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Archive for September, 2012

Vortex Tools qualified as a semifinalist in the Cleantech Open—a global competition to accelerate green technologies—for their application in turning harmful CO2 waste from oil and gas wells into recovered high-value energy. This series of blogs is designed to chronicle our experience going through the 2012 Cleantech Open as a reference point for future applicants. Today’s blog: What to expect from the webinars (part two), the worksheets, and regional mock judging.

Now that we’re finished with the webinars, worksheets and mock judging, here’s what you can expect from each. As usual, these are the opinions of one participant going through the process in 2012.

1. Webinars: See Part One

I originally split my thoughts on the webinars into two posts, as I thought some dazzling, new, revelatory information would come to me at the end of the process, but, uh, it didn’t, so what I said about the webinars last time still applies. I will say that there are only eight weeks worth of webinars and you’ll do them all in a row before taking a week off. In the tenth and final week, the Cleantech Open organizers give a slew of announcements (on due dates, completing a survey on your generalist mentor, etc.) but there’s not much to it.

2. If You Don’t Use the Resources, Another Team Will

Hollie from Posit Partners: She was very helpful

As mentioned during the business clinics post, several companies donate free consulting time. In the Rocky Mountain region, this included Faegre Baker Daniels (legal), Merrick (engineering), Posit Partners (marketing) and YouSeeU (presentation help). You’ll also hopefully get some help from specialist mentors. In my region, this equated to one—a sustainability mentor—but each consultant we met with gave us assistance that benefited us both in the competition and in our day-to-day business.

Here’s the thing: In talking with several of the consultants, half of the participants in the Cleantech Open didn’t take them up on their gracious offer. These are professionals who make their living charging companies for the very services you’re getting for free, so if you skip out, you’re missing out. (That said, we passed on the legal and engineering help, as they couldn’t help with how far along we are as a business—something we mentioned to them at the clinics.) One of the consultants told us that their company had set aside a certain amount of hours to help Cleantech Open semifinalists, so with half the companies not taking the help, Vortex got the hours dedicated to them instead.

In short: Take the help and opportunities offered.

3. The Worksheets Will Frustrate You

Here’s where you’ll put in the most work: As the webinars wrap up, you will submit PDF versions of eight worksheets, a one-page executive summary, and an in-progress version of your investor presentation. In noting the obvious, if you try to put all of this off until the week beforehand, you’re screwed. We thought we’d try to wrap up and get our worksheets in early. Instead, we used most of that last week to refine the work that we’d already labored on.

Make the time for the worksheets—you’ll need it.

Your answers to the worksheets will depend on how far along you are as a company, but they cover your product/market fit, technology/product validation, business model, markets and getting to them, finances and funding, legal, management team, and your sustainability benefits. Each worksheet has several sections and many require additional uploads. For example: the financial worksheet also required an Excel spreadsheet of several years’ worth of earning/cost projections.

Here’s what Cleantech Open volunteers didn’t tell us early enough: The worksheet guidelines on their wiki and the guidelines on the main Cleantech Open site are different. Additionally, although we knew each worksheet had character limits—as the judges read several entries and we all need to learn how to be concise—the breakdown of sections and their associated character limits weren’t released until two weeks before the due date. This meant that some of the work we did during the first eight weeks was for naught.

Hands down, this lack of worksheet guidelines is the most frustrating part of the Cleantech Open and the one thing they must work to change for future semifinalists. In case this isn’t fixed, most sections allowed between 1,000 and 2,500 characters (or in Twitter terms: 7-17 tweets). Of course, if like us, you don’t have the section breakdown on each worksheet, these character limits won’t help, but it’s still more than we had in this area.

4. Mock Judging: Practice, Update, and Practice Again

Although there’s only one mock judging day, you actually have a couple of chances to present beforehand and get feedback. This is where you’ll use that investor (PowerPoint) presentation I mentioned above. Basically, you make a 10-minute presentation, receive 10 minutes of Q&A from the judges, then 10 minutes of feedback. The presentations are scheduled throughout the day and you don’t get to see other teams present. The content of your presentation is based on the worksheets (generally: the problem, how your company addresses it, why you do it better than the competition, how your business is successful, and why this is good for the environment). In the Rocky Mountain region, the event was held in Colorado, so if you don’t live there/fly in, you’d have to present via Skype (save for Arizona who had their own in-person presentation day).

