Last week I sat down with Sascha Deri, CEO of altE, to learn more about the company’s formative years. I asked if he started any companies before altE, and his answer surprised me.
First there’s the people. There was myself, my cousin Nick Albright, and my friend Jason Federspiel, who at the time was my coworker at a local telecom manufacturing plant. We had the dot-com itch – we didn’t know it was a bubble. We wanted to create an online business to supplement our day jobs. None of us could afford to work full-time at a startup, because we had to pay school loans, food, and rent.
We tried to set up a website where we’d sell car audio products, because we thought there’d be a great business in it. For whatever reason we quickly moved away from that, towards what we thought would be the future – Voice Over Internet Protocol. We thought “Let’s offer phone calls over the internet, we can charge far less than the major phone companies, especially for long-distance. We’ll make big bucks!”
We bought and installed the hardware and software to allow incoming calls from the internet, outbound to local exchange in Massachusetts. We had plans to advertise internationally. Nick had built this whole e-commerce engine, and soon business started to ramp up. We were charging 5¢ per minute. Back then international calls to the US could cost more than ten times that price.
It turns out most of our customers were all from one guy somewhere in Europe, who was stealing credit cards and using them to pay for calls. We were in this long call tree, and he was ultimately connecting his customers, through us, to some adult line in the United States.
Jason, Nick and I had a long conference call to decide where to go next. I remember I was living in Miami at the time. I was pacing back and forth on the patio of my second-floor rented condo. We decided “Okay this is ridiculous. We were never making any money, and now we’re losing money.” It sounded like the end of our venture.
I said “Hold on guys. We built this whole e-commerce structure.” I remember getting a shiver. There are these moments in time where you have these ideas and it almost hurts your head because you kinda feel the electric firing of “this could really work,” and you feel so energetic that you can’t quite get the words out. That was one of those moments.
I’d always been passionate about renewable energy, and its potential to improve the environment and our world. I saw our chance to make a difference. I said, “Why don’t we take what we already have, use it to sell renewable energy systems online, and give away the know-how on doing solar, wind, micro-hydro, solar-thermal.”
The idea was to automate a lot of processes that the competition hadn’t yet. We wouldn’t push paper or faxes, pick up the telephone, or have a storefront. We’d do things completely online and over email. We’d automate the site so customers could learn online for free, make educated decisions, and then buy from us, at any time of the day and from anywhere in the world.
In January of 1999 we decided to move ahead with the idea. By May or June we got the website working, and the products up online. I’d often spend 8 p.m. to 2 a.m. working on the website, and answering customer questions by email. In early August we had our first order. We slowly got more and more orders – all small, but we didn’t care. That’s how it started.
Pretty quickly we got a lot of feedback from customers who didn’t want to buy from us unless they could talk to a human being. That was a real slap in the face to our dot-com mentality. We quickly realized that for customers, buying a book or shoes online was far different from buying a $10,000 renewable energy system. Customers might be okay with buying a replacement charge controller for a few hundred bucks, but anything more and they wanted to talk to a real person. Back then we didn’t have the credibility – we hadn’t been around for decades yet.
Soon the Alternative Energy Store set about building a technical sales team. You won’t believe who the first rep was! “Tune in” for the whole story July 2nd.