Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince Chapters 1/2

I was struck in the Spinner’s End chapter by the parallels between the “good” and “bad” sides of the wizarding world. Our titular protagonist was saved by a mother risking everything to save him. Now the mother of one of his principal adversaries is . . . risking everything to try to save her son.

Spinner's End

Similarly, the “good” side spent the entire previous book beleaguered by infighting and politics: who has the right of it, who can be trusted, etc. And now here is the “bad” side . . . beleaguered by infighting and politics: who has the right of it, who can be trusted, etc. And of course Snape in the middle of it all! It makes me really want a scene with Voldemort cartoonishly saying to Harry, “Are we so different, you and I?” 😛


In response to a theory from another member of my Harry Potter book club that Bellatrix is so angry at Snape here because she is in love Voldemort, I must . . . disagree. I find the Cursed Child’s plot point of her having a child with Voldy to be a preposterous mischaracterization. I think Voldy would have been effectively asexual, finding love/sex with mere mortals far beneath him. Possibly in his younger, Tom Riddle days he might have used sex as a way to beguile someone into giving him something he wanted (although even in the case of Hepzibah Smith his malicious “charm” is never indicated to go nearly that far for Hufflepuff’s cup). However, by the time he became horcruxed Lord Voldemort, I don’t think he would have even been capable of sex.

I also never read Bellatrix as sexually attracted to Voldy. Her behavior seems very in keeping with any sycophantic underling who is jockeying for the position of “favorite” of someone who is very powerful. I see her antipathy toward Snape as jealousy – he didn’t even have to go to Azkaban and yet he is still so “inner circle” to Voldemort that he gets access to privileged information . . . IT’S NOT FAIR!!!!

But there is certainly nothing wrong with us each having our different head canons! 🙂

Harry Potter and The Order of The Phoenix Movie

We finally finished reading Harry Potter 5 with our toddler so here are some thoughts about the film adaptation before we move on to Half Blood Prince. Below I’m going to post my thoughts chronologically, but let me start with a few high level points to add some context for the specifics to follow:

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix movie poster
  1. This was the last movie I saw without having read the books. I always intended to read the books but, after seeing this movie, I felt I had to because I was left so confused about so many things.
  2. Although I am going to be very critical of this film in my subsequent comments, I did actually like it. It’s a one on the binary scale for me and has some really, really good things to recommend it.
  3. That said, I kind of “resent” this film because it was the beginning of the David Yatesification of the franchise, which I don’t think was a good thing. Yates, if I recall, came from directing TV, not film, and I think it really shows in this and the following movies. They are all serviceable films that hit the major plot points but they just seem less . . . well . . . less. They seem to be more formulaic Hollywood-style movies that focus more on big setpieces and gasp shocking moments rather than deep character development. They are also just less . . . magical (whimsical, charming) than their predecessors, for which again I fault the director.
  4. One of the great faults I find in this film in particular is how much was cut. It is the shortest film in the series and is based on the longest book! WHY??? “I’m a fan of the HP series but I sure wish the movies were shorter,” said no one ever. “We have serious budget constraints so have to shorten the movie even though it is guaranteed to make $1B+,” said no sane person ever. And, per some of my comments below, some of the choices of things to cut just make no sense. The plot suffers a little but the characters suffer even more.

OK, I think those are my big thoughts out of the way. Now let’s delve into the minutiae!

