Starting a Company Is Hard

Today isn't quite the one-year anniversary of me beginning my full-time focus on Smart Office Energy Solutions but it is about the one-year anniversary of my departure from Poken, and that gives me pause to think about what has--and hasn't--been accomplished since then. When I look back at it, the clear conclusion is that starting a company is hard even for a well resourced team and even harder for a bootstrapping lone warrior.

To be clear, this isn't my first rodeo. Smart Office Energy Solutions is the fourth company I've founded or joined very early. This experience combined with the many skills I developed in business school provides me with many tools with which to start up a company. While these tools make the startup process more effective, they don't make it any easier. 10 years ago I might have thought that, by the time I started my fourth company, I would be able to do it with my eyes closed--but I would have been wrong!

Looking briefly at the history of my current venture, it is clear that constant change is the foundation of this--and possibly any--startup. This time last year we were building a business plan around being a joint venture "sister company" to an existing European business in the smart energy space. We analyzed the North American market and put together a very detailed plan to develop it but, after four months, we still hadn't arrived at a deal with our would-be partner. We considered many different models: JV, subsidiary, holding company, etc. but time and again the other party failed to consider our interests.

Despite this, I became more convinced every day that our market opportunity was valid so, finally, at the end of last year, we incorporated Smart OES LLC, a completely separate company from the European "partner," which we engaged purely as a supplier of hardware and software products. If we were going to do this, it would be on our own.

This year began with fundraising, a process which I had never led before. Because it was new to me I was somewhat apprehensive about it, but by the end of the first quarter we had raised 50% more than was our original goal. I remain humbled and honored that so many friends, family, colleagues, and classmates had the confidence in us to put their own capital at risk.

This spring was incredibly productive as we deployed pilot installations at several clients in Houston and Austin. These validated the market for us and were a source of proprietary expertise we developed in eliciting energy savings 50% greater than anything that had been demonstrated by our European suppliers.

At the same time, though, it became clear that our suppliers simply weren't the long-term partners we needed. We still hadn't been able to work out a mutually beneficial partnership arrangement and there was no telling when we would ever be supplied with products that were electrically certified for North America. Thus, less than a year after launching a business built around partnering with them, we formally ended our relationship and began searching for other ways to serve the sizable market that was simply waiting for us to be able to sell.

This whole process has required weekly updates to our business plan, which is part of what makes starting the company so hard. If we had a clearly defined, unchanging path, it would be easy to know what to do--and to do it--every day. But with the ground constantly shifting under our feet, we are engaged in constant realignment and adjustment--it's like tap dancing during an earth quake!

That's OK; it is extremely important for a company at our stage to remain agile and to be able to evolve our business plan as we experiment with what actually works in the market. At the same time, though, we have to be careful not to lose focus--I've seen many companies fail because they have opportunistically leaped from one idea to another to another and, at the end of the day, they never saw anything through enough to build a business around. It is a fine line between strategic agility and lack of focus. The key to success here is to stay true to a clear and well defined vision while constantly adapting our tactics to realize that vision. Returning to the "path" metaphor, we must keep the end destination in sight while constantly adapting our path as we meet different road blocks and forks in the road along the way.

The other hardest aspect of this startup is one I have mentioned before: it is really lonely. Right now there are just two of us fully engaged. We have deliberately followed a "lean" approach to starting this company, outsourcing everything we can to reduce fixed overheads. This dramatically reduced the amount of capital we needed to raise to get started, a great thing for us and our investors. Some people thrive in an isolated work environment; I do not. I'm a team player through and through and, until we reach the milestone that enables the growth of our small team, I will be challenged. In the meantime I am taking extra care to ensure that I am maintaining constant contact with investors, clients, and business partners to feel like I am part of a larger extended team.

There is nothing I would rather be doing than starting up Smart Office Energy Solutions right now. Every day we move closer to our goal of making a very, very significant difference in the global energy landscape. It is hard work to be sure, but I have never shied away from hard work for a worthy cause. I finish each day with more energy than I had when the day started and that, more than anything, tells me that we are really on the right path!


Yearly Goals Halfway Point Progress Update

This morning I dropped Katie off at the airport and it wasn't nearly as tearful a goodbye as our previous Swiss partings have been. This time I will be seeing her in a few days rather than a few months and that feels much better! Now that I am a lonely bachelor again, I have a chance to review my progress on the goals I set for myself at the beginning of the year. Just past the halfway point, how have I done so far?

Personal Relationships
So far I have been keeping pace with each of my goals for maintaining personal relationships. Starting up a company is very time-consuming but I have been able to maintain a balance with family and friends--both near and far. Katie and I have been getting our date nights in and I have been reconnecting in person in the US while still skyping with my friends abroad. This summer trip to Switzerland has really helped keep those latter connections alive too. If you feel that I have been neglecting my relationship with you, kindly let me know!

