Glenn Drayton has worn many hats over the past 20 years, some out of necessity: he was a one-man shop when he first started on his entrepreneurial journey; some out of his passion for the products: he is a shareholder of Energy Exemplar as well as its chief software designer.
After wearing so many hats of the past couple of decades, he has a lot to share about where the company has been as well as what he envisions for the future.
Looking back, did you ever anticipate the company would be around for 20 years?
No, I always operated in five-year increments. Entrepreneurs are always in a hurry and can’t look out that long. You have to assume that whatever you’re doing, someone else is right there, ready to achieve it faster.
Were there any setbacks when you were getting started?
I launched the company in 1999 and had a workable product in early 2000. Just when I was developing solid relationships in the US, the September 11th tragedy took place. Like so many people from outside the US, I really took a hit. Travelling became incredibly difficult and all international business with the US slowed down. So, we focused on Europe instead. We did pretty well from 2003 to 2007, but in 2008 the GFC hit. All business within the EU slowed down, so we had to weather that as well. I launched the company in 1999 and had a workable product in early 2000. Just when I was developing solid relationships in the US, the September 11th tragedy took place. Like so many people from outside the US, I really took a hit. Travelling became incredibly difficult and all international business with the US slowed down. So, we focused on Europe instead. We did pretty well from 2003 to 2007, but in 2008 the GFC hit. All business within the EU slowed down, so we had to weather that as well.
Like most entrepreneurs, I probably learned the hard way that contracts are also important. Never sign a contract on the back of an envelope. Like most entrepreneurs, I probably learned the hard way that contracts are also important. Never sign a contract on the back of an envelope.
What has been the biggest surprise for you?
The biggest surprise is the inertia we’ve created; how embedded the software can get in an organization. With most software, the lifespan is a few years. You never think you’re going to last 20 to 30 years, but there are a few long-lived ones out there, and to be one of them – if we do things right, we can last another couple of decades.
There’s added pressure around that because we don’t want to fade and stop innovating. My theory on that is that I need to stay part of the organization, to keep the focus and direction. Software is a blank canvas – you can write anything – but that doesn’t mean you should. We need to keep a strong design focus. Because there are no constraints on software, you have to push things out of scope just as much as putting things in.
How do you innovate software design for the future?
I have to explain a little about myself first. I always want to know what the best is, then I’ll decide if I can achieve that or not. I want to get to the top, but that usually means doing things the long way, the harder way. I learned this from my PhD supervisor. He talked about thinking in infinities: what is the impact if there was absolutely none of that problem, then what is the impact if there is an infinite amount of it. The solution is somewhere in between. That means we’re not solving for today’s problem; we’re solving for future problems. It may mean we over-engineer for the short-term, but I know we’re not going to have to resolve the problem in five years. Of course, what we’re designing for might not happen, but what we get out of that thinking is an elegant solution.
What lessons have you learned as an entrepreneur?
Never sell yourself short. When I was 29, I had an opportunity to sell the company for $1 million dollars. Then a few years later another opportunity came to sell it for $5 million. I just knew that doing that was a quick way to success, not the best way. I chose to hang on, take the long way, in order to really create something amazing.
Another thing is to recognize your own weaknesses. When I started, I was building a tool for myself – I needed a tool that could model anything, and I was only interested in writing simulation engines. I had to do the other business management activities, but there came a point when we needed to tidy up the business and financial operations. You have to be willing to find good people to fill those gaps.
What does the next five-year increment hold for you?
I want to change the world. More reliable energy, less pollution, better standards of living for developing nations… there really is a societal benefit to removing the human inaccuracies. I imagine a situation where this tool is so compelling that it takes out all the politics, and then the only argument is about the inputs. You can already see the process happening in places where it’s been rolled out, where people are released from the limitations of the tools they’re using.
Over the next five years, the software will get used in more industries and directly inform global decision-making. Think of how inefficient fuel transport is now, and how much more we could do by moving beyond regional pockets to global coordination. We could also affect climate change – decreasing the amount of CO2 because of the work we’ve done.
How do you want to celebrate the 20th anniversary?
I just want to focus on the work, make things better. I’m pleasantly surprised to have made it here; I just want to keep step back and say ‘wow – this has grown into a great company.’