  • My HP book club leader, Becca, made a good point about Dudley being a very heavy-handed, mustache-twirly villain in this film. That’s odd, given that Umbridge is such a compelling villain. Of course, she’s pretty mustache-twirly too, I suppose; she’s just much better at it.
  • Why, you ask, are Dudley and Harry (and not the other boys because . . . reasons) running through fields and into a tunnel? For the same reason that shortly afterward Harry and Tonks fly low along the Thames in the heart of London (which Moody would never allow): because Yates is more preoccupied with cool visuals and set pieces than he is with intra-story consistency.
  • That said, I do like the London flight sequence as it showcases something this movie does very well: the music! Nicholas Hooper does a really good job introducing some new, memorable themes in this film and that is no small task when you’re following in the footsteps of John Williams!
  • The introduction to #12 Grimmauld Place falls really flat for me. Rather than build the world and the lore with its interesting backstory and the Fidelius charm, they just show up, it expands, and we’re done. It’s emblematic of this movie’s whole “go go go, no time to stop and tarry” thing, which is a shame.
  • I think Sirius is woefully underdeveloped in the movies. Most of his development happens in PoA (but most of that is a red herring with a twist near the end), he is all but forgotten in GoF, and he still gets minimal screen time in this film. The end result is that his death isn’t nearly as emotionally meaningful as it should be.
  • That said, Gary Oldman kills it in the little screen time he has. I love the subtle wink he gives Harry at the dinner table at #12 and I have always wondered if he had to practice that in front of a mirror for hours on end to get it just right or if he just nailed it the first time. Either way, most of what is positive about Sirius in the films is due to his acting adeptitude (not a real word but I think you know what I mean).
  • Helena Bonham Carter gets the same kudos: she does a lot with very little screen time and her portrayal of polyjuiced Hermione in the final film is just exquisite!
  • I don’t love Gambon’s Dumbledore during the “hearing.” I don’t find it nearly as offensive as his infamous moment in GoF but he just doesn’t seem to capture Dumbledore’s Dumbledoreness at all. Book Dumbledore establishes an overt superiority to everyone in the room but then tempers it with over the top politeness. It’s charming in its way and very in keeping with his characterization.
  • Gambon instead seems harried, impatient, and frustrated by the proceedings. Some of the fault lies with the director, of course, but I can’t help but miss Richard Harris at moments like this.
  • There is no Quidditch. None. And its absence is conspicuous. Not only was it a significant bargaining chip used by Umbridge in the book that leads to a very convincing abuse of power, but its absence contributes to a bigger thematic issue as well:
  • The minimization of Quidditch, OWLs, and Prefects remove a lot of the “kids at school” feeling in this adaptation. As you know, I subscribe to the classification that Harry Potter stories are British Boarding School Mysteries disguised as Fantasy. The former gives the series so much of its charm while the latter gives it its gravitas. Without as much of the “kids at school with things that matter to kids at school” feeling (and with what little there is – like the Cho love subplot – being poorly done), it loses much of its relatability.
  • On a related note, I would have loved it if the career counseling scene between McGonagall and Harry with Umbridge interjecting had been included.
  • This movie proceeds so quickly. Again, I think that’s the hallmark of a movie that strings together vignettes and fills things in with exposition instead of taking time to develop characters and arcs. As we have been reading the books to our kiddo, we have been blown away by how many pages and chapters go by before we get to any real action. The action isn’t what makes these stories work; it is the characters.
  • And again, I don’t get why these sacrifices were made; the movie-going public would have accepted much more runtime than what we got. It’s not consistent, either: Imelda Staunton does a BANG-UP job as Umbridge and she is the most compelling villain we see throughout the entire film series! I just wish as much care had been taken with the other characters as well.
