Green Light Distrikt is about entrepreneurship focused on the cleantech sector. GLD U provides cleantech courses . Edited by Chris Williams with frequent guest posts from friends, experts and industry insiders from clusters across the globe. Our goal is to provide a place where cleantech entrepreneurs in various clusters across the globe can learn from one another. Green Light Distrikt is creating the "Hitchikers Guide to Clentech" to provide a resource for cleantech entrepreneurs. Read more
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November 6th, 2012BOSTON -
After almost two whole years, I’m headed back to the hub. I last lived in Boston in March 2012. In 2012, I quit my job at Nexamp and started working with Brian Hayden at HeatSpring again. Since my work was virtual, I decided to go to Europe for a few months for fun and to research the cleantech space out there. My time was not as useful as it could have been (from a professional perspective) and I learned a major lesson. Research is very hard, and the more specific you goal, the easier it is to perform it. My research was very vague so it was hard to gather any specific information. Thought I made some great relationships while there.
This year was spent in NY. It was a good year, I enjoyed my time in NYC, but the city is not the lifestyle for me both personally and professionally. Don’t get my wrong, there’s great stuff happening in NYC but I also enjoyed the culture in Boston better, at least as far as cleanech goes, there’s both a sense of competition and collaboration that I noticed lacking in both NYC and SF. Boston is also still small enough, and people are nice enough, to help each other out, without being ridiculous. NYC has some weirdness, there were many times I met someone at an event and they told me they’re looking to invest XX millions of dollars. Let’s be clear, if you meet someone and they tell you about their XX million dollar fund in 4.67 minutes they don’t have an XX million fund. With that said, NYC is also a place where you can be offered a job on the street. That’s how I ended up working with Voltaic Solaire.
As I brainstorm what I’ll be working on and my goals, here are my thoughts.
What I’ll be working on.
- Continuing to make sure that HeatSpring and HeatSpring Magazine are taking over the internet. Creating great articles, well cited industry research and opinion, interviews, creating new trainings, and creating really simple tools to give away. By that way, creating really simple tools is a great way to test our new business concepts.
- At HeatSpring, we’re spinning of a software product called Cammpus. So, I’ll continue to close sales and develop it. We’re focusing on developing relationships with subjective matter experts that are working around the green building, energy efficiency, and renewable energy industry because that is where our existing relationships and track record is. After we’ve dominate this, we’ll move into new verticials.
- Working with NEGPA on geothermal and renewable thermal policy in New England. We’re currently focusing on implementing the New Hampshire thermal REC program, I’m sitting on a thermal efficiency task force in Vermont and Massachusetts is releasing a new geothermal program
- Advising Ground Energy Support. GES is a company that has developed a cheap and accurate way of monitoring ground source heat pumps in real time. I’m working with them to create a performance based contract for residential geothermal contractors because I believe this will reduce significant amounts of risk for property owners and help contractors SELL MORE JOBS!
- Residential and Commercial Sales Consulting for solar thermal, solar PV, and geothermal projects. The name will remain secret for now because the details haven’t been confirmed, but I’ll talk about it later.
- Connect with businesses that are looking to sell B2B products or services to contractors that are selling and installing renewable energy products. I have a lot of relationships and contact with those companies through HeatSpring and it would be great to help those companies out.
- Start working on EnergyBar events again. I want to start building customer centric and sales centric events for people that are not looking for investment and don’t have IP. Most of the cleantech industry industry in terms of renewable energy and energy efficiency is all about customer acquisition. This has nothing to do with IP. EnergyBar started as “Cleantech Kingpins” back in the day at the NEXUS Building Resource Center. We then had an event at Venture Cafe and moved in Greentown Labs when they had just moved. I went away to Europe and Greentown made the event 10 times more awesome then I ever made it. I’m hoping to build on what they made.
- EnergyBar Event Idea #1. I’d like to get 4 people in a room that are responsible for at least $200k in energy spend per year and have them explain exactly what they’re looking to spend their money on.
- EnergyBar Event Idea #2. Applying Search Selling to Cleantech. Too many people are focusing on pitching investors blah blah blah and not doing the hard stuff, selling customers and finding things that large companies will pay lots of money for. Read more about search selling here.
- Connect with the tech scene in Boston. I’ve always been somewhat annoyed by the tech scene, namely because they’re use of buzzwords, it’s focus on investment instead of sales and profit, for tech celebrities and because they’re spending all this brainpower to…sell advertising! But they’re not that bad, namely they’re creating tools, it’s up for another group of people to use those tools to save the world. With that said, I’ve learned a lot about developing and selling tech by spinning off Cammpus from HeatSpring. I’ve always been interested in the overlap of tech and cleantech and I believe there’s a new buzzword for it.
