FEATURED FEMMES INTERVIEW WITH DEB NOLLER FROM SWITCH AUTOMATION
Interviewed on August 11, 2020
Interviewed by Yingying Zhu
Deb Noller is the dynamic CEO and co-founder of Switch Automation, a smart building software company specializing in building performance optimization. With 20+ years of experience in real estate, technology and sustainability, she is passionate about helping enterprises leverage digital facilities management to execute more efficient business operations.
Deb studied environmental management and computer science at James Cook University where she is a recipient of the JCU Chancellor’s Award. She began her career as a software engineer and launched three successful companies prior to founding Switch. She is an active member of the Dell Women’s Entrepreneur Network (DWEN), was named one of Dell’s Founders 50 and is recognized as one of the Top 50 Female Entrepreneurs in Australia by Rare Birds.
Congratulations on closing a Series A2 round led by Gaw Capital! I read an interview of Bill Lee who spoke highly about Switch Automation and the upcoming partnership between Switch and Gaw. Can you tell us more about it? Thank you. We closed the capital raising on April 1st, right in the middle of the pandemic. We have built a product for the future and appreciate visionary leaders like Bill. I originally planned to relocate from Denver, where our US team is based, to New York earlier this year but the global pandemic and the Asian initiatives brought me to Singapore and this is where my focus is going to be in the near future. We have already established a fantastic team in the US which has about 25 – 30 people. I am building a team in Southeast Asia in the next year or two and I am looking forward to expanding into Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, and India and Indonesia further down the road.
What sets Switch Automation apart from the other smart building service provider? The team. My co-founder John Darlington and I are both from technology background. We look at the industry that we are disrupting through the lens of technology and attack everything at scale. John creates programs and user interfaces more beautifully than anybody else in the market. We started our first business together in tracking freight and containers for large distribution companies in 1993, which was incredibly successful. We had been looking for a business model that can scale IoT technologies globally. We finally came up with what would later become Switch Automation in 2005. The interconnectivity over the cloud. We realized it is only scalable and transformational when we don’t have to update every single control box with new firmware, which became possible after the cloud technology emerged. In 2012, we pivoted our then hardware-based smart building service model to a cloud-hosted enterprise building management platform, which was a first in the market then and put us three to five years ahead of all other companies. The solution to building realities. Because John and I have had years of experience in controlling systems including Building Automation System (BAS)s, lighting systems and HVAC systems, we had the competitive edge to master the two-way communication with thousands of different major systems and database products on the market as well as to build a unified user friendly platform for building managers, allowing them to review and control their buildings’ performance in one single pane of glass. To be able to do that is rather difficult because building owners often have many different equipment from Siemens, Schneider, Johnson Controls and all kinds of newer IoT sensors and access control systems across their portfolio. Even the same model of equipment was often deployed by different contractors and servicers and therefore programmed differently.
Who was your first large client and how did you make that happen? Oxford Properties is our first institutional client. We won the project through a competitive RFP process led by an expert consultant. Michael Turner is a true visionary leader, and he knows technology is going to play a very big difference in how they compete in the future. With Michael authorizing from the top, an enormous number of brilliant people, who include David Gallagher, Dean Hopkins, Lachlan MacQuarrie and David Giddings, worked alongside with us and took Oxford on this journey of implementing smart building strategies. It is the most efficient way to implement new technology when there are clear mandates by the leadership, while at the same time these initiatives are executed by employees on the ground from the bottom up. However, often times, the realization of technological power comes from one curious asset manager or facilities manager or someone buried in an organization, which could work too, but it takes even more power and determination because a smart building project is usually time consuming and involves many parties.
“We will handle the complicated overlaying work and create a unified smart building system where all the building management insight… is readily accessible in one place.”
What value proposition do you provide to building owners? Often times the owners already have 10-15 enterprise systems, from hardware control systems to utility bill management programs and asset management reporting systems. We will handle the complicated overlaying work and create a unified smart building system where all the building management insight on energy or space utilization or air quality or many other things is readily accessible in one place. We work with the systems that are already put in place in the buildings instead of asking people to undo the work that has been done. The other important value we bring in is that we do a project in a series of de-risk steps. The first step is Switch Dx3 (Digital Device Discovery) which is a short process where we find out, for example, how many BACnet enabled BMS are there in these buildings, and how many data points are produced as a result. We can then use the data available and automate the data mapping and analytics. At the end of the process, we will be able let the client know how many buildings in their portfolio are digital ready and how much work there is to bring the rest on par. We can turn on the applications within weeks for the digital ready part of the portfolio and tackle the rest in steps. This way we de-risk a multi-million-dollar project down into a series of bite-size tasks with clear milestones.
