Why Geothermal Energy Makes Sense with Kathy Hannun, Co-founder & President of Dandelion Energy

Kathy Hannun is the Co-founder and President of Dandelion Energy, the largest residential geothermal company in the United States. Dandelion transitions homeowners from fossil-fueled to geothermal heating and cooling using their custom geothermal drilling suite and Dandelion Air heat pump. Before founding Dandelion, Hannun was a Rapid Evaluator at X, Alphabet’s innovation lab, where she focused on finding “Moonshots,” i.e business opportunities to harness technology for large-scale positive impact.

She initiated Dandelion as an X project and then launched it into an independent startup company in May 2017. Dandelion has since raised millions in funding from top venture capitalists, set a new standard for geothermal quality and cost-effectiveness, and empowered homeowners to avoid over 100 million pounds of carbon emissions and counting. In February 2021, Dandelion announced a $30M Series B funding round led by Breakthrough Energy Ventures.

The company has partnered with Con Edison utility to promote heat pumps as an alternative to natural gas heating and successfully advocated for increased policy support for heat pumps throughout the Northeast.

In addition, Dandelion has increased public awareness of the benefits of ground source heat pumps through stories in publications media such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, CNN, Fast Company, WIRED, Bloomberg, and TechCrunch and many others. Hannun has been recognized as a TED Fellow, a DOE C2E Award recipient, one of Fast Company’s Most Creative People in Business, and as one of MIT Technology Review’s “35 under 35.” She graduated from Stanford with a B.S. in Civil Engineering and an M.S. in Computer Science.

Kathy joined us on episode 50 of the Bigger Than Us podcast to explain the financial and environmental benefits of geothermal energy and the Dandelion Geothermal System. She also shares how she navigated motherhood while fundraising, lessons learned about balancing optimism and pragmatism, and why you shouldn’t let fear hold you back from fulfilling your vision.

By bringing affordable clean energy to homeowners, Kathy is having an effect that is Bigger Than Us.

Take me to the podcast.

Geothermal Energy: The World’s Best Bet

Excerpts from the Bigger Than Us podcast. These quotes have been edited for brevity and readability.

Geothermal heating and cooling is a way of making use of the renewable thermal energy that’s in the ground, wherever you are, and using that energy to heat and cool your house in a very, very cost-effective way. So it’s a replacement for fossil fuels, like natural gas, or fuel oil, or propane, that people typically use to heat their homes.

Not only is [fuel oil] super expensive, but it’s also just a pain and kind of gross to use. And so a lot of homeowners using fuel oil wish that there was a better alternative for them. And we are able to provide that with geothermal.

The thing about geothermal that drew me in was that it’s a way of heating and cooling your house that’s a lot less expensive than using fossil fuels. It uses electricity, and it can move heat out of your house into the ground, kind of acting as an air conditioner would. But it can also move heat from the ground into your house, thereby warming your house.

The thing that makes geothermal so cost-effective and so inexpensive is that the ground is always at a steady mild temperature. So it doesn’t take that much electricity to move heat either out of the ground or into the ground. You just don’t have to spend that much money to do it. So you’re able to move a lot of heat using only a little bit of electricity.

There’s this nice alignment between the homeowners’ financial incentive and what was best for society: this clean, renewable heating and cooling source. And that’s very rare. Typically, with renewable energy, there’s a premium associated. And so the fact that people could save so much money by using renewable energy in this way struck me as a huge opportunity.

Making Geothermal Accessible to All of Us

Dandelion Energy is a startup that I co-founded in 2017 with a mission to make geothermal heating and cooling for houses way more affordable and easy to do than it had been in the past.

Even though running the geothermal system is the cheapest way to heat and cool your house — and that has been for decades — actually getting that system installed in the house, to begin with, has been very expensive in the past.

Not only was it expensive, but it was also very difficult and onerous. As a homeowner, you would have had to work with a few different companies to get everything into place. You might have to know quite a bit about design and HVAC systems to make sure you got a high-quality system.