I said there are a couple of other times to present before though. One is luck of the draw. At the business clinics, you can enter in to do an open version of the mock judging where only five teams present, but everyone can attend to learn. Vortex was fortunate enough to be one of those five. That said, of the 15 companies who attended the Rocky Mountain business clinics (of the 20-something semifinalists in our region), only seven put in to present. I can tell you that even though the Cleantech Open is more of an accelerator for each company involved—something that they do quite well—in my eyes, the competition for finalists in my region immediately boiled down to those other companies pursuing advantages and opportunities.

The other option was open to all semifinalists via getting your presentation critiqued on YouSeeU (where you upload a video of your investor presentation and you get feedback on what isn’t clear, your mannerisms, speech, etc.). From what I understand, most semifinalists did not take advantage of this offer either.

Again: Take the help and opportunities available.

In terms of what to keep in mind for your presentation:

  • Don’t use anything too flashy (video files crash, graphics don’t load up, etc.)
  • Less slides, fewer words, visuals and pithy phrases often work better (so you have to know your material)
  • Don’t read what’s on screen (people read faster than you can talk and wind up disengaging)
  • This is a clean tech competition, so sustainability is 20% of your grade
  • Don’t talk while the judges talk, don’t get defensive, and only answer the questions they ask (back up slides can help)

From here, there are only two events left: Final judging and the regional awards ceremony. Both are next month. If Vortex Tools is selected as a finalist, you’ll see more blogs on what to expect from the Cleantech Open. If not, I’ll upload a video of me crying sustainable tears. Considering I haven’t sussed out how to make the latter work, we’re aiming for the former.

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If you have any questions or comments, please email me at blog (at) spiroflo (dot) com

Colin McKay Miller is the Marketing Manager for the SpiroFlo Holdings group of companies:

SpiroFlo for residential hot water savings (delivered 35% faster with up to a 5% volume savings on every hot water outlet in the home) and industrial water purification (biofilm removal).

Vortex Tools for extending the life of oil and gas wells (recovering up to 10 times more NGLs, reducing flowback startup times, replacing VRUs, eliminating paraffin and freezing in winter, etc.).

Ecotech for cost-effective non-thermal drying (for biosolids, sugar beets, etc.) and safe movement of materials (including potash and soda ash).

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SpiroFlo looks at the top 20 companies for solar use in the U.S.

The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) recently released a report on the top 20 commercial users of solar in the U.S. They defined top users as those companies that have installed the most solar panels/equipment on their facilities.

Given that I recently attended a green conference with large, corporate sponsors, some of the names aren’t surprising, but Campbell’s and Crayola stand out (especially given the latter’s seeming commitment to not recycling). I also have an image of a scalding sea of melted crayons and exploding soup cans stuck in my brain, but I’m guessing they’ve worked out the kinks:

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Colin McKay Miller is the Marketing Manager for the SpiroFlo Holdings group of companies:

SpiroFlo for residential hot water savings (delivered 35% faster with up to a 5% volume savings on every hot water outlet in the home) and industrial water purification (biofilm removal).

Vortex Tools for extending the life of oil and gas wells (recovering up to 10 times more NGLs, reducing flowback startup times, replacing VRUs, eliminating paraffin and freezing in winter, etc.).

Ecotech for cost-effective non-thermal drying (for biosolids, sugar beets, etc.) and safe movement of materials (including potash and soda ash).

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Vortex Tools qualified as a semifinalist in the Cleantech Open—a global competition to accelerate green technologies—for their application in turning harmful CO2 waste from oil and gas wells into recovered high-value energy. This series of blogs is designed to chronicle our experience going through the 2012 Cleantech Open as a reference point for future applicants. Today’s blog: What to expect from the webinars and the business clinics.

