“Put Purpose at the Heart of Business”
Solving the climate crisis is surely going to be a group effort that requires a majority of the people in the world. Fortunately, there is a tech company like Cogo that’s helping to lead the way. Cogo is helping individuals and businesses to better understand their carbon footprints and make choices to help reduce carbon emissions. They’ve started by partnering with big banks but have aspirations to do far more.
Emma Kisby, the EMEA CEO of Cogo, joined startup coach Roland Siebelink on the latest episode of the Midstage Startup Momentum Podcast. She spoke about how Cogo turns complex data into something far easier for people to understand about their carbon footprint. She also talked about the history of Cogo, what makes this startup unique, and the future of Cogo.
- How Cogo has created partnerships with big banks and created confidence in them.
- How to take a proof of concept in one country and expand it to others.
- How and why Cogo has defined its principles aimed toward growth.
- The challenges that come with focusing on speed to market.
- How a startup can hold true to its principles without losing its agility.
Roland Siebelink: Hello and welcome to the Midstage Startup Momentum Podcast. My name is Roland Siebelink and I’m a coach and ally to so many of the fastest-growing startups all around the world. And we have an amazing guest in our recording studio today. It’s Emma Kisby, the EMEA CEO of Cogo. Hello, Emma.
Emma Kisby: Hi Roland. How are you doing?
Roland Siebelink: So lovely to hear a nice British accent on the show again. I’ve been missing that. That’s amazing. Very good. Emma, where are you dialing in from?
Emma Kisby: I’m dialing in from just outside London but I’m not actually British, Roland, I’m actually half Norwegian. My British accent is a bit of a cover for my true European nature.
Roland Siebelink: Oh, okay. That gives us extra context. I wouldn’t have heard it, but by the name I was guessing some further Scandinavian background.
Emma, talk about the company for a little bit. Just as an introduction for those who haven’t heard of Cogo yet - if that’s even possible - what does Cogo do? Who do you serve? And what difference are you making in the world?
Emma Kisby: Thanks Roland. Cogo creates carbon footprint solutions that help individuals and small businesses to measure, understand, and ultimately reduce their impact on the climate. Where it came about is that we found that individuals are increasingly seeing and feeling the impact of the climate crisis and feel quite helpless to act. And they don’t really understand the correlation between their everyday spend and having an impact on the climate crisis. And they have a significant role to play to help reduce the carbon emissions.
And at the same time, small businesses are coming under increased pressure to disclose their carbon emissions. And what’s common across both individuals and small businesses is it’s complex. People don’t understand it. They just want a simple snapshot. They want to make it very easy. Where Cogo specializes is translating fairly complex sets of data, linking it to everyday spend, and translating that into a simple understanding of people’s carbon footprints, and then helping give targeted and personalized recommendations and nudges to reduce the emissions.
Roland Siebelink: It’s in a way, if I were to put my layman’s version on it, an Apple Health for your carbon footprint.
Emma Kisby: That’s a great way to say it, Roland.
Roland Siebelink: Okay. And you say that actually does give you recommendations in terms of the key thing to focus on now to make the most impact.
Emma Kisby: Yeah, we use a lot of behavioral science and my background actually comes from a customer data analytics background. We used a lot of these techniques to help nudge people to buy more stuff - a lot of the big retailers do it - and we’re using those same principles to actually help people to buy more sustainably and ethically. It’s all proven behavioral science but just used in a way that helps solve the climate crisis.
Roland Siebelink: Excellent. Let’s hear a little bit about the story of how did you join Cogo. What was the history behind it? And how were you able to apply your experience and your studies in this context as EMEA CEO?
Emma Kisby: As I mentioned, three years ago, I joined Ben, who was our founder. Ben Gleisner is an amazing guy. He worked for the UN, worked for the New Zealand government, and came to the conclusion that flying around the world talking about solutions wasn’t really gonna help the climate crisis. What he was interested in is connecting - that’s where the name Cogo comes from - can we help consumers and businesses link up in terms of their values and understand the impact of their spend? Where Ben’s idea really started to take off was when open banking came into the UK and that was the bit that I joined Ben.
Because what we can now do is we can link sustainability data to transactional spend data. And we were working with Mike Berners-Lee and looking at how we could make it very accessible for individuals. From my background, as I said, I had spent a long time working in customer data analytics. I helped set up a business for a leading UK grocer, driving a significant amount to their bottom line. I went and spent a stint working in Richard Branson’s family office at Virgin and really thinking about how you put purpose at the heart of business.
