Part 4: What’s the problem, anyway?
All scientists, researchers and engineers should skip this article
Today, most of the world’s leaders (not You Know Who) acknowledge climate change’s threat and have committed billions of dollars to research new sustainable energy technologies or scale existing sustainable solutions (e.g., wind and solar). Unfortunately, much – if not most – of this investment will be under-utilized because there is no mechanism that can efficiently get new technology solutions out of research labs into the market on a global basis. This has created a global innovation gap between technology and the markets that desperately need its benefits today.
The Innovation Gap
There is no coordinated, efficient, comprehensive way of bridging this gap today – it’s all ad hoc with loosely connected efforts. Incubators, or other innovation centers, are most often regionally focused with sporadic connections to other parts of the world. Existing “networks” are usually only skin deep and concentrate on periodic convening events.
Don’t look to the national labs or the research universities to bridge this gap, because they have a “Not my job!” attitude when it comes to commercialization. Researchers are not incentivized to focus on the application of their invention and frankly most of them don’t have the skills to build businesses quickly. Despite what happens behind their lab doors, most universities aren’t flexible, fast-paced, and creative enough.
Why isn’t it the role of the private sector – specifically the venture capital and start up communities on the Left and Right Coasts — to bridge this gap? Well yes and no. Capital – especially venture capital – flows to the use with the best return in the quickest amount of time, which is not impact technology. We bend metal, build products, do chemistry. The average impact technology exit for a VC fund is 10+ years vs. 7+ years in the App and Mobile worlds. Hence, most VC money – and their well-developed support systems – has moved downstream on the impact technology market. As a result, the “flow” of risk investment capital to early stage clean technology entrepreneurs is best described as a trickle.
But the lack of money isn’t the only thing that’s causing in the innovation gap. Where are the entrepreneur assistance programs that cover the full range of cleantech start up issues needed to grow a clean technology company? There are some stand-out examples – Greentown Labs in Boston, the Austin Technology Incubator come to mind – but not many and certainly not around the world.
The kind of “ecosystems” that are needed are very different from those that support for the digital and media technologies. Condensed programs aimed at getting an investment in a couple of months’ time just don’t work for chemistry or hardware based technology companies. We need longer incubation, we need pilot programs with large customers or government agencies, we need help in scaling up manufacturing, expertise in developing a distribution network, a supply chain, etc., etc. The number of organizations that attempt this kind of assistance can be measured on two hands.
An ecosystem of ecosystems
We need to connect scientists with entrepreneurs with investors, with customers, with policy makers in 40+ countries. (yes, you read that right – 40. More on that later). At its core, our envisioned network is a collaboration of entrepreneurs and other innovators driven by a common mission to slow climate change and build economic wealth at the same time. Globally. In real time. At scale.
We are already working on this and have made significant progress in the last 24 months with supporters in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Germany, Italy, Finland, India, China, and Japan. This is just a start – significant for sure – but we know the road before us will be challenge.
We’re looking for the few who have the guts to tackle the earth’s biggest problems by building the world’s greatest impact technology companies. And, we don’t care about your age, gender, sexual preference, religion, or race or whatever else might make you special.
If you want to help build this network, then I want to talk to you. Anytime. firstname.lastname@example.org
Part 3: Late to the Climate Change Game
Can a Newbie make a contribution?
I’ve come late to the earth-is-in-danger party. While I started thinking about clean technologies in 2008, I looked at it as a great business opportunity that could also bring much needed economic development. My mantra was: “Let’s take advantage of this huge business opportunity and diminish our dependence on fossil fuels from parts of the world that don’t like us.” I didn’t look beyond the business side of it.
That was turned upside down on my first trip to China. Beijing’s smog was at a level I’d never seen before, at a scale that was hard to imagine. Then I went to Shanghai. Singapore. Seoul. Delhi. Mumbai. It was the same everywhere in Asia. Like most people, I equated pollution with GHG’s (green house gases) because we can see how smog is making the atmosphere worse. The unfortunate truth is that where there is one, there is usually the other. Even on this most basic level, how could we not think what was happening in Asia wasn’t going to impact us in the United States?
My first trip to Africa taught me something else about climate change – its impact on the poor. Women and children in Ethiopian villages still spend much of their time walking to and from the village water well to fill buckets. And they literally farm their lands with the same type of tools we were using in the 1600’s. Ethiopia is not unique, like much of Africa, they farm with basic hand-made tools, partially because they don’t have access to cheap energy. Today, more than 500 million people in Africa alone still don’t have access to electricity.
These are the same people that suffer first and hardest from the effects of climate change. Storms. Draught. Flooding. These weather events are literally life-threatening. There’s no backup plan because they can’t afford Plan A, let along Plan B. The World Bank predicts that more than 100 million people will be thrust into poverty from climate change by 2030.
I’ve seen first-hand how a little bit of technology can change people’s lives. A 20-watt solar panel held on a thatched roof by some wire enables a family in Peru to do homework at night, to read at night, to listen to a radio. Electricity literally changes lives. And it changes our lives as well, since this family isn’t burning kerosene lamps that contribute to GHGs. These same micro sustainable technologies are beginning to be implemented in Kenya and Ethiopia and throughout Sub-Sahara Africa.
My “Aha!’ moment came when I connected these dots: there are two sides to climate change – the climate side and the economic side. IF we can help entrepreneurs get their sustainable technology products/technologies to the markets most in need, then we could fight climate change and poverty at the same time!
In the past 20 years, 4.2 billion people have been affected by weather- related disasters, including significant loss of lives. Developing countries are the most affected by climate impacts. (The World Economic and Social Survey 2016).
Poor people and poor countries are exposed and vulnerable to all types of climate-related shocks – natural disasters that destroy assets and livelihoods; waterborne diseases and pests that become more prevalent during heat waves, floods, or droughts; crop failure from reduced rainfall; and spikes in food prices that follow extreme weather events. (“Shockwaves: Managing the Impacts of Climate Change on Poverty”, 2016).
Impoverished communities tend to be more dependent on climate-sensitive sectors and natural resources for survival, so climate change poses an extreme threat on the livelihood, food security, and health of the poor; women are particularly vulnerable (The Science of Adaptation; a Framework for Assessment, Mitigation, and Adaptation).
In Africa today, more than 500 million people live without electricity. Without effective climate action, 100 million more people will live in extreme poverty by 2030. (Shockwaves, 2016)
Here’s a radical thought: climate change isn’t going to be solved only by scientists and engineers. In fact, if you’re a scientist or engineer, its best that you don’t read the next part of the story.
Part 2: In Search of Entrepreneurs
The entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well in lots of unexpected places. Ecosystems that help those entrepreneurs? Not so much.
In most countries, I’d be in jail or minimally be an outcast from my family and friends because I’ve lost other people’s money while trying to start a company. Aside from societal punishment, failing at being an “entrepreneur” is gut-wrenching. Laying off people who’ve bet their future on you is one of the worst things in life. I’ve tried to build eleven companies and countless other things. None of them were “Unicorns,” but of the eleven, seven got off the ground, six got market traction, five made a bit of money, and one made a lot of money. And the jury is still out on one of them. Running hard at something is a lot of fun, and it’s pretty addictive.
I’ve spent a good part of the last six years looking for bright entrepreneurs who we could help. At first, it was in all the usual places: Los Angeles, the Bay Area, Chicago, Seattle, Dallas, Boston, Houston, DC and lots more. Then I went to China, India, Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Italy, Germany, Ethiopia, UAE, Mexico and Egypt among others. In each instance, I went looking for entrepreneurs and organizations committed to helping them build sustainable businesses. As a result, about 40% of the companies that LACI has helped have been from outside Los Angeles.
I didn’t expect to find much in places like Ethiopia or Morocco. I was mainly looking for business opportunities for Los Angeles companies, not expecting to find much in the way of home-grown talent. I was surprised at most every stop — the fact is that entrepreneurs aren’t just born in California or Boston or NY, but in pretty much every corner of the world.
These are bright young people looking to build companies to support themselves and create products that will help their countries. In India, I came across a poster in one of its most prominent universities that was a take-off on the UK WWII “Keep Calm” posters that says it all: “Keep Calm and Hire Yourself”
Spend a couple of hours with the Girls Can Code (left) club in Addis Abba and its impossible not to be excited for our collective future. Or the young woman architect who’s designed simple, scaleable homes with a material that is in plentiful supply in Africa: plastic coke bottles. I met an English entrepreneur at the “Rise Up” entrepreneurial conference in Cairo that had an off-the-grid solar energy pack for Kenyan farmers for less than 50 cents a day! Very very cool.
Finding effective support systems to help these entrepreneurs around the world is a much more difficult task. Having the desire to start a company is one thing. Being willing to take the risk is essential, of course. But what about having the confidence to take the step? About even knowing what the first step is? Getting help, encouragement and practical advice is in very short supply anyplace outside the First World.
Many countries just don’t know what it takes either. Their policies restrict capital and/or just starting a business They have no history of successful company-building, hence they have no successful mentors to help the next generation. Failure/bankruptcy can land you in jail. Literally.
This is where the U.S.’s leadership is most apparent. We have the culture, the experience, the knowledge, and the support systems to assist entrepreneurs in making great companies. Yet, most of the time this knowledge just doesn’t get through to the developing countries that need it.
