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Photo above: Stream and Ignite’s recent Ignition event.
- Founded: 2004
- Headquarters: Dallas, Texas
- Executive: President and CEO Mark “Bouncer” Schiro
- Products: Life-essential services, including electricity, natural gas, mobile phone service, identity protection, tech support and credit monitoring services.
When Stream reinvents itself, it doesn’t fool around. As it approaches its 10th anniversary, Stream settles into a new brand, redefines itself by offering new services, and jumps from seven energy markets to national scope, all in one bold move.
|Mark “Bouncer” Schiro|
The change may seem sudden to outsiders, but planning and market trials have been underway for a year and a half at Stream, which direct sellers have known as Ignite since 2005. Its army of about 270,000 independent associates built their businesses switching customers to Stream Energy—electricity and natural gas—starting in the company’s home state of Texas and then expanding as energy deregulation went into effect in Georgia, Pennsylvania, Maryland, New Jersey, Washington, D.C. and New York.
But in 2014, Stream started signaling changes. The slow progression of deregulation gave way to the introduction of a new suite of HomeLife Services, including identity theft protection, computer tech support and credit monitoring, which associates could offer throughout the country. Stream priced the services so that customers got more affordable rates with each additional service. At the same time, it rolled out its Free Energy Program, allowing customers to earn free electricity and natural gas in exchange for referring other customers. And for the last few months, it has used the Stream and Ignite logos together like the biceps on two well-muscled arms. The longest-tenured network marketing energy company in the world was sending a message: Look out. We’re changing.
Associates have been seeing the changes on the horizon for a few months. However, at the company’s celebration of its 10-year anniversary, which has been named “Unleashed,” it will reveal a series of changes that will transform almost everything about it, including the national launch of mobile services by Stream.
The changes are monumental, beginning with the brand. Stream Energy has always owned Ignite, and in January the parent brand will absorb the Ignite brand, which will no longer be used. According to President and CEO Mark “Bouncer” Schiro, the incorporation was done to unite the brands, and by using a single name it strengthens that name, which is important as the company brands all its other products. With the advent of new products, the Stream Energy brand becomes simply Stream. But the most powerful change—the one that will change the face of the company—comes in late January when Stream begins offering mobile phone service nationwide, focusing initially on NFL markets because of their large size. According to Schiro, it’s just the beginning.
“Your mobile handset is the remote control of the future,” he explains. “We are providing you a platform to purchase and control the services you need every day that you’ve already been purchasing. We are giving you a great value proposition so you can be comfortable promoting the services to your family and friends, as well as using them yourself.”
That’s key, because Stream also will expand its Free Energy concept to all its other products. Mobile is a centerpiece because it offers the opportunity to double the number of customers Stream serves within two years.
“I will be a failure as CEO of this company if I don’t have more non-energy customers than energy customers by the end of 2016,” Schiro states. “On average, there are three mobile phones per household. If I can get just 20 percent of our current customer base to switch their mobile service to Stream, that will increase our customers by 60 percent and double our customer count in the next two years.”
While Schiro prefers to talk in terms of customers rather than revenue, he notes that by the end of 2014, Stream will be knocking on the billion-dollar revenue door. Then when mobile service goes into effect, he anticipates that the company will add about 10,000 to 15,000 subscriptions a month, whether in mobile service, energy, or one of its other product categories.
Stream headquarters, located in the Infomart building in downtown Dallas.
|Previously, Women of Power has held workshops at the national convention and occasionally around the country, but in October Stream sponsored its first three-day Women of Power retreat in Orlando, Florida.
In some direct selling companies, women make up the largest part of the distributor base, but Stream seems to attract a smaller-than-usual population of female independent associates. Its initiative, Women of Power, is designed to change that.
The initiative started about five years ago as a grassroots effort led by a few of the company’s female field leaders. It struggled until it gained corporate support, and today the initiative is backed by no less than the company’s Chief Financial Officer, Renée Hornbaker. Women of Power focuses on helping women build the skills to be successful in Stream.
“Electricity and natural gas seem to be a more technical ‘sell,’ one that doesn’t appeal as much to women as other direct selling products do,” Hornbaker says. “Also, we started out with leaders who were mostly men, and we didn’t initially cultivate a culture of having women leaders. Women of Power is a revolution that is building a community of women leaders in an environment where they can feel safe and can learn and build the tools to be successful in this business.”
Previously, Women of Power has held workshops at the national convention and occasionally around the country, but in October Stream sponsored its first three-day Women of Power retreat in Orlando, Florida. About 140 women attended. It packed the time with coaching, training and building relationships. Attendees learned how to build powerful presentations, how to coach their teams and listen to their needs, and how to build a network of resources—successful women leaders who could teach other women how to do what they have already done, without regard to downlines. Hornbaker says that one of the most exciting actions that occurred at the end of the conference was the formation of three-woman accountability groups that will let members share tips and experiences and hold each other accountable for the goals they set.
“The groups will be a powerful part of the program,” she predicts. “Women definitely have different styles than men, and it’s important that we teach women how to capitalize on those differences.”
Stream hopes that capitalizing on those differences will help it capture the purchasing power of women that it hasn’t fully taken advantage of. Hornbaker notes that women make most of the buying decisions in the home, so by focusing on female associates, Stream can reach women customers and therefore address the market more effectively.
Because many Stream distributorships are held by couples rather than individuals, Hornbaker says that measuring the initiative’s effectiveness is difficult. But she has noticed positive trends.