  • I find Filch’s portrayal in the Yates films to be grotesque and wholly unnecessary. He is portrayed as a bumbling fool in this film and, if memory serves, is addressed directly as an “idiot” by a protagonist in the last one. For a series that tries to advocate for treating everyone well, this is a big misstep.
  • I love the look of resolve in Neville’s eyes as he puts down the Prophet, having just read about Bellatrix’s escape. We can see a spark that will become an ember and eventually a raging inferno of Gryffindor by the last film. Well done!
  • On the topic of Neville, though, the omission of the hospital scene is just such a missed opportunity. SO much character development and back story could have been accomplished instead of cheap exposition.
  • I love the patronus montage – again a great use of music.
  • Poor Dobby. He is basically written out of multiple movies so that, when he reappears and SPOILERS dies, it’s hard to care that much. In the books, he has been much more consistently involved so readers are much more invested. Obviously many people watching the movies have read the books so there is some carryover, but I try to evaluate movies on their own.
  • Add another check to the missed opportunity column: the Dumbledore escape is really underwhelming. They could have done so much more with this scene to earn Shacklebolt’s comment that Dumbledore’s got style rather than just poof-he’s-gone.
  • Grawp is . . . I don’t know, he just doesn’t work for me. On top of it all, his CGI was really bad at the time and it hasn’t aged well. I come back to this again and again but a movie that should have a practically infinite budget has no excuse for bad effects.
  • The Snape memory sequence is really ineffective for me. In the book there is just so much more dimension to it. As someone who lost his father when I was young, I know what it’s like to hunger for more time with him, even if it’s just through the memories of those who knew him when he was younger. Maybe I’m just projecting but in the book I really get that same feeling from Harry during this sequence.
  • That makes it all the more heart-breaking when this cherished time “together” with his father turns out to be far less idyllic than hoped for. It forces Harry to confront much more complex emotions. Instead we just get a one-dimensional, overacted bullying scene that is over quickly and then NEXT!
  • I’m more sympathetic to this omission than the others because I’m sure it would have been a huge effort, but still, I’m disappointed that we didn’t get to see more of the Department of Mysteries in this film. The extra rooms in the book did a great deal to expand the world, stimulate imagination, and instigate fan theories.
  • The Veil is totally misused in the movie to the point that I’m not even sure why it’s there. Bellatrix hits Sirius with the killing curse so he’s already dead; his floating back into the Veil is inconsequential. This eliminates all of the omgmaybetheressomewaytobringhimback response from Harry, which is such a natural and relatable feeling. Instead, all we get is the cliche “NOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!”
  • The prophecy is totally bungled. Here again, Yates trades any nuance at all for a straight forward plot point: “You have to kill Voldy.” Gone is any of the ambiguity around Harry and Neville or the realization that Voldy may have created his own nemesis, which I thought was very interesting in the book.
  • I know they had to choose a visual language for the fight scene in the Death Room but I think they could have done better. All the smoke-flying around and random bangs seemed pretty meh and it also doesn’t make sense how all the adults got there. If you can just apparate in, willy nilly, what’s the point of any of the Ministry’s security? When I watch really good action films that use action to tell a story through battle, I’m reminded of how meh this one is.
  • The Dumbles vs Voldy battle is a little better because at least it has some visually interesting spells, but it’s kind of the same in the end: all sizzle and no steak.
  • Final gripe: the movement away from robes to modern attire rubs me the wrong way. One way we know this is a funny, whimsical, magical world is that the characters wear funny, whimsical, magical stuff. Take it away and it becomes less . . . magical.

