April 13th, 2011

Surfin’ Solar | How to Deal When the VCs Leave

Adam Standley

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I worked for Wakonda Technologies for a couple years and I am often asked what happened to the company.  Why did we go under? In short, we had a great idea, an amazing team, and a few years to make a solar cell. We missed some milestones and our investor group fell like a row of dominos that was shaken by a fart. But that story is no fun to tell at the bar—it’s a bland piece of gum at this point, so I stopped chewing it.

The real flavor is in how I managed through these changes, and how it affected my view of entrepreneurship in cleantech.  I know a lot of people are going through similar things, so I hope I can help with this short story.  Since I’ve surfed new England for about as long as I have been working in solar, it’s only appropriate I tell it in metaphor with the sport I confided in when times were toughest.

I saw the cleantech swell forming while I was a freshman in college. I picked my line and started paddling hard.  Before “green” was in the popular mind I popped up on the Wakonda board and had at it.  Wakonda was a nice riding performance short board.  It had a lot of speed and carved tight.  Had a few blemishes and some patchwork, but for the money, she was a steal.

Wakonda was an old 6-channel short board—one of those ideas that was a bit ahead its time.  Accordingly, it was a hard sell because it was so different, but the guys that got it, got it. Despite what pundits thought they knew, the core of this board still floats, even today.

I entered in a surfing competition with Wakonda.  Our investors had their pencils pressed hard to their score cards.  My number was called at the peak of high tide, just as the solar swell was coming in strongest.  We had our local buddies next to us, 1366, Bandgap, Konarka, Evergreen among others.  We were giving each other friendly crap.  Some were riding long boards, some short like us.  But one thing we all had in common is that all our judges were watching, and we had to give our west-coast boys a run for their money.

I got into the first wave early.  I gained poise and built the momentum I needed to maneuver around anyone who tried to drop in on me. We had some solid patent filings and nailed our first set of milestones.  And on a real crowded day, as solar was becoming, those things were important.

I felt good on my feet off the bottom turn. I was sizing up to do something big.  And hell, this was a competition right?  You either go big, or go f#$%ing home.  So I shot for big.  I wanted to show the crowd—and yes, the judges too—a backflip.  I had practiced the components in pieces, and just had to put it all together.  I lowered my stance and rotated for a carve up the face—but then–something terrible happened.

The wave closed out on me.

A few of our guys saw it coming and pulled out of the wave before getting dumped.  Others got tossed.  I managed to hang on through the whitewater, hoping the next wave would come through and I could at least get some points out of it.  That bridge wave never came.

I was left floundering in stagnant water with enough time to take a breath and look up to see the next crash coming down on me.  I had to decide which way to go.  Do I duck dive and go back out for another set? Or do I head to shore? There wasn’t much time to choose.  My resources were running out. I was short of breath.  So I sat in limbo—which is a very dangerous place to hang—“the boneyard” as we call it in the surfing world.  This is the spot between the line-up and the beach where the waves crash.  Here bodies collide, tempers flair, boards break, and breathing is difficult.  When you’re in the boneyard you focus on one thing: get the f#$% out of the boneyard.

I was frozen.  I could not decide which way to go. I was hungry for something more and in denial of the fact that the ride was over.  I longed for a win.  I looked up and saw my teammates that pulled out early were already on new waves.  Riding toward me. I could probably paddle their direction and jump on too, but I knew, deep down, that the effort was moot. The solar waves were a dying set and those guys were on some of the last rides of the day.   So I turned around and rode their whitewater back to shore as a freelancer.  I actually had some fun with it—which really is all that matters anyway right?

In hindsight, it was clear that Wakonda had its work cut out.  We were riding a beach break.  And every surfer knows how shifting sand can suddenly change a wave. You just hope you get lucky and get on a good barrel. We were also in a lineup with a herd.  On big days there are a lot of idiots jumping in the water who just follow the excitement, and that complicates positioning for everyone.  Makes it hard to move.  Anyone can find his way into a lineup, it’s the first ones who respond to the changing conditions who really know what’s up.

In the end it turned out the guys getting good rides in the solar materials business weren’t on short boards.  It was the long-boarders who got into the waves farther out from shore.  They got the attention early and took the show.  These were the companies who paid a lot for big boards so they could get on waves before us shorties even started paddling.  They hanged 10 for a moment and peeled off. No big jumps, just simple positioning.  We’re all waiting for the scores to come in.

To get there I’ll have to do the same, but not at this spot.  It’s too crowded now.  And I learned to ask myself what do I enjoy doing? Is it surfing? Or impressing judges?  I realized I don’t have to raise capital to build a good business. In fact, if I am really good, I will never need to and prefer not to.  I just like to surf.  Forget the other stuff.

So for me it’s back to the swell charts, where the excitement of a new day resides.


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Adam Standley

About Adam Standley

Adam Standley is a Boston-based “Mainer” who loves to invent. He is currently owner of Arista Solutions LLC developing lean, green, cleantech machines.

  • http://www.chaolysti.com Pamela Cargill

    Adam, I’ll admit that I got a little caught up in trying to track the extended surfing metaphor all the way through, but I get the general point and I hear you. At the recent SolarTech Leadership Summit, a panel of cleantech investors gave their honest opinions about putting money in the cleantech space. According to these experts, many of whom were investors themselves, many investors are exiting cleantech due to lower-than-expected returns, and due to the fact that there aren’t any companies valued in the 10-65 Billion range. Many of them have clamored back the the online/social space in hopes of finding the next Facebook or Groupon.

    How can we in the cleantech industries compete with those expectations? Meanwhile, many cleantech investors in Europe or China are willing to accept those lower rates of return (mid to low teens- still way better than other traditional investments!) and they will surely come to America and eat our lunch and take those returns back to invest somewhere else in world or to profit shareholders or investments groups outside the US. Sounds like a missed opportunity to me.

  • http://www.thegreenlightdistrikt.com Chris Williams


    Just had conversation with some larger Germany EPC contractors are your indeed correct. They are fine with a 5% return. The other issue is that while American banks see it as a new risky asset class they do not. Wind, biomass and solar are all proven here.

    Funny you mention returns. The company is expanding into the US and part of their strategy is to bring their European investors with them……so that can finance many more deals then a US company with US investors.

    I’ll be headed to ItnerSolar in June in Munich and we’ll see what I can dig up there!