business, initially into General Management as the team grew and eventually into Global Director of Product for the group.
We achieved a successful exit for the founders of that business in 2017 and I was lucky to have been invited to participate in a management incentive scheme which offered me share options in the business. These matured at the exit and I came away with a couple of million personally which then opened up some options in terms of next steps.
I’d always wanted to start my own business and after the 6-month retention period finished with Sinch (who acquired Dialogue) I decided it was time to venture out on my own and managed to convince a good friend and one of my old colleagues to join me as founders. We couldn’t do anything new in the telco space due to a restriction from the previous exit so we had to look for a new industry to play in.
At the time Australia’s energy policy was headline news every day (ultimately resulting in Scott Morrison outing Malcolm Turnbull) and there were two very high- profile papers released on the energy transition – one by Alan Finkle (the government’s chief scientist) on the path to net zero and one by the ACCC investigating why electricity prices had doubled in the last 10 years.
Throughout those papers was a common thread about the need to help average Australians to navigate the transition to net zero and the potential role of digital technologies in driving that. We’d been developing customer engagement solutions for telcos at Dialogue so decided to see if we could apply the skills we’d learnt to the energy industry – and Powerpal was born!
Since founding Powerpal in 2017 we have grown the business to 115,000 customers and $20m in annual revenues. When you’re growing that fast you hit a lot of roadblocks along the way so my role to date has mainly been ensuring the business strategy remains clear and that we have the resources (both in terms of people and finances) to execute.
We’ve been really fortunate to build an incredible team along the way (we are now 43 people) and we now have an amazing management team in place, so my role has more recently evolved from being “on the tools” to ensuring everyone on the team has what they need to succeed in their individual roles.
2) What does a day in your life look like for you? Can you take us through a recent workday?
I’m usually up at around 5:30 and spend the first hour or so with a cup of coffee replying to emails I’ve received the previous day – I like to use the quiet time in the morning to help me get focussed for the day and get up to date before the flood gates open again as others get to their desks.
I’ll then usually get in a bit of exercise (I have a mini-schnauzer called Alfred who will nag me for his morning walk!) before helping get the kids ready for school and then doing the morning drop off.
Then the rest of the day will usually be in a mix of internal and external meetings, doing what I can to help move our various initiatives forward and remove any elements of friction that might crop up.
As an example, today I have a meeting at 10am with a university research partner, then a 10:30 with our branding agency followed by several external meetings with industry groups in the afternoon and half an hour with our accountants. No day is ever really the same!
3) Does your current role allow for flexible or remote working? If so, how does that fit into your life and routine?
I am very lucky to have a nice home office in Sydney which is where I usually work from, and this gives me a lot of flexibility as to how I use my time. I very much believe in a “work life integration” where I try to fit my family and personal life seamlessly into my work life.
This means I might be offline for a few hours in the afternoon to take my kids to sport but I could still be working at 11pm if there are bits and pieces that need my attention.
Most of our team is based down in Melbourne and we also have a distributed development team across NSW, Taiwan and India so we’ve gotten pretty good at remote working, but I do try to visit the head office at least once a month (COVID restrictions permitting!).
4) What does work-life balance mean to you and how do you work to achieve that goal?
As above, I strive more for a work-life integration – the word “balance” doesn’t really fit for me as I love my job and working with my team, that word has an intrinsic negative connotation that implies work is a bad thing.
The main strategy I’ve learnt, especially as I work from home, is that you have to be really conscious of time management. It’s very easy to get sucked into little distractions on both sides which can really impact performance if you’re not careful, context switching is expensive.
So, I try to set boundaries in that regard – if I’m in my home office my family knows not to disturb me unless it’s urgent and on the flip side my phone goes on silent during family time.
5) In the past 12 months, have you started or stopped any routines or habits to change your life?
The last 12 months have been an incredibly challenging time for me personally – we really hit our stride at the tail end of last year and when you’re growing so quickly a lot of things start to go wrong, each one of them only small in isolation but they start to add up!
Managing the resulting stress (which was mostly self-inflicted) was something I struggled with initially, nobody tells you how hard growing a business actually is until afterwards.
This stress started to impact both my physical and mental health and on my wife’s advice I went to my GP for advice, which is something I very rarely do. He put me in touch with a professional psychologist who helped me to implement strategies that changed my outlook on those stressful elements of my role, and that really helped.
I’d strongly encourage anyone embarking on the growth phase of a business to purchase the book The Hard Thing about Hard Things by Ben Horowitz, it’s probably the closest account I’ve seen of what you’re about to get yourself into. And go get some professional advice if you think you need it.
6) Do you have any favourite books, podcasts or newsletters that you’d like to recommend?
I’m not a big podcast listener but do love reading when I get the time, especially autobiographies of other successful entrepreneurs. Most recently I’ve been reading Alan Sugar’s autobiography which is an absolute hoot – highly recommended!
7) Are there any products, gadgets or apps that you can’t live without?
I wouldn’t say there is anything I couldn’t live without – one of my favourite pastimes is camping and I love to get off the grid. But one purchase I made recently which I am absolutely loving is my Furbo. There is something immensely gratifying about being able to give your dog a treat at home in Sydney while working from our office in Melbourne!
8) If you could read an interview about work-life balance by anyone, who would that be?
Without doubt Richard Branson, that man is a machine. To be able to build the Virgin group of companies while still having time to fly a hot air balloon around the world and go kite surfing off your private island is truly something else. I wish I had 1/10th of his level of energy.
9) Do you have any last thoughts on work, life or balance that you’d like to share with our readers?
We recently codified our core values at Powerpal and one of the most important in this respect is “Team is Family”.
If you make work fun, hire people that genuinely enjoy what they do (and are not just turning up for a pay cheque) and treat them with respect then you will never have a “day at work” in your life. You spend more time at work that you do anywhere else, why put up with that being anything less than fantastic?
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