Cleantech Open

CTO Day 3

As we watch San Jose fade in the rearview mirror and close the book on the 2011 Cleantech Open Academy for semi-finalists, a few final thoughts:

  • $ilicon Valley: If California is the world’s 8th leading economy, Silicon Valley is the hub that finances the whole operation. This was my first trip to San Jose, and I was blown away by the access to investment firms aspiring tech (and cleantech) entrepreneurs have. My jaw literally dropped to see double the VC firms in one block than likely exist in the Portland Metro area. It was amazing.
  • Raves: Congratulations to Christina Ellwood and company for pulling off an amazing Cleantech Open Academy. Ellwood and a mostly volunteer crew slogged away at a daunting Academy schedule with discipline and flair … not an easy balance, for sure. Yes, there were snags along the way, but most of these were balanced out with Ellwood’s command of the stage and improvisational skills and a never-say-die team that worked like the dickens in the background. The speaker set was fantastic. Leading local professionals and educators in finance, patent law, and marketing offered semi-finalists great (and FREE) advice. But as an MBA grad, it was the headliners that blew me away: Steve Blank and Randy Komisar, in particular, were superb.
  • Rants: To some extent, the Academy is held hostage by its own objective to get every participant ready to compete in the next round. The conference schedule was brutal—8 a.m. to 7 p.m. with an hour-and-change in breaks. Even though I generally got something out of every session, some flexibility for our group to pick and choose what we felt we needed would have been nice. Let’s face it: The vast majority of these sessions (speaker & PPT format) could have been done virtually (Think: A green alternative!). Instead, more focus on facilitating valuable mentor meetings and connections between attendees would have been nice. Finally, I know the world of the entrepreneur is fluid, but that sort of hour-to-hour uncertainty shouldn’t carry over to the conference. Even a basic timeline of the schedule was hard to get in advance and technical miscues made it challenging to follow workshop activities. I realize speakers may cancel last minute, but the general backbone of the show should always be in place.
  • What Now? Paul, Ihab, and I will be trying our darnedest to make it to the regional finals where only three lucky teams will move on to nationals in the fall. The challenge will be enormous. (Did I mention that we need to find a customer?), but we have a plan we think will help see us through: Talk to lots and lots of people—there has to be a buyer in there somewhere.

– Doug Anderson, MBA ’11

You can follow Doug, Paul, and Innovative Invironments team in their Cleantech Open experience on Twitter @douglassander.

Editor’s Note: This is the fourth and final installment in the series of blog posts that followed two Oregon MBA graduates from the Center for Sustainable Business Practices as they participated in the semi-final round of the Cleantech Open 2011 to commercialize the SolarStream™ Awning System.

Written by UO Business

The UO Lundquist College of Business empowers an engaged community of students, faculty, staff, and stakeholders who create, apply, and disseminate knowledge that contributes significantly to their professions, communities, and society. The college delivers a dynamic learning environment where world-class professors engage and get to know students, where students work on real projects for real companies, and where alumni go on to high-powered jobs worldwide.

CTO Day 2: Go Lean, Go Now!

Business plans in aspiring ventures are amazingly fluid things. In five minutes, a team discussion can turn what was essential strategy on its head.

Steve Blank, lean start-up guru and author of “Four Steps to the Epiphany,” said entrepreneurs are visionaries in search of prospective customers who get it. But here’s the rub: There’s a fine line between being a visionary and the local nut. Some start-up founders (not to mention VCs) are stunned when the customers they designed a product or service for eschew it. Sales are flat. Heads roll. The business tanks.

What investors and founders don’t realize, says Blank, is that the start-up process is actually iterative. The problem with spending countless hours building and refining a business plan for entrepreneurs is that they start to believe the assumptions they build into it are the gospel truth—something infallible.

Photo: A San Jose building that could benefit from the Solar Awning

This San Jose office complex looks like it could use a SolarStream Awning

Says Blank: “No business plan survives first contact with customers.”

It’s not the first customers—the group the product was actually designed for—who often end up being the most valuable target market, said Blank. To find out who the most likely customer would be, organizations have to get out of the office and canvas the prospects. When you begin talking to people consistently, plans change—regularly.

