December 8th, 2011

NYC GLD Meetup: How can we Create Profitable, Easy to Test, and Cash Flow Positive Businesses Focused on Cleantech?

Entrepreneurship -

The renewable energy and cleantech industries need to be making more money. This might seem like a simple observation, but I don’t think it’s talked about as much as it should be within our industry. I certainly do not hear it enough.

In order to help facilitate this process, I’m creating a meetup in NYC for entrepreneurs looking to build companies and make money in the renewable energy industry. Read below for the backstory, meetup details, types of opportunities we’re look at and the types of individuals who will be at the meetup.

Here’s the Back Story

I’m not saying companies are not making money, some are. Who is currently making money? (note: this is not a complete nor scientific list)

  • Tax equity investors in solar are getting paid. “I’ll give you $.60 and you give me $1 in tax credits” Seems like a good deal to me :)
  • Service based business that are run well. Solar and geothermal EPC companies are making between 6% and 12% net profit before tax.
  • Solar financing companies are making between 13 and 15% IRR. All are attempting to drive down the customer acquisition costs. SolarCity does this by being vertically integrating, BrightGrid does this by partnering with module manufacturers, Sungevity does it by providing quotes online and One Roof Energy does it by working with roofing contractors.
  • Top tier Geothermal heat pump and solar pv manufacturers are making money. Most are public, so you can look up their income statements.
  • Software and simple product B2B companies selling to the EPC world are making money. These companies are small, but they’re making money. Solar software and racking companies come to mind. OnGrid Solar, Clean Power Finance, Solar Pathfinder, Panel Claw, to name a few.

Where is the REAL opportunity to make money for young entrepreneurs?

You’ll notice a few things about the industries that I discuss above. Namely, they are hard to get into. They have some large barrier’s to entry. Licenses, capital, public market access, relationships with Chinese government officials, etc. These are all things that most young entrepreneurs may not have and are too hard to get.

I explored why cleantech leadership tends to be much old then in other fields in the article; “Why are there no 24 year old CEOs in Cleantech?”

The one type of business a young cleantech entrepreneur can find herself in is a service based business. For the sake of this post, I’m not interested in service based businesses because they tend to not be easily scaleable. It is very difficult to separate profit from hours worked or the number of employees you have. It’s not that they’re bad businesses, just not what I’m interested in exploring for the sake of this meetup. I’d like to find a business model where your revenue could double or triple, and you might have to increase hours worked by 10%, given your systems are configured correctly.

With this in mind, there must be opportunities for new businesses that are very easy to test, profitable, can become cash flow positive quickly, and can run with small teams. Can we reverse engineer a business opportunity in cleantech that a youngish person with no “real” credential can start by being smart and tenacious? I think so. This is the purpose of the meetup I’m hosting. I want to find individuals that are looking to start these types of businesses and explore places where we can find these opportunities.

Here’s a little bit more about the meetup

I’m moving to NYC from the greatest state in the union, Maine, in the middle of January. I plan on hosting the meetup in Feburary.

  • Here’s what I don’t know; where the event will be and the date and time. Easy details to fix.
  • Here’s what I do now. I do know what type of people I want to invite. See below for more details.
  • The event will be small, less then 20 people. Why? We want people to be pitching real businesses and giving real feedback.
  • The goal of the meetup is to talk about creating real products and businesses. We want concrete and real discussions, not a conversation on general industry trends, unless these trends are showing a clear opportunity.
  • The goal will be to find professionals that have one of two characteristics, and maybe both. First, market access and knowledge (I’m an example of this, read below for more). We want people that have access to customers that are spending money. Second, people who can build products. For example, the ability to build a product, piece of software, etc. If you can find a customer that wants something, you need people who can build it.

A little about where I’m coming from and my perspective.

I work with HeatSpring and have a lot of direct contact all types of companies within the solar pv, solar thermal, and geothermal supply chain. Remember I said I am a market guy. This gives me access to not only get new products into the existing supply chain, but create new products that may or might not exist yet. I can easily test and sell a B2B product to small and medium size solar pv, solar thermal and geothermal companies. I have access to installers, distributors and manufactures and thus can sell a product to anyone on the supply chain.

Also, I’m advisor at the Boston Institute for Clean Energy Prototyping. I know the people that can get prototypes and products built.

I’ve experimented with information product and physicsl tools. The NABCEP Study guide is an information product for solar installers. The PV Pal is a tool I invented while installing residential solar that makes the installation process go faster. Both product have been successful and I’ve learned from each. Now, I’m looking for more opportunities and would like to connect with individuals who are doing the same.

Here are the characteristics of opportunities we’ll be look at:

  • Can it be tested with no upfront investment?
  • Can we collect downpayment for the products without the actual product? Here’s the test. Can we create a sales page and collect downpayment without investing time and money in the product? The easier the product is to test, the better.
  • Is it a physical product, piece of software, information product, or service that has been turned into a product?
  • The end customer, or group of potential customers for a new product, is very clear. Another key is that the customer can make decisions quickly.
  • Is it a B2B sale? B2B just tend to be easier. (note: this is just my opinion)
  • The product has a clear benefit. By clear benefit, I mean that it’s easier to sell something when a business is avoiding a large risk, regulation, fines, licensing requirements, rather then trying to maximize an upside, unless that upside is huge. In other words “buy this so you don’t get fine, or so you pass this test” is an easier sell then “give us XX dollar and it will save you 10% forever”
Here are the characteristics of opportunities that will will NOT be focusing on: 
  • We need to raised XX amount of money. This takes too long.
  • Our break-even point is more then 12 months away.
  • The customer is some a fortune 1000 company. This may seem couninteratie but many times these companies take too long to sell to, unless you’re selling a cheap product to a sub department where they can make a purchase without approval from accounting, their boss, etc.
  • The company will grow to hundreds of people.

Please note. I’m not saying that any businesses that are working on concepts with the above characteristics are bad. In many ways, they’re awesome and needed. They’re just not for this meetup. 

If you’re interested in joining the meetup

If you’re interested, Green Light Distrikt is creating a meetup in NYC to bring together a small group of people who are looking at creating the same type of businesses focused on the space that I describe above. If you’re interested, please let me know a little more about yourself and when the event date comes closer in January, I will reach out to you.

NYC GLD Cleantech Meetup

If you're interested in coming to the NYC meetup let me know. The ongoing mission of the meetup will be to uncover profitable businesses in the cleantech sector and connect people that can take advantage of them. Note. There are only 20 spots. 2nd Note. None of the below information will be shared with anyone but will be used so all attendees can learn about each other.
  • Please be as specific as possible.
  • If you currently work for a company or organization. Please let me know.

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Chris Williams

About Chris Williams

Chris Williams is the editor of Green Light Distrikt and Chief Marketing Officer at HeatSpring . He has experience in business development, prototyping and new venture research with a focus on geothermal heat pumps, solar thermal and solar photovoltaic technologies. Chris is an IGSHPA accredited geothermal installer and NABCEP certified solar installer. Chris is focused on solving customer facing issues in the creation and adoption of clean energy technologies and products. Chris has installed over 300kW of solar and tens of geothermal systems. He's invented the PV Pal , developed many trainings at HeatSpring, publishes the NABCEP Study Guide , the Hitchhikers Guide to Cleantech and has done due diligence research for Urgent VC . Feel free to connect with him @topherwiliams , on Linkedin , or through email about new ventures, collaborating, writing, research or whatever is on your mind.