The Cleantech Open Northeast blog this week featured a post of mine about its recent panel on strategic partnerships in clean energy. Check it out here.
Following up on yesterday’s post about sales and marketing, today I summarize key takeaways from last week’s Cleantech Open Northeast panel on “Building Your Team.”
- Don’t “hire the resume”: Panelists uniformly discouraged early stage companies from “hiring the resume” – hiring a candidate based chiefly on her track record/industry expertise, without regard to whether the candidate will thrive in a start-up. Recognizing that “a start-up is not a smaller version of large company,” executive recruiter Kevin Brown (Hobbes and Towne Inc.) emphasized the need the consider whether a person can transition to the informal and fast-changing environment of an early stage company.
- Smart, smart, smart – but not an ass!@#*: In response to a question about the qualities she valued in a team member, entrepreneur Pat Sapinsley (Watt Not and Build Efficiently) replied that the ideal team member would be “smart, smart, smart – but not an ass!@#*.” More generally, panelists tossed about various phrases – people sense, team smarts, EQ – to underscore the importance of “fit” in a start-up environment. As to how one best assesses a candidate’s potential “fit”, recruiter Kevin Brown recommended spending ample time with the person; Brown’s hiring process at Hobbes and Towne evidently included five long dinners with one of the firm’s co-founders. Such conversations can illustrate how a person relates to others far more effectively than a formal interview.
- Consult references not supplied by the candidate: In a 2011 NYT “Corner Office” column, Bing Gordon of Kleiner Perkins allowed that – when hiring – he likes “in person meetings for chemistry and references for truth.” Following on this thread, Pat Sapinsley further emphasized the importance of going beyond references supplied by the candidate. She advised informing candidates upfront that part of the interview process will involve seeking input from a candidate’s previous colleagues.
- Formula for team success?: Investor Oliver Guiness (Clearpoint Ventures) described how – in evaluating potential deals – much of his focus will be on understanding whether or not a team can work effectively together. At a minimum, Guiness endorsed the conclusions of a study by Josh Rogers and Matthew Nordan on “what makes a great cleantech team“; after surveying 37 cleantech businesses (both successes and failures) and 122 executives within these businesses, Rogers and Nordan concluded that “winning cleantech start-up teams are complete at founding, have strong pre-existing relationships, and include the inventor of the core technology.”
- Have the talk (the dilution talk, that is): As a fellow at Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, Pat Sapinsley helps scientists to bring technologies from the lab to the marketplace. A critical step in this process is explaining to scientific founders the inevitable dilution that accompanies becoming part of a venture-backed company. To make the conversation less personal, Sapinsley apparently directs founders to resources such as Hutchinson Law Group’s “University Spinout Founders Handbook.” Even for companies formed outside the realm of Harvard labs, early and frank conversations about future dilution of founder’s equity are useful to remove a source of potential bitterness. In addition to the resource above, I would also recommend this helpful note from Marty Zwilling and Matt Nordan’s “cap table template.”
- Lose the pyschometrics: An executive recruiter in the audience questioned the panelists about the role of pyschometric evaluations (e.g. the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator) in the hiring process; many large corporations (including GE and Bridgewater) favor such testing for its alleged helpfulness in predicting “fit” and reducing employee turnover. Panelists were generally cool toward the idea of submitting candidates to psychometric tests, preferring the more informal “five dinner” method describe above. In addition to questioning the predictive ability of such tests, panelists worried that (1) forcing a candidate to complete a battery of tests will potentially sour her view of the firm; and (2) asking only some, but not all, candidates to complete such tests may expose a firm to liability for discriminatory hiring practices. While investor Oliver Guinness did acknowledge a role for pyschometrics in helping to clarify personality types within an existing team, this panel did not advocate that start-ups begin making Myers-Briggs a mandatory part of the hiring process.
Last Thursday the Cleantech Open Northeast organized a doubleheader of industry panels on “Go-to-Market/Sales & Marketing” and “Building Your Team.” The panelists – a group of eight entrepreneurs, investors, and service providers – shared useful insights about how to grow a cleantech business. Below is a summary of the key takeaways from the “Go-to-Market/Sales & Marketing” panel; tomorrow I’ll post takeaways from the “Building Your Team” panel.