We have done quite a few things to try to take this difficult, expensive project and make it very simple and affordable for homeowners — bringing it all under one roof. We have pioneered the use of smaller, more residential-friendly drilling methods to get those ground loops in the ground. We’re also creating heat pumps — the actual equipment that lives in the house — that are designed for that residential use case. They have monitoring so the homeowner can see how they’re performing and know for sure that they got a high-quality system. And they’re also designed to be way more affordable so that the homeowner won’t pay an exorbitant amount for this system upfront but instead pay a very reasonable amount and then save a lot of money over time. We had to approach the problem from a lot of different angles to solve that affordability and simplicity objective.

I am a mission-driven founder in the sense that my goal at Dandelion is to decarbonize heating. I know that the best way to do that is with heat pumps. I’d like Dandelion to play a role in leading that transition.

New Parent, New Company

When I started Dandelion, it was around the same time that I wanted to start my family. To have a child. The challenge for me was that in the success scenario that I wanted to plan for, I knew Dandelion would occupy a lot of me for many years. I hoped that it would be a demanding and challenging project that I would pour myself into for the foreseeable future. There was just going to be no time, if things went well, that would be convenient to have a baby.

I fundraised a few times while pregnant with my two children. It was kind of unexplored. It seemed to me that that was more likely to decrease the confidence of investors that I would be the right person to take on this opportunity than if I were not a pregnant woman. Or a man. Neither of those things was possible. I was a pregnant woman. But that was my fear.

In those early years, I did think that if I didn’t have a baby, it would have been easier to spend those late nights working all the time. I was forced to not do those things as much as I would have. And there’s a cost. It’s the same problem we’ve experienced across our whole society. It’s not designed to support families with two working parents, and there’s not a lot of infrastructures there. So it’s a struggle that a lot of parents go through.

I thought about how I would feel if I put having kids on hold for a few years and Dandelion didn’t work out. It’d be a double tragedy for me. So I thought that given those two things, I’m just gonna do it and figure it out. And that way, I won’t have this possibility of a deep regret in my personal life, regardless of what happens with the company.

A Startup is Both Beauty and Beast

I never anticipated or planned to be an entrepreneur or start a company. It was only when I was employed at Google, learning more and more about heat pumps and their potential and their promise and becoming more and more compelled by them, that I started to think the best way to push heat pumps forward is increasingly looking like starting a company in the space.

At Google, I never needed to be nearly as focused as I have needed to be at Dandelion. Google isn’t resource-constrained in the same ways that a startup is. At Google, money was not really an issue. The real constraint was time. At Dandelion, like at most startups, we were severely resource-constrained.

One of the key things about being a successful entrepreneur has been a combination of being very open-minded — optimistic and creative around the possibilities and what you believe the future will look like — paired with ruthless pragmatism around making the business work. Being able to say no, to almost everything, and just have a few things that you focus on, was so important.

I started Dandelion being good at the first part: having my vision of what geothermal could become. But then along the way, I had to learn so much more: how do we price these systems well so that we’re making enough money as a company? How do we build our sales funnel and track it in a way that allows us to optimize it? How do we not depend on policies falling our way, but insulate the company, assuming that they don’t fall our way? You have to be positive in the long term but paranoid and negative in the short term, and you have to balance those two things within yourself.

At a super high level, it’s envisioning a different approach to a problem and then trying to figure out how to actually implement it. It’s so rewarding. Here’s a technology that already exists. There are just a few things that we have to modify, or change, or stretch, about how this is done. You can see the path to solving the problem. And if you solve the problem, it will have this huge impact. And there’s such a gaping huge need for it. That’s really what drew me in.

Throw Yourself Into the Abyss. No Fear.

When I was thinking about starting Dandelion, I had a lot of self-doubt and fear around what would happen. And it’s easy to talk yourself out of doing things by listening to those fears.

How do you build a company? What does it even entail to start a company? I didn’t know anyone for most of my life who had done that. It just never crossed my mind.