IMHO, its mainly because the NGO organizations that offer this type of help aren’t very entrepreneurial. Their staff is well-meaning, highly intelligent, but taking a class in entrepreneurship and being an expert on “competitiveness” doesn’t mean you know how to be an entrepreneur.
So, what happens in these countries when entrepreneurs have no supporting ecosystem? These countries are forced to buy innovation from others since they can’t develop it on their own. They buy it from China or Germany or the UK or the US or Israel or Finland. This helps their country insofar as they get new sustainable technologies that address key problems (energy, food, water, waste).
Unfortunately, they along the way they under nourish their home-grown entrepreneurs, perpetuating the big-corporations-selling-into-the-emerging-markets cycle that is so dominant in Africa, Asia and Latin America. In other words, it doesn’t help them build a domestic supply chain, nor the entrepreneurs to supply it, that can lift them out of poverty.
And here’s why this is important to you and me. Without entrepreneurial ecosystems to get new inventions into the market in every corner of the globe, we won’t slow climate change fast enough to save our planet. The data is pretty clear: the whole world is polluting and generating GHGs and the whole world needs to slow itself down.
“Why not let GE or Siemens or SAP or any of dozens of global companies solve the world’s problems?” you might be asking. After all, they’re the ones with the might, the knowledge, the connections, the scale to tackle these huge problems. Yes, but they’re also slow moving, incredibly expensive, risk adverse and politically attached.
We need to move fast. We need to move boldly. We need to fail fast and invent a better solution. Now!
So, I ask you this: What would happen if we built a global entrepreneurial ecosystem dedicated to impact technologies? My answer: We would fight climate change. Reduce poverty. And help entrepreneurs develop around the world.
All in one fell swoop.
Part 3 of this series looks at the connection between climate change and poverty. And it asks a basic question: can entrepreneurs – not climate scientists – slow climate change?
Part 1: The Journey
From the Garage to Around the Globe and Back Again
One Sunday morning in March of 2011, I was recovering from a night of partying in La Paz Bolivia. The Bolivian’s throw a pretty wicked Carnival. Karen (my wife) and I could never resist a good party, especially a street party in a new city. We’d spent the winter in South America riding our motorcycle. I felt we were just getting started on our m/c journey, while Karen felt it was about time to call it quits. Then the phone rang and everything changed.
Jim called to ask if I was interested in starting up a new incubator in Los Angeles focused on clean technologies. Jim was a consultant to the City of Los Angeles, preparing the RFP seeking candidates to lead the project, and he was pretty persuasive that I should apply. Three weeks later I was in LA, interviewing for the job. In June 2011 my partner, Neal Anderson, and I got the contract to build a cleantech incubator for Los Angeles. I would become CEO and Neal would be COO.
Three weeks later I was standing in a gutted 2000 sq. ft. bus repair garage, wondering one thing — how could this empty building become anything? Frankly, few people believed that we could/should build a business incubator dedicated to clean technologies in Los Angeles. Most thought the concept of LACI wouldn’t amount to much. What was cleantech? What was an incubator? Why should the City spend its money on this with all its other problems? I went through 1,500 business cards that first year trying to answer those questions and many more.
We sold our house in the Hollywood Hills and moved three blocks away from LACI. We needed to be all in if this was going to work. Not because I wanted to make a lot of money, but because I thought it was the right thing to do, that it would help the citizens of Los Angeles, and primarily the citizens of Boyle Heights, East LA, Lincoln Heights, and South Central. It was my way of giving back.
Over the past six years the team at LACI has figured out how to create an ecosystem that helps entrepreneurs make their ideas a reality. I’ve seen the power that creating a nourishing environment and providing practical support can have on the entrepreneur, on the community, on the country, and on students. We’ve helped build these “things” for the City of Los Angeles, the City of Fremont, Mexico City, the State of Washington, CSUN, the Port, and Ethiopia.
Here’s a touch of background on LACI for those of you who don’t know much about it and want to. The Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator brings together capital, universities, research, government support, entrepreneurs, corporate partners, and business leaders to drive innovation throughout the regional, state, and (now) global economy. LACI has helped 100+ companies raise $135M+, create 1,500+ jobs, and delivered more than $340M in long term economic value for the City of Los Angeles. As a result, LACI has ranked in the UBI Global’s coveted “Global Top 10” in 2014, 2015 and 2016. LACI was also selected as the Department of Energy’s clean energy incubator for the State of California and the California Energy Commission’s manager of its Southern California Clean Energy Innovation Cluster.
In December 2015 LACI moved into the 60,000 sq. ft. state-of-the-art La Kretz Innovation Campus which houses all of LACI’s Portfolio Companies as well as providing chemistry and electronics labs and prototyping center. LACI is the only incubator that is housed in the same facility as the R&D department of a major utility (the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power).
Building LACI has been the most rewarding work of my life. I’ve learned a lot about government, how to grow economies, what cleantech entrepreneurs need, and what I’m good at (and what I’m not). Building a complex entrepreneurial support system is part hard work, part smarts, and a whole lot of “magic.” How do you get all the pieces to click? I’ve spent six years figuring that out.
Now it’s time for my “Next Big Thing”.
Strangely enough, I first glimpsed my future when visiting one of the oldest places on earth – the Cradle of Civilization. Frankly, visiting Ethiopia was pretty much a shock to the system. It’s a country where women spend the majority of their day getting water and preparing food, while the men and boys farm with truly ancient farm tools. How could this ancient, backward country represent the future of cleantech? Well that’s for Part 2 of this story.
After more than five years at the helm of LACI, I offered my resignation as CEO on December 22nd of last year. The Board asked that I stay with LACI running our international operations, so I’ll still have something to keep me busy for bit longer. We’ve been conducting a search for my replacement ever since and I believe the new CEO will start early this summer. Freedom here I come!
I’ve been pretty schitzo about this whole subject for a long long time. I first tried to stop working full time about seventeen years ago after my Internet Titan phase ended. I figured we had enough money to scrape by and I was anxious to get on the road. But then I fell back into bad habits and tried to buy a company, start a couple of others, and was lured back to the start-up world full time at Idealab a couple of years later. I quit again two years later, but that didn’t last long either as a couple of friends and I started a management consulting company. That lasted four more years and I finally said “ENOUGH! – I’m outta here!” Karen and I sold the our house in Hollywood, bought a base of operations in Mexico, packed up Now Voyager I (our m/c), and went down to South America for an extended “adventure riding” get-away.
How far does a guy have to go to get away? Obviously, Bolivia wasn’t far enough as that’s when I got a call about building LACI. Frankly, I just found it impossible to resist the pull of building things. LACI was both an irresistible challenge and a chance to do a good thing. It’s been fun, all consuming, stressful, invigorating, challenging, tiring, fairly lucrative, and immensely rewarding.
I first wrote my letter of resignation in February of 2016. I didn’t send it in. Every time I got close, I’d edit it and put it away to think about it. I went through eight drafts:) before sending it off nine months later. So, this is really it.
Ohhh man, this is both exciting and pretty damn scary.
Let’s talk excitement first. I’m pretty sick and tired of my friends having all the fun. You know who you are, Sam, Chuck, Bill, Larry, Keith et al. How come you get to have so much fun and I’m still pulling on the oars of commerce? Geez, they seem happy! What the F____ am I missing? I want IN!
As readers of this blog will attest, Karen and I like to travel. Long, sometimes hard, but always interesting travel. This is less a hobby and more like a compulsion. Our 800 sq. ft. loft in LA has three or four globes and a dozen or so maps taped on the walls. We have more space dedicated to travel paraphernalia than we do to normal stuff (like furniture:). Not too may days go by without feeling the pull of Let’s Get Out There!
Now, let’s talk scary as in I’m scared shitless that 9 months into this I’m going to be stark, raving bored. What happens if everyone is right about me — I can’t possibly not work because I’m a f____g workaholic! The common view is that I’ll be so bored that I’ll rue the day that I hung up my keyboard.
I’m sure the first among the “Are you sure?” crowd is my dearest wife. Karen doesn’t need a lot of “help” in her daily routines. (She’s probably thinking, Geez, now I’m going to make lunch and dinner every day for Him?) This could end badly:) Yet we have experience in being together 24/7. We built FMIG together. Much of my Eat-What-You-Kill work has taken place at a home office. Spending lots of time on a m/c or in an RV doesn’t leave a lot of room for much personal space – either literal or figuratively speaking. So, there’s hope that the Boss of Factory Place, Corona and LBS can learn to Love Her Man even if he’s around a lot.