- Doing a series of interviews with the investment community in Boston. I’d like to do some good angel investor interviews to learn what they’re seeing in the space, I’m less interested in the VC perspective, but I’m super interested in what project financiers are looking at. There are SO MANY projects ready to go, and they just need capital. Anyone with cash and a tax appetite should be killing it out there.
If you’re around, let me know.
July 27th, 2012NEW YORK -
Lately, I’ve been feeling very bullish on cleantech, from my perspective anyway. I’ve had a number of conversations with peers in the industry, property owners, and others to see what’s happening and if anyone is actually making any money. Don’t get my wrong, I still think there are opportunities. The question is: are there opportunities from where I’m coming from? At this time?. Or, do I need to wait?
Here is my perspective and where I’m coming from:
- 26 years old no kids or major responsibilities
- No debt and some cash (~20k) ready to invest
- Well paying consulting work that is 100% remote.
- Amazing knowledge and existing relationships of solar PV, thermal, geothermal, air source heat pumps. I feel comfortable marketing, selling, designing or installing any of these technologies. Yes, I know, I’m a weird animal.
Back to the point, here’s why I’m bullish on cleantech.
It doesn’t appear that many people are making any money! All of the major solar PV manufactures are loosing money hand over first, and I’d say it’s 50/50 for pure play EPCs making money in the solar PV space. The volume for solar thermal is low so most of the manufactures and EPCs are making money because their margins are so high, to compensate for low and unsteady volumen.
I just got back from InterSolar and these days, solar PV is the darling of the industry doesn’t seem to be in a good place. Most are loosing money, and there’s only a few people that I’m certain are making money.
- Small niche B2B companies selling to EPC contractors. They have high EBITDA but relatively low volumes. These business include the best racking manufacturers, site visit tools and other software companies. While these companies tend to be very profitable, they’re also starving for cash because they’re plowing it all back into growth, which is not a bad thing because they tend to owned privately with no outside investment.
- Great salespeople are killing it. I residential or commercial sales person in the top 25% of their companies is making a nice income.
- Electricians making prevailing wage. 40 hours per week @ $75 an hour in the Boston area isn’t too bad.
- General contractors where solar makes up less then 30% (or so) of their business, so if they don’t get unbid because they don’t need to go lower just to win the job, which could cause them to lose money.
- Tax equity investors investing in MW projects or creating large funds for commercial or residential projects. Private equity investing in MW solar projects are getting un-levered IRRs of 9%, which are almost risk free because the PPA is signed, they have no construction risk and all the other risk is dumped on other parties. The tax equity investors investing in residential projects are making ~14% in 7 years, and most of that cash is made through ITC, cash rebates and MACRS so they’re not very exposed to the actual performance of the projects.
- Property owners that paid cash for their systems and can leverage all the tax benefits are also making good, 15% IRRs over the 20 year expected life of the system.
- Investors that are providing bridge financing to small/medium solar PV EPCs against cash utilities are making a killing. At least 30% YOY returns without much risk. Volumes are also low, $20k – $50k might be a typical deal, but the transactions costs are minimal as it’s basically financing an accounts receivable which is a well known business transaction.
With that being said, here’s the type of opportunity I’m looking for
- Not technology risk, sales oriented. I want to just assemble existing technology.
- Able to test the market relatively easily.
- I don’t care about “scale”, however you’re defining that.
- Niche opportunities that have the ability to, maybe, become larger opportunities
- Quick sales cycles and easy to find the decision maker. Critical for momentum when making the first sales and going from 0mph to 1mph
- No outside investment need, it’s too much of a pain to deal with investors when you’re getting going.
- My number goal is simply to not being bored
- The second goal is building really cool sh%t.
- I love the feeling when you put something in front of someone and ask them to buy it. I don’t want to be a consultant or investor, because they lack this rush. I need to be on the front lines.
- Currently, consulting is ok, however, I’d like to build something myself. I want to get excited enough about a product that I can put all my chips into. I recently spent a lot of time thinking why this was so important and it has nothing to do with ownership, but of honing a skill set and pride. It would be like a apprentice carpenter then never became a master carpenter.
Potential areas of opportunity:
- Cleanweb. Whatever this buzz word means. You could also look at it as tech that’s focusing on energy issues, or the overlap of IT and physical products to increase their performance. The only type of these opportunities I would look at are things that can tested cheaply, I’m not interested in dealing with the VC stuff. Running HeatSpring and getting good at customer acquisition, internet marketing, managing sales funnels I’m confident that I’d be able to work with tech companies focusing on cleantech. Also, I have intimiate knowledge of EPC contractor, distributors and manufacturers and strong technical knowledge of many technologies. The issue with ‘cleanweb’ seems to be 1) cutting through the bs of buzzword world and 2) figuring out how to charge money for a service
- Customer acquisition is a huge issue. There a lot of lead gen companies, BUT leads are not valuable. SIGNED CONTRACTS ARE VALUEABLE. 1Bog did this well, but not well enough and they were just sold to an Ontario company. To acquire a solar customer for a typicall EPC costs between $3k and $6k, so the question is, how much is a signed contract worth? $3k?