It was like, “I have no idea how to start a company. But what’s the first thing I need to do? I guess I’ll just try it.” There’s no better way than throwing yourself in the deep end to figure it out. It’s the only way, in some sense. But as you do that to yourself more and more, you become more comfortable throwing yourself in the deep end like that, and it has served me well. I’ve learned a lot by taking those risks and going for it. That’s what I maybe would have liked to hear when I was on the edge trying to decide, “Should I take these risks? Or maybe not?”

I would encourage founders and potential founders — men or women — to try to not listen to fear too much. Act according to what you want. Try to ignore the fear. Because everyone has that fear. It’s such a normal part of the experience. Just because you’re afraid of what could happen if it goes wrong, it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do it.

The Transcript: Bigger Than Us Episode 150

This transcript has been lightly edited.

Host Raj Daniels  00:00

 So, Kathy, I like to open the show by asking my guests the following question. If you were asked to share something interesting about yourself, what would it be?

Kathy Hannun  02:50

In the context of being a founder and Dandelion, one interesting thing might be that I never anticipated or planned to be an entrepreneur or start a company.

Host Raj Daniels  03:04

Tell me more about that.

Kathy Hannun  03:09

I think I, like many people, just had no idea how you even go about doing that. You know, how do you build a company? What does it even entail to start a company? I didn’t know anyone for most of my life who had done that. It just never crossed my mind. It was only when I was employed at Google, and learning more and more about heat pumps and their potential and their promise and becoming more and more compelled by them, that I started to think the best way to push heat pumps forward is increasingly looking like starting a company in the space. And the only way that I can see to do that is to just do it. So maybe I should just do that. And it was a scary thought at the time because I knew it would be very hard. And I didn’t know how to do it. But I knew I was starting to become sure that I wanted to.

Host Raj Daniels  04:18

So you took the leap. You’re building your wings on the way down. You started Dandelion Energy. Can you share with the audience more about Dandelion Energy and your role at the organization?

Kathy Hannun  04:31

Absolutely. Dandelion Energy is a startup that I co-founded in 2017 with a mission to make geothermal heating and cooling for houses way more affordable and easy to do than it had been in the past. Geothermal heating and cooling is a way of making use of the renewable thermal energy that’s in the ground, wherever you are, and using that energy to heat and cool your house in a very, very cost-effective way. So it’s a replacement for fossil fuels, like natural gas, or fuel oil, or propane, that people typically use to heat their homes.

Host Raj Daniels  05:10

Now, you mentioned heat pumps and geothermal. Working at Google, I’m sure there were other. . . Let’s just call them more attractive opportunities. What about geothermal just drew you to it?

Kathy Hannun  05:24

The thing about geothermal that drew me in was that it’s a way of heating and cooling your house that’s a lot less expensive than using fossil fuels. There’s this nice alignment between the homeowners’ financial incentive and what was best for society: this clean, renewable heating and cooling source. And that’s very rare. Typically, with renewable energy, there’s a premium associated. And so the fact that people could save so much money by using renewable energy in this way struck me as a huge opportunity.

Host Raj Daniels  06:08

Do you know why we haven’t been using more geothermal? Why we’ve been using conventional air conditioning and heating?

Kathy Hannun  06:17

Yes. There are two main reasons. One is that even though running the geothermal system is the cheapest way to heat and cool your house––and that has been for decades––actually getting that system installed in the house, to begin with, has been very expensive in the past. So we needed to find a way to make that initial installation of the system way more affordable. That was number one. And number two is that not only was it expensive, it’s also very difficult and onerous. As a homeowner, you would have had to work with a few different companies to get everything into place. You might have to know quite a bit about design and HVAC systems to make sure you got a high-quality system. Very few people know about those things. There just aren’t a lot of suppliers out there. Both the money and sort of the effort that would have to go into it made it unrealistic for many homeowners,

Host Raj Daniels  07:26

How is Dandelion doing it differently?