I'm not burning as many calories as I'd like (3,163/day vs. 3,250 target) and I'm consuming more than intended (3,141/day vs. 3,000 target). I am hitting most of my exercise goals, though, and the net result is pretty positive: I've added about a pound of lean muscle mass and dropped four pounds of fat--not exceptional, but heading in the right direction. When I head back to the US next week I'm going to try working at a standing desk instead of sitting. I'm hoping this will help me keep moving about and widen the caloric deficit.

Early in the year I accomplished my running goals and in May I met my swimming target; now I must concentrate on beach volleyball. There are several tournaments left in the year and I hope to win one--especially now that my favorite men's partner is back in town.

Professional Development
I have been powering through one book per week on leadership, economics, strategy, green business, marketing, and just about everything else I can get my hands on. If I keep up this pace, I will meet my yearly goal. While I have been pretty diligent about reaching out to mentors, I have not been quite so systematic about helping out others. Last week at IMD I had the opportunity to share some experience and guidance with this year's MBA class (Check out the presentation that instigated these conversations.) and it reminded me how much I'm missing out on when I'm not paying it forward. In the second half of this year I must do better.

Professional Performance
The goals I set for Smart Office Energy Solutions at the beginning of this year aren't terribly relevant anymore as our plan has evolved several times since then. At this point we have hit some major milestones: closed our first fundraising round, begun generating revenue with high profile clients in multiple cities, advanced our own intellectual property to increase the energy savings we provide by 50%, and several more. I'm not a patient person, though, and I yearn to pick up the pace during the second half of this year--for personal reasons, for our shareholders, and for the very significant global energy challenge we are trying to address.

If you haven't yet voted for us, please support us at GE's Ecomagination Challenge. We are currently the #65 idea out of 1,089 submissions and every increases our visibility significantly!

Professional Brand
I'm close to achieving my twitter and LinkedIn goals but my blog hasn't gained too much additional viewership. That's probably just as well as I am now considering leaving this blog focused on my personal life and starting a more professional blog on the Smart Office Energy Solutions website.

I evaluate my progress so far this year as good but not great. There are no huge holes and there have been some early successes, but several major goals need significant work to be achieved. Now it is time to refocus, buckle down, and ensure that H2 2010 is even more productive than H1!


IMD Times

Last weekend was very much centered around IMD. It began when two awesome classmates rolled into town--one from the Netherlands, the other from Zurich--with their partners. We had dinner at Le Pinnochio, an IMD standard, and then spent the night just talking and catching up back at our place, where both couples were staying with us. For one of my classmates, it was his first time back in Lausanne since graduation!

Saturday was a glorious weather day--typical for Lausanne in the summer. While most of the household had a lazy morning, one of my classmates and I got up early and headed into IMD. Saturday was Mock Interview Day, during which alumni return to campus to give the current MBA students experience interviewing with real hiring managers. It is also a great chance for us to get to know some of the students, reconnect with the school, and partake in the famous IMD lunch!

In addition to the mock interviews, I gave a presentation to the class on using social media for their own professional branding. We live in an ever more connected digital world and your online presence can either help or hurt your career--but you have the power to control which! The presentation went very well and I have posted the slides on SlideShare. Take a look and I welcome any feedback!

Saturday night we had some of my IMD classmates over to the house for a pool party. Hmm, summer, pool, good friends . . . sounds like the perfect recipe for . . . SANGRIA! We made up a big batch of French-Swiss sangria (using French wine instead of Spanish, and using Kirsch instead of Triple Sec - and all local, organic fruit, of course!) and served it along with mojitos, bellinis, beer, and wine all night. It turns out that Katie and the rest of the gang weren't idle while we were at IMD all day. By the time the party started they had whipped up tables and tables of delicious, healthy, and mostly vegetarian food.

The party was a lot of fun! We had about 30 people over the course of the night and we didn't turn out the lights until about 3 AM. Several little groups formed and people just kept switching between them, talking, and catching up. Another IMD couple stayed with us Saturday night as well, so Sunday morning we had a four-couple breakfast reunion.

It would appear too that my sangria hasn't lost its touch: as one of my classmates came down the stairs Sunday morning, another one said to him, "Oh wow, you look how I feel." Mission accomplished!

Monday Katie and I trained into Zurich, where I had lunch with the sponsor of my IMD ICP. Here again it was great to catch up with someone from the IMD world. It was excellent chatting with him and he still contends that our supply chain strategy project helped them through the difficult financial times of the last two years.

It has been a great, IMD-filled four days. This is why I came back for the summer! (OK, also for the perfect weather and gorgeous lake/mountain views!)