- Import. Some of the geothermal heat pump manufactures are charging an arm and leg for their equipment. I could get it in China for much cheaper.
- Real Estate: Provide equity and cash flow. You can buy a 3 unit apartment building relatively easily, lump the utilities into the rent and upgrade the energy system = vastly increase net operating income. Also, the tax benefits of owning property almost equal the downpayment for the building within the first 7 years.
Principles that I’m keeping in the back of my mind
- Continue to save massive amount of cash, and as much as you can. Forgoing weekends drinking and going on trips is worth it. Then, when you find an opportunity, you’ll have an extra $10k or $20k to plow into the idea and you don’t need to convince anyone for cash.
- Put yourself where it’s slippery. Continue to keep your ear to the ground to learn what’s going on and create real relationships with awesome people and help them with whatever they’re working on. Why? When you need to really get something done, you need to be able to make personal phone calls to make sh%t happen ASAP. Never network, don’t throw business cards around and try to seem super important.
Flaws in my thinking
- Right now, I can tell that I’m trying to make sure that plan 1 works even though I know that most business end up on plan 5 before they hit their stride. Here’s the rub, they can’t get to plan 5, before going through the first 4 paths.
I’m curious, where are you confident investing your money, time and resources within cleantech?
June 25th, 2012Beijing -
I met with Daniel Enking a few months ago to chat about his experience living in China and being interested in cleantech. We talked about solar thermal manufacturing, something his discusses in his personal blog, politics, the nationalism associated with cleantech, his thoughts on the how the USA and China would work together, and other travel related items that globe trotting 20 year olds always tend to talk about.
I enjoyed his perspective, because he wanted to go where the action is (and he’s also from Maine, which got him many brownie points in my book) and it was clear he understood the value of seeing something for yourself.
I asked Daniel to share some of this thoughts working in China and where he thought some opportunites are. If you have any questions for daniel, please leave them in the comments. If you wan to check out his personal blog, you can find it at Big Bull in a China Shop.
Enter Daniel Enking
A friend of mine has been a pioneering elementary school educator in Maine for over 30 years. Recently she was invited to participate in a once in a lifetime opportunity: an educational exchange between some of the leading teachers in America and China. Her group was flown to China, where they participated in a weeklong conference and idea exchange. At one point during the visit, one of the Chinese teachers came up to her and said she wanted to ask her a question. “Please tell me,” said the Chinese teacher in broken English, “How can we teach creativity?”
This sums up in a nutshell China’s biggest obstacle to competing on the world stage as a leading economy and superpower, and it has implications for China’s contribution to advancing the cleantech industry and tackling climate change.
I live in Beijing were I’m the Director of a group called the Beijing Energy Network. We host bi-weekly speaker events that give mid career cleantech professionals (composed of mostly Chinese, Americans and Europeans) an opportunity to learn more about the industry and to network. A few weeks ago we had the privilege of co-hosting the China-based kick-off event for an international green business plan competition called the Postcode Lottery Green Challenge. The event revolved around a panel lead by green architect and rock star William McDonough, Climate Group Co-Founder Jim Walker and Scott Frank, winner of the 2010 Green Challenge. Despite the competition’s possibly unrivaled international reach, this is incidentally the first year the challenge is being launched and making a big push in China. And while I’m completely supportive of the Green Challenge’s intentions, I’m skeptical that they will get many revolutionary entries from China.
Sure, the Chinese are the masters of incremental innovation: no one can reverse engineering, duplicate and then make slight improvements to a technology with the same precision and speed with which the Chinese can (except maybe the Japanese or Koreans?). Incremental innovation has been the main driver behind the revolution in Chinese solar panel manufacturing that has caused the price of solar to plummet in the last few years.
But when it comes to revolutionary, disruptive and game changing technologies like those the Green Challenge is looking for – and some of the past winners have been truly revolutionary (my favorite is Greensulate™, an organic insulator grown from mushroom roots that is designed to replace polystyrene) – well, let’s just say we haven’t seen one of those come out of China since the invention of gunpowder.