The other elephant in the room is money. How much does one need to make it all the way? It’s the unanswerable question as there are lots of ever-changing moving parts. Like how long? Like how healthy? Like how well? I’ve read all the papers on what to do financially when you stop working full time. They’re all kind of mundane and pretty obvious. My answer of course is that I’m not going to stop working, I’m just not going to work 24/7 anymore. One really pleasant surprise on the money front is that our home in Puerto Vallarta –Corona Adobe — has turned into a real source of extra income. This is 100% due to KR’s decoration and hostess talents. Who would have thunk it? By the way, the Sales Pitch by KR for getting Thor (our RV) was that we needed something to live in when Corona was rented out. Yah, and I also bought a bridge…
Seven years ago I wrote a series of posts on “Rewiring,” a concept I didn’t invent but one I took to immediately. To me, Rewiring means getting control of your life by re-configuring how you live and work to get more freedom and enjoyment. The idea was to turn the work-drives-lifestyle rule upside down: figure out how to live the life you want and then rewire to get there. Here’s the first post: “Rewiring your Your Life” In 2010 we had embarked on a rewiring job so that we could earn a living while traveling far, wide and long. I’m pretty much still there:)
But now that we’re approaching Launch Time, I’ve been giving some thought to what all of the guys mentioned above do — have fun. So here’s Fred’s everyday bucket full of fun:
Astute readers might notice a few themes from above, like he certainly doesn’t like to do much that does involve going places, fast. Hard to argue that one. But that’s the good thing about The Next Step, I get to be passionate about the things I want to be passionate about, when I want. The more I think about this, it could be a very good thing.
I don’t know where to start after being away for seven months. There are so many high and low-lights that its tough to figure out how to put a theme around them. Maybe its just that we continue to live an interesting life? One of contrasts, unpredictability, playing hard, working harder, and traveling by almost every means imaginable which now includes a few yards on the back of a camel:)
Here’s a speed dating summary of the last half of 2016
- Lots of travel — twelve trips in the past six months to India, Africa, the East Coast and Mexico. You know something is weird when you know which terminals to avoid at Heathrow and where the best lounges are at most of the airports we hit.
- Two huge events for LACI — the Grand Opening of the new 60,000 sq. foot La Kretz Innovation Campus and the less than grand election on November 8th. Both will shape LACI for years to come. I won’t be going back to DC any time soon.
- 2016 will be LACI’s best year as measured by almost any metric: we’ve grown the number of companies we serve by 40%, the number of jobs created by 70%, the long term economic value we’ve generate by 40%, and the size of the NGIN network to 20 members in nine countries. Our 2016 budget is 8X the budget we started with five years ago.
- “El Diablo” — aka Bogart — has driven KR to the edge of sanity, forcing us to put him through a two week intensive training session. The result; the family has a leadership problem. No s__t!
- Our Mexico places –the Corona Adobe and Little Big Sur — continue to draw guests from near and far. KR has turned into the Innkeeper with the Most-est and our 2016 rental revenue is 2X that of 2015. Onward and upward!
- Life in the Arts District continues to get more and more interesting. The addition of a scooter, a 2006 Aprila Scarabeo, has made getting around really interesting. New establishments are popping up almost daily. The retail complex around the corner under construction has applied for 17 liquor licenses. Yaahhh boy! Our 800 sq. ft. loft continues to work as USA central the Walti clan.
- We’re finally starting to use Thor, our 2016 Leisure Travel Van “Libero RV, after about a year of sitting in the parking lot. As with any of our travel vehicles, we’re in the process of figuring out how to configure it to our liking. Not surprising, we need more electrical power!
Well, those are the headlines. Feel free to close this up or to skip down to the pictures now. For those of you who want more color commentary, I’m here to serve, so read on:)
In the seven months since we last wrote after coming back from Spain, Morocco and Ethiopia, we’ve traveled to India, Egypt, Mexico, the East Coast, and Northern California.
This was our third trip to India and the second speaking tour for the State Department I’ve done. We covered four cities in about ten days. I did 25+ speeches/meetings in Delhi, Chandigarh, Indore and Hyderabad.
It was the first trip that KR and I didn’t venture out of the hotel often except for business! Part of this was because two of the hotels we stayed in were absolutely fabulous. Part of it was getting in sync with a time zone 15 hours ahead of Los Angeles. But the real reason was laying around in bed all day, half way around the world, is the only way I can get away and relax. When was the last time you just hung around in bed for an entire day? Exactly my point:)
I’m still conflicted about India. We got out of just the mega cities of Delhi and Mumbai this trip to the North and the Central parts of India. Hyderabad, in the south central region, is a tech boom town in which all the major multinational companies have huge presences. It’s a go-go entrepreneurial hub, strewn across rocky hills and spread out for mile and miles. I was never in a car less than 90 minutes to any meeting as the traffic was so bad.
Yet, unless you’re rich, India just isn’t that attractive of a place. 800 million people or so mean there’s just a mass of humanity, their trash, their houses, their vehicles, their animals, and their shops every which way. The rivers are polluted. The country can’t really feed all its population and still has 300 million people (the size of the US) without access to electricity. The idea of sidewalks and parks aren’t really on the agenda anytime soon.
I hold hope that we’ve not seen the “good stuff” yet:) KR has pretty much given up and doesn’t care to go back. Maybe that’s why we didn’t get out of the hotel much:)
Cairo was a whole different deal. I liked the vibe immediately. The city is much more interesting visually, it’s much older and has the advantage of being split down the center by the Nile, which we got to sail on by the way. The architecture is interesting, at least in the upper scale part of town that most foreigners hang. The streets are full of cars with the occasional motorcycle, which is pretty much the opposite of India’s cities.
No surprise, most of the perceptions that we Westerners have about Egypt, Muslims and the MENA region aren’t true. The US government is mightily mistrusted by most Egyptians that would speak about it. Even those people who were living in or working for US companies, felt that our history in the Middle East was horrible. We were/are only looking out for our own self interests. I’m not sure this can be fixed…
KR and I spoke with the young woman who served as our guide and for the first time I got an explanation of the Muslim religion that wasn’t scary or angry or intimidating. And while I’m not a religious guy, I could understand how she felt and had empathy. We could live next door to each other without thinking twice.
We’ve gone to a number of far-flung countries in search of business. I’ve met with probably a hundred groups in the last 12 moths and no matter if its Ethiopia (which makes Mexico feel like a 21st century country) or India or Egypt or Morocco or Spain or… there is one surprising commonality: entrepreneurship is alive and well, even in the most desperate lands. Young people are excited about starting companies, about creating new products, about using innovation to solve their countries problems. It can’t help but give folks like me hope for the future and a bounce in my step.
A big part of travel is having the right mode of transportation:) To date, our stable includes (by length of ownership):
- The Iron Duke (’96 Jeep Grand Cherokee): This is the Mexican equivalent of the New Yorker’s “station car.” 162,000 miles strong, its role is to carry Karen, the dogs, our guests, friends and assorted neighbors around Puerto Vallarta and environs carrying as much stuff as can be crammed in. Usually twice a year it makes the 1,500 mile trip to/from PV to Los Angeles. Karen hates the Iron Duke because she has to drive it. I love the Duke because he can’t be hurt. Who cares if someone puts a new crease in his side door?
- The Bullet (’01 Jaguar XKR Silverstone). The Bullet is now the LA version of the Duke. He wasn’t always that way as he started out as a mint-condition-not-a-scratch-to-be-seen exotic sports car, before he encountered the streets of downtown Los Angeles… After fifteen years, he only has 72,000 miles since the distance from front door to front office door is 2-3 blocks.
- Now Voyager II (2014 BMW 1200 GS motorcycle): The vehicular love of my life, NV II is KR and my Adventure Vehicle to far away places. NV II has an unusual combination of space-age technology with tractor-like reliability. It’s simply the best motorcycle I’ve ever owned. This is beyond surprising given that NV I (another BMW) was the worst, most unreliable motorcycle I’ve ever owned. NV II meets our thirst for adventure the freedom of motorcycling. NVII has already been to the UK, IOM, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Morocco, Luxembourg, Belgium and Monaco. He’s barely broken in:)
- Thor (’16 Leisure Travel Vans Libero): Thor is a mini RV that KR calls our little jewel box. Prime function of Thor is to take ALL FOUR OF US to far away places, but mainly places in North America. Thor is a small, but fully functional, Class C+ RV that has excellent interior finishes. Fully functional means: bed, toilet, shower, kitchen, refrigerator on-board power, satellite TV, dining room table and enough storage that includes a small closet. Thor is still a work in progress relative to outfitting, but has a big future.
- Rover (’06 Aprilla Scarabeo motor scooter): Newest member of the family, Rover’s job is to be the local get-about when we’re roaming in Thor. Rover sits on a rack in the back of Thor, ready to to go to the store, bar, or just down the street from wherever Thor is parked. Rover continues an interesting trend in the Walti vehicle ownership history: two Yahama RZ 250’s, two Honda Pacific Coasts, two Fieros, two Jaguar XK8s, and two Scarabeos… Go figure.
- Potential New Additions to the Stable: Highest on the list of new members is a Ural motorcycle/sidecar ensemble. This would be a creative and practical solution to my wanting to go everywhere on a motorcycle with KR’s desire to take Bogart and Squirt everywhere with us. KR, Bogart and Squirt could sit in the sidecar. Also on the list of potential additions are a Moto Guzzi m/c, a Morgan 3-Wheeler (if the Ural doesn’t make the cut), a replacement for the Iron Duke (shush, don’t tell KR), a Corvette, a Jag F-Type, a Jag Station Wagon, a Ferrari, and a …..:)
- Planes, trains, etc. Well, there haven’t been any trains in the last year, but we have taken ferries, taxis, Ubers, big big planes, small planes, pongas, buses, vans, the aforementioned camel, a sail boat, and a Tuk-tuk or two. I recommend the Airbus 380 and the Brittany Ferry, but not in the cattle car areas. British Air’s food quality has gone down hill, which is a great disappointment. Flight to avoid at all costs is the American out of Reagan to LAX at 5PM. ALWAYS two hours late, no inflight entertainment, no wi-fi, and the center seat is usually the only one available. Who says that airline consolidations are a good thing?
