Entrepreneur Interview: Michael Hartofilis, Greenlight Energy
What does your company do?
Greenlight Energy is an alternative energy supplier, providing natural gas, electricity and renewable energy options to over 20,000 customers in New York, New Jersey and Maryland.
Was there a specific turning point when you realized your business was moving to the next level?
After we raised enough capital to take on our first few employees for administrative duties and customer support, I was afforded with the time to kind of look more at the big picture and confirm that we were a well-oiled machine and ready to expand our reach.
What processes or procedures have you implemented that have helped you grow your company?
I’d say, in general, it’s really about locating valuable contributors that you trust executing certain duties you may have previously handled yourself. We’ve built a really impressive, productive, and trustworthy staff. These are good, kind people, and I think we’ve begun to operate almost more like a family. I think that’s important in any endeavor, because you become accountable to each other, and nobody wants to let anyone else down. So, we do have numerous online processes, software and protocols that we constantly implement and evaluate in order to be more efficient. But what I’ve found is that it’s more about tone you set, or the spirit of the environment you create, that inspires and allows people to succeed.
What are some of the best marketing strategies that have worked for your business?
We find our focus shifting more and more to direct marketing, which may sound a bit traditional, but the proof is in the pudding. There’s no better way to connect with a prospect, or any individual even outside of a business context, than to communicate face-to-face. This technique, perhaps counterintuitively, proves more and more valuable as people move away from interpersonal connections and our world becomes digital. We are hardwired as humans to relate most effectively on a physical, personal level, so we find that customers appreciate and respond to that approach.
How have you leveraged the internet to grow your business?
If I am approached by any company or product, one of the first things I do is Google them. If they don’t appear to have a legitimate website, then that could put me off the product. There’s no reason to think every prospective customer we approach doesn’t have the same idea. For that reason, we find it important to invest in our site and some search engine optimization (SEO), and we’re exploring and emphasizing that landscape now and learning a great deal. In short, it’s always good to be learning and staying hungry to learn more. As many know, there are more lessons found in mistakes than successes. It’s our goal to embrace mistakes as opportunities, and to learn and grow stronger with every step.
What is most rewarding about running your business?
Sharing my success with 20 other people and vice versa. There is, of course, added pressure when you’re responsible for people’s livelihoods and, by extension, families, but that’s outweighed by the rewards. I’m grateful to be in this position.
What challenges have you faced and how have you overcome them?
I think it’s almost like owning or managing a sports team. You try to see the value in people and give them the best opportunities to succeed. But, unlike athletics, you have to rely a little more on your instincts. I don’t have game film on potential employees in the hiring process. So I think the biggest lessons have been learned in evaluating someone’s ability to contribute, in addition to their character, which is just as important, if not more so. I’m a trusting person and tend to give people the benefit of the doubt, but I’ve found the need to be a bit more diligent in checking backgrounds and holding people accountable for behavior and performance. In an environment where a lot of people’s well-being is on the line, trust must be earned. Goodness of intentions can’t necessarily be taken for granted, unfortunately. It’s probably as simple as that.
If you were starting over today what would you do differently?
When we first started, we had very little capital. Sometimes I think it would have been better to take on more employees in the beginning so I could delegate some of the daily tasks with the utilities we dealt with and I could focus more on growing our customer base. But I am very happy with the position we’re in now, so I doubt I would change much. As I said previously, or maybe it was James Joyce, “Mistakes are the portals of discovery.” I’d have no desire to return through any of those portals to a state of ignorance or naiveté.
What advice do you have for other business owners?
When business started humming and the company became profitable, there was a tendency to coast a little bit on past success. Instead of thinking about taking the business to the next level, I started thinking about taking a day out of the work week to go golfing. This line of thinking is detrimental to anyone trying to grow a company—not just the act of taking a day off, but the mindset itself. I found the best way to extinguish this line of thinking was to commit to reading up on the energy industry, and business in general. Being aware and engaged keeps you connected and hungry. As we all know, energy is an industry of change, and I plan on keeping Greenlight Energy on the front wave of that change, and in fact push change ourselves.
What is something that people might be surprised to learn about you?
I played lacrosse for the Maryland Terrapins and the Irish National Team (my mom is from Ireland).
Is there anything else you would like to add?
I’d just like to thank you for the opportunity to discuss these issues. I sincerely hope I can help business owners and entrepreneurs, because I know how essential they are to this great country.
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