Becca likened this film to a trifle – with some delicious layers and some . . . filler – which I think is spot on. There are some flashes of brilliance in this film: Umbridge, the score, the confrontation scene between McGonagall and Umbridge on the stairs, for example. But so much of the rest of it just seems to be paint-by-numbers pasting together different plot points as if we’re in a hurry to be done and on to the next thing. And that’s . . . just not what I’m looking for in a Harry Potter film.

Harry Potter and the Order of The Phoenix Chapter 38

Quick side note: does anyone else feel like our relationship with Moody in books 5, 6, and 7 is sort of fake? He’s this member of the Order and he’s looking out for Harry so we’re supposed to feel something for him – but the “Moody” we actually got to know in book 4 wasn’t actually Moody at all! It’s a small point but I feel like JKR kind of glosses over this and expects us to care for Moody as if he were actually the character we spent so much time with in book 4.

Now more meaty discussion (with minor spoilers): I think the two-way mirror is a really interesting authorial choice by JKR. Yes, she needed Harry to get it as it will play a role later but there are a million different ways Harry could have come by the mirror. The specific way she chose resulted in Harry being guilt-stricken about having forgotten it and, hence, being manipulated and, hence, going down a path that ultimately lead to Sirius’s death. That’s dark stuff! She deliberately chose to inject crushing guilt and remorse that is not necessary to advance the plot into our hero’s characterization.

I think this is where JKR really succeeded. She had a runaway hit with the first book. She could have kept the tone of the first book, rattled off several more volumes, and no one would have complained. Instead she chose to ratchet up the maturity and darkness and it just adds so much more depth to the characters.

Not only that; it also makes our hero’s journey over the course of the series that much more resonant. Most humans have been through an arc in their own lives in which things started out happy, innocent, and whimsical but then became more serious and heavy as they got older. That’s what JKR has captured so deftly in her progression of the HP series and I think her choice to make the mirror more than just a convenient deus ex machina is emblematic of it.

Harry and the mirror, Copyright 2008 Hilly Minne

The Poorest of the Poor Revisited

Today marks the 12th anniversary of the day I spent in Nairobi’s Korogocho Slums with some of the world’s “poorest of the poor.” I was profoundly affected then and still am – but I have some new thoughts.

Korogocho slums in Nairobi, Kenya

In hindsight, this experience, which I found to be so special and impactful at the time, feels a little problematic. I realize now that bringing affluent, [mostly] white visitors into contact with poor, Black locals is a cliche, and it smacks of both volunteer tourism and white saviorism. I wonder how my Black and African classmates felt about it. Did the feel the same? Or did they feel it was exploitative? Or . . . other? Rather than getting so caught up in my own emotional journey, I should have spent more time on that trip seeking out their perspectives.

Reading through my blogs for the entire Kenya trip, I’m more than a little ashamed of the hubris with which I described “challenging” and “advising” Kenyan business leaders. Did we really believe that our privileged education in one of the richest countries in the world gave us any clue how to solve problems in such a different context? We – many of us, at any rate – were so colonial!

That said, I did learn a lot, which was the purpose of the trip – and I definitely returned more motivated than ever to be the change I wanted to see in the world, resolving to “give it all I’ve got.” So, 12 years later, how am I doing? Am I driving positive change or were those just hollow words?


Shortly after this trip, one of my dear friends and IMD classmates moved to Kenya to launch GIVEWATTS, a nonprofit deploying solar energy to off-grid schools and clinics throughout East Africa. I joined the GIVEWATTS Board of Directors and created/led the USA organization. In 10 years, we have:

● 40,000 solar lamps and 10,000 solar stoves deployed
● 142,000 tons CO2 avoided
● Improved health outcomes by eliminating fumes from kerosene
● Improved education outcomes by enabling homework outside of daylight hours

To be clear, I am just a very small part of the entire GIVEWATTS team but I am incredibly proud of what we have accomplished. GIVEWATTS is now run by a crack team of Kenyans based in Nairobi and is self sustaining / growing with minimal foreign help.

Third Derivative

Reading through my blogs from the Kenya trip, I’m reminded how unsustainable growth in the region was (is?), how disproportionately affected by the climate crisis they were (are!), and how important entrepreneurship was (is!) to solving it.

The region was being exploited for its resources – minerals, arable land, and fish and wildlife. It was growing economically but making the same mistakes that we already made in the west: dirty energy, dirty infrastructure, inefficiency, etc.

Our meeting with the Executive Director of Climate Network Africa demonstrated that they were already feeling the effects of the climate crisis and were seeking help in combating it. At the time, I was defensive about the blame she was throwing at the developed world for our outsized role in creating the climate crisis but . . . she wasn’t wrong!

That discussion inspired me to think through climate solutions in the East African context. Multiple technology breakthroughs would be necessary but my project on Kenyan entrepreneurship revealed that there were significant barriers in the way of entrepreneurs and innovators there: business education, access to capital, gender inequities, and many more.