Life in the Loft
It’s hard to believe, but KR and I have been living in our 800 square foot loft in downtown Los Angeles for more than five years! Factory Place is located in the “Arts District,” which is LA’s industrial area that’s rapidly becoming the West Coast version of NY’s Meat Packing District. This place just reeks of coolness and weirdness and diversity and creativity and … money. Someone told me that the Arts District has the highest HH income of any area in LA other than Beverly Hills. I don’t believe that, but like all major metro downtown areas, it costs lots of money to live here so those who do are well off. Research shows that downtown LA has equal parts Hispanics, African Americans, Asians and White Folks and it shows on the streets and sidewalks. Diversity is a very interesting thing if one is open to it.
The family sedan for most people on this planet is not a sedan, but a motor scooter or motorcycle. The work horse of Asia, much of Africa, and even big swaths of Europe has two wheels, not four, and accommodates between one and five people, depending. Traffic, parking, gas mileage, and cost are all made the easier on a scooter.
This summer we shifted to a two-wheel family sedan as well, the aforementioned “Rover.” I now drive Rover the five blocks to work, we use him to go to dinner at night in downtown, or to see friends in Hollywood. He’s the easiest, most convenient vehicle I’ve owned in quite a while. I recommend one to all:)
Life South of the Border
Let me state this up front: Mexico is becoming the safest place in North America to live and visit. There aren’t any terrorists in Mexico. Narco’s? For sure, but it feels a lot safer to me than going to France, or Belgium, or San Bernardino, or Germany or… Shake your head in disbelief, think I’m crazy all you like, but it’s the truth.
The Peso continues to take it in the shorts via the dollar. When we bought/built Corona, the ratio was $1.00 = $11 pesos. As I write this, the dollar equals 20.5 pesos! For those of us who live/visit Mexico, this has made a huge difference. It’s generally a good time to be an American tourist in much of the world in terms of currency.
Here’s one practical example of the impact of the dollar/peso devaluation on our life. We have a wonderful maid who comes to Corona five days a week from 10AM to 3PM and we pay her $7000 pesos/month. That equals about $340 dollars a month in today’s valuation!
Here’s another. I recently had to get the Iron Duke fixed. He needed a new coil, plugs, distributor, oil change, radiator repair, tune-up and an ECM unit fix. Total cost was $3700 pesos = $180.00. PICKED UP AND DELIVERED:)
The dollar is at all time high via the British Pound, Euro, Egyptian Pound, Mexican Peso, etc. Lesson to be learned: never, never keep your money in a foreign currency even if you live abroad.
Our palapa in the jungle, “Little Big Sur,” continues to be a challenge to upkeep and rent remotely, but remains a joy to actually use. LBS is best understood as a land-locked version of owning a boat; just keep putting money in and every sailing is actually a repair/maintenance outing:) Our annual Jungle Storm event turns into an all out “invite your friends to the jungle to repair and fix-up LBS.” Every visit to LBS is preceded by a visit to Home Depot:)
Two Seismic Events
The Grand Opening event for our new campus on October 7th was the result of more than five plus years of labor and $47M in capital investment. 2300 VIPs, stakeholders, sponsors, and friends RSVP’d to our event. Two Mayors and assorted other VIPs gave speeches, cut the ribbon, took part in tours and gave press interviews. The new 60,000 square foot purpose built campus is the Taj Mahal of cleantech with desks for over 250 entrepreneurs, a chemistry lab, electronics lab, an advanced prototyping center, micro grid, and a model ‘smart home of the future’. The La Kretz Innovation Campus elevates LACI to a new level of prominence in the world of clean technology innovation.
Thirty one days later and the Trump Trampling washed over LACI like a tsunami. We literally had to send out “keep calm and carry on ” notices and hold numerous counseling sessions as everyone is this building believed that the sustainable world as we know it was coming to an end. And frankly, nothing that has happened since the election gives us hope he was “just kidding.”
My view is that LACI will survive and prosper no matter what. Market forces and mega trends are at our back. But, I’m worried shitless that the New Administration will step away from its commitment to sustainable sources of energy and the steps necessary to reduce/slow climate change. This won’t really impact us here in the US as we’re all comparatively rich. If it gets hotter, we’ll just turn the air conditioning on. Drought and crop reduction? We’ll just pay more for food. No, its the poor who feel the brunt of the effects of climate change. The World Bank estimates that climate change will push another 100 million people into poverty by 2030. This is serious stuff that the Leader of the Free World doesn’t seem to understand or give a shit.
And please, don’t talk to me about “clean coal.” Coal is as likely to be clean as the Lock Ness Monster is likely to jump out of the lagoon tomorrow.
To the Future, we go!
I’m looking forward to what 2017 will bring, none the less. KR and I have plans and ideas of what it will entail, but who knows? We wish all of you a wonderful holiday season and a great and prosperous New Year!
Here’s what all of this looked like in pictures.
CAIRO (DEC 2016)
INDIA (OCT 2016)
LOS ANGELES (OCT 2016)
MEXICO (DEC 2016)
ON THE ROAD HOME (DEC 2016/JAN 2017)
I promise to write more often.
Warning: This is not a travel post. Proceed at your own risk.
I was having a drink the other night thinking about lots of stuff, but mostly musing on one primary question; “What path led to being here, now?” The “here and now” part wasn’t just the specific here and now (sitting in a hotel bar in Seattle, late at night, after a great day of thinking up ways to bolster the state of Washington’s cleantech ecosystem), but the more general here and now: somehow finding my life/adventure mate in KR; traveling to 27 countries and counting; doing something important and difficult at an age when most (all?) of my friends have hung up their spurs; living in downtown LA in an 800 square ft. apartment while building a wonderful house in PV (yet not seeing it much:); getting stuck in a Mexican desert for five hours when the Iron Duke broke down on our most recent trip north; and deciding that ultimately KR and I were going to live in an RV for a lot of our going forward time.
A few more screwdrivers and a theme began to emerge: I’ve been an oddball pretty much most of my life, I just didn’t know it:) This has turned out to be a good thing.
I was out of sync from the start as both my parents were over 35 and my nearest sibling was 10 years older. I was an accident. Being an accidental child has its advantages. No brothers and sisters to fight over things with. Christmas presents targeted at just you. And parents that feel guilty for all the mistakes they made on the planned kids tend to ease up on you.
The first time being out of sync had not so good consequences was as a “professional” motorcycle racer. I started racing at 22, competing against kids that were 16, 17, 18. I was married and working two jobs when my competitors were still doing homework:) Despite winning more than 70 races, I was never the “it” guy because at 22 I was just too old to be viewed as an up and comer. What the f__?
I went from motorcycle racer to Madison Avenue account guy. I worked at an agency on Madison Avenue that had a company bar, company chef, a conference room for any setting (from living room to conference center), and more guys from Harvard/Yale/Princeton than you could count. Girls were strictly limited to either copy writers or secretaries. I read a book called How to Dress for Success and learned that corduroy suits and maroon shoes weren’t as cool as I thought. How could that be?:)
By definition, if you spend five years racing motorcycles, you’re going to enter the “real” business world a touch late. I was an old young account guy who had a penchant for corduroy suits:) I quickly ditched the corduroys and shifted to a white-hot focus on catching up with everyone. Two brief cases to work, going to graduate school at night, working seven days a week, every week, were the routine for my early years on Madison Avenue.
Being a motorcycle racer, Teamster, and old young account guy made me an odd ball in a good way. I outworked and out-thought and out-planned everyone else. I became a very determined, competitive SOB who wanted to win in business just as much as I liked winning on the track. I rose up the ranks of the advertising business, eventually running the Apple account in the U.S., running an office for a big agency in San Francisco, and making more money than I had ever dreamed about.
Along the way I got fired more times than anyone else I know. The best “your fired” line: “Fred, you’ve seen the movie Good Fella’s? Know the scene in which Joe Pesci walks into a house thinking he was going to be a Made Man only to get shot in the back of the head? Well, that’s you…” Thank you Steve for the most creative axing ever:) Somehow I never worried about being fired — either being scared of it or worrying too much about it after the fact. I was becoming an accomplished eat-what-you-kill guy and had confidence I could make it happen, no matter where.
There is a case to be made that the “being out of sync” gene runs in our family. My sister was a successful business woman with hundreds of people working for her at a time when women just did not work in anything other than secretarial jobs. My brother quit his job as an aerospace engineer to start a company selling and eventually making mini computers back in the day of Radio Shack. He was the first person I had ever known who was a successful entrepreneur.
Sometime in the early ’90s I came to an important decision: I didn’t want to be an accomplished traditional ad guy, I wanted to somehow become part of what people were calling the New Media. No one knew what it was, heck I didn’t even know how to spell I_N_T_E_R_N_E_T, but I knew I wanted to be part of it.
Bye bye ad guy, hello tech guy.