For me, there was a very natural step to move to working with Ben to really look at my job was to come in and say, “Okay, we’ve got this nice little app and we are showing how we can innovate and do cool things with this open banking spend but how are we gonna make a difference? How are we gonna deliver scale and impact?”
When I came in, I spoke to a lot of different corporates. We didn’t have a big marketing budget. We’ve got a cool app, a cool idea, and so I knocked on a lot of doors. This is just three days before COVID. I started knocking on doors and talking to various businesses and trying to understand where do big corporates have a real need for this to give to their customers? And that’s how we identified the banks. In the last three years, we are now working with 12 of the world’s leading banks. And we essentially now service all those wonderful features that we test and learnt through our app into the bank’s own mobile banking experience. If I’m a NatWest customer, an ING customer, I can look into my mobile banking experience and there I can see my carbon footprint and I can get recommendations on how to reduce my carbon emissions.
Roland Siebelink: Excellent. Let’s delve into that a little bit because you started off with open banking becoming the big driver and now the banks are in a way your distribution channel as I understand it. What’s the link there between the carbon footprint and all these finance metrics? How did you connect them together? Let’s make that connection a little bit more clear, especially for people who are not yet familiar with open banking in the UK.
Emma Kisby: We use open banking. In the UK, you can connect over 35 different bank accounts. And we used it as almost an opportunity to show banks the opportunity that if done at scale, they can really help support and engage their customers. We were getting people to link their bank accounts, share, and we would then in return, share back their carbon footprints and they would then engage with that and take action.
Roland Siebelink: Just the bank account gives you enough information to estimate people’s carbon footprint? That’s maybe the part I was missing.
Emma Kisby: Ah, okay. Yes. Every pound you spend - or every dollar or every euro - has a correlating carbon emission based on who and where you spend it. We’re able to take that emission factor data and match it to the spend data to create these personalized carbon footprints.
Roland Siebelink: Okay. Very good. Thank you for that explanation. And then based on that, then the channel toward banks became more obvious. Was it a big strategic decision for you folks to offer your services inside other people’s apps versus sticking to your own app?
Emma Kisby: Yeah. I think within a few weeks of me starting with Ben at Cogo, it became obvious without significant investment in our marketing budget, it’s pretty hard to scale your own app. And we had great traction. At the start we had 50,000 people downloading the app and engaging with it. And we got lots of great coverage. We were working with Mike Berners-Lee, as I mentioned. But we wanted to deliver real scale and impact. Our ambition has become a gigacorn. We’re removing gigatons of carbon emissions from the atmosphere every year. We can’t do that with a small app. The natural place for me to look was how can we collaborate and where can we find energy where a corporate or a big business has that same appetite and same need that maybe doesn’t want to go through and build it themselves. And a very natural alliance and collaboration there was with the banks, who three years ago were just starting to talk about their responsibility and ambition to help drive to a low-carbon economy.
Roland Siebelink: Okay. Let’s also talk a little bit about how you even go about building partnerships like that. That’s a question I get from many founders. They might see that an indirect channel strategy might make more sense. But then how do you as a small startup actually start building relationships and even a commercial deal with a gigantic corporation like a bank?
Emma Kisby: Yeah. That is one of the challenges, the fact that they are gigantic corporations. As a scale up business, it can often take up most of your time even trying to get to the right people. The first thing was to really look at what are those banks or what the corporate’s big ambitions were and were they genuinely aligned? And we had a very clear view at that point that we want to go after scale and impact. What we were looking for was banks who had both scale and potential impact - had a strategy and ambition around what they wanted to achieve in terms of driving to a low-carbon economy or their ambitions around providing solutions to their customers. And then we looked at which was the best way to go in.
Typically in this space, strategy and innovation teams are really good to go into because they’re on the lookout for what’s the cool new thing. And because we have open banking and because that’s a very innovative space but also can be a bit of a threat to banks, there were constantly people looking, so we were able to look there. But when we had to also work out who were the actual stakeholders who were most likely to become the actual buyers of our product, the digital proposition leads or the sustainability leads. It took some time. The advantage that we had is we were able to deliver some really good proof of concepts, which gave the banks really good confidence.
Roland Siebelink: One question that often comes up to stick with the partnership theme for just one more question is a big partner will often demand exclusivity. How did you handle that?
Emma Kisby: I come from a significant commercial background where one of my jobs was to negotiate big commercial partnerships. Exclusivity is always one of those things that comes on the table. The interesting thing in our space is the question that you asked back is are you gonna single-handedly solve the climate crisis? Because we need to empower everyone.
