They’ve been saying it since the 1990’s, looming inevitably on the horizon of doom: all business is moving to Auckland, away from Wellington for good. Renegade rebels, like Steve O'Connor, have fought back and flicked the bird at such naysayers. And his startup, Flick, is powering the city into a new era of energetic business.
Flick is a Wellington-based power retailer that may be small but is bloody mighty. While many people think power is boring - and just something we flick on, CEO and co-founder Steve, totally sincerely, disagrees. “People forget that the single most important product in the Western world is electricity. If you got rid of it, the whole world would go dark. Its insane people don’t think more about energy and understanding power” (this to me is a terrifying thought somehow I’ve not contemplated but slightly blew the fuse of my mind).
“People forget that the single most important product in the Western world is electricity"
A bit over two years ago, Steve generated an idea which has turned into Flick Electric. As a customer myself, I certainly value what Steve has brought to the table. Flick is a great company for power and I’ve never been happier (especially juggling a boyfriend with irregular income at uni). Steve is the first CEO I’ve had the chance to chat to as a Resident of Wellington. I wanted to sit down with him and understand why he saw Wellington, not Auckland, as the place to launch Flick, his zealous entrepreneurial streak, Brit-pop era London and why he’s still working on himself.
"I wanted to sit down with him and understand why he saw Wellington, not Auckland, as the place to launch Flick, his zealous entrepreneurial streak, Brit-pop era London and why he’s still working on himself"
In a nutshell…
WHO IS STEVE O'CONNOR?
Business champion, Flickster, biker and all-around nice guy, Steve O’Connor is a total package Wellington entrepreneur. He stands out from the crowd of startups in Wellington with his achingly bad-ass experience in both the telecommunications and electricity industry.
WHY SHOULD I CARE? ISN’T HE JUST ANOTHER WELLINGTON SUIT?
You’ll be hard pressed to find a suit at Flick Electric. More likely, you’ll find a tonne of flannel, jeans, memes and half-decent Wellington coffee. Moreover, Flick is no basic b*tch when it comes to the generation game (generating power for customers that is).
Even though it's not that old, Flick is making waves across New Zealand and has just reached 20,000 customers. It uses the full abilities of ‘Smart Meters’ installed in many homes around N.Z alongside its own software system and app which gives you access to the wholesale costs of energy, a daily tally of power and a weekly bill (as a customer I praise this - no hideous surprises). This ultimately helps people to choose the price they want to pay for electricity – giving people an incentive to make awesome savings. And with average savings each year of $489, that’s a good enough for moi!
"You’ll be hard pressed to find a suit at Flick Electric. More likely, you’ll find a tonne of flannel, jeans, memes and half-decent Wellington coffee"
Its cheeky communications style is customer centric (and plain English AF). Steve’s also a really cool guy, the type you sit next to at a Summer barbeque, without the foggiest idea who he is (certainly not giving off CEO vibes), and is undoubtedly your best friend forever by the end of the night. “Folks were pretty fed up and know the current model and players haven't been fair. We can help people actually pay the true cost of generating electricity and getting it to their door. Prices depend on real market conditions like how you go into a supermarket and some sometimes an avocado is $3 and other times it's three for $3. We don’t absorb all the costs ourselves and simply charge customers a high fixed price.”
HOW DID HE GET HERE?
Steve started his electrifying journey to co-found Flick in Wellington from the rather more sleepy town of Oamaru. “I’m a South Islander, technically. My father worked at the post office. Back then, New Zealand Post did all post, telecommunications and much of banking so was a huge organisation. Mum and Dad were Cantabrians and were posted around the country, bringing us four kids along for the ride.” His father was offered a promotion by way of managing the tiny post office in Oamaru. “We were almost vagabonds for almost 9 years,” Steve says, with a misty look in his eyes. “We bounced around and ended up in Wellington from when my sister was about to start college.”