Nearly 9.5 years ago, Katie and I took our first steps down the long (and not always straight or clear!) path that has brought us to where we are today. Where the path is ultimately leading we still don't know, but last Wednesday we took a major step and committed to continuing the journey together.

Several people have asked for details about the proposal and I must disappoint; there really wasn't anything clever or creative or exciting about it per se. That's something I love about being with Katie, though. When we are together I don't feel the need to be "on" or performing; everything is just very natural and easy. Accordingly, so was the proposal. Perhaps I can make the story a little more exciting, though, by filling in some of the history leading up to the proposal:

March 21, 2009: after more than a year of living on separate continents, Katie was visiting me in Lausanne again. Because her flight left before my actual birthday, we did an early birthday dinner at La Suite, which we chose explicitly for their very underpriced 2003 Valdicava Brunello di Montalcino. We were a bit chagrined to learn upon our arrival that they were actually out of that bottle--and then we were elated when the waiter returned to our table having found their last bottle of it hidden away somewhere. It was way too young, of course, but we took our time and it really opened up. The evening blossomed into wonderful discussion about wine, food, nutrition, healthcare, careers, the future, and everything else. I blogged about that evening shortly thereafter. At some point I distinctly remember looking over at Katie and thinking to myself, "Who am I kidding; my future is sitting across the table from me," if she would have me ,of course!

April 14, 2009: While on the Amalfi Coast with my mom, we broke away from the group and spent a day on our own in Capri. The weather was gorgeous and we found a little hillside restaurant along the sea to have some local wine, insalata caprese, and seafood (which I blogged about shortly thereafter). During that meal I first announced my intentions to propose to Katie, which thrilled my mom.

June 1, 2009: On another visit to Lausanne, Katie capitalized on a gorgeous summer day by taking me out for a picnic in the park of the Palais de Justice, which offers amazing views of the lake and mountains (also blogged about). Perfect weather, wonderful food, champagne, a lazy afternoon . . . I was sorely tempted to propose to her then and there but I wanted the chance to talk with her parents about it first.

July 12, 2009: On a visit to spend some time with Katie's family in Minnesota I faked a conference call to weasel out of a lunch obligation that Katie had planned. Instead I spent time with her parents talking with them about my intentions over Swedish pancakes with fresh berries out on their deck. Again the weather was gorgeous and we were accompanied by an awesome golden retriever. After initially giving me a hard time, they offered their blessing and encouragement. The next day I submitted my resignation to Poken (blogged about) and began planning for a life with Katie, not thousands of miles away from her.

So finally I had lined up all the right elements; now I just had to find the right place and time! I wanted it to be somewhere special for both of us and somewhere really nice that we would remember (and to which we could return) indefinitely. While we were wine touring in Tuscany, there were many opportunities, but I lived in Tuscany for half a year before I ever even met Katie so it wasn't as much "our" place.

There were some other opportunities in London, Sedona, San Francisco, and even in Houston, but nothing that ever felt just right. After nine years of dating I figured waiting until it just felt right would be OK.

Despite the fact that Katie didn't live with me in Lausanne, I still very much consider it "our" place as our relationship grew much stronger while I was here. My favorite memories of Lausanne by far are when Katie was here with me and it certainly has its share of picturesque locations! So when Katie came out to join me in Lausanne for this trip, I had an eye toward making the move.

Unfortunately she brought lots of rain with her! July 23 would have been a good date for a proposal as it is Katie's half birthday, but the weather gods had other plans. Finally last Wednesday, July 28, there was a break in the clouds and I suggested that we celebrate with a picnic back at the park of the Palais de Justice. Again we packed a picnic lunch and again we brought some champagne--Dom Perignon 2000 this time. I thought that might have tipped her off but she claims that it didn't raise any flags for her. Fair enough; it's not the first time I've gone a bit overboard with wine!

Again we spent the afternoon lounging on the grass, talking about the future, and agreeing that life was not so bad--especially not when we are together. At around 2:23 PM, I got on one knee and asked her to marry me. After some initial shock she enthusiastically said yes and we spent the rest of the day, week, month (and it's still ongoing) in a sort of euphoric bliss.

People ask how it is being engaged and I jokingly respond that, "Oh wow, it's so different!" as if it has somehow radically changed our 9.5-year relationship. It actually is different, though. In the business world we would call this a "credible threat." We've made a move that says this is where we're going and we are no longer considering other options. We no longer hedge discussion about the future with, "If we got married..." or "If we stay together..." or other conditionals. Now we are officially committed to that vision and that feels really, really . . . right.

I'm not sure how exactly I managed to persuade someone like Katie to spend her life with a scoundrel like me, but I'm definitely not complaining! Many thanks to everyone for the tremendous outpouring of support we have received since announcing our engagement. It really means the world to us and we love you all!