No one should be overpaying for energy, especially as a result of sneaky price hikes that they didn't know about. Photo via Getty Images

As Texas continues to grapple with fallout from Winter Storm Uri and state regulators determine the next steps forward to strengthen the electricity grid, protecting consumers and providing transparency regarding their energy bills must be the top priority.

When you think about it, asking for transparency from energy suppliers in the state is a simple and direct request. Free markets thrive only when customers have full transparency and information. There are large discrepancies, however, between notification requirements when it comes to variable rate products—where energy prices change monthly based on the market, versus fixed-rate energy products—where prices are locked in for a defined amount of time. Often, consumers are presented with variable rates that can be twice as much as the original fixed rates, and more transparency is needed to fix this.

Due to new regulations enacted recently as a result of HB16, suppliers are required to notify residential consumers of any change to their fixed rate plans. The legislation falls short, however, in protecting the larger segment of energy consumers, those who are already on a variable rate plan either because their plan expired in the past or they actively chose variable short-term rates, by not requiring notification of rate change for these variable rates. As a steadfast, customer-focused energy provider, we are encouraging the Public Utilities Commission of Texas to adopt legislation that would require that any customer on a variable rate be notified ahead of time of a change so they can make more informed decisions — a pricing notification that 82 percent of consumers are in favor of.

Why are notifications important? 

Unfortunately, many energy suppliers thrive by remaining opaque and confusing to the very customers who have invested their trust, and hard earned dollars, in them. In fact, many suppliers have crafted entire business models around the idea that customers will forget that they are on variable rate products and take gross advantage by not notifying customers when the rate changes. This is not a good business practice.

In this type of system, energy providers hike up rates and count on their customers to not notice — it is how they make the most money and secure their bottom line, all at the expense of the customer. As a result, energy consumers are potentially overpaying significant amounts for their energy. We have found some customers were paying almost twice our standard rate before they switched to us.

Second, it is incredibly low cost for energy suppliers to provide this basic notification while also extremely high value to customers. It is consumer protection at its core: providing the consumer with necessary information so that they can make informed decisions about their energy.

Transparency by consumer services is the norm

Rather than keeping business as usual, new legislation should be introduced to mandate email or text message notifications well in advance of any rate change on a variable energy product. If a customer is on a monthly variable rate, for example, this means suppliers would be required to send a notification every month before a rate changes, providing consumers with the opportunity to change energy providers or products as they see fit. These notifications on price hikes and slashes are already in demand: The majority of customers (83 percent) have noted that it is important that their energy provider is transparent with rate changes. We are simply advocating that customers want and should be informed. Life is busy. Customers should have all the important information, such as their energy rates, at their fingertips.

Other consumer services that we use every day, including streaming platforms such as Netflix, Hulu and Disney+, regularly provide this information to their customers. When prices increase on these platforms, customers are notified ahead of time via email and can choose whether to continue service at the new rate or cancel. This simple act of consumer transparency, no matter how long a customer has been a subscriber, is simple, effective and shows trustworthiness from the companies. Most importantly, consumers are always informed and are provided the information needed to make a decision that best fits their lifestyle. Despite the energy industry's long history of opaqueness, the same should be the case for energy suppliers and their customers.

New age of innovation and consumer choice

In addition to acting in the best interest of consumers, legislation requiring energy suppliers to provide timely rate updates to customers on variable energy products would also encourage healthy market competition and spur more innovation within the energy industry. Suppliers would be pushed to think more creatively about the types of products they offer their customers, creating even more options for consumers to choose and benefit from.

No one should be overpaying for energy, especially as a result of sneaky price hikes that they didn't know about. While HB16 tries to address this, it doesn't go far enough. Transparency in energy pricing is necessary and simply the right thing to do.

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Michael Lee is the CEO of Octopus Energy. He is based in Houston.

Texas has been deemed inefficient when it comes to energy. Photo courtesy of Thomas Miller/Breitling Energy

Texas again ranks poorly for its energy efficiency

It's not easy being green

Despite some growth in the industry's regional job market, Texas fails to rise through the ranks of a national report on energy efficiency.

For the second year in a row, the Lone Star State has made the list of the states with the worst energy efficiency, according to a report for personal finance website, WalletHub. Last year, the state ranked No. 42 in the country; however, this year's study had Texas at No. 41 of the 48 states evaluated. Hawaii and Alaska were left out due to data restrictions.