"My father worked at the post office. Back then, New Zealand Post did all post, telecommunications and much of banking so was a huge organisation. Mum and Dad were Cantabrians and were posted around the country, bringing us four kids along for the ride"
Steve himself attended College at Wellington Boys (which he admits he is proud of, although less proud of recent events at the time of our interview). After a final year working holidays as a builder's apprentice on the side, Steve decided to study science and commerce at Victoria University. “My education was really generic and I loved it. It showed me how to think” he explains when I ask how he ended up chasing his dreams. “My commerce degree helped me get my first job. I’ve been a real generalist in my career, rather than narrowing my experience. Most have been quite tech orientated but it has suited me down to the ground to have a broad range of skills. When I graduated I landed a job working for Toyota. I loved cars so it was perfect for me - a dream job” Steve explains, although he denies any accusations of being a boy racer (“We didn’t have them back then!” he protests “I’m almost fifty and I left school in 1985!”).
"When I graduated I landed a job working for Toyota. I loved cars so it was perfect for me - a dream job” Steve explains, although he denies any accusations of being a boy racer (“We didn’t have them back then!” he protests “I’m almost fifty and I left school in 1985!”)"
In the early 1990’s, Toyota was the dominant car company. Steve was clearly inspired by his time at Toyota and speaks about it like it was yesterday, although he only worked there for two years. Steve mentions the breakthrough that was the ‘Welcome to our World’ ad. “Toyota was one of the first companies to move away from being focused on the product and details to sharing how it could impact lifestyle (well, well before Apple and the iPod)” Steve reminisces, sipping coffee. “At the time, Toyota tuned and manufactured their cars in New Zealand. It was the classic iconic advertisement, along with others such as Barry Crump and Scotty in the Hilux ads.
While Steve wasn’t driving these advertising campaigns (if you’ll pardon the pun), he says himself that at the time it was great to go along for the ride. Along with the thrills and spills of being in the car industry, including test drives and race tracks, Steve also was taught key business lessons, such when the CEO told new graduates on their first day never to forget a pen and notepad at any meeting (hands up if you learnt that one the hard way). After leaving Toyota, Steve travelled to Europe with his girlfriend at the time, driving around the countryside in a Volkswagen Kombi Van.
"After leaving Toyota, Steve travelled to Europe with his girlfriend at the time, driving around the countryside in a Volkswagen Kombi Van"
Steve then based himself in London. It was the mid-1990’s and the heydey of Britpop, Tony Blair’s New Labour and the club scene - London hadn’t been more exciting since the swinging 60’s and Steve was in the middle of it. “£1 flights, the whole of the UK and Europe at your doorstep. It was exciting. I started out working for a company called Cable London that were rolling out twenty years ago what we’re rolling out with broadband in N.Z today.”
"Steve then based himself in London. It was the mid-1990’s and the heydey of Britpop, Tony Blair’s New Labour and the club scene - London hadn’t been more exciting since the swinging 60’s and Steve was in the middle of it"
Steve moved to a fast growing startup in the same industry. “I was head-hunted from there to NTL which became Virgin Media. The company was NASDAQ listed and grew like billy-o. I was bitten by the bug - I loved it. I turned down the share options, which I regret now!” However, over time the London lifestyle began to wear him down. “It could take an entire day to be able to play one round of golf with friends - from 7 am to 8 pm all up - compared to being able to stroll down to the local after work at 6 pm and play 18 rounds in New Zealand. I really started to notice things like that and the tables started to tip for me the other way, back home.” Over this time, Steve also started noticing when he’d return to New Zealand to visit family that various hot cafes would pop up each time, new shops and public infrastructure which hadn’t been in Wellington previously.
"The company was NASDAQ listed and grew like billy-o"
Eventually, Steve took the plunge back to the antipodes where he took a job with what was then Telecom in Wellington. He quickly became frustrated. “They were slow and didn’t understand digital and broadband at all. I’d seen what was going on internationally and it drove me crazy that they acted as the monopoly they were.” Steve quit three months later.
