“Our data informs. Our empathy delivers. We illuminate a bold energy future.” These are the foundational statements that define the unique approach taken by Illume Advising, a research and evaluation firm serving the energy utility industry. Illume is on Ivy Exec’s list of Women-Led Disruptive Businesses to Work For.
The company focuses on the energy industry and specializes in social and data-science research. “We have a real deep bench of social scientists and analytical experts who work with us to conduct research with customers,” says co-founder and co-owner Sara Conzemius. It’s in-depth research that often involves spending several hours in customers’ homes talking to them about their experiences and perceptions of their utilities or companies they’re working with to provide them with energy services. This type of ethnographic research, combined with deep-dive analytics into energy demand and usage puts Illume Advising on the path to impacting not only the success of their utility-company clients, but their clients’ end-user customers as well.
It’s important work, grown more important in an environment facing significant and rapid change. Utilities today, says Conzemius, really have competition for their customers and they have customers who are increasingly savvy. “They are used to choice in a way that utilities aren’t used to accommodating,” she says, noting that there are pressures coming in from the Teslas of the world. These energy companies, renewable resources and aggregators of renewable resources mean that customers are increasingly able to circumvent their utilities and buy energy from other sources.
That means that utilities must work to deeply understand their customers and their needs and then take strategic steps to fill those needs while dealing with rising costs, shifting demand and ongoing regulatory challenges. That’s where Illume’s expertise comes into play.
“Our real mission is to help build a cleaner space and more resilient energy infrastructure which, in our mind, really leads to healthier and more sustainable communities,” says Conzemius.
But, while Conzemius, proudly acknowledges the organization’s commitment to culture, cutting-edge thinking and collaboration, she also recognizes the tight labor market the company competes for talent within and points to talent management as one of the things that keeps her up at night.
Finding and Attracting Talent in a Competitive Market
The work of Illume isn’t the type of work that most people consider when they’re pursuing their educations. It’s an area that is growing in terms of the number of companies entering the space, and shrinking as utilities and other energy-related organizations deal with a growing pool of retirees. It’s also a close-knit community where employees often move between one company and another—“same nametag, different company,” Conzemius jokes.
On a more serious note, though, she admits that competition for top talent is tight and their approach is not to poach from other companies who may also be their clients in some cases. Instead, she says, Illume Advising stands apart based on its reputation and the special vibe that resonates with employees who spread the word about what a great place it is to work.
“People come to us and say, I want to work for you, because I love what you’re doing, I see what you’re doing is really different, I love the vibe and the edginess and the culture,” says Conzemius. That doesn’t mean that they rest on their laurels though, she says. Illume Advising places a concerted effort on hiring top candidates, reaching out and connecting with them whenever possible. Their three facilities—in Madison, Tucson and Portland—were established in those locations, to a large degree, because of the available talent pools.
“It’s really important that our team feel happy and fulfilled, and that they feel this is a place where they’re safe and can do the kind of work they want to do,” Conzemius says. That’s not something that “just happens” she says. Culture doesn’t come easy and it isn’t just an after-thought or something that can be accomplished by setting up some ping-pong tables in the breakroom. “It’s about whether we’re doing fulfilling work, whether our team feels empowered to come in with new ideas, whether we’re trying new and interesting things and whether we’re embracing opportunities to fail. Those are the things we’re grappling with every day and trying to make happen every day in some way.”
Illume Advising leverages their unique mix of talent in ways that are designed to delight their clients and deliver quality that is beyond what they’ve come to expect. Their rapid growth is a testament to their ability to do that.
A Different Aesthetic
Illume’s ability to connect with, engage, and develop strong relationships with both clients and employees draws much from its unique approaches and a “different aesthetic” the company brings to its work. “We definitely have a different look and feel—the aesthetic of the company,” Conzemius says.
“We’re offering something different than has previously been available to this niche market that we serve. I think that’s one of the reasons we’ve been able to grow and add more talent,” Conzemius says.
Despite a focus on developing a deep bench of technical experts, and delivering superior service, support and tangible deliverables to help clients build concrete strategies, Illume knows that image matters. In fact, she says, unlike their competitors, Illume has invested in two full-time staff designers (most firms may not even have one). “We really try to make sure that what we’re providing our clients has an aesthetic quality that adds to the delivery of what we’re giving them,” Conzemius says. “It has made us stand out in the industry as being a very different type of firm to work with and, I think, that has contributed to our growth as well.”
Also, unlike the competition, Conzemius says, Illume’s immediate and consistent brand focus sets them apart. “From the get-go, we believed we were a brand company and that everything we did had to live up to the brand we were trying to put forward in the market. I don’t think any of our other competitors in this space approach things from that brand perspective. We definitely have a very different look and feel than any of our competitors.”