Where do you see the future growth come from for Switch Automation? We are expanding into Asia markets as aforementioned. Our existing customers have many more buildings that we are going to serve. But one big growth area or change that we push for is about how real estate owners think about their business. Right now they buy an elevator or a building commissioning service for an individual building on an as needed basis. The biggest hidden expense, that is completely invisible to everybody, is the amount of overlap in different service contracts, such as utility consulting contracts, building commissioning contracts, LEED consulting contracts, security data analytic contracts, etc. We can help building owners to collect their buildings’ data and only expose the data to each service provider for the specific domain expertise that they are needed for and pay them only for that expertise, instead of spending redundantly on numerous service providers to collect data, store data and analyze data in silos.
How do you view the impact of the pandemic to your industry? Warren Buffett has a saying – “Only when the tide goes out do you discover who has been swimming naked.” That’s how I think about the COVID-19 pandemic. All the companies that have been avoiding technology suddenly understood why they needed technology, e.g. to get visibility into buildings, to hibernate a building without having the full staff physically present to operate, and to share data with their tenants when they return. The only way to get people comfortable with returning to work and to shop is to equip them with data on real time building occupancy, indoor air quality, whether a thermal scanning process is in place, how often the cleaning process has been conducted and how often the air filters are being changed.
“We are always clear that it (a smart building project) is a multi-year program but we will bring people along with good results every step of the way to keep the momentum.”
What are some of the misconceptions about smart buildings that you would like to reveal for the building owners? Smart building technologies can be plug and play. No one can do a portfolio wide smart building rollout in under three years. We know people love to put a smart building project in the marketing collateral. We are always clear that it is a multi-year program but we will bring people along with good results every step of the way to keep the momentum. ROI is the key to decide on technology solutions. It can be frustrating at times when people always start the conversation with what is the ROI. Sometimes the cost of not adopting technologies is that the company is going out of business in X years. There is no single monetary ROI in converting handwritten bookkeeping into SAP system although it is obviously transformational. Climate change is not an immediate concern for the building industry. Many cities were starting to set carbon emission reduction goals for building owners pre-COVID, which is an initiative that may face setbacks due to the current turmoil. But I really hope that building owners will understand climate change is the most urgent thing that they have to solve and that their taking actions are imperative. The COVID situation is bad and it is lasting longer than many people expected. This is like a dress rehearsal for the damage that climate change could cause. I would love people to treat climate change with the most utmost of urgency.
How did you become an entrepreneur? Which part of you has changed as an entrepreneur over the past years and different startups? Both my parents and John’s father had their own businesses. So both of us had great role models showing us that anything is possible and one should take a risk. When we had our first business in the 90s, I was watching Amazon and eBay build huge global business. I decided that I wanted to grow a global business. Every time we built a business that is profitable but couldn’t go global or couldn’t scale, we would shut it or sell it and continued until we founded Switch. Over the years, I have definitely become more confident because I know we can do it more and more clearly. I am devoting my entire life to this. And the most gratifying thing is that we built a team that shares the same commitment.
How does being a woman in her 50’s shape your view of the leadership landscape? More experience works in favor of me as a woman in terms of gaining respect and recognition. However, I hate to watch young women, who are good at their jobs, get talked over at business meetings. The building industry is traditionally full of older white men, many of whom unfortunately don’t understand they are coming from a place of privilege. I do my best to empower women in my company and in our industry. The advantage of being a woman is that I am very recognizable as there are only a few of us that are running their own business in our industry.
“Women should seek out the right environment for them where they can flourish. You need to find companies that will allow you to be the best version of you or otherwise you are going to waste years pushing against that tide.”
Do you have any advice for younger women, based on the situation you described that they might be experiencing? Definitely. Women should seek out the right environment for them where they can flourish. You need to find companies that will allow you to be the best version of you or otherwise you are going to waste years pushing against that tide. Specifically I suggest young women to go search the profiles of the companies’ senior management teams, board members and their middle level managers, in terms of whether there are female leaders holding critical positions for the main business, before joining a new company. Even more directly, I suggest asking the interviewers how their team promotes women, given this is clearly a male dominated industry. It is promising if they have an answer for that right off the bat. If not, it is unlikely to be a place where the success of female leadership is taken seriously.
Edited and condensed for clarity.