"We draw on the talents of the city being digitally focused and Wellington is the very best place for us now"
Steve and his brother decided to grow Datamine, a start-up company based on ‘big data’. It became a Deloitte Fast 50 Company and grew to 40 people rapidly. However, Steve missed the scalable product side of the business - so he moved into working with Meridian Energy. He was employed with a team of other bright minds to generate new opportunities for Meridian, given ‘a pot of money’ and told to go away and dream something up. What fell out of this unusual corporate funded model were companies like Arc Innovations and Powershop. Powershop has gone on to bigger things internationally and Arc Innovations crystallised what is known as ‘smart-metering’ in New Zealand (done on a commercial basis rather than regulated like many countries). This is a key enabling technology on which Flick now operates.
“I was flunking around, riding my bike and I saw a job as CEO of Creative HQ, the start-up incubator in Wellington"
Steve stepped away from Meridian after finding himself increasingly offshore, not knowing what he was going to do next. “I was flunking around, riding my bike and I saw a job as CEO of Creative HQ, the start-up incubator in Wellington. It felt it was an amazing opportunity to mentor entrepreneurs, coach them through their journey and help them see opportunities and risks and to consider when they take them and maybe when not to. I love working with young people. They think fresh and often with less inhibition.” Steve also worked on bringing the accelerator model to N.Z launching the Lightning Lab national accelerator programme in New Zealand.
"There’s a big difference between only flying by the seat of your pants and taking smart risks within a framework"
“You don’t roll out of bed and say to yourself ‘I think I’ll be an electricity retailer.'"
Steve eventually was approached by a team of entrepreneurs he had worked with before who wanted to start a new company and had the ability to fund its early stages themselves. Steve pitched them the idea of Flick, which he felt was well timed, with ideal market conditions and with more houses using smart meters than ever. “The time was ripe for a new model and challenger brand in electricity retail. We needed a good team and these guys had good experience in energy. Initially, a few of them thought I was crazy because historically the New Zealand market has been dominated by the big players. We knuckled down, made a plan. It was a lot of work. I say to people “You don’t roll out of bed and say to yourself ‘I think I’ll be an electricity retailer.’ We spent three months critically assessing the business model and opportunity, then a year market testing and getting to market launch.” Flick was born.
WHAT WOULD I KNOW HIM FOR OUTSIDE OF WORK?
Steve is a passionate biker. He loves hitting the hills around Wellington. “The mountain bike trails are just getting better and better. I love the culture of Wellington, seeing shows and going to the great restaurants we have. Steve can be frequently found at one of the best eateries around Courtenay Place, from Mojo to Sweet Mothers Kitchen, never far from Flick HQ in the old Clemenger’s Building opposite the Hannah’s Playhouse Buildings.
"Steve can be frequently found at one of the best eateries around Courtenay Place, from Mojo to Sweet Mothers Kitchen, never far from Flick HQ in the old Clemenger’s Building opposite the Hannah’s Playhouse Buildings"
Even a CEO has room to improve. “Probably in the past I’ve not brought people along with me on the journey,” Steve says wistfully “From time to time, I would think people weren’t right for a company but - reflecting - they just thought a bit differently and had diverse thinking and abilities. People won’t always race at 100 miles an hour with you. You need to be tolerant of others and their different attributes. Sometimes, you need people who bring you to a halt for the right reasons, maybe for a different way of looking at something or going about something. Every business needs a balance of diversity for success. I’m a work in progress - aren’t we all?” Steve smiles.
"You need to be tolerant of others and their different attributes"
WHAT SHOULD YOU KNOW ABOUT RISK AND ENTREPRENEURSHIP?
“I’m a calculated risk-taker. I’ve worked in the corporate world and in start-ups. There’s a big difference between only flying by the seat of your pants and taking smart risks within a framework. Get creative, disrupt the market and yourself. But also use your experience and smarts. That way you can stick around and change the world.”
Steve pulls no punches. He sees himself and his company as Wellingtonians. Flick is a digital business so can do what it does literally anywhere in the world. Wellington was the natural start point for the business. “You pay a city back the experiences you’ve been gifted with by that city. We draw on the talents of the city being digitally focused and Wellington is the very best place for us now. With a digital model and tech, there really is no need for a business like ours to be anywhere else. Wellington is a digital and creative hotbed which is exactly what we need. Irrespective of everything else, in 2017 that place IS Wellington.”