Kathy Hannun  07:29

We have done quite a few things to try to take this difficult, expensive project and make it very simple and affordable for homeowners––bringing it all under one roof. Dandelion can handle all of it. And homeowners don’t have to be experts in HVAC to get a great system. We have pioneered the use of smaller, more residential-friendly drilling methods to get those ground loops in the ground. And we can talk more about what a geothermal system consists of so I can put those ground loops into context. We’re also creating heat pumps––the actual equipment that lives in the house––that are designed for that residential use case. They have monitoring so the homeowner can see how they’re performing and know for sure that they got a high-quality system. And they’re also designed to be way more affordable so that the homeowner won’t pay an exorbitant amount for this system upfront but instead pay a very reasonable amount and then save a lot of money over time. We had to approach the problem from a lot of different angles to solve that affordability and simplicity objective.

Host Raj Daniels  08:50

Now you did mention ground loops. Can you get tactical for a moment and share with the audience how a heat pump works and how it’s different from conventional?

Kathy Hannun  08:58

Absolutely. The way a heat pump works is that it moves. It’s a vapor compression refrigeration system. So it’s a piece of equipment that uses electricity to move heat from one place to another. The way I’ve just described it makes it sound a little bit exotic, but these systems are very common and ubiquitous. Your air conditioner is an example of a heat pump. Your refrigerator is an example of a heat pump. Both of these examples are plugged in, so they use electricity, but then they move heat out of your house, or out of your refrigerator, to make that space cooler. For a geothermal heat pump, it’s also plugged in. It uses electricity, and it can move heat out of your house into the ground, kind of acting as an air conditioner would. But it can also move heat from the ground into your house, thereby warming your house. The thing that makes geothermal so cost-effective and so inexpensive is that the ground is always at a steady mild temperature, which is why caves are always cool, but not cold. The same temperature year-round. So it doesn’t take that much electricity to move heat either out of the ground or into the ground. You just don’t have to spend that much money to do it. So you’re able to move a lot of heat using only a little bit of electricity. The way you move heat into and out of the ground is by using what is called ground loops, and they’re just simple plastic pipes. They’re buried in the ground underneath your yard. You can’t see them. They’re about an inch and a quarter in diameter, so not too wide, but they extend, on average, about 370 feet down into the yard. So they’re quite deep. And a typical home will have one or two of these, and they just circulate water with a small amount of glycol antifreeze in a closed loop. So this water just endlessly circulates, either bringing heat into your house for heating in the winter or rejecting heat into the ground in the summer.

Host Raj Daniels  11:18

Do the ground loops ever leak?

Kathy Hannun  11:21

It’s very uncommon because the water is circulating in sealed plastic pipes. And those pipes are encased in grout. And that grouted pipe is within this hole in the ground. And it’s all sealed. So I don’t want to say it’s impossible. I’m sure it has happened. But in all the hundreds of installations we’ve done to date, a ground loop leaking in the ground has not happened. So it would be a very rare way for the system to fail. But never say never. I’m sure it’s possible. It’s just not a huge risk.

Host Raj Daniels  12:04

The ground loops; the function reminds me of how Freon works in conventional air conditioning. Is that correct?

Kathy Hannun  12:11

The ground loop would be the equivalent of the outdoor compressor in an air conditioning system. That loud box that sits outside your house for your air conditioner. That is exchanging heat with the air or pushing heat into the air outside. That box outside your house has that heat exchanger in it for your air conditioner. These ground loops are that heat exchanger, but they’re just buried in the ground. So the Freon part of your air conditioner is that refrigerant within your air conditioner. And we have that as well in our system, but it would be located in the heat pump, which is typically in your basement.

Host Raj Daniels  12:53

Now, can you retrofit from conventional air conditioning to a heat pump?

Kathy Hannun  12:59

Absolutely. 99% of the work Dandelion does is retrofitting homes that have been using fuel oil furnaces or boilers. Taking those out, putting this geothermal system in––then it serves both heating and air conditioning. But yes, absolutely. You can retrofit a home that has more conventional equipment with a geothermal system.

Host Raj Daniels  13:25

And are you doing projects nationwide?