Inspired by Blank’s “do-it-now!” attitude, our team made two executives decisions: First, we decided to scrap fund-raising altogether. (More on that momentarily.) Next, we decided to take an extended lunch.

No offense to the fine organizers of the Cleantech Open Academy, but opting to bootstrap means we need a customer—desperately. And being we felt our optimal target customer would be the owner of a three-to-four-story office building (San Jose is a giant, continuous business park), we wanted to get started that day. No, we didn’t start knocking doors, but we did take a lot of pictures of buildings we felt would be perfect candidates for the SolarStream Awning, so that we could later superimpose the product on these images … then knock doors.

Maybe that doesn’t seem like a big step, but it actually may be the first one in prepping to nail down that first customer—whoever he or she may be. Ultimately, we decided we’re not a good fit for VC or even angel capital, especially now: We’re just too busy figuring out who wants to buy.

– Doug Anderson, MBA ’11

You can follow Doug, Paul, and Innovative Invironments team in their Cleantech Open experience on Twitter @douglassander.

Editor’s Note: This is the third in the series of blog posts that will follow two Oregon MBA graduates from the Center for Sustainable Business Practices as they participate in the semi-final round of the Cleantech Open 2011 to commercialize the SolarStream™ Awning System.

Written by UO Business

The UO Lundquist College of Business empowers an engaged community of students, faculty, staff, and stakeholders who create, apply, and disseminate knowledge that contributes significantly to their professions, communities, and society. The college delivers a dynamic learning environment where world-class professors engage and get to know students, where students work on real projects for real companies, and where alumni go on to high-powered jobs worldwide.

Clean Tech Open, Day 1 – MBA education validated

I suspect that what is on the mind of pending U of O MBA students, current, and recent graduated is if the education received is relevant and valid.  Well I can say, after the first day of the Cleantech Open Academy, the answer to that question is a resounding YES!

Paul Clark, UO MBA, at Clean Tech Open, July 2011After getting over the awkward start of once again trying to define sustainability within a room of entrepreneurs dedicated to developing sustainable and green products and services, we got off to a shocking start with the announcement that business plans are obsolete!  This of course is not a shock to many of us, who have traveled down the road to entrepreneurship, be it in the Venture Start-up program within the University, or out there on our own.  But for many in the room such a statement seems like heresy.   The dogma out there, when looking to raise money, is that you need a business plan, and I suspect that for many of the competitors in the Cleantech Open, they had the impression that the whole purpose  of this event is to write a winning business plan.

That is not the case for this competition.   What they want from all of us is not a plan, but a solid business.  In the past this competition had focused a great amount of energy in creating a solid business plan, but now they say investors are even not interested in reading them.  Over the next several weeks, with the help of our assigned mentor, we are going to walk through a process that creates a compelling and engaging executive summary, and 10 slide PowerPoint presentation, and 10 worksheets.  This body of work will be what we are judged on later in the Fall.

So with that cat out of the bag, the real work of this Academy got underway.  Randy Komisar, author of the Monk and the Riddle, and Getting to Plan B, launched us into a conversation about the importance of failure as a learning tool, and pointing out that our first customer in not going to be our planned customer (thus the irrelevance of the business plan), thus the need for a plan B.  Not that a plan B is once again something that your “plan” for thus write into your business plan, but have a built in process to test all the assumptions you are making when creating your business model.  And let’s not kid ourselves, new venture planning is all about making assumptions; sometimes stacking assumptions upon assumptions, and this is what makes the business plan irrelevant.

With these plan B strategies in mind, we then headed down the road of customer selection.  The main theme here – “get out of the building.”  It is not unusual for a start-up venture to be founded upon a brilliant idea, dredged deep from the mind of the inventor.  However an idea is rarely robust enough to become a viable business.  There has to be a customer that is hungry for the idea, sees the value of the idea, AND has the ability to pay for the solution.  The best way to evaluate the market validity of your business idea is to show it to potential customers, but to make this a more efficient process, have a clear understanding of the value your idea has to your potential customer.

With face-to-face time with real customers they will tell you if your assumptions about value are real, and if they are not, hopefully they can tell you what they value, and your plan B mentality can kick in.   A formal business plan is too static to capture this important process, thus the need to build in flexibility and a focus on developing a process to form your business model.

