Nik graduated from UVa in 2014 with a degree in Systems Engineering. During his time in Cville, he worked on his own tech startup, and since that venture, has started this past spring at Opower on the frontier of the energy-saving scene in Washington, DC.
What are you working on right now?
Currently I’m an associate product manager for Opower.
Can you talk a bit about Opower and what you’re trying to accomplish?
In short, Opower encourages utility customers to use less energy. By engaging both our customers and utility companies, we can help individuals better understand their energy efficiency and how to manage it. We do this using behavioral science, big data, and a cloud-based platform, which help not only in lowering the consumer’s energy cost, but also in the greater scheme of carbon emissions.
What’s an example of a big challenge that you or your business faced along the way?
One of the challenges you face with any start-up is access to resources that larger, more established companies already have. On the other hand, one of the cool things about working for a larger company is that there are very smart people around you solving all kinds of problems. If you have an issue, you can find someone to help you with it. At UVa, up until recently, if you had a fundamental problem like learning how to code or testing if your product is the right fit for the market, you didn’t have that pool of people to turn to. There’s now a vibrant community of hackers at UVa and around Charlottesville, and HackCville is at the center of it all.
One of the reasons I joined Opower is that is has that culture of a startup with the resources of a larger company. As a product manager I have a lot of the same roles and responsibilities as I did when I co-founded a company and had a startup myself. Working at a company like that, you get to deal with a lot of different problems– technology, database issues, architecture decisions, legal questions, maybe most importantly marketing questions. It’s about creating a product people find out about and want to use. Entrepreneurially, it comes down to engaging on all those levels. While most people work on one problem and get really good at a small slice of what it is to run a business, being an entrepreneur is about getting a broad understanding of everything, and being willing to get your hands dirty working on any problem that may come up.
What did you do straight out of school? How did it lead you to where you are today?
I’m literally straight out of school as we speak, so I jumped into work right away. Opower did recruit at UVa, which was helpful. In general, the trajectory you’re pushed on after you leave school is the one that’s the more common path, but you have to force yourself to go beyond that.
For example, in my personal experience as a systems engineering major, it would have been easier to go down the path to work at a consulting company, mostly because UVa has well-established support channels in place for those careers. With entrepreneurship, you have to go for it and figure things out for yourself. When I was finishing school, I had to ask myself, ‘What do I really want to be doing?’ I had to figure out what my path was going to be.
People might be interested in starting their own companies right after school, but in reality it’s not a common path at all, and it’s filled with uncertainty. You have to figure it out for yourself, which is part of the fun.
What did you wish you knew as an undergraduate/student at UVa?
I wish I had asked more questions and taken a greater variety of classes. It’s always a risk being deeply involved in just one area, and getting locked onto your major. In the real world, it’s much more valuable to have diversity of information and knowledge and ability– no one hires out of college looking for an expert on one thing.
What can the University and students at UVa do to provide you what you wish you knew?
When I co-founded a startup my first year, we didn’t have a physical space to work in — we were often getting booted from rooms in Clemons while trying to hack together our MVP — and we were desperately trying to get funding without having any of the connections necessary to talk to angels who were interested in our space. I think this was one of the things that made it difficult for us to be successful, ultimately.
That’s been one of the most exciting changes since my time at UVa, that people like Spencer [Ingram] have started providing the resources and building up the fundamentals to help solve these kinds of problems. Now, through HackCville, a lot of them are solved; you get a lot more resources in terms of financing and knowledge, and on top of that a database of mentors who can help you ask and answer the right questions.