So, we need to solve climate, we can only do it together through global collaboration, and supporting entrepreneurship is critical to getting it right. That leads me squarely to Third Derivative, a fully integrated, global engine of climate innovation. We are working not just to deliver climate solutions everywhere in the world, but to source them around the world too so that everyone can participate in the unprecedented, multi-trillion-dollar opportunity of climatetech.

Climate Justice Is Social Justice

From one of my blog entries: “The dichotomy of Kenya is strong. We have met with wildly successful entrepreneurs and we have played with those rejected and forgotten by even the poorest of society. Perhaps I am naïve in thinking Kenya is exceptional; perhaps such disparity exists everywhere.”

Just how naïve I was has become abundantly clear in the ensuing 12 years and especially recently in the US. I don’t have to travel halfway around the world to see systemic inequality; it is right here in my back yard.

I also marveled at the tribalism in East Africa: “Whenever one tribe is in power, it commits atrocities against the others. When the others are in power, they want revenge. The tit-for-tat cycle continues indefinitely and I have no idea how it could be broken.” Is our current state of US political polarization so different?

At Third Derivative, we are still figuring out how to embed diversity, equity, and inclusion deeply into everything we do but, in the meantime, I take solace in the idea that climate justice is social justice and in being part of a larger team working to that end.

When I returned to Switzerland from Kenya, I wrote that, “I feel so safe and comfortable.” When I returned to the US from Switzerland, I did it for patriotism and to fight on the front lines of the climate fight. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it has put me right into the fray of the social justice fight as well.

When I moved across the country to launch and lead a major new weapon in the climate / social fight, I wrote of living a life not of comfort and complacency but of service and adventure. I may not have solved climate yet, but I do think I am living up to my commitment of 12 years ago to “give it everything I’ve got.”

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix Chapters 32/33


These chapters further my beef with Dumbledore’s occlumency plan. By the end of the 7th book, we really come to view Dumbledore as a true chess master. He’s thinking years ahead and anticipating what many pieces on the board will do in response to the moves of others. Indeed, he is even willing to sacrifice pieces if it gets him closer to victory.

Dumbledore the Chess Master

With that in mind, it seems like an un-Dumbledorian blunder to think that Snape’s lessons would actually help Harry prevent Voldemort from invading his mind. How could such a wise chess master miss such an obvious flaw in the plan?? That’s what bothers me about it.

Or . . . duh-Duh-DUH . . . what if it actually WAS Dumbledore’s plan for Voldemort eventually to enter Harry’s mind and lure him to the Ministry? What if it WAS Dumbledore’s plan that members of the Order be put at mortal risk? What if he saw all of that as an acceptable loss in order (pun intended) to bring Voldemort out into the open? And he needed Voldemort out in the open to motivate Slughorn to [with lots of coaxing and a little luck from Harry] divulge his memories to get the full horcrux picture.

This explanation is a bit of a stretch but it’s the only way I can reconcile such a consistent chess master making such a seeming error in playing chess: it’s not an error; it’s a feint.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix Chapters 30/31

The Occlumency subplot of this book seems a little wonky to me. Was Snape really the ONLY person who could teach it to Harry? Especially considering how bad of a teacher he seems to be!

Considering that the main thread of the book involves a group of students learning magic beyond their years and teaching it to themselves, why would that not have been an option? As precocious as Hermione is at basically everything except flying, I find it not improbable that she could learn at least passing legilimency to practice it with Harry.

Also, the entire premise of the training seems to be misguided. I’m not sure how effectively practicing intentional, proactive occlumency against overt legilimency would translate to passive occlumency (while sleeping!) against a remote threat.

Also, does it seem odd to anyone else that the centaurs would be so possessive of the Dark Forest? After all, they are part horse, so I would think they would prefer open plains for galloping around. And they spend so much time gazing up at the stars that I would think they would prefer a dwelling with a less obstructed view of the sky!