I became the most out of sync guy around. I started an Internet company out of my house, drove a 13 year old Fiero (known affectionately as the American Ferrari), began telling corporate titans they were sorry-assed losers if they didn’t get on board the coming Internet revolution, and transformed myself into a pretty accomplished technology startup guy.
I’ve liked building things my own way from the beginning. I’ve started or tried to start 11 companies/projects/things, five of which actually went somewhere, three of which actually made money, one of which made a lot of money.
Speaking of money, I was once an Internet Titan worth $40M on paper. That’s a feeling I recommend to everyone provided you can handle when the $40M suddenly goes away. But there’s definitely a rush associated with being rich.
Always being out of sync slowly transformed me. I stopped caring about what other people thought. I developed a lot of confidence in being able to take care of KR and myself no matter what the f__ happened. I got comfortable in being a weirdo. I got comfortable in being me.
After my various Internet and technology forays, KR and I sold our Hollywood house of 16 years and I turned to trying to figure out how to rewire our life so I could make a living while on the road. We had a custom 4WD RV made to roam the earth only to find ourselves spewed across an East Texas highway, giving KR a broken back and Lotus a brain tumor. Eight years later we tried it again, this time on a motorcycle in South America. Then LACI called while we were in Bolivia and we rushed back to Los Angeles to start a whole new chapter of being out of sync with life.
We now live in an 800 square feet loft in downtown Los Angeles. It’s called the Arts District because all the hipsters are moving in. Talk about being out of sync?:) I’m trying to convince the world that a new industrial revolution is coming called cleantech and getting similar responses to the mid-90’s Internet phenom, “What’ the business model? Will anyone want a sustainable widget? You’re inventing a solution to a non problem!..” Yada yada. Heard all of it before.
We’ve also moved our base of operations south of the Border to Puerto Vallarta Mexico — the safest country on earth:) Most of you reading this think we’re crazy for doing this as well. Drug cartels. El Chapo is now roaming around again. Murders left and right. Corrupted police and government officials. All true, except that’s not what we see.
We see a neighborhood full of playing kids, of young men and women walking to work at 6AM on a Sunday, of neighbors chasing down a truck which sideswiped the Broken Arrow and didn’t stop. Our neighbors caught him and called the police.
On the way driving up to LA a couple of weeks ago the Iron Duke broke down in the middle of the Mexican desert. We barely coasted into the only Pemex station in Mexico that didn’t have anything but gas pumps. We’re talking Nowhere’s Ville. The attendant got on his cell, called his expert “Mechanico.” Forty-five minutes later the Mechanico Team showed up in a beat-to-an-inch-of-its-life Toyota with a tool box that would make mine look impressive. After five hours of on-again, off-again theories of what was wrong — and giving them $500 cash to buy parts — they fixed the Iron Duke and we were on our way. There are few things more creative than Mexican’s keeping their vehicles running long past their Use By date:)
Mary Douglas, a famous British anthropologist known for her writings on human culture and symbolism, came up with a term that kind of described my life: matter out of place. Dirt on the ground is called earth, but when its on your sleeve its called dirt because its matter out of place. Things that are out of place are more often scorned than celebrated. The trick is to always think of yourself as the earth:)
It’s difficult to summarize this past winter’s events. Where’s the theme in it all? It started with the following two-week travel sequence: DC – LAX- PV – Mexico City- PV – Guadalajara- LAX. The trip included meeting with the White House’s most senior energy staff and being told…”We talk about LACI all the time here. There’s no one doing anything like you guys…” I know that and $1.65 will get me a small Starbucks, but it was nice to hear anyway and certainly a 180 degree change from just three years ago. The trips also included signing an MOU with the Mayor of Los Angeles in Mexico City and being told “You’re exceeding expectations, Fred” by the Mayor. Please remember that when we’re asking for more money from the City to support LACI, I’m thinking:) Oh, and we began building a Global Innovation Network (GIN) which now has members in Germany and Mexico, soon to add Italy and the rest of Europe. And I’m part of the Mayor’s delegation on his upcoming trip to Asia this fall.
South of the border, KR has become a world-class inn keeper as the Corona Adobe/Little Big Sur vacation rental business has exploded. No one is more surprised than KR and I at this new development. Corona Adobe has become a very popular B&W to the point that KR has had to escape to LBS because the house was fully rented. That option soon disappeared as well since the Corona Adobe/LBS “metropolitan living and jungle escape combo package” has been very popular. Last week KR had to stay in a PV hotel because we had no space in our own home or out at LBS. KR is coming to LA for the month of April partly because there’s no room in PV. And to see Her Man, of course.
All work and no play makes for a dull boy (which I’ve been accused of being), so there’s been a fair amount of that including a couple of days in PV with friends (Puerto Vallarta is just a great, great town), a Saturday night bar crawl like I only vaguely remember in my youth, and….. A NEW MOTORCYCLE!
We welcomed Now Voyager II into the family about a week ago. He’s a 2014 BMW GS with every gadget, gizmo and option that the German’s could think of:) I spent about two months evaluating various choices for the Walti’s new DreamMobile, but settled on the biggest, fastest, heaviest, and most expensive alternative. Go figure. He’s so big that I’m thinking of getting special elevator shoes made:) None the less, he’s handsome, fast, comfortable and handles great. Why has it taken me all these years to man-up and get a GS? Go figure.
Maybe the theme for this winter is it’s been a time of transitions. LACI is growing up — in size, footprint and reputation. One of these days it will be a real force to be reckoned with. Our life in PV has transitioned to that of part-time/ full-effort inn keeper which has pretty much changed what KR does south of the border. We’ve shifted to a new motorcycle, leaving the stressed-out Now Voyager behind and welcoming the fully-capable Now Voyager II into the fold. And, as we all face the challenges of growing up (finally?), we lost two of our friends this winter. One, Jack Foster, was one of the greatest creative people I’ve ever worked with. He certainly set the standard for how to have fun and do great work. Not a bad legacy.
Frankly, I didn’t have the slightest idea of what I was getting into when I agreed to lead LACI. I knew I wanted to forge a new kind of public/private partnership to help build a cleantech economy, but it was a fuzzy concept at best. Almost one year later, the stats tell the story of what this takes…
- I’ve gone through 1500 business cards (I’ll save you the math, its 4+ cards for every day this past year)
- I’ve met/pitched LA’s Mayor, his entire staff, every General Manager that reports into him, three Deputy Mayors, three City Council Members, two County Supervisors, three Mayoral candidates, the City Controller, two Business Improvement District EDs, and most of the above’s staffs.
- I’ve met/pitched two State Senators, the heads of the California Air Resources Board, the South Coast Air Resources Board, and various people from LA’s ports.
- I’ve held 35+ meetings with DC representatives, agency heads and their staffs. This is just one trip. I’m going back in two weeks.
- I’ve met/pitched the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation, the Los Angeles Business Council and every major university in the region (USC, UCLA, Caltech, JPL, Calstate LA/Pomona, and the Art Center College of Design)
- We’ve had the Chair of the White House’s Council on Environment Quality, the EPA Administrator, the Secretary of Labor, several Under/Assistant Secretaries of the Department of Energy, and assorted staff/leaders from the SBA and DOD to dinners and round tables at LACI
- And then there are the countless entrepreneurs, VCs, investment bankers, regular bankers, business leaders, academic professors & scientists, utility executives, Et. Al. that make up the Los Angeles innovation ecosystem.
I’m still not sure what a new kind of public/private partnership means, but I know a lot more about the public side of the equation than before. Since most of us never get the chance to interact with our government on a daily basis, I thought it might be interesting to share some observation on how “it” works. Here goes.
No matter how screwed up the system is, there are some pretty cool things and people in government. Perhaps because I live in the cleantech world, most of the people/staff in government that I come in contact with are dedicated, smart, highly educated and incredibly articulate. These folks just really, really care about what they do. This even goes for most of the politicians that I’ve met up close and personal. While there are certainly tons of bureaucrats and technocrats in this world, most of the folks I meet joined up because they care and want to make a difference. Which begs the question, then how did this whole thing get so f__ked up? Beats me: )
“All politics is local” is perhaps the truest thing that’s ever been said about how our government works. Heck, it might be the truest thing ever said about anything. Most politicians are elected to/from/by local areas, thus their primary focus is to deliver benefits to their constituents to get re-elected again and again and again and… To think a politician is going to support something that doesn’t immediately benefit their constituency is just naive. Hence, the job of anyone advocating anything to any elected official is to pitch the idea/program in the context of their local interests.
It took me a bit to get this. I often got the this guy is totally out to lunch look when I first started talking about our program in terms of the green economy, innovation, global competitiveness, environmental sustainability, etc. After a series of dull stares, I evolved the pitch to focus on local jobs, local tax revenue, local real estate appreciation, higher rent for local landlords, more restaurants, (and especially) more bars, etc. Ahh, now I started to get some head nods. I still need daily training in this area, but figuring out what local interest your program might help can be very useful: )
Politics is all about power (duh!). We all know that money=power, but how is power exercised in government? If you have power, you get to hire Staff (who have the time to become knowledgeable about a topic and lobby for/against something); to write an RFP /FFO (Request for Proposal/Federal Funding Opportunity) in a particular way that makes it harder/easier to win; to approve/disapprove or hold up a vote; to introduce someone who can do these things; and the king of all government power — the power to shape legislation and then the power to get it passed.