Last time I shared what to expect from the regional academy. This time, I’m covering what to expect from the 10 weeks of webinars and the business clinics that show up at the halfway mark. As usual, these are the opinions of one participant going through the process in 2012.

First off, Vortex is not yet done with the webinars, so this blog is designed to cover the first half of this process. Basically, every Tuesday for 10 weeks—save one bye week late in the sequence (meaning there are nine webinars total)—you’ll spend a few hours sitting at your computer. Hosted by the University of Phoenix, you log on and listen through your computer or phone while watching the presenter slides, essentially on a shared screen. You can ask the presenter questions by typing in a chat box—as the microphones of listeners are muted—as well as sending technical questions to the host.

Oh, and if you think that you’ll just turn on the webinar and do something else without anyone noticing, you’re wrong. I did a five-minute speaking slot on grant writing, and when you’re logged in as a presenter, there’s a list of who isn’t paying attention. They do not announce this feature. Make no mistake about it: You’re graded on everything; don’t think you can coast here.

Given the differing time zones, some regions get better slots, but in Colorado, the webinars go from 3:30 to 6:30 (MST), with a 15-minute break after the first one-hour-and-45-minute session before wrapping with the second one-hour session. (The webinars are recorded and available for viewing if you can’t make it live, but they’re not always uploaded fast, and as of this writing, one of the week four videos is still missing.) If you’re like most people, that time frame won’t be the easiest slot to work with, and you probably have a full-time job along with everything else that pulls on your schedule. This brings us to point one of what to expect:

1. You Get Out What You Put In

Early on in the process, Vortex sat down and figured out if we should really invest in the Cleantech Open as an established, in-revenue company, and if so, with how much effort. Upon seeing the time requirements of the webinars, we had this debate again. We’d spoken with another semifinalist company from a year ago, and upon asking what they got out of the Cleantech Open, they said, “Nothing.”

Given that we got a fair amount out of the national conference and the regional academy, we thought this was strange, but soon figured out this company didn’t actually do anything with the Cleantech Open. Like a few companies each year, they were selected as a semifinalist and then proceeded to do nothing, so they got nothing. In realizing the time cost and that there is a lot of effort involved with the worksheets, we decided that if we were going to stay in the competition, we’d have to go all out, even if the requirements are painful to aspects of our business at times. (If you haven’t noticed, it’s taken a bite out of my ability to regularly update this here blog.) As a result, we’ve gotten a fair amount out of the Cleantech Open, and we think we have a decent shot of making the finals, but there have been bumps along the way:

2. Technical Difficulties

This is the biggest gripe you’ll have about the webinars (and it’s similar to the issue of disorganization that’s been consistent throughout): technical issues.

By Kmashaye5220 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

From what I understand, 2012 is the first year the Cleantech Open is working with the University of Phoenix on these webinars, so while I expect a bump or two along the way, with the same issues popping up week after week, my grace has long since run out. At first I thought these issues reflected poorly on the University of Phoenix, but it seems the issues lie more with the Cleantech Open. Don’t get me wrong: the volunteers are kind and work hard; there are just not enough of them and too many things they can’t control.

The first week, the audio didn’t work at all through the computer, so you had to dial in. If you’re like me where you’re often out of the office and your home phone has long since gone the way of the dodo, three hours on a weekly webinar won’t do any favors for your cell phone bill. While there wasn’t a repeat of this incident, the computer audio cutting out for 30-45 seconds is common.

Additionally, there’s always background noise: a bird tweeting, some bighead conducting a business call for 20 minutes, random cussing, etc. Notice how I said above that listener microphones were muted? This means that it’s always one of the presenters who isn’t speaking at the time and hasn’t muted his/her phone or computer mike. Again, this is every single week. Next year, the Cleantech Open needs to give their webinar presenters basic training on how to mute their microphones and act professionally. Right now, it’s hard to value their expertise with this consistently happening.