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix Chapters 28/29

Can I just say that I love Fred and George here? Their uprising against evil, authoritative rule is inspiring – vive la resistance! It’s sort of neat too how we get multiple examples all at once of kids out-magic’ing grownups: Fred and George’s uprising, Hermione’s sneak pimples. (Is this the first time we’ve seen evidence of students out-magic’ing adults? I can’t remember.) And then everything/everybody from Dumbledore’s locked office to the Hogwarts teachers to Peeves conspire to support them. It really is a beautiful turning point in the series.

The James and Sirius bullying Snape scene is so gross. It reminds me so much of the Death Eaters levitating those muggles upside down in the air so that you could see their underwear at the Quidditch World Cup – and I’m sure that similarity was intentional by JKR.

My Harry Potter book club has speculated before about how a wizard from each house might “go dark” and this is probably what it looks like for a Gryffindor, letting power and glory go to their head. This is probably the best reminder we get that, although James and Sirius are “good guys,” they came from wealthy, old, pureblood families and may well have grown up as spoiled, entitled pricks.

Of course adolescence can be a dark, confusing time for any teenager and we do have evidence that later in their lives they matured into more thoughtful adults. Frankly, the character journey of them becoming thoughtful adults given this low starting point is a tale I would like to know. Regardless, it gives Sirius real gravitas when he tells Harry that the world isn’t split into good people and Death Eaters; he knows first hand what it’s like to move along that spectrum.

My heart really, really breaks for Harry through this, though. A boy who never knows his father has a tendency to idolize his memory and ugh, what a cold slap in the face that his romanticized version of his father might not quite be real. This entire series is about growing up and this right here is one of the biggest “innocence lost” moments of them all.

No Requests

It has been 30 years to the day since my dad died. 30 YEARS! 3/4 of my life! I don’t know which is more sobering, that it is the 30th anniversary of his death . . . or that it has already been 10 years since I pondered the 20th anniversary of his death! It’s crazy to me that many of my younger friends and colleagues never even lived at the same time he was alive, never breathed the same air that he did.

As I do every May 28th, I listened to recordings of Dad’s memorial service and it is so heartwarming to hear from those who knew him at different stages of his life. They all had very different relationships with him, yet clear themes and commonalities are evident throughout their stories.

Were Dad alive, he would be 75 now – and I can’t help but wonder how he would be! He was already quite unyielding; would he now be a crotchety old man, set in his ways? What would he think of the life – and family – I have made for myself? How would he take to his role as grandfather? Would we call him Nonno, after his Italian mother, or Big Daddy, which is what we called his father – or something else entirely?

Crotchety or not, I have a feeling that Dad would have warmed to his grandchild in ways that he never felt permitted to with his son and I really wish he were alive if only to see that side of him – and for all the other reasons too! I wish he could have met my amazing, brilliant, strong partner. I wish our joyful, rambunctious, cheeky two-year-old could have met him.

Our child does get to know him a little bit through pictures and music. On May 28th we always play recordings of Dad singing his favorite folk songs. It helps me remember his voice and makes it possible for my partner and child to hear the voice of someone important they never had the chance to meet in real life.

Our toddler is going through a phase, though, in which the only music he ever wants to hear is different versions of Wheels On The Bus. I’m sure Dad could have done a hell of a rendition of Wheels On The Bus and the fantasy of him singing it dotingly over and over again to his utterly rapt grandchild brings a smile to my face . . . but the sad reality is that Dad just isn’t able to take requests anymore.

Third Derivative: My Next Great Adventure

Far over the misty mountains cold
To dungeons deep and caverns old
We must away ere break of day
To seek the pale enchanted gold.

I have founded or led eight climate tech startups. I’ve had one really big success, a few smaller successes, and a few “learning experiences” along the way – but every one of them would have had a better outcome if there hadn’t been tremendous systemic impediments to launching, commercializing, and scaling climate tech startups.