Kathy Hannun  13:29

We’re not. Today, Dandelion is available in New York and Connecticut. And we’re very soon going to be available in Vermont and Massachusetts. We’re focused on the Northeast. We have aspirations, of course, to be available nationwide and potentially even internationally in the future. But we keep a tight focus on our geography just because quality control and being able to make sure every installation is of the highest quality is so important to the company. We don’t want to grow any faster than we can ensure that that quality remains in top condition.

Host Raj Daniels  14:15

Why did you start with the Northeast?

Kathy Hannun  14:18

We started with the Northeast because people spend the most money on heating and cooling there. It was the market where we could see that homeowners would get such a huge benefit from being able to switch to geothermal. One of the reasons people spend a lot of money in the Northeast is because it gets very cold. You have to heat quite a bit in the winter and then cool in the summer. Certainly not as much cooling is needed as heating. But the other reason is that fuel oil is a very common way of heating your home in the northeast. Millions and millions of homeowners use fuel oil. It has to be delivered by truck to a tank in your basement or your yard. The home I grew up in, in New Hampshire, used fuel oil. It’s very common. So fuel oil. Not only is it super expensive, but it’s also just a pain and kind of gross to use. And so a lot of homeowners using fuel oil wish that there was a better alternative for them. And we are able to provide that with geothermal. So it was that combination of homes that need a lot of heat and an option that a lot of people don’t like that much that made it a really good place to pioneer affordable geothermal systems.

Host Raj Daniels  15:43

That sounds like a good product-market fit. One last question about the system. Can it work on multifamily?

Kathy Hannun  15:52

Absolutely. Dandelion doesn’t serve multifamily today. That’s just a decision we made as a startup that needs to focus. We specialize in single-family. But geothermal as a technology is completely suited to multifamily. Other companies do serve that use case. Geothermal can be used for most building types. St. Patrick’s Cathedral, for example, in Manhattan, uses geothermal for heating and cooling. So it’s pretty broadly applicable.

Host Raj Daniels  16:26

Very interesting. I’m gonna switch gears here. First, I want to congratulate you on the raise earlier this year, the fundraising. Bill Gates breakthrough energy ventures. That was phenomenal news. When I was researching the show, I came across something very interesting in an interview. It was about fundraising as a woman. You were open to speaking about fundraising as a woman while you were expecting. Can you tell me a little bit about that journey?

Kathy Hannun  16:52

Sure. I fundraised a few times while pregnant with my two children. It was kind of unexplored. There wasn’t a lot of predefined etiquette around it for me to follow. Like many things you have to do as an entrepreneur, I had to forge my own path and figure out what I wanted to do as I went along. But the challenge is, especially in the early rounds, before your company has a lot of data to show for itself. A lot of what you’re selling to investors is your idea, but also yourself. You’re trying to make the case that this opportunity is meaningful. And I’m the right person to realize this opportunity and create value. And that’s a pretty intangible thing. It’s pretty subjective. A lot of the fear that I had was being a pregnant woman. It seemed to me that that was more likely to decrease the confidence of investors that I would be the right person to take on this opportunity than if I were not a pregnant woman. Or a man. Neither of those things was possible. I was a pregnant woman. But that was my fear. So whether or not it was true, that was the anxiety that I had. It’s already so hard for every entrepreneur to fundraise. I’m just stacking the odds against myself through my identity and the fact that I’m pregnant right now. And it was hard to know how to cope with that in the best way.

Host Raj Daniels  18:46

Something you said during one of your other interviews really jumped out at me. I’m just gonna paraphrase it. It was about not wanting to put life on hold while you built your company. Can you speak about that?

Kathy Hannun  19:00

Yes. When I started Dandelion, it was around the same time that I wanted to start my family. To have a child. And of course, my husband and I talked about that, because it’s not the most conventional decision to start a company and get pregnant at the same time. The challenge for me was that in the success scenario that I wanted to plan for, I knew Dandelion would occupy a lot of me for many years. I hoped that it would be a demanding and challenging project that I would pour myself into for the foreseeable future. And so it was hard to see how I could fit having––there was no time. They say already that there’s no right time to have a baby, but that was even more true in this situation of starting a company. There was just going to be no time, if things went well, that would be convenient to have a baby. I knew the downside scenario where it was possible I could start Dandelion, and maybe it wouldn’t work out. I thought about how I would feel if I put having kids on hold for a few years and Dandelion didn’t work out. It’d be a double tragedy for me. So I thought that given those two things, I’m just gonna do it and figure it out. I have to figure out so many challenging things with starting this company anyway. I know it will not make things easier to have this baby at the same time, but I’m just gonna do it. And that way, I won’t have this possibility of a deep regret in my personal life, regardless of what happens with the company.