What we typically do is we’ll work with the banks because we want to encourage and inspire them and encourage innovation. Where, for example, we are launching into a new market, we might discuss things like, can we give you a first-to-market right so you get out to the market first. We’ll commit to you. If you sign with us, we’ll get you into the market first. And I think rationally, this is a space that people understand that there’s not gonna be one hero that’s gonna solve the climate crisis. We do need to collaborate. And you can see things like the Net Zero Banking Alliance. The banks are collaborating already in this space. There is a natural leaning toward more collaboration than is more traditionally in some of the more commercially straight contracts that you see in other projects.
Roland Siebelink: It’s not that much a source of competitive differentiation for the banks as some of the other features they might add is also what you’re implying here, I think.
Emma Kisby: Well, I hope it is, Roland. I think what we would like banks to do is to compete on the products that they can put around the carbon footprint. Where our recommendations are you should switch to an electric vehicle or you need to retro-fit your house. The banks have a massive role to play in that, and that’s where they can compete. If we can give people that access to that information, that should be fairly consistent. But what gets exciting is how the banks can make this more real and tangible.
Roland Siebelink: Excellent. Do you envision also having partnerships in other verticals than banks or are banks the key channel that you’ll be with for quite a while?
Emma Kisby: No, we are looking at other areas. We’ve talked about banks because there’s a lot of energy. But what you are seeing is there’s lots of areas where we’re putting data at the heart of the decision-making is really important. The key is that we are focused more in terms of how we can influence behavioral change and where that data sits most neatly. And there’s lots of areas that we’re exploring, such as grocery retail, such as energy consumption, and getting into more of that space, and areas like insurance. There’s lots of opportunity and we are exploring some new areas on our roadmap at the moment.
Roland Siebelink: Let’s talk a little bit about the expansion across different countries. Of course, EMEA is always a great case study for that, so I’m glad to be talking to the EMEA CEO about that. How do you move from a proof of concept that works in the UK or another home country into replicating that into other countries.
Emma Kisby: One of Cogo’s unique selling points is that we create market specific cog models and recommendations for the banks. And as you rightly say, just because you proved something in the UK doesn’t mean that it naturally works in other markets. But that’s why it was really important to go in and work really collaboratively - for example, with ING in the Netherlands - and understand the nuances of their customer base, what they were concerned about, what they knew, and then sharing with them what we know around the area of sustainability, and then nuancing our product.
But the core is true in terms of people wanting to understand their carbon footprint. If there’s energy in the market and the banks are motivated, consumers are motivated, understanding your carbon footprint, there are a lot of insights and commonalities in terms of how people engage with that information. It’s quite complicated, as I said, so it’s much easier, we show, we give analogies. For example, when you’re losing weight, you step on the scales, you know how much you weigh, and then you have an idea about the key things you need to do.
When you’re trying to learn about your carbon footprint, you say ”that is X kilos or X tons of carbon emissions.” But people don’t really know what that is. That education and that carbon literacy gap is something that exists in most markets because there is a challenge. But then there are wonderful nuances in terms of how consumers engage with that. That’s why those proof of concepts are really important with the banks. But then equally, we know there are some markets that are fairly similar in how they act, so it’s much easier to launch in those markets.
Roland Siebelink: Did you prioritize the markets compared to how close they are culturally to the UK in a sense?
Emma Kisby: Not necessarily close to the culture in the UK, but where we felt there was a real engagement that consumers had with understanding their carbon emissions. Where we felt that there was consumer appetite, where we felt that the market was ready in terms of the emission data that they had, and where we felt that the banks were motivated to take action. It was probably those three factors that we looked at most when we were considering what are the markets. And then we have been really lucky that we have been in a position, and that’s the advantage when you start landing some of these banks, that then you start having banks come to you and asking to engage. And that is that wonderful tipping point that suddenly you’re starting to get some real traction. We’ve been lucky in both.
Roland Siebelink: I can see you screaming, “yes” the moment that that started happening. Absolutely. How do you then deal with that pipeline of other countries, other banks? Do you have a pretty disciplined approach about, “Okay, we only take on X banks per month” or do you try to scale it up very, very quickly if it’s one month, it’s one, then the next month it’s two, and the next month it’s four and so forth?