“The first training session we had was with a select group of women, not necessarily top leaders, but senior leaders in the organization,” she recalls. “Shortly afterward, we had a significant number of women promote to the next level in the organization. That demonstrated the power of the focus and the training that gave women the boost they needed to get to the next level.”
Stream hopes to use a similar approach with two other groups: Hispanics and millennials. In fact, at the Orlando event, Hornbaker took time to discuss the concept with Hispanic female leaders.
“The Hispanic market is one we’ve been targeting, and we know their needs will be different,” she notes. “We’re getting their input about the best way to approach not just women, but Hispanics in general. We’ve also discussed millennials, and we believe that with the launch of our mobile product, we’ll be able to target and reach millennials and to develop programs for them.”
Tools and Training
New products aren’t the only fuel Stream is throwing on the growth fire. It has also created the “Freedom Plan,” an umbrella term for the process that provides associates with step-by-step incentives and training to help and encourage them to advance in their careers. The first incentive is You and Two, which rewards new associates with an e-tablet when they recruit two additional associates whom they mentor to recruit two additional associates. The tablet, which Schiro calls their “electronic tool box,” comes loaded with business-building tools: Stream apps, their back office, a savings calculator and more that help them carry their mobile Stream business with them, ready to present at a moment’s notice. As associates gather customers, they also work their way toward receiving their own Free Energy when they have 15 customers, along with compensation on those customer bills and on recruiting. The compensation plan’s focus is on sales to customers, but it has to start with associates. Associates can also earn Stream’s other services free. It’s part of the company’s “Freedom Plan” that lays out a roadmap toward financial freedom and then paves the road with training and support. The process helps associates visualize and then experience the rewards of growing their business.
“We tell our associates that once you’re free of those monthly bills, then get free of your car note and then the next $200 or $300 a month you’re now paying out. We want to create a simple, stair-step approach, and we’re fanatical about doing it The Stream Way,” Schiro says. “We also created a workbook that trains associates to bridge from face-to-face meetings to home meetings and webinars and then to presenting the business opportunity at a large venue, and finally to getting on stage at a regional or national event. We provide the details of how to get there.”
He notes that Stream’s field leaders have done a great job of training associates. To supplement and support them, the company has revamped its training organization. It developed the “electronic tool box” tablet and supports presentations each Tuesday, along with Thursday evening webcasts. Schiro predicts that the changes will produce a big payoff.
“We will double our associate count in 2015 over what we’ve averaged the last three years,” he anticipates.
One of the groups that will create the growth is millennials, a generation that virtually lives in the online world. You and Two, packaged with the electronic tool box, is the centerpiece of the strategy to attract them.
“If I can provide you with an electronic tool box, then every time you sign in to your business online, I can also give you the latest version of everything; there’s no more confusion,” Schiro explains. “We will also have Square Readers [mobile credit card readers] attached to our associates’ mobile phones so they can sign up new team members and take their credit card payments right then.”
Every product will be Stream branded. While CEO Mark Schiro is happy to work with robust partners, he says he has no interest in building any other company’s brand.
Ready, Set, Grow!
Preparing for all that growth has required relatively little investment. The company started with its customer-facing technology—systems used for customer enrollments, renewals and web portals—spending $2 million to update and make them even more robust and simple to use. Another half million went into Stream Connect, which allows back-office systems and several different billing systems to communicate with customer-facing systems. Stream sources Stream Connect through a third party to minimize its expenditures, paying by the number of customers on its network.
It also called 2014 “The Year of the Customer,” focusing all year on making improvements to its customer service that benefited current customers—and associates—as well as prepared it for the massive growth it expects over the next months. Customer service improvements help create happier customers as well as associates who are more confident when they gather customers and recruit their downline. Beginning in 2013, a consultant helped Stream identify and deliver on customer needs, whether the customer wants to use the company’s self-serve interactive voice response (IVR) system, talk directly to an agent, or reach the company through its website or a mobile app. In October and November they launched new customer enrollment and service platforms in Texas and Georgia, respectively, that let customers pay bills, change addresses, view their energy usage, and manage recurring credit card charges. Soon a shopping cart will allow them to add mobile and other Stream services.
The results have been impressive. For example, before it launched its improved IVR, only 27 percent of callers successfully self-served. The improved system let that number jump to 42 percent. The increase is important since it means that calls no longer need to be handled by a call center agent. Schiro says that Stream spent about $500,000 on improvements that paid for themselves in less than six months. Overall, in the last two years first-call resolution has increased by 17 percent and customer attrition—the number of customers that leave Stream—has decreased by 25 percent.
Ever-improving customer service sets the stage for product expansion, and Stream is already beta testing three more products that it is considering introducing after the launch of mobile service. Every product will be Stream branded. While Schiro is happy to work with robust partners, he says he has no interest in building any other company’s brand.
“I will build the Stream brand into one of the strongest brands in everyone’s home,” Schiro says. “I am happy to partner with a reputable firm. We will control the customer’s experience from A to Z, including the bill. We’ll have a strong brand platform in two years for whatever services we offer.”
Stream is now a reseller of mobile services just as it is a reseller of energy, meaning that Stream is not the initial provider of the service but rather manages both the marketing and complete customer experience. Stream has partnered with two providers, AT&T and Sprint, to provide the backbone for their mobile offering.
That brand is such a strong focus for Stream that it symbolizes Schiro’s vision for the company. His goal is to elevate the status of the Stream brand to match iconic brands such as Apple, a company whose products carry only its symbol, not its name.
“In five years, when you see the Stream globe, I don’t want the Stream name attached to it,” he says. “I want it to be so recognizable that when people see that globe, they know it’s Stream without having to read the name.”