NRG’s Portable Power Kiosks from Concept to the Super Bowl

By Scott Kirsner |  February 1, 2017

An electric utility doesn’t always have the most positive interactions with its customers. One interaction happens monthly, like clockwork: the bill. Another happens less predictably: the power flickers out, and there’s a frustrated call to customer service.

Stacey Butler

So a new service offering from NRG, called NRG Go, is a big deal for the $15 billion energy company, which has dual headquarters in Houston, Texas and West Windsor, New Jersey. NRG Go’s automated kiosks rent out fully-charged battery packs at places like nightclubs, concert venues, and shopping malls so that people can recharge their phones and tablets — without hunting for an outlet and plopping down next to it for an hour or so.

And it progressed from an initial concept to launch in less than 18 months, says Stacey Butler, Senior Manager of NRG Go. This week, fans attending Super Bowl LI and the pre-game activities in Houston will be able to use the NRG Go kiosks around the city — and a dozen of them inside NRG Field — for free. (Ordinarily, a 24-hour rental typically costs between $3 and $4; users who decide to keep the powerpack are charged $40, minus the original rental fee.)

Butler shared with InnoLead six things that she regards as key to getting an idea into the market so quickly — and setting it up for success.

1.Embracing lean startup. NRG used the lean startup methodology for the project, developing a “minimum viable product” first and getting it out into the world for testing. For NRG Go, that meant buying some off-the-shelf powerbanks at first, and going to music festivals and other live events to try to rent them. “We had an employee who did it on a tabletop, with a for-rent sign and a price,” Butler says. “We realized that people would pay to rent power, and we did some price testing. We found that the price was fairly inelastic, and we were able to validate customer interest and willingness to pay and their general love of the idea.”

The idea of a table staffed by an employee obviously “wasn’t scalable,” Butler says. “We’re a company that runs power plants — we understand scale.” So NRG began working with an outside industrial design firm on an MVP version of an automated kiosk. “It was very basic — Plexiglass with some doors that would open, and we’d put our brand on the powerpacks,” Butler says. (The kiosk wasn’t actually able to recharge them yet.) That version debuted at the Houston Rodeo in 2014, a three-week event that allowed Butler’s team “to interact with customers, survey them, watch how they interacted with the product” over a more extended period than just a one-day festival. (For more on the lean startup approach, see our 2016 research report, “Lean Startup in Large Organizations.”)

2. Regular executive input. All of the big decisions were made by a board that met weekly, and was focused just on the NRG Go project. “We had folks from innovation, and the financial side, operations, and technology,” Butler says. Rather than discussing an entire portfolio of projects they concentrated just on the development of NRG Go.

3. Structured as a startup. NRG Go was set up as a truly separate project, with a cross-functional team of between eight and 10 people working on it full-time, Butler says. “We could leverage a user-testing team from elsewhere in the company, or borrow folks to augment it as needed,” she says. “Being treated as our own startup freed us to behave and think differently. We were able to focus entirely on getting to market quickly with our MVP…and gather validated learnings as quickly as possible.” The team is based in the same building in downtown Houston as NRG’s Retail Electricity business, “which is an open-office, cubicle-free environment,” Butler says.

4. Iterate then iterate some more. The team had a concrete launch date in mind: the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Butler says that in advance of that, they “really buckled down” and worked through “many rounds of prototypes, samples, and testing.” And once they’d finalized the design for what she calls the “gamma version” of the kiosk, they initially only built 20 units for deployment around Houston, so they could understand what it took to maintain them. (The next production run increased the number to 100, and Butler says there are now kiosks in place or contracted for everywhere from Hawaii to the East Coast.)

5. No hand-off. There was no hand-off to another business unit within NRG for NRG Go’s launch in the Houston market. “The original team has really been the ones to take this all the way across the finish line,” Butler says, adding that she has drawn on expertise from throughout the company, including the legal department for contracts and procurement for sourcing.

6. Creating a brand ‘halo.‘ Butler looked for ways that the NRG Go kiosks could help promote NRG’s Reliant Energy brand, which serves residential and business customers across Texas. “Reliant was able to sponsor kiosks in certain locations so you can get free charging there,” she says. “The thought was, ‘Let’s leverage this new business to help our core business succeed.” Electric utilities, she notes, “sell electrons, so to get our brand into peoples’ hands this way, delivering a service that saves the day, is a new way for people to interact with us.”

Within NRG, the NRG Go team is seen as having “blazed a new trail,” Butler says. “This was the first time that lean startup principles were applied to something we conceptualized and then commercialized. And 16 months to take a hardware product from concept to being in venues — in the world of manufacturing and hardware, that’s a pretty short cycle.”

Post-Super Bowl Sunday, Butler’s team will continue to focus on a national roll-out for NRG Go. And she reveals that other companies have begun to inquire about licensing the kiosk technology — an indication that NRG Go has not only solved a real problem for consumers, she says, but has done it “more elegantly than others in the space.”