Finally, that 15-minute break I mentioned above: well, it gets cut. A lot. Do I even have to say this is bad form? It gets replaced by testing presenter connectivity; by going long on question and answer sessions; and by unscheduled announcements. As a result of this, there isn’t a webinar that’s gone by that I feel couldn’t easily be 30-45 minutes shorter. I’m sure that there were plenty of times that the program popped up that I wasn’t paying attention, as most people aren’t wired to stare at a computer presentation for three-plus hours straight.

3. The Lowest Common Denominator Factor

As mentioned in the regional academy post, the knowledge and training you have going in, as well as how far along your business is, will shape what you get out of the Cleantech Open. A lot of the material continues on in the topics covered at the regional academy: the business model canvas, determining and navigating your market, sustainability, legal issues, and creating your management team, etc. As you can probably tell, for an established company, a lot of these topics have long since been addressed and early-stage thoughts don’t really apply, but I will say that these webinars help highlight all the areas where we do things right, all the problems we know about but haven’t fixed, and the places where change is possible. Every business, no matter how established, should have this kind of reflection time.

Remember, many of the companies in the Cleantech Open aren’t much farther than the idea stage, so unfortunately, everything gets boiled down to the lowest common denominator: presentations get simplified for the everyman; the same awkward, low-brow questions get asked every week (and yes, some of them stop just shy of asking the experts to do their work for them); all of which can be very frustrating for savvy or established companies who hope for a lot more depth. One guy, in a moment of frustration at the business clinics, declared the process a coarser version of bovine scatology. I won’t go that far, but it’s disappointing to feel held back by people who aren’t even sure if they’d like to try their hand at this whole small business thing.

However, since I’ve mentioned the business clinics, I’ll mention that they have far more strengths than weaknesses:

4. The Business Clinics are Different Than Announced, But Well Worth It

At the midway point of the webinars, you’ll attend classes for three days (8-4: Monday through Wednesday). If you’re in Colorado, you’ll attend these classes in person. Like all the other training sessions, you’ll be receiving far more information than your poor, little head can handle, but you’ll be well fed while you’re at it.

In addition to the public classes where you go deeper on many of the topics covered already, you’ll have several one-on-one meetings with experts donating their time. These people have expertise in a number of areas including business management, engineering, legal advice, etc., and we were very impressed with how well the Cleantech Open volunteers matched up these experts with our needs (for example: all of them had oil and gas connections/experience).

One of the engineers we were matched up with spent most of the hour arguing with us on the validity of the Vortex technology–not uncommon with engineers, as, for them, old textbook standards can trump real-life innovation–and this experience of going off-topic was common (albeit usually less combative with the other experts). I imagine if we were just starting out as a company and needed more help, the conversations wouldn’t have gone this route, but these off-topic treks served us well and the networking strength of the Cleantech Open remains a positive standard.

Another thing you’re supposed to do is bring rough drafts of your worksheets to go over with the experts during your one-on-one sessions, but this didn’t happen (at least not for us). Finally, there are a number of beneficial resources you’ll get out of the business clinics, but as these affect the latter part of the webinars/competition, I’ll delve into those in the next blog. I will say this: If you’re not volunteering and connecting with the resources available to you, you’re not only hurting your chances in the Cleantech Open competition, you’re missing out on some great perks for your business.

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In the next blog, I’ll cover the second half of the webinars as well as what you can expect from the worksheets. If you have any questions or comments, please email me at blog (at) spiroflo (dot) com

Colin McKay Miller is the Marketing Manager for the SpiroFlo Holdings group of companies:

SpiroFlo for residential hot water savings (delivered 35% faster with up to a 5% volume savings on every hot water outlet in the home) and industrial water purification (biofilm removal).

Vortex Tools for extending the life of oil and gas wells (recovering up to 10 times more NGLs, reducing flowback startup times, replacing VRUs, eliminating paraffin and freezing in winter, etc.).

Ecotech for cost-effective non-thermal drying (for biosolids, sugar beets, etc.) and safe movement of materials (including potash and soda ash).

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