Emma Kisby: We are all about speed to market, I think. What we did very early on in the process is define some key principles for growth. That would probably be one of the recommendations that I would say, which is certainly when you have a startup idea.You can very easily get influenced by people coming and telling you what they want. And it can be very tempting, especially if they might say, “Well, we’ve got all this money.” Actually, you need to work out where your product fits, and equally, what the principles you’re going from.
We defined some fairly clear and simple principles for growth around scale and impact. What were the type of markets we wanted to work with? What were the size of banks that we wanted to work with to achieve this scale and impact? And equally, what were the values? We really have got some guidelines around where we prioritize. What we want to do is we want to scale quickly and deliver this impact. For us, we will then adjust our resourcing and scale up according to where the energy is. The advantage of working with bigger banks is they do take a bit of time to get going, so you’ve got a bit more time to plan, which is useful. But even so, we still see some of the banks moving really quickly, and that’s exciting for us.
Roland Siebelink: That’s awesome. And I love that you highlight drawing up these principles, committing them to paper. That’s often, in my experience, an underestimated success factor in many startups, to actually get the thoughts out of the head of the founder or out of the heads of the early executives and write them down so that you can then also share the message and the strategy much more with new people coming on board. Has that been your experience as well that it helps with onboarding, with aligning people, with getting everyone to work toward a common goal?
Emma Kisby: Massively so. I think it’s so important. Especially in our space, what we find is that we get people who come and work in this space who are very passionate about the climate crisis. They’ll naturally have their own ideas about what they actually want to do and what the solution should be. Actually, keeping it very clear in terms of - we very early on defined what we call a brand house. What is it we actually do? Where do we want to go? What’s our North Star? And what are the principles that we’ve got for this growth? Because you need to balance a bit of the passion and pragmatism because there is so much energy when you’re in that scale up - I think one of the biggest risks is getting totally distracted, and then you lose sense of actually how you’re growing and how you’re scaling.
That’s not always been easy. I make it sound very easy. It’s very tempting to get distracted. But keeping us on the straight and narrow in terms of what are we looking to achieve, what are our core KPIs, how do we define success is really important to keep us on the straight and narrow.
Roland Siebelink: How would you answer some founders’ objections to that whole concept that say, “No, this would lose me all my agility. I can’t commit this all to paper because I need to be flexible in my head and with the team to respond to market challenges.”
Emma Kisby: I think there’s a balance, Roland. We haven’t always been like that. In the early days, we had to be very agile because we were trying to work out where the energy was. But when we identified there was energy, we realized that this was replicable. Then we say this is where we need to go. We still now allow 20% of our efforts also around where do we find more energy. I talked about some of the grocery retailers. We’re exploring with a UK grocer at the moment, some ideas. It doesn’t stop you from being nimble. But it does then give you some focus in terms of where can you scale and replicate versus where do you test and be nimble.
And that balance is sometimes hard to keep focused on. But that is really important because you can’t be so nimble then you don’t replicate because it’s inefficient. But equally, you can’t be so process focused that you’re not adjusting your products and looking for new opportunities.
Roland Siebelink: Let’s talk a little bit about the key challenges that Cogo has faced. Can you tell one or two stories about certain things that were really tough on the team and how you managed through it?
Emma Kisby: We had an amazing situation where we found out that we had got the scale contract with NatWest, and that was really exciting. It did a few things for our business. One is it validated that actually this is an amazing way we can scale because suddenly we had the opportunity to service our features to eight million NatWest customers in their bank. Suddenly, from going from a small app, we were saying, “Wow, this is it exactly - we’re there.” But then we needed to have it ready for COP 26. All of a sudden, how do you mobilize across two or three different time zones, across four or five different teams in a matter of months? That was pretty challenging.
But what was amazing was the commitment from all sides, in terms of there was a real will and ambition. I think when you put a stake in the ground like that, it’s so exciting because it was like, “Wow, yeah!” And now we have to deliver it. And then it was like, “Whoa, gosh, five months to spit up this scale solution.” And there was some compromise that had to be made along the way. But we did get it live in market and saw some really great results. I was very, very proud of that spirit of collaboration when you come together and you really have this aim in mind. And it was a big game. It was a big opportunity to get live for COP 26. It was very exciting. But yeah, it was pretty challenging and I’m not sure our CTO has quite got over it yet, but I am very grateful to him.
Roland Siebelink: Fair enough. The learning there seems to be having that central stake in the ground is such a motivating and energizing factor for people but also one that it sounds like helps you actually then draw out the compromises you need to actually get stuff done.
