I've just returned from the National Academy of the Cleantech Open, for which Smart Office Energy Solutions was selected as a Regional Semifinalist, in San Jose, CA. The Academy was a four-day affair of workshops and networking for Cleantech entrepreneurs who had made it into the semi-finals. The jury is still out on whether competing in the Cleantech Open will be worth it, but following are my thoughts so far.
When we were notified of our selection as semifinalists, I was honored of course but I was also skeptical. Attendance at the National Academy was required and the costs were steep. It costs $1,000 to attend. Add airfare, hotel, and other expenses and the total out of pocket is easily up to $2,500+. The greatest expense is time, though, an entrepreneur's most precious resource - what else could I have been doing for the company during these four days? I am immediately leery of organizations that purport to help entrepreneurs yet sap them of precious time and money early on. Perhaps the Cleantech Open is actually more of a scam, swindling entrepreneurs by feeding their vanity.
However, if indeed the competition could deliver on its promises of helping cleantech entrepreneurs advance their companies, raise capital, find clients, and increase profile, it could easily be worth it. I decided to take a risk on it because of two people involved. One is a cleantech private equity fund manager in Boston whose opinion I respect. The other is someone with whom I have worked before in Austin and who is now the Cleantech Open's coordinator for its new South Central region.
Having now attended the four-day Academy, I still have mixed opinions. To start, the event was somewhat disorganized. This wasn't a deal killer but they may have outgrown their ability to run a mostly volunteer organization.
Additionally the "academics" were very basic. The classes on market analyis, financing, IP, etc. were probably extremely beneficial to first-time entrepreneurs or tech people with little business experience but for me they were mostly repitition. I am not by any means claiming that I know everything and I fully appreciate the need to get the 150 semifinalist teams all on the same page. However, if we were hoping to learn something new for our $2,500++, then we were disappointed.
That said, they did line up some amazing speakers, including Randy Komisar (author of The Monk and the Riddle, required reading at IMD), Geoffrey Moore (author of Crossing the Chasm, required reading at Poken), and Steve Blank (author of The Four Steps to the Epiphany, required reading at Smart OES!), as well as several prominent VCs and entrepreneurs. So in this regard, the Academy totally delivered.
The main benefit we were seeking on this trip was networking. Houston doesn't have much of a Cleantech community. Austin has more of one, but still it is clear that the epicenter of Cleantech in the US is the San Francisco Bay area. Therefore I was hoping to meet a slew of great conacts in the Cleantech ecosystem - entrepreneurs, sources of capital, business partners, potential customers, etc. Here again, the event really delivered.
Moreover, I now feel like part of the Cleantech Open community, which I think will be beneficial in the long run. As we undergo the next four months of workshops, events, and judging, I believe we will continue to build this "bond" with the organization that will transcend the value even of winning if we are so able.
Finally there should be PR value to participating in the competition - and especially if we continue to advance. PR for us as a company, for me as an individual, and even for our region, state, and city - which are not known as Cleantech hubs.
So there are known costs and unknown benefits - just like everything else in the startup world! I am looking forwad to the experience, though, and I will post my thoughts as it progresses.
While I was in the Bay area I had a great chance to catch up with other friends and colleagues. Wednesday evening I had dinner with the cofounder of my first two startups. he just finished his MS in computer science at Stanford and is now ready to take on the world again. Friday night I met up with former Rice computer science classmates who are now at Google. One of them is intimately involved in the Google+ rollout so I had a receptive audience to my fanboyness. Saturday I had lunch with a high school classmate who is now a Silicon Valley VC and that evening I had dinner with an IMD alum who is sharing time between San Francisco and Brussels.
There is never enough time to see everyone while I'm in town but each such meetup is a real pleasure. Social networking tools make staying connected much easier than it used to be but there is still no substitute for spending time with people in person!