Those who have power, wield it. Those who don’t have it, want it or are submissive to it. It can be a tough day in the office if you fall into the latter categories which is where guys like me reside. Where you are in the power equation is reinforced by the next point.
Who says we don’t have royalty in this country? Walk into any government organization and its leaders are treated like royalty by those who need something from them (that would be almost everyone they meet with). They have special offices, a set protocol for meeting with them (for example, when meeting with someone in Congress, you immediately hand all the business cards from your group to the receptionist, who then staples them to a piece of paper, which then gets given to the Elected Official just before your meeting), body men, chiefs of staff, calendar secretaries (if in Congress, then there are DC calendar secretaries and district calendar secretaries), Field Reps, etc.,etc. The fawning over our elected/appointed officials applies to the lowest, most junior congressperson since once you’re in the Club, you’re in the Club and are treated as a potential Very Important Person (to be). All of this is unfortunate as this just tends to go to the elected official’s head — they really do believe all the good stuff people say about them: )
You have to be in it, to win it, and I’m not talking about the Lotto… Not advocating for your position within
government is akin to hoping to win a debate by sending in the answers. The next time you’re in DC, go to the Capital and walk the halls of a Senate and/or House office building. There will be tons of people hustling to meetings, it’s be tough to find a seat in the cafeterias, and you’ll be lucky to get a 15 minute meeting because all those people you passed in the hallway are doing what you should be doing — advocating for their interests.
A perfect example of this is the recent California Air Resources Board “public” hearing on how to spend the billions of dollars of proceeds from California’s new cap & trade law. This is an important meeting, but unknown by 99% of the business people and the public that could be affected.
The <1% that did show up are a force to be reckoned with. There were people advocating for the food processing industry, the manufacturing sector, the Forest Service, various water districts and companies, the x-thousand member construction union (did you know that just paving roads reduces pollution by 10%?… so we need more road construction money), the Latino community, the Black Chamber of Commerce (we need “shovel ready” projects), the 350 person strong Silicon Valley Leadership Group, the AQMD, the University of California, the Central Valley farmers Cooperative, etc. etc. All these people are in the game and they’re in it to win. Now multiply this hearing by 10,000X and you get an idea of what’s going on in DC.
Money gets raised for local politicians in the living rooms of the wealthiest and/or most active people in this country. This is actually a good thing, as for a couple hundred (or thousand) dollars, one gets to meet The Candidate up close and personal. You see who’s supporting them, listen to their questions and answers, and generally size-up The Candidate pretty intimately. And you get to see a bunch of cool houses along the way while sipping cheap wine and expensive h’orderves.
The biggest dog, or the princeliest Prince, are those who can raise money for the Have-Nots, i.e those candidates/politicians that for whatever reason can’t raise campaign money for themselves. Raising money for other candidates is The Currency that politicians use to form alliances. If you’re good at this, you’ll rise in the ranks of _____ (state senate/assembly, House of Representatives, Senate, etc.) Rising in the ranks means getting on committees that — you guessed it — can directly benefit your local constituencies! And the circle continues.
After a year of “hi, how are ya’s,” I keep thinking that maybe Rick Perry and Ron Paul are right. Maybe we should get rid of the Dept of Commerce and a couple of other agencies. They’re huge, (mostly) well-meaning bureaucracies that will never, ever be very efficient. Their systems are so ingrained that they can’t be fixed, leaving the only practical strategy for us advocates is to continue to game them through money and access.
The most often heard refrain today is that “our political system is broken!” DUH!! I didn’t study Poly Sci in school, and I’ve never spent a day as an elected or appointed official, but a few things stand out as good starting points for change after my experience. The next time that some candidate outlines their plan to fix DC (or Sacramento or…), see if it includes these essentials:
- Term limits for every elected official. Without this basic change, those in power will always be able to protect their power bases. The most often used argument against term limits… just when they learn their jobs, we toss them out! is patently ridiculous. I’ve never been given more than six weeks to get up to speed on any new job, so why can’t our elected officials figure it out in say… two, maybe three months.
- The elimination of the Seniority System in Congress. This is more corrupting than the unlimited employment that incumbency offers now. This system — that you get appointed to committees and chairmanship based on seniority — keeps the committee chairs,etc. in power forever no matter how competent they are. It seems to me that some amount of qualifying time on the job should be a prerequisite for positions of power (say a year), but after that these positions should be filled in some other manner.
- We need to weaken our two party system to improve it. This seems counter intuitive, but necessary to break the gridlock. The reason that most Republicans vote Republican and most Democrats vote Democratic isn’t because they have philosophical differences (which they do, of course), its because of the fear of party retribution if they don’t vote the party line. My thesis is if we’re going to fix the system, then we have to break many of the mechanisms that reward gridlock at all costs.
How come you left off the most important requirement for change: how money gets spent in elections? Because its too complicated and I don’t have any answers — I’ve only been on the job for a year!: ) On the local level, living room fund raisers work for me and I wish there was some way to make these much more prevalent. The national level is a whole other barrel of fish, and the subject for the 3000 Card Update.
I’ll leave you with a tip on how to spot a politician in a room full of people. It will be the person who’s perfectly coiffed:) Really! They have a level of dress that’s a step above the rest — perfect for the TV cameras (if they’re lucky) or photo op (more likely). See, the last year hasn’t been a waste. 🙂
This week four members of the Los Angeles Cleantech community went to Washington to tell our story. Our Mr. Smith trip is an exploratory and ground-laying trip as we want to learn how “its” done (i.e. work the system), meet people that we can ask for help/information in the future, learn about programs that we can potentially participate in, and generally get the lay of the land. Moreover, we wanted to hone our narrative making sure as many people in Congress, DOE, Commerce, and the White House know about us as possible.
Week One — The Stats
For the number-crunchers out there, here’s the metrics of week one:
- One conference (APRA-e Summit) of 1500 people and 200+ exhibitors
- 13 formal meetings with Representatives, Senators (their staffs), DOE program managers and staff, EDA staff, SBA staff, the Chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, and a couple of fellows from the World Bank.
- Number of problems getting through security (EVERY one, most of which are my fault)
- Number of grass hoppers eaten at dinner: one (I will get even with Goodstein)
Setting up these meetings requires a Herculean effort by a lot of people. Sean, Michael and their organizations (the Los Angeles Area Chamber and UCLA) took the lead in making these meetings happen. Ian and the LACI team worked weeks trying to get ready, making sure we had background material and leave behinds for the entire trip. Just coordinating our schedules was a heavy lift.
A Typical “Pitch Session”
Depending on whether you’re meeting with a member of Congress or an agency, the protocols vary. Let’s take a member of Congress or their staff as an example. They go something like this for Team LA:
- Find the office in the respective building (not as easy as you think).
- Outside, give all our cards to our “lead,” — Chair Swords — who presents all cards to the staffer in the reception, who then pastes the cards on a sheet of paper and gives them to the person we’re meeting with.
- These meetings are typically 30 minutes max and usually take place in a group office. We took one sitting in the reception area and two others in the Congress Member’s office.
- Format: Each of us would give our respective 5 minutes pitches, each with a difference emphasis depending on who we were meeting with and which one of us started out. We’re getting pretty good at filling in the gaps of each others’ narrative. After the introduction, there is a Q&A session with the staff, most often focusing on “the ask,” if we have one. Push the leave-behind across the table for future reference.
- Key themes: (1) Please support LA’s efforts to build a cleantech ecosystem (2) Unique public/private partnership; (3) Unequaled powerhouse of university research centers in LA; (4) Unique LA region’s strengths (5) New initiatives underway (LACI, new ED at CTLA, etc.)
Week One’s Highlights
- You can’t come away from the ARPA-e Summit without feeling that no matter what else is going wrong with the world, there are a lot of smart people working on sustainability in the US. This was a spectacular event attended by 1500-ish people. More than 180 companies/projects displayed their technology, products and services. Key speakers included Bill Gates, Secretary Chu, Fred Smith (Fed Ex), the Chairman of Walmart, and my nomination for best presentation — Dr. Arun Majumdar.
- Sitting around a small table in Congressman Waxman’s staffer bullpen and making our first pitch and realizing we were a pretty damn good team.
- The numerous evening gatherings with serious conversations late into the night. There are a lot of passionate people working on sustainability issues in DC and it was good talking about things that matter.
- And by far the best of all — the tour of the West Wing graciously arranged and given by Brandon Hurlbut, Chief of Staff to DOE Secretary Chu. Seeing the Oval Office in the flesh is something special.
This week has been practice for next week’s Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce’s Access DC event with more than 200 delegates and more than a dozen events. These events literally start at a 7:00AM breakfast and last through a reception and dinner each night.
Addicts can never take a hit and workaholics can never take an interesting job. I just couldn’t resist when I got the call about the Executive Director’s gig at the Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator (LACI), even though we were in Bolivia. It sounded too good not to pursue: starting cleantech companies in an incubator financed and embraced by the City of Los Angeles? Now almost four months into being the ED at LACI, I’m back into working seven days a week with little time for anything else.
How did this happen?