The report, which was released just in time for National Energy Awareness Month, looked at consumer usage of home electricity, as well as oil and fuel for cars and trucks. According to the report, a United States family will spend around $2,000 annually on utilities — and heating and cooling makes up about half of that bill. On average in 2018, consumers spent another $2,109 on oil and fuel for their vehicles.

Adopting energy-efficient tools and practices could help reduce consumer cost by 25 percent for utilities and around $638 on the roads. Texas has seen a growth in the job market for positions relating to energy efficiency, according to a recent report. The number of energy-efficiency-oriented jobs across Texas rose by 5.3 percent last year to 162,816, according to the report, and energy-efficiency workers account for 17 percent of all energy workers in Texas, the report says.

Texas, with its hot climate and underdeveloped public transportation systems, scored only 36.48 total points on the WalletHub report, which is up slightly from last year's 33.34 points. The state ranked No. 36 on home energy efficiency and No. 45 for auto energy efficiency.

Texans drove over 270 billion miles last year and used over 20 billion gallons of gas, the second worst and worst rankings, respectively, among the states considered for this study.

While maybe the state isn't rising on this list of consumer energy efficiency yet, the state has seen great economic growth specifically in the wind energy industry. The American Wind Energy Association's annual report for 2018 shows the wind energy sector employs between 25,000 and 26,000 people in Houston and elsewhere in Texas, up from 24,000 to 25,000 in 2017, with the total investment in Texas wind energy projects sitting at a whopping $46.5 billion. More than one-fifth of wind energy jobs in the U.S. are located in Texas.

"Houston is actively working to grow this sector, so we hope people will seriously think of Houston when they think of renewables in this new era of energy," Davenport says at an April 9 news conference in Houston where the American Wind Energy Association released its 2018 state-of-the-industry report.

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CultureMap Emails are Awesome

10+ can't-miss Houston business and innovation events for December

where to be

This month, Houstonians have yet another good batch of in-person and online innovation events, and you and your tech network need to know about them.

Here's a roundup of virtual events not to miss this month — like pitch nights, workshops, conventions, and more.

Note: This post might be updated to add more events.


December 1 — Fall 2021 D2K Showcase

The Rice D2K Lab is a hub for data science education. In the interactive D2K Showcase, you will explore D2K students' end-of-semester projects sponsored by D2K Affiliate members, researchers and community partners. Interact with student teams in the poster session and learn more about their projects. Vote on your favorite project and team as students compete for cash prizes.

The event is on Wednesday, December 1, at 5 pm. It's free and happening at Rice University (Duncan Hall - McMurtry Auditorium). Click here to register.

December 2 — TeeMates Launch Party

Join TeeMates for happy hour in town at The Cannon's new sportstech and media location. DJ, drinks, prizes, local businesses, and golf.

The event is on Thursday, December 2, at 4 pm. It's free and happening at The Cannon Sports + Media (5353 W Alabama St. Ste 450). Click here to register.

December 3 — Thought Leader Series: A Conversation with Houston's Medical Community

The Greater Houston Partnership invites you to the Thought Leader Series: A Conversation with Houston's Medical Community. This virtual event will feature a dynamic panel discussion with some of the region's top minds working to advance health care and medicine for the future. These leaders will discuss topics ranging from the region's health care system including funding, workforce, technology/innovation, equity and living in a post-pandemic world.

The event is on Friday, December 3, at noon. It's free and happening online. Click here to register.

December 5-9 — 23rd Annual World Petroleum Congress

Returning to the United States for the first time in over 30 years, the 23rd World Petroleum Congress will transform Houston into the epicenter of the global energy debate. Recognized as the energy capital of the world, the host city is home to 4,600 energy firms and a hub of technological innovation and entrepreneurship both within the energy sector and across aligned sectors. The Congress will gather together industry and government leaders from across the world to address all aspects of the industry from technological advances in upstream, midstream, and downstream operations to the role of natural gas and renewables, management of the industry and its social, economic, and environmental impact.

The event is from Sunday, December 5, through Thursday, December 9, at George R. Brown Convention center. Click here to register.

December 7 — Latest Trends & Opportunities in Sports Tech

Join DivInc on December 7th for an in depth discussion focused on trends, challenges and opportunities in this city and beyond at the intersection of sports and technology! The panel consists of subject matter experts from HTX Sports Tech, Intel, 2K, and The Cannon. We will also be sharing details and answering questions regarding upcoming Sports Tech accelerator.