So with all this being said, at the end of the day, we still don’t have an exact indication of the contents of those 10 pending worksheets, but if I was to give my best guess, I have a feeling that they will be looking for detailed information about how we know our customer and how we are confident that our product offering is a very profitable match to this customer’s need.  This will be the contents of our Cleantech  “business plan,” and competition aside, this will be a very powerful go-forward strategy.

So all said and done, a business plan will still be created, but we are going to approach its creation in a completely different way.  At the end of the day, the mantra was this: Think Big, Start Small, and Move Fast.  Big ideas brought us here.  Now we have to go out there and find that first viable customer, and waste no time adapting  and learning from them.  This same mantra applies to the U of O MBA studies.  We are well prepared to make it happen, even in a green, clean way!

– Paul Clark, MBA ‘11

You can follow Doug, Paul, and Innovative Invironments team in their Cleantech Open experience on Twitter @douglassander.

Editor’s Note: This is the second in the series of blog posts that will follow two Oregon MBA graduates from the Center for Sustainable Business Practices as they participate in the semi-final round of the Cleantech Open 2011 to commercialize the SolarStream™ Awning System

Written by UO Business

The UO Lundquist College of Business empowers an engaged community of students, faculty, staff, and stakeholders who create, apply, and disseminate knowledge that contributes significantly to their professions, communities, and society. The college delivers a dynamic learning environment where world-class professors engage and get to know students, where students work on real projects for real companies, and where alumni go on to high-powered jobs worldwide.

CTO Day 0: My Entrepreneurial Journey to San Jose

I never wanted to be an entrepreneur.

Entrepreneurs always seem to be portrayed as brilliant individuals who take big gambles thPhotos: Entrepreneurs take a burger break at IN-N-OUTat pay off. No thanks, I thought. I have a natural aversion to risk (as evidenced by my propensity to choose tried and tested items from the menu when I eat out), and quite frankly, I’m just not bright enough to come up with a commercially viable idea and then make it a winner. So there you have it—I’ll take my skills to some established organization, if you please.

Then I met Paul, a fellow student in the UO MBA program. He intrigued me with discussions about a product he was working to develop with a small company based in Eugene. He needed some marketing help. I knew something about that, so we began working together. After conducting some marketing research with prospective customers, we presented our ideas that (we thought) made a rudimentary business plan to faculty at the Lundquist Entrepreneurship Center (LCE). After politely being told we had a long way to go, we were told we could receive more substantial guidance through the Venture Pathway—keystone courses of the LCE program. We found other students to join our team, and soon we were analyzing markets, determining distribution channels, and pitching a solid business plan to wonderful and insightful mentors and serial entrepreneurs.

I was part of an entrepreneurial team, and I loved it.

I recalled how much I enjoyed working as part of team as I traveled today with Paul and Professor Ihab Elzeyadi from the UO Department of Architecture to San Jose from Eugene. Team building for us today consisted of conversations on the freeway (Paul’s life story and Ihab’s take on the Egyptian Revolution) and my first ever stop at In-N-Out Burger in Redding. It’s in those moments that I remember true entrepreneurship is more than the genius of one individual—it’s a team endeavor at its core.

And just beyond that core, entrepreneurship is often laden with mentors, collaborators, champions, and family members who believe you can do it. Today, I’m reminded of UO faculty who encouraged us and students from the J-school who helped give us a jump start on branding. It truly takes a village to raise a business.

–Doug Anderson, MBA ’11


You can follow Doug, Paul, and Innovative Invironments team in their Cleantech Open experience on Twitter @douglassander.

Editor’s Note: This is the first in the series of blog posts following two Oregon MBA graduates from the Center for Sustainable Business Practices track as they participate in the semi-final round of the Cleantech Open 2011 to commercialize the SolarStream™ Awning System.

Written by UO Business

The UO Lundquist College of Business empowers an engaged community of students, faculty, staff, and stakeholders who create, apply, and disseminate knowledge that contributes significantly to their professions, communities, and society. The college delivers a dynamic learning environment where world-class professors engage and get to know students, where students work on real projects for real companies, and where alumni go on to high-powered jobs worldwide.