Here’s the speed dating version. KR and I came back early from our South American m/c trip so I could interview for the above. Somehow Neal and I convinced them that we were the team to build the City’s incubator. I moved downtown to be close to LACI and KR went back home to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. I started in June, we had the office open in July, we got our first portfolio company in August, our second on September, and we just threw an all-out LA-style Launch Party for 400 of our closest supporters in LACI’s parking lot. Along the way KR came up to LA for a couple of months, Lilly got some acupuncture to help her sore hip, and KR has decided we need to remodel Corona (our house in PV). Oh, and did I tell you that we were going to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro next summer and ride our bike in Europe next Fall?
The two most often asked questions regarding LACI: (1) What’s an incubator? (2) And from those who know what it is and its potential, how did you get this job? An incubator is the business equivalent of baseball team’s farm system: our job is to find young talented cleantech entrepreneurs and get them to “The Show” – the marketplace. We do that by providing incredibly cool and cheap space, CEO coaching from people who’ve actually built companies, and access to a growing number of friends and supporters (the network) that can help our portfolio companies tremendously. What makes LACI special is that its at the heart of Los Angeles’ most important economic development strategy — to build LA into a huge green economy. That’s why the Mayor came to our launch and why we get all the attention that we do. As for why me?, there ‘s just no accounting for taste and judgment. Go to www.laincubator.org to find out everything you never wanted to know about LACI.
Why is this important? I became convinced that if we were ever going to get control of our destiny, the US needs to get off its dependence on foreign fossil fuels and find affordable, workable, appealing
sources of sustainable energy. It’s also probably not a good idea to punch a hole in earth’s atmosphere along the way. Now before you start pointing a finger and yelling “There’s a tree huger!” remember I’m a business guy deep down. Transforming our energy and transportation infrastructures over the next decades is a trillion — with a T — dollar business opportunity. So, for those who embrace this new world, there is huge potential riches to go along with the huge risk and capital requirements. It’s my bet this will be the single biggest technological revolution in my lifetime (eclipsing the PCs and the Internet). From this perspective, it makes some sense to build a long-term economic development strategy behind clean technology as Los Angeles is attempting.
This is an odd-ball public/private partnership that is both working and…fun. LACI is a little weird. We’ve been funded by two city agencies, yet we’re a private non-profit organization which is run by a couple of business guys. What’s more, the money to build our permanent 60,000 sq/ ft. home is from the city’s municipal utility in combination with city, state, federal funding with a sprinkling of private donations. A bit unusual, yet it all seems to be working well together. And what’s more surprising — and important — is that we’re having fun along the way. Building LACI is exactly like starting a company, its just the names for things are different as are the revenue streams. As anyone who’s done it will attest (admittedly in hindsight), building companies is really fun.
Fred, what ever happened to The Plan? You know, the one in which Our Hero rides his motorcycle to far away lands with his woman snugly tucked in behind. First South America, then Europe, Africa and maybe Australia and New Zealand while hanging back in Mexico in between continents. I’m in a tug of war between becoming a Motorcycle Adventurer or Cleantech (mini) Titan? What’s it to be? You know my answer.
Both : )
Three years ago I drank the Kool Aid regarding the importance of “sustainability” to this country’s (planet’s?) future. It’s all Neal and Mark’s fault (my partners at The Propellant Group) as they had launched the Automotive X Prize, a competition awarding $10M to the team that could produce a production capable car that could get at least 100 mpg. It was a pretty amazing project that even a Jaguar driver like me could appreciate. Much like a sinner who is forced to live in a monastery, I couldn’t really ignore the evidence that Mark, Neal and crew kept harping on; this country’s future was tied to eliminating its dependence on foreign fossil-based fuels. And the planet was burning way too much fuel to either be sustainable or not to punch a hole in the atmosphere. The only way to do this, no matter how long it takes, was to shift to sustainable energy sources. Things like solar, or wind, or bio fuels, or… whatever.
But I wasn’t selling the Jaguar just yet.
One thing led to another and I found myself working with various formal and informal groups dedicated to making Los Angeles a cleantech economic center. There were lots of meetings: with the Mayor’s economic development staff, with the Community Redevelopment Agency/LA, with the Los Angeles County of Economic Development Corporation, with UCLA, and the technology transfer office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. I was even invited to the press conference on the steps of City Hall in which the Mayor announced the “Cleantech Los Angeles” partnership between the Mayor, UCLA, USC, Caltech, JPL, LAEDC, Los Angeles Business Council, and the Chamber of Commerce.
But I felt like an interloper in these groups as they were all long-time dedicated green advocates and I was a new convert who didn’t know much. Moreover, what I did know — how to build companies and make money — was as strange to them as bio-fuels were to me. I began writing a series of white papers on what the City needed to do to implement Mayor Villaraigosa’s vision. These were not met with open arms and most disappeared into basement storage under City Hall.
After a couple of years of tilting at windmills, I slowly faded away…
Then in March while Karen and I were in La Paz, Boliva I got a call from the person who wrote the business plan for Los Angeles’ cleantech incubator. He wanted to know if I was interested in applying for the new position of Executive Director of the yet to be built Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator, a quasi-government initiative funded by several City organizations. There were no promises, of course, as this would be an open competition, but he knew of my interest and thought I might be a good fit. Just having a conversation via Skype in the middle of Carnival in a city that had yet to discover traffic signals was an accomplishment in and of itself. I said “yes” and wrote a proposal a couple days later in Cochabamba, Bolivia and sent it off.
We proposed that the Propellant Group run the new incubator, that I would lead as Executive Director and my partner Neal Anderson would serve as Assistant Director. We were a long shot as neither of us had any experience with running incubators, but we were both very experienced in helping early stage technology companies grow and prosper — the core task of any incubator.
In the remote chance that we would be called in for an interview, I modified our trip’s route, skipping all of Brazil and heading straight for Buenos Aires. Less than two weeks later Now Voyage was on a ship sailing north and we were sitting in the leather winging our way to Los Angeles. I’ve already written about the shock of “re-integrating” with normal life in Hollywood in past posts (Stranger in a Strange Land). A couple of weeks later we were in for a real shock.
After three sets of interviews, Neal and I won the contract to manage the Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator (LACI) for the City of Los Angeles. Everything about our plans– Neal’s, Karen’s, mine — changed in an instant. Things would be different going forward. Once again, I didn’t have a clue as to how much they would change, but I did my usual when being thrown into a new challenge — I shifted into high gear and raced full speed ahead.
Time out for a footnote explanation of what a cleantech incubator is. First question I’m asked is, “what is clean technology?” Answer: there is no one answer, but it includes all the processes and technologies related to the sustainable consumption of our natural resources. It includes companies involved in clean automotive, energy efficiency, energy generation and storage, water efficiency, pollution reduction, waste management and related fields. Things like wind, solar, electric vehicles, and the “smart grid” necessary to integrate all of this into the current electrical transmission grid.
Now, what the heck is an incubator? It’s an organization — in this case a non-profit funded by city/county agencies — that is dedicated to helping very early stage cleantech companies grow and become successful by: (1) providing them with fully fitted-up office/lab space, at a reduced rate and with no lease requirements; (2) Providing them CEO coaching and mentoring by very senior people who’ve been there, done that; (3) Introducing them into a network that can help them get funding, find customers, find the right talent, etc. ; and (4) Giving them access to domain experts that are willing to help them for lower, preferably no, rates.
Why is the City of Los Angeles in the cleantech incubator business? Because the Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator (LACI) will become the City’s economic equivalent of its farm team, growing our own cleantech companies here in Los Angeles. It all comes down to J_O_B_S. In this case, high paying jobs in a high growth industry. And jobs are incredibly important in the US, but perhaps even more so in California/Los Angeles where the unemployment rate is at least two percentage points above the national average.
Here’s an article in the LA Times that touches on the importance of incubators: latimes.com/business/la-fi-accelerators-20110705,0,1977549.story
This is game-changing stuff, if arguably ahead of its time. Why? Well, because sooner or later, whether its two, ten , twenty or fifty years from now, the United States of America will have to rebuild its energy infrastructure causing the greatest industrial shift in my generation. Don’t believe me? well join the crowd of skeptics and naysayers. But this isn’t the first technology-driven industrial revolution that I’ve been a part of. First up was the advent of personal computers (Why do YOU need a computer, you can have a terminal to our mainframe that we’ve just spent millions and millions on…What’s this “Power to be your best” shit?) and then the Internet (Where’s the business model? People won’t actually buy things online, it’s too risky. People aren’t going to stop reading newspapers…). At every step of the way during these revolutions, there’s been huge resistance and skepticism by whatever powers to be will be affected. It’s natural and to be expected. But sustainable energy is coming, and its going to change everything.
OK, back to Planet Walti. Being selected as LACI’s Executive Director pretty much changed everything for Karen and I as well. All long-distance travel has been put off a bit. We needed a more substantial home base in Los Angeles than my one room apartment afforded. KR found herself “stuck” in Puerto Vallarta without Her Man for much longer periods of time than either of us originally envisioned. Now that I worked for the City and worked in the City, I felt we needed to live downtown. I even had to pull the suits out of storage and get back in the saddle of the “hi, how are ya?” circuit of serious networking. And I’d soon have an office to report to for the first time in years.