Host Raj Daniels  21:02

I admire you for making that decision. I’ve known so many entrepreneurs that have put, quote-unquote, life on hold, to pursue businesses and startups. Sometimes they make it, sometimes they fail, but they can’t recoup those years that they’ve put on hold. So hats off to you for doing that.

Kathy Hannun  21:21

It’s a hard decision. I’m glad that I made the decision I made, of course, but it certainly did have its drawbacks. In those early years, I did think that if I didn’t have a baby, it would have been easier to spend those late nights working all the time. I was forced to not do those things as much as I would have. And there’s a cost. It’s the same problem we’ve experienced across our whole society. It’s not designed to support families with two working parents, and there’s not a lot of infrastructures there. So it’s a struggle that a lot of parents go through. Given the demands of a startup, it just brings the same conflicts under bright lights, where you’re trying to balance family with work.

Host Raj Daniels  22:20

It absolutely does. And I know some conversations are going on today, that are getting louder, about creating a better safety net for both men and women when it comes to parenting and families, and I hope that conversation continues to grow.

Kathy Hannun  22:33

Me too. It would just allow parents to enjoy parenthood and the early years so much more, to have more support. We would probably see more women going and starting companies and taking risks in their 30s, and while they’re in these times in life that are so career-oriented, too, because it is not easy to do both right now. There just isn’t a lot of support.

Host Raj Daniels  23:08

I agree wholeheartedly. So back to Dandelion for a moment. The name says nothing about energy. How did Dandelion come to be?

Kathy Hannun  23:17

One of the perks of starting your company at a place like Google is all the amazing resources that we had access to that we would never have had access to if we were a typical startup. One of those things was that we worked with a professional namer to come up with what we wanted to call this company. And one of the things that we thought a lot about was that a lot of heating and cooling companies out there have very literal names. So, “Kathy’s Geothermal Heating and Cooling Company” would be a pretty typical name for a company in our space. We wanted it to feel much more modern and different. Something new. Dandelion was my favorite because it’s a very familiar word. It feels residential to me because dandelions show up in yards. And dandelions have taproots. The root of the flower looks a little bit like one of our ground loops. The last thing I thought was nice about dandelions is that they change with the seasons. Sometimes they are yellow. Sometimes there are the puffy white balls, and I liked how it was a seasonal, residential, familiar thing, just like I want our systems to be.

Host Raj Daniels  24:49

I’ve been a fan of the dandelion flower for a while now, and what I’ve liked about it for years is that it puts so much faith into its spores as they get blown away. And they have no idea where they’ll land, where they’ll germinate, what will happen. But they just go. And when I was reading about your company, I was thinking to myself that it’s a great name for a company, because, as you mentioned earlier, you’re in the northeast right now. Maybe one day nationally, one day internationally. So as you grow, and your spores go out into the world, who knows what difference you’ll make?

Kathy Hannun  25:23

I love that analogy. Yeah, thank you for that.

Host Raj Daniels  25:28

Of course. So, again, let’s go back to Google for a moment. The crux of our conversation is the why behind what you do. You were attracted to heat pumps and geothermal. Okay. I’ll buy some of that. But I feel like there’s got to be something deeper. So what’s your why? What motivates you? What keeps you going?

