A White Christmas

Katie and I spent this Christmas with her family in Minnesota. I have been there several times since we started dating, but always during the summer. Both my parents earned their PhDs at the University of Minnesota so I grew up with plenty of warnings about the Minnesota winters; this was my first time experiencing one first hand!

On the flight up we had the fortune to sit next to Michael Skelly, whom I voted for in the 2008 congressional election. It turns out that 20 years ago he and his wife-to-be were celebrating their Christmas and engagement with her family in Minnesota as well. They are still together and doing well so hopefully that is a good omen for us!

We arrived late morning on the 24th and were less-than-thrilled that our economy car rental had been "up" graded to a minivan. Is this how it works? As soon as you are engaged they start automatically putting you in soccer mom vehicles? Oh well, it got us where we needed to go and had plenty of room for transporting around others. My mom had arrived the night before so was already situated and ready to party.

We spent the afternoon at Katie's parents' house, where it was truly a winter wonderland. Minnesota is on pace to obliterate previous December snowfall records and there were feet of the white stuff everywhere. As Katie and I were already suffering from Max withdrawal (He was being very well tended by good friends of ours in Houston.), it was helpful that her parents have a golden retriever too.

We spent Christmas Eve at her aunt/uncle's house, which was filled to the brim with family, food, and song. The Martin clan (Katie's mother's side) definitely has a much more musical orientation than I grew up with but they seem willing to accept me anyway. :-) I won the coin toss and the other boyfriend (Katie's sister's) had to don the Santa outfit and bring presents for all the kids. He was a good sport about it and hammed up the role.

Christmas Day was spent at Katie's parents house. We had a tremendous Christmas breakfast, opened presents, and then spent awhile playing in the snow. Snowball fights, snow angels, snow fort construction--even a snow scavenger hunt for hidden tins of Katie's mother's famous dark chocolate waffle cookies! It was a blast and our four-year-old nephew who loves pirates was particularly excited when we began firing snow cannon balls from our snow pirate ships!

The evening was spent at the new house of Katie's brother and his family. When I first met him 10 years ago, he was still in middle school. Now he is married, expecting a second child in March, owns a house, and has already served his country with a foreign tour of duty. I've seen many middle school "good kids" somehow lose their ways as they grew older so it is heart warming to see it the other way around: good kids growing into good adults with good lives. And it helps that their first son is frickin' adorable. :-)

Katie's family threw an engagement party for us on Sunday, which was really fun. There were family members, friends, and--of course--lots of food! It was fun meeting some new folks, catching up with some whom I hadn't seen since the very first time I came to Minnesota, and just generally feeling incredibly welcomed into a big, awesome family. Katie's family catered the entire affair, which I know was a real undertaking, but the end result was just marvelous! We capped off the evening with a bonfire to celebrate Katie's aunt's birthday--a big old bonfire in the middle of the snow!

We returned on Monday after a wonderful trip that was too short. I don't understand all of these complaints I had heard about Minnesota winters. Sure there was a lot of snow, but that was very welcome to this snowball fighter. Sure it was cold, but there was so much warmth from family and friends that you could hardly notice. So, while I am currently enjoying the 70-degree weather back in Houston, my first Minnesota winter experience was pretty darned good.


Happy Birthday, Smart Office Energy Solutions!

Wow. One year ago today we incorporated Smart Office Energy Solutions. As impatient as I am, it is never moving along quite quickly enough for me, but it is still important to look back at all we have already accomplished in a relatively brief time.

When we incorporated last December, we had completed tremendous analysis of the building energy efficiency industry. We had identified a very specific market gap, a large segment of potential clients that were being under- or unserved, and we had sketched out a rough solution that we thought could fulfill that pent-up need. In short, we had the makings of a business. At the time, our business was built on hypotheses and analyses, but instinct told us that we were onto something.

The year since incorporation has been focused largely on customer development. We have been using prototype products to validate our hypotheses, challenge our assumptions, and test our business model with paying customers. We raised a seed round of funding to finance these efforts and we have now developed a strong emerging brand. All of our close work with clients has also yielded new insights into generating maximum energy savings--insights which we have developed into intellectual property.

So here we are at the precipice of a new year. In some ways, very little has changed. For example, we are setting out to raise a new round of investment--exactly as we were doing this time last year. In many ways, however, our world is totally different. As we look to the future, we have a business plan rooted in proven facts rather than hypotheses. We have an extended team of contributors many times larger and more effective than the original set of founders. We have a growing set of stakeholders (clients, investors, policy makers, resellers, suppliers, policy makers, and cleantech pundits) who believe in what we are doing and provide daily encouragement. Moreover, through our modest efforts thus far, we have eliminated almost a full megawatt-hour of energy use, saving more than 10,000 tons of CO2, the equivalent to having planted more than 200 trees. Relative to our grand ambitions, that isn't much--but it's a great start!

As I have blogged about before, this path hasn't been easy. There is great uncertainty as we develop a market that doesn't exist yet with an approach that hasn't existed before. I must always give credit to my secure bases, my business and personal relationships who provide the support I need to keep going; without them I would be lost.

So happy birthday, Smart Office Energy Solutions . . . many happy returns!


The Price of Freedom

Two weeks ago I had the opportunity to d0 my civic duty of jury service and it got me thinking about all the costs involved in this process. Previously my experience with jury service had been quite limited. Each time I was called in I sat around for 30 - 180 minutes and then was ultimately dismissed without any need for my service. This time I still didn't wind up sitting on a jury but I did come close, which gave me my greatest insight into the entire process to date.

