An exclusive Tech Tribune Q&A with Robin LeBaron (co-founder, president, and CSO) and Cynthia Adams (co-founder and CEO) of Pearl Certification, which was honored in our:
Tell us the origin story of Pearl Certification – what problem were you trying to solve and why?
Post-market crash back in 2010, my co-founder partner (Robin Lebaron) and I were working in the residential energy efficiency space. He was the Managing Director for the National Home Performance Council, and I was the Executive Director for a Virginia-based nonprofit called LEAP. Both of us were trying to solve the problem of scaling residential energy efficiency. Based on research and day-to-day experience with contractors and homeowners, we knew that people were hesitant to spend money to make their homes more efficient if that additional expense wasn’t somehow captured in the home’s value. While energy bills were important to some, most owners weren’t motivated to spend thousands extra on a home improvement just to save $50 a month. But coupling the energy savings with additional comfort and adding value to a house was motivating. In fact, we saw this play out in the commercial building sector with Energy Star and LEED certifications. Those buildings rented for more, sold for more, and were of course, worth more. So how could we create the same market-based incentive for the residential space that we saw in commercial? The answer was to create a third party certification system that captures investment grade data on the home, helping the house appraise for more.
What was the biggest hurdle you encountered in your journey?
Initially, fundraising, although successful, was a big hurdle, and it was time consuming. We had never done it before and so had a lot to learn: how to pitch, who to talk to, what supporting documents would be required for due diligence, what milestones to target, etc. But without the support of our early investors, we wouldn’t have been able to create and launch the business.
Another hurdle we encountered was related to the business model itself. Pearl (Property Energy Asset Registry and Licensing) is a multi-sided platform created to generate a network effect. Contractors, homeowners, and real estate agents are the market segments we currently work with. When launching a network effect business, you have to focus on one side of the platform first because it’s hard to stand them all up at once. So identifying whom we would develop products and services for first was a challenge. We chose contractors, but in order to provide enough value for the early adopters to benefit from Pearl, we had to have at least some engagement with the other segments. It was, and is, a juggling act.
What does the future hold for Pearl Certification?
In the near term, we’re very excited about national partnerships with brand name manufacturers and look forward to launching programs with them this quarter. In the medium term, we think the new administration’s focus on mitigating climate change will open up opportunities for a mission driven business like ours. And long term, building out our platform and creating better, stronger value propositions for the market segments we serve will also open up new lines of revenue and new opportunities for partnership. We’re very excited about all of it.
What are your thoughts on the local tech startup scene in Charlottesville?
The Charlottesville startup tech scene is actually a good representation of a network effect, a concept we nurture and value at Pearl. Talent comes from the Darden School of Business, which acts not only as a source of creative, business-savvy people, but supports some of the entrepreneurial community more broadly. This feeds the Charlottesville Business Innovation Council (CBIC), which supports technology businesses of all stages, and has regular meetings focused on entrepreneurship in particular. There’s not a lot of VC activity in Charlottesville directly, but there are a good number of angels and family offices, though access to them is usually mediated and will depend on the quality of your network.
What’s your best advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?
“Protect the asset”, as Greg McKeown says in his book Essentialism. The asset is you. If you do not take care of yourself on this long and arduous journey of entrepreneurship, you may find your brain foggy or your work substandard at a critical moment. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. We all put in 60, 70, 80+ hour work weeks when launching a company, so sleep, exercise, and healthy eating are even more important to pay attention to. And don’t forget quiet time to think – it’s that thinking which can move you from a reactive to a proactive place. Read McKeown’s book. For a founder in particular, it’s genius to live and succeed by.