Kathy Hannun  25:46

What I love and what inspires me is to think about, “How could we do XYZ thing in the world better?” At a super high level, it’s envisioning a different approach to a problem and then trying to figure out how to implement it. I love focusing that problem-solving energy on energy and climate because I’ve been drawn to climate for a long time. Partly because I got to grow up in New Hampshire, surrounded by nature. Also, I always have loved science, and technology does seem to me like one of the primary tools at our disposal for solving the climate challenge. There are a lot of problems in this world that are important, where I don’t think technology is the primary tool for solving them––for example, world hunger. It used to be. There was the Green Revolution. And that made a huge difference. But now, I think there are a lot of political or social tools that can be helpful. Maybe not as many technological tools. Those already exist. Whereas for energy, I do think that right now, there’s so much room to advance technology. To have an impact on climate change. So anyway, I’m drawn to climate. I’d like to employ science to figure out how we can do things better and approach problems in new ways. With geothermal, it was that thrill of finding a really elegant solution. Just seeing––here’s a technology that already exists. There are just a few things that we have to modify, or change, or stretch, about how this is done. And those levers could just have such a profound impact on how well the solution fits into society. And there’s such a gaping huge need for it. It’s so rewarding. You can see the path to solving the problem. And if you solve the problem, it will have this huge impact. And that’s really what drew me in.

Host Raj Daniels  28:20

So from your days at Google––if I’m doing my math right, 2017 to 2021––that’s four years or so. You’ve been on this journey, building this company, having children along the way. What are some of the most valuable lessons that you’ve learned on your journey?

Kathy Hannun  28:38

All of the lessons I’m going to say to you are not going to be breaking news by any means. But what I have found is living the lesson can feel very different from hearing it. Some of the things I’ve learned the hard way over and over again. One is that who you hire onto the team––there’s no decision you can make that will make a bigger difference to the outcome of the company. So spending a lot of time on really defining the person you’re looking for. What do they need to be able to do? What qualities do they need to have? Where would you find somebody like this? Trying to go after the best people you can possibly convince to join your company and then putting a lot of effort into the hiring and recruiting process. All of that pays so many dividends forever. And if you have the best people, it’s so much more likely that you’ll be successful. I’m such a huge believer in that now. And it seems obvious, but the level of impact has still surprised me. Number two is that at Google I never needed to be nearly as focused as I have needed to be at Dandelion. So this was a shift that I needed to make in my own approach. Google isn’t resource-constrained in the same ways that a startup is. At Google, money was not really an issue. Obviously, to some extent, it was, but not really. The real constraint was time. There’s a huge opportunity cost at Google. You want to make sure that you’re not wasting time on things that don’t matter because you could be doing other things. The trade-off was always time. But at Dandelion, like at most startups, we were severely resource-constrained. Being able to say no, to almost everything, and just have a few things that you focus on, was so important. Everything from saying no to conferences and speaking opportunities––that sort of thing in the founder world can be distracting––to saying no to multifamily buildings and partnerships that would be amazing, but very unlikely to work out. Defining so narrowly what the priorities are, and then being disciplined about sticking to those things. That was a little hard because as an entrepreneur, I like seeing all the opportunities and exploring them. So I had to really overcome that, focus, and have better intuition around, “When is an opportunity worth being distracted for,” and making sure that was very infrequent. The last thing I’d say is that one of the key things about being a successful entrepreneur has been that combination of being very open-minded––optimistic and creative around the possibilities and what you believe the future will look like––paired with ruthless pragmatism around making the business work, being focused, and not taking risks that are too risky. Let me give an example. I started Dandelion being good at the first part: having my vision of what geothermal could become. But then along the way, I had to learn so much more: how do we price these systems well so that we’re making enough money as a company? How do we build our sales funnel and track it in a way that allows us to optimize it? How do we not depend on policies falling our way, but insulate the company, assuming that they don’t fall our way? You have to be positive in the long term but paranoid and negative in the short term, and you have to balance those two things within yourself.

Host Raj Daniels  33:25

Sounds a lot like de-risking decisions.

Kathy Hannun  33:28

Yeah, that’s probably a more concise way of saying it.

Host Raj Daniels  33:34

You mentioned focus. You mentioned what the future would look like. Let’s go into the future. It’s 2030. Magic wand. If Forbes or Businessweek would write a headline about Dandelion, what would you like it to read?