After selling my most recent venture last year, I resolved that my next great adventure would be to work on the problem rather than in it. To paraphrase my mentor: the system drives behaviors and behaviors drive outcomes. It is time to fix the system!

I intended to spend months thinking great thoughts, having conversations, and figuring out how to maximize my impact in transforming the climate tech commercialization system. As has been the case with basically every career move I’ve ever made, though, the universe had other plans!

At exactly the same time that I was thinking about how to fix the system, two incredible organizations – Rocky Mountain Institute and New Energy Nexus – were joining forces to initiate a bold new change model. A mutual climate VC connection introduced me to their principals and I flew out in January to discuss their initiative.

Originally I intended the discussion to be advisory but our time together was so exothermic that it quickly became clear that we needed to work more closely together than that. Their theory of change matched up with exactly the challenges I had encountered in my previous ventures, the people in their organizations were exactly my kind of mission-focused spiritual warriors, and the leaders heading their organizations were already climate heroes of mine. What began as a quick trip to help out a new initiative quickly became an alluring call to adventure!

Katie and I weren’t looking for a big change. We had a great life in North Carolina, surrounded by family and friends, excellent care for our child, and Katie thriving in her job at Duke. However, we believe in living a life of service and adventure, not comfort and complacency, so, by answering this new call to adventure, we are living those values.

As such, we are in the process of moving to Boulder, Colorado at the moment – impeded, but not prohibited, by the COVID crisis. I have already started my new role as CEO of this joint venture between Rocky Mountain Institute and New Energy Nexus: Third Derivative, which is a fully integrated engine for climate innovation. We find, fund, hone, and scale the world’s most-promising technologies to achieve larger, faster reductions in global carbon emissions.

For more details on what we are doing and how, check out a recent LinkedIn article I wrote on Why We Built Third Derivative.

In the meantime, it has been a whirlwind of activity building and leading an awesome team, most of whom have never met each other in person but all of whom, working together, managed to take Third Derivative from powerpoint to launch in less than 90 days! This isn’t my first adventure and it won’t be my last (My first ever blog post was about an adventure, as was my post announcing my return to the US.), but it is an incredible privilege to serve this team and this mission and I just can’t wait for this adventure to unfold!

The End of Smart OES

Last year Smart OES was acquired by Ingenero, one of our corporate strategic investors! I’ve been meaning to blog about this momentous event but the acquisition itself and then major moves in other areas of my life (More on that soon!) have kept me busy. Finally I have a chance to reflect back on Smart OES – the good, the bad, and the ugly!


I cofounded Smart OES years ago and what a journey it was! Through many highs and lows we raised three rounds of funding, secured paying customers, earned a patent, and validated our novel approach to reducing energy use in nonresidential buildings 20+%. By many metrics – revenue, job creation, acquisition – we were a “success.”

By other metrics, though, we were a “failure.” We set out with Smart OES to change the entire behind-the-meter energy chain, to turn every load in every building into a virtual battery. If we had met our epic, global ambitions, we would have reduced global energy use by more than 1% and built a 50 GW [virtual, globally distributed] power plant. In the end, we didn’t come close to that scale of impact, which is a disappointment.

As much as I would love to pat myself on the back for a job well done and do a victory lap, the climate crisis needs solutions of epic scale urgently so I’m wont to reflect back on Smart OES through the lens of, “What could we have done better to increase our scale of impact?”

  1. Lesson: “Success” is complicated. It isn’t binary and it can be measured differently across different metrics. It is critical to be clear (with others but, most importantly, with yourself) about what “success” means for your venture.

Right Business, Wrong Team

I have learned through previous leadership roles that I thrive when working at the big picture level, which means that I necessarily need to surround myself with detail-oriented “doers” for the venture to succeed. In partnering with my cofounder to launch this venture, I mistook his detail-orientation for a propensity for getting things done. My mistake cost us double:

  • Many detailed tasks fell onto my plate, where they languished because, again, that’s not my forte.
  • My cofounder was so obsessed with details and micromanagement that everything took much longer than it should have.