- Start with Why: Drawing on the work of Simon Sinek, David Droz of Urban Green Energy urged companies to “start with why” – to begin dialogues with potential customers by emphasizing why the company’s product is relevant to the customer’s needs. Only after establishing the initial “why” does it make sense to proceed to the how (how the customer’s needs can be met) and what (role of the company’s product in meeting those needs). H.G. Chissell (Viridity Energy) effectively illustrated this approach by noting the burden of escalating peak power prices – “too many people using electricity at the same time and, increasingly, in the same place” – for large electricity consumers; consumers can minimize this burden reducing their exposure to peak power prices, and this is what Viridity’s price forecasting and demand-response software enables consumers to do.
- Sell pragmatism, not idealism: Bob Mitchell (Quench USA) advised start-ups to think carefully about which aspects of their value proposition will resonate with customers. Quench USA sells office water coolers that filter tap water (essentially giant Brita filters), thereby relieving customers of the need to continually purchase 5 gallons jugs of Poland Spring. As described by Mitchell, Quench’s initial value proposition to customers was “saves money, more convenient, better for the environment.” It soon realized, however, that office purchasing managers – who are evaluated on their ability to reduce company expenses – cared far more about saving money that they did about improving the environment. More generally, Mitchell urged any B2B cleantech start-up to recognize that commercial customers generally base buying decisions on pragmatic considerations e.g. money and time saved) rather than idealistic ones.
- Marketing differs for B2B, B2C (“nobody buys water coolers on Facebook”): Panelists were somewhat divided on the usefulness of building up a strong social media brand. H.G. Chissell (Viridity Energy) shared various tactics to build up a social media presence – such as the use of HootSuite to synchronize postings to Twitter, LinkedIn, and a company website with one click. Chissell noted how, in its early days, Viridity had used such tactics to “make a four-person firm look like a forty-person firm.” Bob Mitchell of Quench USA shared a more cautionary tale – recalling how Quench had invested to nurture its social media cred only to realize that “offices don’t buy water coolers on Facebook.” Hence, Quench has subsequently transferred its social media budget for use on Google AdWords and various search engine optimization techniques.
- The customer is always right… except when they’re not: In one of the evening’s more interesting exchanges, H.G. Chissell (Viridity Energy) and David Droz (Urban Green Energy) discussed the wisdom of always listening to one’s customers. Chissell encouraged responsiveness to customer input as absolutely essential for a company to attract and retain customers. Droz, however, warned that customer demands can sometimes lead start-ups down a rat-hole. To wit, he revisited Urban Green Energy’s origin as a manufacturer of small wind turbines (the company now sells distributed energy solutions to telecom customers), and recalled how – tantalized by the prospect of major orders from European turbine producers – the firm toiled for years on what was (in retrospect) an unworkable business model. Stephen Filler (Joule Assets) agreed that – amid all the pressure for young, revenue-starved companies to satisfy customer demands – entrepreneurs must carefully assess whether a given customer aligns with a viable long-term business model.
- Bring in a good CFO early on: Whether via a misguided marketing budget or solicitousness toward an overly demanding customer, what sinks most start-ups is simple: running out of money. Stephen Filler (Joule Assets) thus argued that the most important investment a young company can make is to recruit a good CFO as early as possible. Among other things, a “good” CFO must be someone the founders respect enough to have question every decision involving use of company money. Though usually the most expensive hire for a start-up, a CFO can also be the most valuable hire.
- Make it rain: Noting that “if you don’t make it rain, there won’t be any crops,” H.G. Chissell (Viridity Energy) stressed “a sense of urgency” about attracting customers as the essential ingredient for start-up success. Each day, employees of start-ups can invest their time and effort in a range of projects – all of which can seem critical, yet only some of which will actually help to get “ink on paper” with customers. Citing Samuel Johnson’s famous quip (“When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates the mind wonderfully”), Chisselladvised focusing on the entrepreneur’s equivalent of hanging (i.e. losing out on customers) and prioritizing projects around their potential to help avoid this fate. Grim imagery aside, Viridity’s success with customers and investors ($40 million in financing over the past few years) suggests this is advice worth heeding.