Janice Cheam is in business today because of a friend’s climate-change epiphany. It was back in 2005, and Cheam was still completing her business degree at the University of British Columbia when a friend returned from the United Nations Climate Change Conference, vowing he was moving to the Arctic to save the world.
“This was before Al Gore did An Inconvenient Truth,” Cheam says, “I was moved by what he told me and wanted to do something to help. I decided that the Arctic probably wasn’t for me — I’m not a scientist — but I thought I could use my business degree and technology to create behaviour change. This is how I found purpose and this is the reason I thought a company should be built.”
While still finishing her business degree, the Vancouver woman founded Energy Aware that worked directly with electric utilities by offering them information about usage and how to curb it. But after a while, she realized she preferred to work with the end user because “they’ll tell you when something is good and they’re also not afraid to tell you when something’s not great. It’s a different pace.”
To that end, in 2013, she launched a kickstarter campaign that became the genesis of Neurio, a company that offers energy-management solutions to homeowners and renters alike. Neurio installs wifi-enabled sensors to monitor the home’s total energy use. The info is sent to an app that lets customers know what’s on and what’s off, and how much money they’re spending on different appliances. It also offers bill forecasting and compares the homeowner’s energy consumption to that of others (Cheam likes this feature because she’s inherently competitive.) The app also offers customized tips on how to curb energy use.
“We’re able to identify where energy is going — that’s one part of it — and then there’s taking that algorithm and having it turn up deviations over time,” Cheam says. “So we can say, ‘You just spent this much on your air conditioning. You might want to rethink your use.’ Or when you leave your house, you get to where you’re going and then wonder if you left the iron or the stove on. You can look at that on your phone and say ‘Okay good, everything is fine’ or ‘Oh no, we have to go home now to turn the stove off.’”
Cheam says many of her customers tell her stories about their elderly parents and grandparents who want to stay at home, but need care. “There are a lot of women, aged 30 to 60 saying this is really helpful because they can be vigilant without actually having to be there,” she says.
Her goal is to raise awareness of where people are needlessly using energy and through that awareness, change behaviour.
“If you go to sleep or leave your home, it’s still using power, so the idea is to get that number to as low as possible.”
In her own home, she discovered her television, amplifier and sub-woofer, which are all connected, had a very high baseload consumption of power. Even though she turned the TV off, the amp and sub-woofer were pulling the same amount of power as two incandescent lightbulbs. She connected the three things to one power bar, meaning she can turn them all off on one switch, and her consumption went from 220 watts to 19 watts.
Neurio’s product sells well in Canada but export was essential, she says, because Canada has a very small population.
“We survived and grew because there are international markets that accommodate the volume we’re looking for,” she says.
Because they received the product in return for their investment, her first exporters, essentially, were the people who took part in the kickstarter campaign — contributors from 60 different countries. Today, however, Neurio exports mostly to the U.S.
To get started in export, she used Export Development Canada’s accounts receivable insurance.
“This was very important to us because we needed that insurance to fill orders with our Canadian manufacturer,” she says. “It allowed our manufacturer to have the confidence that they would pay if things went bad.”
1) What was your first export sale?
It was the kickstarter campaign, because we received a lot of money from different countries. After kickstarter, our first export was to a solar company in California. They remain a good customer.
2) How did that first export (with the solar company, after Kickstarter) arise?
Word of mouth. I had a bunch of business friends in the wireless networking industry and it was through my story telling when I was talking to them.
3) When it comes to export, what do you know now that you wish you knew then?
U.S. taxes. You want to be aware of them up front because that way, when you try to negotiate your deal you can position yourself so these aren’t liabilities. California, for example, is a really bad state to sell directly into. So I’d say know the tax liabilities of the jurisdiction you’re trying to sell into before you do it.
4) How has the trading world changed since you first started in business?
Foreign exchange has been to a Canadian advantage when it comes to exporting. We used to sell dollar for dollar and now we get 20 extra cents on the dollar. But on the risk side, it can go either way. So we do our cost of goods with our manufacturer in the same currency.
5) What’s the No. 1 thing companies should know about export and trade?
Is it super-cheesy if I say that they should know EDC is out there? EDC was really key in helping us bring this together. They were amazing.