When I started The Restless Traveler, I wanted to write about how one goes about rewiring their lives. It’s something that KR and I have been actively, purposely doing for a couple of years now. We downsized; shed unneeded responsibilities; found a new, cheaper base of operations; learned how to make a living from most anywhere; and looked forward to figuring out how to get control of our lives and how we made a living. We were in the process of totally changing how we lived our lives. And then this happened. Now what?
Building LACI certainly requires a rewire, but of a different sort and on a different plane than I had imagined. I hesitate to predict what’s next, having a rather bad track record of charting what’s ahead so far. Not too long ago KR nailed a poster to one of LBS’s walls that pretty much sums up my thinking:
“KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON”
And so we will. It’s always good to hear from you. Please don’t hesitate to send me your thoughts — good, bad or ugly — as Karen and I really enjoy them.
I moved into a new apartment in the heart of Hollywood, less than two miles from our home of seventeen years in the Hollywood Hills. My new hood is populated by tons of young, good looking girls (and guys if you must know), bars and clubs up the kazoo, enough lingerie shops to make Victoria’s Secret scared of the competition, and tourists who actually stop to look at the stars on the Walk of Fame.
Here’s what’s not here: old people like me (who aren’t living on the street that is), parking of any kind after 3:00PM, anyone walking about at 7:00AM, and places to eat that don’t have a cover charge.
I use to tell people that I lived in Hollywood, but I was wrong. Really wrong. This is Hollywood — a land of dreams (in process, or documented or broken), starlets (in the making), guys on the make, kids lost in the street life, Tattoo parlors bigger than most restaurants, clubs with rope lines, tour buses rolling down Sunset, walking tours of the Walk of Fame (which celeb has five different kinds of stars?), families taking pictures of each other at Sunset & Vine, guys writing screen plays at the local Starbucks (next to old guys pounding the keys on their blog) and on and on. Ohh, by the way, did you see that Heidi Fleiss (the Hollywood Madame for those of you living under a rock) has opened a new place on Hollywood Boulevard — a cigar shop?
Wow, how the hell did I get here? Much like a Hollywood B movie in which the protagonist tries an experiment that mutates into something very different than expected, I’ve become a Stranger in a Strange Land.
In preparation for the Next Phase –whatever the f___ that might be –KR and I sold our house in the Hills, bought a place in Puerto Vallarta, and began living the dual life of me in LA most of the time and KR in Puerto Vallarta most of the time. We’d go back and forth a much as possible while awaiting our next grand adventure. The moment that I get tired of pulling on the oars of commerce, I’m on the first Greyhound south to PV full time.
Enter 1930 Whitley Avenue, #101. Things would be different here at Whitley. I should have known it wasn’t going to be a fast road to happiness when Ben, the guy we sublet from, said something to the affect, “Parking? No problem! I’ve never had a problem. Look right out there, that’s my car!” He must of taken the last spot as I’ve gotten seven tickets in two weeks. Robert, the building manager, has explicitly told me that he doesn’t handle tenant problems as he gets stressed out dealing with conflicts. I’m suppose to call the owner but they have an unlisted number. This is Hollywood, after all.
All of us at Whitley live according to the parking slot. Got a good one, then you never move until forced out by hunger or lack of supplies. No, we who live at Whitley WALK everywhere for fear of taking our car and having to park up the Mount Kilimanjaro that Whitely Avenue turns into shortly past our building. Which is why I can tell you that Tiquila’s bar on Hollywood makes a good Screwdriver for Happy Hour, or you should skip Devil Burger’s burger unless you can handle the hot stuff, or that there really are some really, really cheap hotels in Hollywood that are always full, that the Guiness World Record Museum doesn’t appear to be doing as well as the Hollywood Wax Museum.
Those of you on your game today would have wondered if #101 was a good thing, as in the lower apartment in the front of the building right next to the front door kind of good thing. I’m sure I wasn’t this way when I was twenty-something, but just how late can you party during a weekday? Whitley residents have a well-trod answer: 2,3, 4 AM is about right. And it’s always good to do a recap of the evening’s event’s (Did you see what he was wearing! ) on the street with the gang before stomping in on the wood hallway floors.
It’s not all bad at Whitley. Bob, the can’t-handle-conflict building manager, asked me whether I was in The Business as I was just renting for a couple of months. “Ya, I’ve been called in to fix a couple of scenes on a movie. It’s the sequel to Dumb Ass, the Movie…” Now I make sure that everyone can see me pounding the keyboards sitting in my window. I’m making great progress on Act 3, Scene 24.
Figuring Out How to Make Work Conform to My Life(style) and Not the Other Way Around
One of the most important challenges in trying to reorder the priorities of one’s life is figuring out how to reconfigure how you make a living. The question is not so much changing what you do, but changing how you deliver it and to whom. For many people, I suppose, this isn’t an option. An electrician needs to go where the electricity needs to be. A secretary needs an office. A bus driver needs a bus. But for many, reconfiguring delivery is doable. Herein lies a case history.
Getting Back in the Saddle: Your Basic 7-7 Job
My trek from the normal really began in early 2005 when I reentered the “normal” world, becoming the COO of Snap.com, a next generation search engine and advertising platform owned by Idealab. Snap was my first “job” in quite some time. For the ten years prior, I had been an entrepreneur in one fashion or another.
For the next 2 1/2 years I went into Snap’s office for 12 hours a day and usually part of the weekends. The work was great fun and challenging as we were building something difficult and potentially important. After a while, though, I began asking myself, why am I doing this? It wasn’t the long hours of hard work that bothered me as I’ve always been a workaholic, nor was it the nature of the work. Rather, it was the lack of flexibility in doing the work. My daily agenda was set by my boss or the umpteen meetings that I took every day. I found it difficult, if not impossible, to pursue the things that I really cared about. I just didn’t have the time or energy to do what I wanted after I came home in the evenings.
I started to think about taking back control. Could I make a living in a more flexible manner? What I was good at and who would be interested in it?. My answer boiled down to the same thing: I’m good at building things: teams, groups, companies, products. I like the process of creating and getting people working together.
Couldn’t I do this in a way that gave me more control and freedom? I didn’t know, but I was willing to find out.
Taking Back Control
In the Spring of 2007 I resigned from Snap and in September of that year co-founded The Propellant Group with two other C-level entrepreneurs. Our mission was simple: help early stage companies grow and succeed. From the very beginning, we built TPG to be flexible, low-cost and high-impact:
- Simplification to the extreme: TPG has three elements: Clients, Partners and our Work. That’s it. Everything else either gets in the way or takes money away from profits. We didn’t really need much accounting or legal support either. From revenue, we subtracted a few costs, set aside a little money for future expenses, and divided the rest by three and made out three checks.
- No offices: We decided early on that TPG would operate out of our individual houses. No formal offices which means… no personal lease commitment, no extra overhead, no furniture, no maintenance, no…. ANYTHING! We thought this would be a big problem for clients. It wasn’t, our clients seemed to embrace the idea that quality doesn’t necessarily only come from big and structured. Especially for our clients.
- No infrastructure: We had a bank account and that was it. No stationery, no copy machine, and no administrative assistants. No hard lines and no faxes. We each had a cell phone, access to the Internet, and business cards.
This took a little getting use to, even for three guys who had built companies from scratch. We had to jettison our belief that self-worth and potential impact were tied to nice offices and a recognized name. We had to go down the stairs, or across the hall, or sit at the dining room table and do the work even if we were in our jammies. We needed to feel confident in meeting prospective clients at the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf and not let it bother us. This isn’t for everyone. Over the past three years, TPG has gone through a number of partners partly because the unstructured nature of the business was uncomfortable.
My work regimen changed over night. The first thing one notices is that the 2 hours each day lost in commuting is re-found. So, immediately my 12 hour day is down to 10. Next is time lost in frivolous meetings and around-the-office meandering and stuff: probably another four hours. Now we’re down to six hours without a noticeable impact on productivity. And that folks is the payoff: work 1/2 the time, accomplish the same output, and gain a life-changing amount of control in your life.
For Adults Only
There are significant downsides to my configuration, as one might expect. Downside #1: there are no viable excuses for not getting something done. The dog ate the homework doesn’t cut it. Sometimes you just have to put your head down and get it done, no matter what else is going on. Downside #2: There are always lots of other things going on:) Distractions can be well…. distracting. Downside #3: You have to get use to working anywhere, and I mean anywhere. Boat, plane, motorcycle, Starbucks, on the side of the road, at the kitchen table, at the client’s office, at a restaurant, or wherever. This is where most people get confused: this isn’t a vacation, its a different way of organizing one’s life. And work is and will be the engine that drives it.
The Cost and Value of Flexibility
Here’s the bottom line audit of this move: my income has gone down about 45%, the amount of time I devote to work has gone down about about 50%, and the amount of flexibility in my life is up 1000%. As a result, the last three years have been some of the happiest of my life. I wouldn’t (and won’t) change a thing.
How Far Can “It” Be Pushed?
My quest is to be able to make a living while “on the road” for long periods of time. So, here’s what I’m going to try: (1) Continue to live in Los Angeles (in Steve and Rita’s basement just as long as they will put up with me) as a my homebase; (2) Work while we take a motorcycle trip through South America; and (3) Work from Los Angeles and our Mexican headquarters in Puerto Vallarta upon return. Repeat sequence as often as possible.
Will this work? I have no idea. I’ll keep you posted.
Transition to a Working Nomad…