The event is on Tuesday, December 7, at 4 pm. It's free and happening at The Ion (4201 Main St). Click here to register.

December 8 — Houston Veterans In Residence Showcase

Bunker Labs’ Veterans in Residence Showcase is a nationwide event spanning across twenty-two cities and 2 virtual cohorts, celebrating the almost two-hundred veteran and military spouse entrepreneurs launching their startups and businesses from our recent cohort. It gives you a chance to network with local participants. Become part of your local business community and learn how you can get involved by patronizing, investing in, or partnering up with veterans and military spouse entrepreneurs.

The event is on Wednesday, December 8, at 6 pm. It's free and happening at WeWork (The Jones Building - 708 Main St.) Click here to register.

December 8 — The Future of Energy Celebration

Join energy tech leaders right after World Petroleum Congress for drinks, live music and startups to celebrate the Future of Energy — powered by Halliburton Labs, Accenture, Greentown Labs and The Ion.

The event is on Wednesday, December 8, at 6 pm. It's free and happening at 8th Wonder Brewery (2022 Dallas St). Click here to register.

December 8 — HTXelerator's Pitch Event

The Pitch for the inaugural cohort is now upon us and you're invited to be a part of the celebration! Hear from the HTXelerator's nine finalists as they deliver a mock campaign speech for city council. Enjoy drinks and light bites in the courtyard of The Cannon Downtown as the judges crown first, second, and third place to close out the inaugural year.

The event is on Wednesday, December 8, at 7 pm. It's free and happening at The Cannon Tower @ Amegy on Main (1801 Main St). Click here to register.

December 10 — Feedback Friday: Strategy Planning for 2022

Join this session with Impact Hub Houston Board Member and startup advisor Brandy Guidry to receive feedback on your business goals for 2022.

The event is on Friday, December 10, at 1 pm. It's free and happening at The Cannon Tower @ Amegy on Main (1801 Main St). Click here to register.

December 14 — UpSkill Works Forum: New Mission, Transferable Talent: What Employers Need to Know About Hiring and Retaining Veterans

With more than 250,000 veterans in residence, Houston has the country's second highest veteran population. Veterans are a diverse, highly skilled talent population that can bring valuable experience to a workplace but can be difficult to effectively access and engage. Join the UpSkill Houston initiative, NextOp Veterans Executive Director Stephanie Drake, and area employers to learn how to attract, hire, support, and retain talented veterans in your workforce.

The event is on Tuesday, December 14, at noon. It's free and happening online. Click here to register.

December 14 — gBETA Houston Fall 2021 Cohort Pitch Night

Pitch Night is a celebration of all of the current gBETA cohorts. It's an exclusive reception during which participating companies have the opportunity to pitch to an audience of entrepreneurs, mentors, investors and community members. Join either in-person or virtually for one or more Pitch Night events.

The event is on Tuesday, December 14, at 5:30 pm. It's free and happening online and at Cannon West Houston (1334 Brittmoore Rd #1327). Click here to register.

4 Houston firms land on Forbes’ list of America’s largest private companies

BIG BIZ IN H-TOWN

Some Houston-area companies have some major bragging rights. Forbes has released its new list of the country’s largest privately owned companies based on annual revenue, and five local firms land on the list. They are:

  • Car dealership group Gulf States Toyota, No. 45, $8.3 billion in annual revenue.
  • Energy company Calpine, No. 48, $8 billion in annual revenue.
  • Petroleum and petrochemical products marketer Tauber Oil, No. 61, $6.7 billion in annual revenue.
  • Casino, restaurant, and sports conglomerate Fertitta Entertainment, No. 166, $2.8 billion in annual revenue.
  • BMC Software, No. 219, $2.1 billion in annual revenue.

Elsewhere in Texas, San Antonio-based H-E-B ranks fifth on Forbes’ new list of the country’s largest privately owned companies based on annual revenue. According to Forbes, the grocery chain’s annual revenue is $32.8 billion, making it the largest private company in Texas. On its website, H-E-B reports annual sales of $32 billion.

The only other San Antonio company on the Forbes list is construction engineering company Zachry Group. It ranks 225th, with annual revenue of $2 billion.

