Business

George Mountbatten and uSwitch British ideas, global reach

British ideas, global reach

Price comparison sites are now a steady feature of consumer markets around the world, but it hasn’t always been that way. When the first British site, uSwitch, was created by George Mountbatten and his team in the year 2000 they were viewed with some suspicion by both consumers and energy suppliers alike. 

The idea for George Mountbatten’s brainchild seemed very simple. People were suddenly able to change energy suppliers for the first time (thanks to deregulation by the British government) but there was no easy or simple way for people to see what was available to them. 

Price comparison sites offered new consumer freedom

What uSwitch offered for the first time was consumer choice and freedom using the power of the internet – an idea which now seems obvious. George Mountbatten’s team were the first to unleash this opportunity upon the people of the UK, but it’s an idea which is now firmly set in our psyche. 

Seventeen years after uSwitch first come to market there are now roughly 48 price comparison sites in the UK, and over 70% of internet users have used such a site. The largest four aggregators generated approximately £800m ($1.2bn) in revenue during 2013, with an average annual profit of the group increasing by 14% that year.

Millions of people have saved money

George Mountbatten himself has said the greatest thing about the product it created was its ability to save people money. But, in uSwitch, he also created an innovative model which the current operators take advantage of. The profits they generate are not at the cost of the consumer, instead, they are paid by the utility supplier every time the website connects them with a new customer. 

The British businessman no longer owns the company he created. It was sold in a highly-publicised deal in 2006 to American media firm EW Scripps for over £200 million. The new owner then sold it again three years later and it currently sits under the umbrella of mammoth internet search business Zoopla. 

The market for price comparison sites is changing

Since George Mountbatten essentially created the price comparison industry in the UK, today’s market has become fierce and highly promoted. This means that consumers need to hunt for deals, even when using these types of websites, for energy, holidays or insurance, a recent survey of customer satisfaction showed.

The study from the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) said while price comparison websites offer the best buy tables and, increasingly, automated switching services that do not charge a fee to consumers they still had some concerns. 

More can be done to make these sites transparent and accessible

For example, they suggested some sites risked breaking equality laws because their online tools were not user-friendly for vulnerable people, more explanation was needed on how personal data is treated, and that some sites had contracts in place which meant insurers’ couldn’t offer cheaper deals elsewhere. 

Despite these concerns around 90% of people said they were very or fairly satisfied with the sites they used. Their work also noted that a third of the 7,000 people it asked still did not realise switching suppliers of gas and electricity was an option.

George Mountbatten: uSwitch inspired other sites around the world

While these findings do suggest a drift from the ideas which George Mountbatten pushed for, the core of the product is the same. Giving people information allows them to make better decisions about how they spend their money. And it allows them to spend their money better. 

And it’s an idea that’s spreading. In recent years George Mountbatten has invested significant amounts of money in sites that are built in uSwitch’s image in other global markets, including Brazil and Turkey. It goes to show; one good idea can reach around the world many times and benefit millions of people daily.