Kathy Hannun  33:49

I’d like that headline to read something like, “New Homes Being Constructed Have Heat Pumps.” We should not continue to build homes that have fossil-fueled heating because homes last for a really long time. And we want renewable energy. So certainly by 2030, I would want new homes to have heat pumps. Ideally, Dandelion heat pumps. I’d also want the headline to be something like, “Homeowners Who Need to Replace Their Heating Systems are Replacing With Heat Pumps.” Every homeowner has to make a decision when their heating system breaks. What do they buy to replace it with? I think increasingly over time, we’ll see people choose heat pumps. I know those aren’t very captivating headlines, but they’re the themes I’d want to surface.

Host Raj Daniels  34:57

But they’re very unselfish. You mentioned Dandelion once, but you took a more holistic, broader view of the ecosystem. You talked about renewable energy, and you talked about people having the option to and home builders providing the option to. So I appreciate that.

Kathy Hannun  35:16

I am a mission-driven founder in the sense that my goal at Dandelion is to decarbonize heating. I know that the best way to do that is with heat pumps. I’d like Dandelion to play a role in leading that transition. My role model company in this respect is Tesla. So Tesla is not the only company making electric cars, but I do think they get credit because their success––and their showing how to make the most desirable customer-friendly, aspirational electric vehicle––has led the entire industry to embrace electric, and now all the major car manufacturers are headed in that direction. Through their leadership, they’ve changed the entire industry. It would be amazing if Dandelion could play a similar role with home heating.

Host Raj Daniels  36:24

I look forward to that coming to fruition. Last question. You gave some advice earlier, but specifically––and this could be personal or professional––if you could share some advice or words of wisdom with the audience, what would it be?

Kathy Hannun  36:39

If you have a goal or something that you’d like to do, I would encourage people to just do it. And it sounds easy to say. I recognize that. But there’s no better way than throwing yourself in the deep end to figure it out. It’s the only way, in some sense. In the same way as deciding to have a baby when I was starting a company. It was like, “Well, I’m just gonna throw myself into this journey and figure it out as I go.” The same was true about starting Dandelion to begin with. It was like, “I have no idea how to start a company. But what’s the first thing I need to do? I guess I’ll just try it.” Those things were both pretty hard for me at the time. But as you do that to yourself more and more, you become more comfortable throwing yourself in the deep end like that, and it has served me well. I’ve learned a lot by taking those risks and going for it. So that’s what I would encourage and what I maybe would have liked to hear when I was on the edge trying to decide, “Should I take these risks? Or maybe not?”

Host Raj Daniels  37:53

And I’m going to cheat a little and ask you a follow-up. Specifically, if there are female founders or potential founders listening, what advice would you give them?

Kathy Hannun  38:09

When I was thinking about starting Dandelion, I had a lot of self-doubt and fear around what would happen. And it’s easy to talk yourself out of doing things by listening to those fears. But I would encourage founders and potential founders––men or women––to try to not listen to fear too much. Act according to what you want. Try to ignore the fear. Because everyone has that fear. It’s such a normal part of the experience. Just because you’re afraid of what could happen if it goes wrong, it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do it, or that you wouldn’t be a great founder. We don’t talk about it that much, but I think 95% of founders will tell you, “Yep, that that was true for me.” I had that and I just had to push through it and ignore it. So that’s what I would say.

Host Raj Daniels  39:09

Kathy, I think “ignore the fear” is a great place to leave off. I’ve so enjoyed speaking with you. I look forward to the success of Dandelion Energy and catching up with you again soon.

Kathy Hannun  39:19

Thank you so much. I enjoyed it too.

Before we go, I’m excited to share that we’ve launched the Bigger Than Us comic strip, The Adventures of Mira and Nexi.

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If there’s a subject or topic you’d like to hear about, send Raj Daniels an email at BTU@NexusPMG.com or contact me via our website, NexusPMG.com. While you’re there, you can sign up for our monthly newsletter where we share what we’re reading and thinking about in the cleantech green tech sectors

Raj Daniels

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