Nearly all of the other Texas companies in the Forbes ranking are based in the Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston areas. As well as the five Houston companies, 13 DFW companies companies show up on the list:

  • Grand Prairie-based alcohol and wine distributor Republic National Distributing, No. 25, $11.9 billion in annual revenue.
  • Dallas-based conglomerate Sammons Enterprises, No. 70, $5.8 billion in annual revenue.
  • McKinney-based roofing distributor SRS Distribution, No. 80, $5.4 billion in annual revenue.
  • Irving-based arts-and-crafts retailer Michaels, No. 81, $5.3 billion in annual revenue.
  • Dallas-based luxury retailer Neiman Marcus, No. 101, $4.7 billion in annual revenue.
  • Irving-based electrical systems and equipment maker Consolidated Electrical Distributors, No. 103, $4.6 billion in annual revenue.
  • Fort Worth-based food and beverage distributor Ben E. Keith, No. 107, $4.2 billion in annual revenue.
  • Dallas-based oil and gas explorer Hunt Consolidated, No. 113, $4 billion in annual revenue.
  • Frisco-based transportation and logistics software provider Transplace, No. 127, $3.6 billion in annual revenue.
  • Addison-based cosmetics retailer Mary Kay, No. 164, $2.8 billion in annual revenue.
  • Plano-based senior healthcare provider Golden Living, No. 178, $2.6 billion in annual revenue.
  • Dallas-based general contractor Austin Industries, No. 217, $2.1 billion in annual revenue.
  • Dallas-based transportation and logistics company Mode Transportation, No. 220, $2.1 billion in annual revenue.

One other company on the Forbes list, New Jersey-based IT company SHI International Corp., has a strong connection to Texas. Austin billionaire Thai Lee, with a net worth estimated at $4.1 billion, is co-founder, president, and CEO of SHI. The company ranks 28th on the Forbes list, with annual revenue of $11.1 billion.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Q&A: Houston entrepreneur discusses big exits, startup advice, and his new book

Featured Innovator

Jay Steinfeld is a household name — at least within Houston's growing innovation ecosystem. Steinfeld founded Blinds.com and, along with his team, grew it to a $100 million company before exiting to Home Depot in 2014. Over the past few years, Steinfeld has had time to reflect on that empire he created and recount his lessons learned in a new book.

Lead From The Core published this week, and Steinfeld took some time to answer some questions about the new book for InnovationMap. He also shares some insight into the acquisition process and advice for fellow entrepreneurs.

InnovationMap: You founded Blinds.com and exited the company to Home Depot — this is lauded as one of Houston’s big exits. What did this acquisition mean to you as a Houstonian?

Jay Steinfeld: Blinds.com ended up being far greater than what I ever believed was possible. I had no vision as to what it could become. I had no vision as to even what the internet was at the time I started. I knew nothing when I started — I didn't even know you could sell things online. So it's kind of a shock in one way, because we just started as an experiment and not to get rich or to build something massive. It was a marketing experiment and that was all, it was, we had no business plan. We didn't know what the total addressable market was. I didn't even know what a TAM was at the time. It was just an incremental step to improve my drapery shop. So now that we have developed that into by far the number one online retailer of blinds in the world and acquired by Home Depot, it's just so satisfying and so gratifying to know that all the little things that we did with all the people who were so, so much a part of it — like Daniel Cotlar, Tom Cabanski, Larry Hack, Steve Riddell, Marilyn Franks, all these people who, I mean, no one knew who we were. We were nobodies, but we were able to do something and become better than what even we believed was possible.

And that's actually the greatest thing for me — that so many people elevated themselves and either were a part of the success and felt like they were consequential in developing something that was consequential. They were a significant part of that, but they evolved along with it. And are either now still with the company prospering flourishing or they're now with other companies doing the same thing. Omair with Cart.com — starting as an accounts payable cost accountant and working his way up. And now, you know, the story there. It's amazing. So I think the fact that we were able to build these teams and do something of consequence and have people feel really good. It's not about how much money we made, but how much we really impacted ourselves and how we helped each other. And that was the key. We, we brought humanity into the workforce and show that having a culture of people first really does work. And it's not just a bunch of talk.

IM: I think when you look at some kind of growing and successful innovation ecosystems, they start with a couple companies that made it big, created a legacy and a group of successful entrepreneurs that then inspire others. Do you see Blinds.com kind of within the Houston innovation ecosystem?

JS: But I never, at the time, believed that was the case because we were within ourselves and didn't really see a responsibility or anything other than to what our own mission was. Looking back now and seeing how many people have succeeded and how other companies have used our success and even been able to get funded and to bring attention to Houston as a place where big exits can happen. That's a good feeling, but at the time I didn't really reflect on that.