My cofounder was also supposed to handle fundraising but very little of his older network from more traditional energy turned out to be a good fit for our early stage IOT venture. As a consequence, the vast majority of fundraising fell to me.

  1. Lesson: Know thyself – and know thy cofounders! It’s easy to unwind a relationship with an employee who isn’t working out but much harder to divorce a cofounder.

To fill the gaps in our management team, we brought on a top notch operations exec. He was great – exactly the kind of “doer” I needed. But he, like my cofounder, came from the world of large business, not of startups. They were both very risk averse and it slowed us way down. They didn’t get the concept of an MVP and would hold up product releases for months trying to squeeze in more features that were critical in their minds (not in the minds of our customers). They would edit down marketing and pitch materials, worried about overhyping our offering, until they were so neutered as not to be very compelling at all.

  1. Lesson: Be entrepreneurial! It seems obvious but it really is incredibly hard to build a bold, disruptive startup from a position of risk aversion, fear of failure, and timidity!

Part and parcel of the big company ethos they brought was a tendency toward seeking consensus that also slowed us down. Myriad iterations meant it took months every time we updated our financial model or pitchdeck and weeks just to agree on the wording in informal investor updates. Often, by the time the document was finished, it was already out of date!

  1. Lesson: Be fast! A startup is a temporary organization searching for a scalable, repeatable business model. Its process requires rapid iterations of testing hypotheses in the market and adapting as new information comes to light. Execute those iterations too slowly and it cogs up the entire system.

Although the rest these two members of the management team were smart, talented, and experienced, they didn’t understand our problem space or our product very well. They viewed our venture as an opportunity to build a successful, lucrative business, but fundamentally weren’t excited about the work we were doing. This limited their motivation to find creative solutions to hard problems and caused a disconnect with the rest of our staff, who were very mission-motivated.

  1. Lesson: Startups need passion at all levels. Passion gets startups through tough times and pushes everyone to achieve great things.

Finally, one of our officers was very toxic. He believed everyone else was wrong and would blow up without provocation or notice. Often he was perfectly well behaved but the times he wasn’t were inexcusable. I spent a lot of time protecting the rest of the team from him, which obviously wasn’t productive. I kept telling myself that, as we grew, he would become more marginalized and his toxic impact would be reduced; that turned out to be a fantasy.

  1. Lesson: Eradicate toxicity! Starting up a company is hard enough without out it – kill it with fire!
  2. Lesson: Address tough decisions now! Kicking the can down the road just exacerbates the problem.

Fundraising Challenges

We raised $2M over three rounds but it all came in incredibly slowly. That meant we were always fundraising, rather than raising a discrete round then shifting into execution mode. It’s hard to run the product, operations, marketing, etc. of a business when you’re always fundraising. I wasn’t as present as I needed to be for the rest of my team and it showed in our productivity.

  1. Binge on fundraising. Rip the bandaid off, be done with it, and then move on – even if that means raising less. A founder has to be able to focus on the rest of the business.
  2. Raise smart money. Our investors were great and they really believed in us. The vast majority of them, though, didn’t offer us any additional value beyond their money. Seek out money that comes with additional connections, advice, and especially the ability to provide follow-on funding.

Final Thoughts

Smart OES was a wild ride and I’m really proud of what we accomplished. My heart hurts a bit, though, for the potential that we didn’t realize. At the end of the day, I am personally responsible for those shortcomings. The team I built wasn’t the right fit and, once that fact became clear, I didn’t react quickly enough to address it. Some of the lessons presented above are obvious and some are lessons I already knew – it goes to show how even experienced entrepreneurs can fall into familiar traps.

Stay tuned for some exciting news about my next adventure – and do call me out if you see me making any of these same mistakes; the climate cannot afford missteps that slow the progress of innovation!