I showed up at the courthouse at 8:30 AM and waited around with about 100 other potential jurors until the judge showed up to brief us at 9. We spent about an hour going through jury orientation/training and then we waited around for our names to be called for a specific courtroom. Waiting was not onerous at all; the seats were comfortable and the courthouse offered free WiFi.

Meanwhile upstairs each courtroom held 30 - 50 accused citizens. Each defendant talked to the judge and plead "guilty," "not guilty", or "no contest." For those who plead "guilty" or "no contest" they settled immediately there with court administrators. Those who plead "not guilty" had the right to a fair and speedy trial--which is where the jurors come in.

Once a courtroom processed all of the non-trial defendants, they began the jury selection process for the trials. Down in the jury room the administrator periodically called out 14 random names of potential jurors; these formed a single group which was then marched upstairs to a single courtroom. There a jury of six jurors was selected for each case and the trials were held. Because this was municipal court (traffic tickets and such), all trials were guaranteed to end the same day.

I spent the morning working on my laptop and my name was never called. There was a lunch break and then my name was called in the early afternoon--how exciting! In the courtroom, each juror introduced himself out loud (name, profession, area of town inhabited) and then underwent voir dire. There wasn't too much biting examination, just general questions about prejudices, biases, and understanding of the judicial process. Frankly I don't think the lawyers were as concerned about selecting a jury as they were about pre-seeding all of the potential jurors with the main arguments of their cases. I was not one of the six selected for that jury so I returned to the jury room downstairs. After another hour or so I was paid $6 for my time and released. $6--jury service sure pays better than cleantech entrepreneurship!

While I was in the courtroom for the jury selection process, I was struck by how much the whole ordeal was costing. Following is a very crude back-of-the-envelope estimate of the costs involved for a single day:

Building: $10,000 to rent a building that size for a day, another $10,000 for utilities, insurance and other assorted operations costs == $20,000
Personnel: 100 county employees averaging $50,000/year (~$200/workday) == $20,000
Juror missed work: 100 jurors averaging $50,000/year == $20,000
Juror pay: 100 jurors at $6 == $600
Transportation: $10 per employee/juror/defendant (let's say there were 1,000 defendants) == $12,000

Total: $73,600

There were maybe 10 cases that went to trial all day so that's $7,360 per case! Wow, more than $7k to try a $100 traffic ticket! At first blush that seems incredible--but on closer inspection it actually makes sense.

This goes back to something we studied at IMD: a group's decision-making process can be evaluated on two criteria: efficiency and effectiveness. Efficiency measures how quickly the group arrives at a decision while effectiveness measures the quality of the decision the group produces. Generally the more efficient the process, the less effective it is (E.g. a quick straw poll with no discussion for an immediate decision) and vice versa. More effective decision-making processes (E.g. long debates, careful evaluation of all options, striving for consensus, etc.) come at the cost of efficiency.

Our judicial system is set up to be WAY out on the "effective" end. At the other end of the spectrum would be a single judge autonomously pronouncing judgement on each case without even hearing any arguments. $7k per trial buys us the guarantee of due process and an impartial jury of our peers. It is, literally, the price of freedom, the price of fairness. Put in context like this, I'll pay it gladly!


Thanksgiving with Max

I'm running way behind on blogging but here is a belated entry for Thanksgiving, which was a real joy. Katie and I drove up to Hot Springs, Arkansas, as we usually do for Thanksgiving but this time there was a major difference: we had Max in the back seat!

He is very good in the car, mostly snoozing and occasionally poking his head up front for a few ear scratches. We stopped every two hours or so to give him a chance to stretch his legs, do his business, etc. However, when we did so, he was always very nervous and desperately tried to get back to the car if we weren't both with him. We hypothesize that he was abandoned once by someone just dropping him off out of a car and then driving off--heart-breaking!

When we arrived in Hot Springs, Max went crazy. He's used to being a city dog, couped up in a house most of the day and only going outside on a leash. We turned him loose at my aunt's house out in the country and at first he just ran laps around the house he was so excited to be free out in the open. My aunt and uncle have their own dog too and she got along very well with Max. The two of them were regular Tom Sawyer/Huck Finns, exploring the woods together, chasing after animals, and wrestling around.

Wednesday evening another aunt of mine threw Katie and me a little engagement party, which was a lovely affair. We wined and dined and celebrated with our family and some close friends. It must have been a great ordeal to organize and execute but it was a really wonderful way to start off the long Thanksgiving weekend!

Thursday we attended two different Thanksgivings meals, both of which were absolutely excellent. Friday we spent all day cooking, lazing around, and watching football - what a great way to spend time! Saturday there was one final Thanksgiving get-together and then we hit the road back to Houston. Max's hips were so sore from all the running around that he actually needed some help getting into the car. Needless to say, he slept allllll the way home, tuckered out from his great country adventure.

Sunday we headed over to a Houston friend's house for yet another Thanksgiving dinner and yet more football - I wish this could go on forever! It was a fantastic holiday weekend but it was also a time for reflection. Katie and I both are so very thankful for so many things in our lives, but most especially for the people. For loving, supportive families, for fun, interesting friends, for capable, driven colleagues, for good neighbors...for all of these we are incredibly thankful. We try our best to give back and be as positive a force in others' lives.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!