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Home Cleantech Companies A Alertme Interview: Mary Turner - Beauty, Broadband and the ‘Internet of Things’

Interview: Mary Turner - Beauty, Broadband and the ‘Internet of Things’

Anne McIvor chats with Mary Turner, CEO of AlertMe - November 2012, on the occasion of the GP Bullhound Cleantech Connect Awards: Celebrating the Entrepreneur
‘Girl talk’ is rare in cleantech, so my interview with AlertMe CEO Mary Turner was memorable for kicking off with a girly chat about the offices of Internet fashion retailer ASOS Plc, which she describes as “a fantastic place to be: wonderful products and catwalk experiences”.  But Mary tells me she’s frustrated that she can rarely enjoy the perks of involvement with ASOS, where she has been a director since 2009. Mary was sympathising with my frustration at having to squeeze an interview on her extensive career into a short phone conversation. But even in our short conversation Mary proved infectious, inspiring me with insights into the historic part she has played in the roll-out of the Internet – and her excitement about the future ’Internet of Things’.

AlertMe was founded in 2006 and Mary joined the company, which is backed by Index Ventures, Good Energies, VantagePoint Capital Partners, Crysalix, SET Ventures and British Gas, in 2010. She describes AlertMe as a consumer-focused technology company, delivering products and services that allow customers to connect to their homes. For Mary: “This is not about cleantech; this is about the next phase of the Internet”. She points out that people are connected, through their smart phones or the Web, to almost everything that matters – family, friends, bank account and supermarket – but they are not yet connected to their homes. “AlertMe puts customers’ homes in the cloud and allows people to connect to their homes.”  Home connectivity includes “the Internet of energy” and services that customers will use to manage and control efficiency in their homes. But, in Mary’s view, it’s about much more than just energy management: at the core is the need for comfort and peace of mind.

AlertMe is consumer-focused, but it’s enabled by the infrastructure of smart grid technology. Mary Turner admits to a “passion for technology”. That passion, however, clearly exists alongside another passion – for rolling technology out into consumer markets. She describes her first job, in beauty retailing at Elizabeth Arden, as her “golden days”. That was where she learned about people and products – and what motivates people to become consumers.  

That “fabulous job” at Elizabeth Arden was followed by a stint at A1 Cosmetics, before Mary’s “first flutter in technology” at The Innovation Group, publisher of a retail catalogue distributed through such channels as the Sunday Times. Travelling throughout Asia and the USA, her role was to source leading-edge products for listing in the catalogue.

The passion for technology led to Mary’s next position, at CompuServe – a company she describes as the “Grand Daddy of the Internet” – the first ISP (Internet Service Provider). An early staff member at CompuServe, Mary served as Marketing Director and later Managing Director, opening offices in France, Germany and the Netherlands. Reflecting back, she observes that “email, billboards and forums are simply the old-fashioned names for Facebook and Twitter”. In 1989-91, Mary says, she was constantly explaining concepts of connectivity. In the days of 56kb dial-up modems and email addresses comprising numbers rather than names, ecommerce was a tough sell and she was shown the door on a regular basis.

Success came, however, with CompuServe’s strategy of pre-loading software on laptops. Partner deals were struck with Compaq, Dell and HP, and ultimately the business model succeeded in bringing the Internet to the masses when it was adopted by AOL after the acquisition of CompuServe. Mary admits that she still gets goose bumps when she reflects that the first 1,000 Internet users in the UK were her customers.

Mary stayed at AOL until after it was sold to Bertelsmann in 1999, and can be credited during that stint for marketing innovations such as diskettes distributed with magazines. Her “second claim to fame”, however, was her role in bringing broadband to the mass market at Tiscali, from 2001. She describes an “amazing journey” through the “second phase of the Internet” at Tiscali UK. As CEO from 2003, Mary grew the company from less than half a million dial-up customers to the UK’s third largest DSL provider with 1.8 million broadband customers and revenue of €608 million by 2008. The journey was inspired by Tony Blair’s vision for ‘Broadband Britain’ and Tiscali was the first UK company to launch an affordable broadband service – what Mary describes as “affordaband”. Tiscali was ultimately sold to the Talk Talk Group, part of the Carphone Warehouse Group, in 2009 and Mary remains an advisor to the Talk Talk Group.

Mary’s passion for technology remains at AlertMe, but it was my turn to get goose bumps as she mapped out her vision for the “smart connected home” – which she sees as the next phase of the Internet and which she believes is at a similar growth stage to the one she witnessed in the early days of the Internet 22 years ago. Given the similarities between AlertMe and Tiscali, in the heyday of ISP industry growth, the appeal to Mary of a move into cleantech is pretty clear. Like Tiscali, AlertMe offers a “simple proposition that delivers benefits for the customer” and an “affordable, easy to use and self-install” product offering. Like Tiscali, it works with household brands as distribution partners (Britsh Gas in this case). And, as Tiscali did, AlertMe is leveraging off investment in infrastructure.

Mary emphasises that the potential scale of the market for the “smart connected home”, like the ISP market, is huge. To her, the differences between AlertMe today and Tiscali ten years ago are mainly differences of their time in history – the stage of the market. She expects the business of the “smart connected home” to be almost identical to the ISP business within five to ten years – and believes she has personally extended her ticket for her journey through the phases of the Internet by joining AlertMe.

Mary understands the pitfalls of the boom and bust of the dot.com era, but she believes the time is now right for products for the “smart connected home” because of three factors. First, smartphone penetration has led to a macro change in the dynamics of the market; secondly, the price of the fuel that runs our homes is rising; and thirdly, we are buying more appliances. (Mary cites a survey by the Energy Saving Trust which estimated that the average UK home has 41 devices which could potentially be ‘connected’.)

Because of the way we live and consume and because we have reached a level of comfort in using cloud technology, Mary believes that the time is right for the AlertMe product offering. Although energy will be the first major application, she emphasises it will be just one amongst many in the longer term, referring back to the early days of the Internet when it was used primarily for email.

AlertMe sold 10,000 units last month to enable consumers to manage the thermostats in their homes remotely. Those same consumers can now connect any device with a compatible sensor – from a smoke or security alarm to a television or fridge – to the same system. But the ‘Internet of Things’ is still in its infancy.

The smart grid, to Mary, is the infrastructure. In broadband terminology, she compares it to the broadband pipes. But it’s applications such as AlertMe’s which are key to the “smart connected home” – and the roll-out of these applications is shaping up to become Mary Turner’s ‘third claim to fame’.
 

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