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A 'toxic' work culture and 12-hour days: Inside the world of Bulb, one of the UK's fastest-growing tech start-ups

Bulb chief executive Hayden Wood
Bulb chief executive Hayden Wood Credit: Julian Andrews/Eye R8 Production

This article has an estimated read time of five minutes 

In many ways it is the archetypal UK tech start-up success story. Based in a fashionable office space in East London, renewable energy supplier Bulb has a 36-year-old co-founder and since its creation five years ago has achieved breakneck levels of growth.

With 1.3m UK customers, in December the company was named as Britain’s fastest-growing private business by research firm Beauhurst and crowdfunding site SyndicateRoom.

It’s a record that has also handed chief executive Hayden Wood, who lives in London with his wife, a £120m fortune – not bad for a company that is up against industry giants such as British Gas and EDF in a ferociously competitive consumer industry.

“A lot of people have been really surprised at our ability to grow,” says Wood. “They always say, ‘Why haven’t you been trampled by the big suppliers?’”

Bulb’s runaway financial success has come at a cost however.

Former employees have alleged a “toxic” work culture, with several recalling that Wood would swear at staff and threaten to fire them. It’s a reputation Bulb is fighting to shake off as it prepares for the next phase of its expansion.

A former management consultant at Bain & Company and LSE student, Wood started the business in 2015 with energy trader Amit Gudka to remake the way energy suppliers work. Bulb sells only renewable electricity and carbon neutral gas and is hoping its radical service model will win over customers.

The company might have started life in east London, but not all its clients are millennials: the average customer age is 48. “We are just unashamedly mainstream. You don’t have to download the Bulb app in order to get service from us,” says Wood, who in person is casually-dressed, polite and jovial, talking excitedly about his business.

On Thursday, the firm announced its first international expansion plans, with customers in the US, France and Spain soon able to sign up to Bulb’s service too.

Bulb also plans to open offices in those regions, and is looking to launch in more countries. But the path to becoming a major energy supplier isn’t easy.

There are growing signs of employee discontent, with Bulb’s profile on rating service Glassdoor including negative reviews complaining of a “toxic” work culture.

Staff write of 12-hour working days, a stressful culture and Wood threatening staff with being fired. The advice offered by one ex-employee was: “Get on top of your superfast growth because it will end up bringing you down.” Wood’s personal approval rating has dropped to 59pc, below the site’s 66pc average for chief executives. In the past year, the overall average rating for Bulb has fallen from around 5 stars to 3.2 stars.

Bulb’s ratings are still better than its competitors: Sarwjit Sambhi, the Centrica executive who runs British Gas, has a dismal 21pc approval rating.

Wood says negative reviews are down to Bulb’s fast growth and reliance on temporary staff to meet high demand: “Last year we grew extremely quickly and we hired some temps. I think that for some people, it just wasn’t the right place. When you grow from a team of 100 people to 400 people, there are growing pains. It has been really challenging.” Wood says Bulb hopes to improve its conditions.

“There’s a lot to learn from those Glassdoor reviews,” he says, “and we have been reading them and learning.”

A spokesman for the company says Bulb has introduced anonymous feedback for management following the series of negative reviews.

Bulb’s co-founders have lofty aims, hoping to reach 5m customers in the UK within years. Reaching that would catapult Bulb into being one of the largest energy suppliers alongside EDF and British Gas.

“We’re adding new customers at a rate of about 1m a year,” Wood says excitedly. “If we continue to do that for five years, we will be the biggest energy supplier.”

Part of Bulb’s appeal to customers has been its approach to service. Instead of using call centre staff who have to route customers to different departments to solve their problems, Bulb trains staff to be able to solve issues themselves without having to put customers on hold.

“I just think it’s part of our company culture now,” Wood says.

The company employs 400, with the majority of employees working to help customers with any problems.

Not that Bulb calls its customers “customers.” Instead, the company refers to them as “members”.

Unlike traditional energy suppliers, Bulb doesn’t have multiple fees and tariffs. Instead, it has a single variable tariff for every customer.

“We wouldn’t want to have multiple deals,” Wood says.

“We wouldn’t want to have a customer who is with Bulb to be paying a different rate to another customer who is with Bulb. We want people to know that they’re on our single best rate.”

The single tariff is a good marketing tool when the cost of renewable energy is stable, but increases in energy prices mean that the company had to raise its prices three times last year.

“The hardest email you have to send customers is the email that says, ‘Wholesale energy prices are going up so we have to increase your prices,’” Wood says.

Last year, he personally contacted a customer after she publicly complained that Bulb raised its prices by 11pc one day after she convinced several members of her family to join. “You have to explain how it works,” Wood says. “That’s difficult in a low-engagement category.” Bulb did then manage to drop its energy prices in February following a 12pc drop in the price of wholesale gas.

Despite energy price fluctuations, Wood says that Bulb makes a profit of £50 per “member”, although the company is still loss-making due to its marketing and research costs. The company’s most recent accounts, which cover the period from April 2017 to March 2018, showed a rise in revenue from £10m to £183m, but losses ballooned from £2.1m to £23.7m.

Wood says that Bulb is not actively raising money, despite its rising losses. “We’re very well-funded, we have no immediate plans to be raising,” he adds.

The company raised £60m in funding from backers DST Global and Magnetar last year.

Bulb also launched its first television advertising campaign in February. It aims to teach people that they can switch their energy suppliers – around a third of UK households have never switched their supplier, Wood says.

“As long as people are choosing where they get their energy from, we think that’s a great thing,” the executive says. “We hope that some people choose us.”

Wood speaks proudly of a division named Bulb Labs, which is working on charging services for electric vehicles and the use of smart meters for Bulb customers.

“We are choosing to make those investments because we think it’s the right thing to do,” Wood says.

The chief executive believes that Bulb’s combination of renewable energy, cheap tariffs and good customer service will be enough to compete with the major energy suppliers.

“When you combine all of those things, there’s not a lot they can do,” he says.

“Well, not a lot they’ve done so far. Who knows?”