As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Michael Sachse, CEO of Dandelion Energy.
Michael Sachse is the CEO of Dandelion Energy. Dandelion is the leading provider of geothermal heating and cooling systems to homeowners, starting in the Northeastern US. Michael is an experienced executive who has previously scaled start-ups through periods of rapid growth.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I became CEO of Dandelion Energy less than a year ago. I was previously CEO of Stardog, an Entrepreneur-in-Residence at NEA, and Chief Marketing Officer at Opower, where I helped to guide the company through its IPO and acquisition by Oracle. I’m passionate about making the world a better place and taking on climate change. Home heating and cooling has been one of the toughest climate problems to tackle, but we’re doing it at Dandelion Energy.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
I’m not sure it’s funny, but two months after I joined Dandelion as CEO, COVID-19 hit and, as a New York company, we had to shut down operations. I used to say running a start-up business is like building a ship when you’re at sea. COVID-19 meant we had to hit pause on much of our business operations — which was like coming into harbor to rebuild the ship. The pause allowed our business to take a longer look at improving all our business practices and adapting to our new reality.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
I’m a committed vegetarian, and I’ve read quite a few books on animal ethics, like Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals. While these books have nothing to do with business per se, I think having beliefs that are different from everyone else does. Particularly when you’re trying to do something new.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
At Dandelion, I have the good fortune to follow a fantastic CEO, Kathy Hannun. Kathy founded the company and built an incredibly strong foundation built on an understanding the climate change represents an existential threat to our world. She looked at the landscape of solutions like solar, wind, electric cars and energy efficiency — and realized there was a huge gap in innovation in the home heating and cooling industry.
We carry that purpose forward everyday. While many of the jobs we do may seem ordinary — whether getting a permit, installing a heat pump, or closing our financial books — they are all part of this larger purpose and that has helped to bind us together during this difficult time.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
While it’s not a principle, I often think of the parable of the Taoist farmer. The Taoist farmer has one horse, and the horse runs off. The villagers lament his misfortune, and he replies “We’ll see.” The horse returns with four more horses, and the farmer is praised for his good luck. He replies, “We’ll see.” His son then attempts to break the horses, and breaks his leg. Again, the villagers console him for his bad luck. The reply again is “We’ll see.” Then the army comes and conscripts all the able-bodied young men, but the farmer’s son is spared.
While running a business is not life and death, it often feels similarly dramatic. When things are great, it feels amazing and when things are bad, it feels like the world is going to end. Yet, in truth, things are rarely as good or as bad as you think they are in the moment.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
I think the biggest challenge is acknowledging and managing the existential anxiety we all feel. I am concerned about people I know getting sick, and I’m also concerned about people I don’t know getting sick. To a lesser extent, I’m concerned about myself. And all of this is happening in the context of a country, which has always been extraordinary in so many ways, falling so short. It’s a lot to process, and it’s particularly hard when social distancing makes friendships and community harder to maintain. So I try to be deliberate about creating time and activities that connect me to others.
I’m also a parent, and this is a both a great time and an incredibly difficult time to be a parent. I see my kids much more than I used to, and I love that. At the same time, it’s hard to find privacy. My daughter interrupted me in the middle of a board meeting last week to ask me to make her a breakfast burrito. So, clearly, there are quite a few challenges I haven’t solved.
Can you share a few of the biggest work related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
For Dandelion, as a New York company, we’ve been challenged in way I couldn’t have imagined when I became CEO. The pause in winter and early spring allowed our business to take a longer look at improving all our business practices and adapting to our new reality. For example, before the crisis, our sales and system design processes relied on face-to-face and being at our customer’s homes. Sales were often completed around the kitchen table and sealed with a handshake. Not anymore. We moved our entire sales and design processes to virtual.
Sales and design are the clearest examples, but there are other ways we’re redesigning our business processes. We’ve ramped-up virtual support services for our customers. We’re streamlining business processes and shifting marketing. All of these innovations will make our company safer, healthier and stronger as we come out of this crisis.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
I wish I had a great answer to this! I think anxiety is a real challenge for everyone right now.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
We are going to need to make a lot of investments to recover from COVID. Some of those investments will be basic investments in health care or the social safety net, but I think it’s going to trigger a bolder reckoning with what really matters in the future.
I am optimistic that we’re going to get serious about some things we haven’t been serious about in the past. We knew that a pandemic was a major risk, and it turned out we were not prepared for it. I believe we’re going to learn from our mistakes, and that this will cause a reassessment of what really matters. And, in particular, I’m optimistic that we’re going to get serious about tackling climate change.
I believe the post COVID economy is going to require deep structural work on buildings, on transportation, and on health. And I think, a seriousness about climate change will be central to it all.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
It is hard for me to envision office life returning in the way it was before. We will have offices, and they’ll be centers of collaboration, but it’s hard to envision them being filled with 40 hour a week workers in cubicles as before.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
We plan to expand, but that expansion will take a different shape. We’ve shut down our New York City office, and we won’t re-open it. We’ve moved to remote sales, and we won’t go back to in person. At the same time, we had plans before COVID to expand our operations into Connecticut and Long Island, and we’re going to proceed with those plans. We see people more willing to invest in clean, comfortable homes than ever before.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
I think every business, whether they had an in person or remote culture before COVID, is going to have a remote or hybrid culture after COVID. I don’t see any way to avoid that. There are too many benefits to working from home, and I expect a contingent of employees to insist on it. So, I think every business is going to need to reach some level of comfort with less frequent office work. That’s a good thing.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I wish I had something pithy or powerfully insightful to share.
How can our readers further follow your work?
I post occasionally on LinkedIn.