Emma Kisby: Yeah, and I think it’s always about compromises. And then it’s always what do we need for there? And then what can we do later on? And I think because of that, we had not only a clear view of what we wanted to launch with but then a clear view of our aligned roadmap of where we went to, so the product continues to evolve and just get better and better.
Roland Siebelink: Okay, very good. How big do you think Cogo can become?
Emma Kisby: Massive. Roland. We want to help hundreds of millions of individuals to help understand, measure, and reduce their carbon emissions. And we want to do that by working with as many of the world’s leading banks as possible. We want to be a gigacorn. The climate crisis is not going away. We are really excited about where the opportunities this can take because the data in carbon tracking is only the first part of the journey. It’s then what that can open up in terms of how we can create better products around it or how we can connect people to not just low-carbon products or low-carbon companies but how can you then get into more product level data, so that when they’re shopping around the store, things are popping up and telling them how to reduce their carbon emissions.
Roland Siebelink: I see your grocery background right there, absolutely.
Emma Kisby: I know, it sneaks out still. I think the opportunity is infinite. I think what we need to do is work out how we grow efficiently and effectively. That is the biggest opportunity. How big can we grow? I don’t think there’s any limits on it. How fast we can grow is how fast we can get the companies on board and work with us and collaborate with us and innovate the product.
Roland Siebelink: What do you feel - to the degree you can reveal this, of course - what do you feel are some of the key milestones or roadblocks to remove in the coming years or so to actually get to that high level of growth?
Emma Kisby: I would love to talk more openly about speed to market. I think one of the challenges is how long, especially for a scale-up business, the opportunity for collaboration with the big corporates is fantastic if you can get it right. But it does take some time and sometimes for a scale-up business that can eat up a big chunk of your runway.
Actually, that speed to market, how do you get a corporate to put your - in our case, our carbon footprint tracker - into their integrated and mobile bank experience without lots and lots of testing and learning and process and due diligence. But I think as we get more and more proof points out there, it gets faster and faster. And as banks are evolving and looking at solutions about how their technology can improve, that gets faster and faster too.
Roland Siebelink: Okay. Other challenges other than the go-to market that you think are things for Cogo to solve in the coming years? A new capability to build? Something where you feel like that’ll be something that the capacity we need to have in order to reach this higher growth level?
Emma Kisby: I think the really exciting opportunity is around the granularity of data and the influence it can have. What we see is that the data that we use is solid enough. It’s solid out there. But what’s happening is that regulations like TCFD are putting pressures on businesses to disclose what their carbon emissions are. And the more businesses that are going into that level to understand what their carbon footprints are, the more accurate we can get in terms of matching that against different behaviors.
Roland Siebelink: This is how you translate the dollars or the euros into carbon impact, right?
Emma Kisby: Exactly. As we get into more detailed data, things like product level data, that’s where it gets even more exciting. At the moment, the maturity of the market and consumers means that people are just trying to understand what their carbon footprint is and what the big behaviors are. But as more and more businesses report, then we can start showing the difference between different companies and different behaviors so that actually people can narrow down their behaviors - should I shop at this place or should I shop at this place, and this has a lower carbon footprint.
When you are able to show that level of optionality, then people are making very conscious decisions. And that’s really exciting. There is a big opportunity around the data. I think things like the open data reform act and smart data coming in are really exciting opportunities for us.
Roland Siebelink: People that have listened to this podcast, how can they help Cogo? Where should they go? What should they download to figure out more?
Emma Kisby: We have a website, which is cogo.co. If you’re in the UK, you can actually download the Cogo app. If you’re in other countries like the Netherlands, you can go onto your ING banking experience and see it there or on NatWest or Commonwealth Bank if you’re in Australia. But look us up on the website. There’s lots of information there that can help you work out what we do. And we are always open for really interesting and passionate conversations, so get in touch.
Roland Siebelink: Okay, perfect. What are you looking for specifically in the help you need from people?
Emma Kisby: We are constantly raising money, Roland, as you’ll imagine. We’re looking for value-aligned investors. And we are looking for motivated banks who are inspired by what we are doing to bring solutions. And we are looking for passionate employees who have fantastic talents who want to join us and leverage all those wonderful talents to help us make it a better product that delivers fantastic impact.
Roland Siebelink: That’s amazing. And of course, anyone who knows me and doesn’t know Emma yet, I’m happy to provide an introduction. Happy to help with that.
Well, this has been a great interview. Thank you so much, Emma Kisby, the EMEA CEO of Cogo. It was a pleasure.
Emma Kisby: Thank you, Roland.
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