The problem is rooted deep in Chinese society and the Chinese education system. From childhood, students are primarily taught to memorize and regurgitate massive amounts of information. This leads to lots of skilled engineers and mathematicians, but it doesn’t breed great inventors, managers or leaders. Once students graduate from college, there is a lot of pressure from their parents to get a stable job, so entrepreneurship is not encouraged. Until Chinese educators learn to “teach creativity,” China’s role in the green revolution will be confined to assembling and churning out massive quantities of cheap cleantech products like solar panels.
But the Chinese have also begun to realize where their Achilles heel lies, and the Chinese government is bent on fixing it, despite all the inertia against them. International elementary, middle and high schools with international curriculums and teachers are popping up around China at an alarming rate. Even some American universities like Duke are building entire new campuses in China. Municipal governments around the country are trying to encourage research and development centers, vying to become the next “Silicon Valley of China.” In Beijing, a few technology incubators and other programs to encourage entrepreneurship have begun to take shape.
So for those of you looking nervously across the ocean at the roaring dragon, keep in mind that dragon can be beaten with a little creative thinking. And for those of you who want to get your hands dirty and dive into the massive opportunity that China represents, consider finding a way to bring a western education to the Chinese investors and leaders of tomorrow.
April 18th, 2012BOSTON -
This event has already happened, but we’re constantly adding courses and workshop to Green Light Distrikt University. Our 1 day Renewable Energy Workshop is similar to this meetup.
The seminar is for 4 specific groups
- Companies that are or want to be selling energy services to property owners and learn best practices for creating a rockstar sales machine.
- Companies that are developing new B2B products for renewable energy EPC contractors and need to get specific customer feedback, first sales, and access to distribution.
- Companies that need to build cleantech prototypes for investors or beta customers
- Companies that feel their future is in selling their services to the federal government
Here is who will be at the seminar and what they will be discussing.
Chris Williams – That’s me! I’ll be discussing best EPC best practices for creating new business, establish a referral business and making sure projects are profitable. The materials will be based from best practice research completed at HeatSpring. I’ll also be discussing what EPC contractors are looking for in terms of new products and service to help them with their business. This will be useful for companies looking to build products or services and sell directly to EPC contractors.
Ethan Labowitz – Ethan is the founder of the Boston Institute for Clean Energy Prototyping. He’s held workshops in the past and specializes in getting products built fast and much cheaper then private shops. If you need to build an actual physical product, Ethan is your man.
Ben Dunay - Ben is a former Air Force acquisition officer, and he has worked in the defense industry for ten years. Ben now runs bootcampus.com and teaches a course on selling clean energy to the government. He knows exactly how the Defense Department works and what cleantech companies need to do to be successful in the industry.
Background and Demand for the Event
6 Months ago, I created a free HeatSpring course called “How to Make Money in the Renewable Energy Industry”. It’s been a huge success with over 400 attendees.
The basics of the course were 1) technology overview 2) industry dynamics and 3) where the opportunities are.
The training was made for two main groups 1) career changers looking to quickly understand the new market and who want to jumpstart their learning and 2) new and existing contracting companies looking to expand into renewable energy but that need help learning the skills they needed, certifications, licenses, and typical installed costs and profits for solar and geothermal projects.
The reason I’ve decided to do a live seminar is that the level of interaction and ability to answer more specific questions in detail is difficult. Also, a lot of the advice is very nuanced and depends on the situation of the specific person and company, which again is not suited for online material well.
Here’s what’s expected from attendees
We do not want attendee that are going to sit and listen the whole time. We want you to tell us about your business and product in details, and ask good questions so we can help you. We need questions to be asked, products to be displayed. The reason I chose the other instructors along with myself is that a lot of these areas overlap.
- We want a lot of questions to be asked
- We want to hear about the projects or products you’ve already created
- We want to help you make introductions and establish relationships with other participants and people in the industry that can help grow your company.
Here is specifically we all of us (me, Ethan and Ben) want to share with you.
- A technology overview. How solar PV, solar thermal and geothermal systems work. What is the basic design and installation concepts
- The skills a company needs to design and install these projects.
- Typical installed costs for these projects in New England and where you can buy equipment.
- The profile of the best customers for these services and best practices for profitable sales machines.
- Where is the opportunity for new products, tools and services for EPC contractors. What will EPC contractors PAY FOR that will help them with their business
- The most common mistakes companies make when prototyping cleantech products
- Best practices for prototyping
- The most common mistakes companies make when selling products to the federal government
- Why the federal government is the LARGEST customer in the US for renewable energy services
- What a company needs to do to successfully and profitable sell to the government
- An overview of the govt’ RFP process
If you have any questions about the event, please leave a comment below, or feel free to call me at 617 702 2676. And yes, I prefer phone over email.
December 8th, 2011
NYC GLD Meetup: How can we Create Profitable, Easy to Test, and Cash Flow Positive Businesses Focused on Cleantech?NEW YORK -
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.