IM: Your book came out this week — what did you want to accomplish with Lead From The Core?

JS: The book was originally written so that the people at Blinds.com would know what got us to where we were and would use it as the foundation for continuing what that success was all about. As I began teaching and expanding my influence throughout the community nationally, I realized that there were many entrepreneurs who could learn from the same success, the techniques, the strategies, "The Four Es" that were really the, the secret sauce of the company, the reason we were able to beat Amazon, Home Depot, and Lowe's, and why we got so much money as a result of it. I then expanded even more because people were saying, you know, I don't necessarily want to start a business, but I want, I've got an entrepreneurial bug and I want it to apply to my career. And for those people who feel stagnant and wanting to grow, these principles apply not just to a business, but to life into career trajectories. And that's been particularly satisfying because it was always about helping people become better than what they believed possible, not about the mission of Blinds.com itself. That was the mission, helping people. And now that people are re it's resonating outside the business world to any type of career, that's pretty cool. And now I realize that the audience is much broader than what my original intention was.

IM: What’s the biggest thing you want readers to take away from the book?

JS: I think if he can do it, I can do it. I think that's really it. It's not as hard as people think. I mean, it is tedious and you have to stay immensely focused, but it's a simple process. If you don't get so static in your thinking, and you're more expansive and open to possibilities — possibilities of you changing of you improving, and you're improving everybody around you — and that if you have the time and a little bit of money, then you can incrementally improve enough and fast enough that you can build something of significance too.

IM: What did you wish you had known before starting the process? 

JS: I actually wish I hadn't known any of this beforehand, or I might not have started. It's it is intensely grueling. It's not just the writing process, which in itself is hard — and the editing process, the rewrites, and the different types of editors that we've been involved with publisher — it's just the business of a book. It's it's everything. It's getting a publisher, getting editors, determining artwork for the cover and for the interior artwork, the publicity for the book who narrates it the whole process of audiobooks and rights. It's like starting a company. If you knew how hard it was going to be, you've might not have started it from the first place. So, but that's one of the things that was great about and be starting a business. I had no idea what I was doing, and I knew as much about writing a book, as I knew about starting a business. And that gave me an advantage because I didn't have bad habits. I didn't have a predetermined understanding as to what had to be in order for this to work. I would just meander through experimenting, being curious, asking for a lot of help, helping having people express themselves so I could get diverse opinions — like I did making business decisions. And that's what I want people to get from the book — that they can make these little decisions. And if it doesn't work, you stop. If it does work, you do a lot more of it. And that's what I did with the book. It's been fun. It's exactly what my "Four Es" are — experimenting, evolving, expressing, and enjoying myself.

IM: That's so meta that working on the book was like the process of what you're writing about in the book. Could you see yourself doing it again?

JS: Yeah, I've got two other book ideas — one will be a lot easier because it's not about me. It's harder to write about yourself, but writing about something else will be a lot easier. And now that I know the process, it will be so much easier. The first time is always harder. Going back to what you said about "it's kind of meta," if your core values are something, then that means that's what you do. So it shouldn't be surprising to anybody that I am experimenting and evolving and expressing and enjoying, because those are absolutely true, authentic core values for me. And therefore that means that's how I behave all the time. That's what I do every day. Not as a goal or an aspirational idea — if people can understand what is absolutely true to them and not just who they want to be, I think they'll be able to do almost anything they want.

IM: You’re involved with several companies and even have taught at Rice University. What drove you to get involved in this endeavors?

JS: Well, I'm either on board or advisory board members of five different companies, and it's a diversified group because some are in the pre-A stage and one's a public board. When I was about to step away from blinds.com, the idea was how do I keep having an active role in helping companies, but not be so active that I'm up to my eyeballs every day with the primary responsibility. I've got two in Austin, one in Chicago, one here, and then the other one's in Tampa.

The first thing I wanted to do knowing that I was going to be leaving Blinds.com was to start teaching in Houston, and this was while I was writing the book. So, it gave me an opportunity to bounce off ideas in the classes while writing and seeing what would be good to put into the book. It was like comedians going to small markets first and testing their material. That was fun, and I found that the things that I was teaching them was outside the normal courses that they were taking. I was providing that more personal introspective view while they were learning all the true skills, like evaluating markets, discounted cash flow and things like that. And that was very exciting for me to be involved there, especially with such a prestigious school like Rice. Al Donto was the one who I teach with, and he's been a great mentor and a great facilitator of that process.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.