How to build a successful startup in clean tech

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This is not one of those ‘this is how you become rich in 90 nanoseconds’ sort of posts so if you were hoping for a magic bullet, stop here and go and make an appointment with a therapist because you’re living in la-la-land. This is a story of one singularly talented, intentional, purposeful individual with more than his fair share of charm, and a shedload of tenacity. This is how to build a successful startup in the clean tech space – one of the graveyards of many sustainable energy entrepreneurs in the last 5 years.

From an original idea in 2009, Laurence has worked his proverbial butt off to build a sustainable business that is not only financially successful but has the potential to alter the face of flooring and energy in our cities in the future. You can watch the full launch experience of V3 at BAFTA HQ here on the live-stream.  These are some of the lessons any aspiring clean tech entrepreneur – in fact any purpose-led entrepreneur – can learn from Pavegen.

  1. Be Purposeful within a wider context

Laurence is extremely interested in the future of cities. He knows that within the next 50 years, more than 80% of the world’s population will live in cities, some of which will be mega-metropolis. He knows they are energy consuming beasts, and he knows we don’t have sustainable ways of providing energy for them or for making them habitable spots of well-being. He cares about the future sustainability of cities and he wants to build businesses that make a difference to the outcomes. So he ticks goals #7 and #11 of the Global Goals. He has a wider purpose and he’s playing on a big field of possibility.

So lesson number one: pick a framework that offers you a lot of scope, flexibility. The Global Goals are a great place to start to shape your purpose zone and mission.

2. Look for wide and deep customer base and scalability

Pavegen harnesses kinetic energy. That’s capturing energy through the application of weight onto a surface. Happens to be handy that we have an obesity epidemic going on at the moment but I doubt that was the first thing that sprang to his mind! But the wide variety of potential customers for the product probably did.

Pavegen’s first prototypes were designed to do one thing and one thing only, which is create electricity to generate clean tech lighting. So streetlights, advertising hoardings, spotlights in sports arenas. But in just that one area, there are a huge amount of different potential customers.

What has a huge amount of footfall?  Cities. Shopping Malls. Airports. Schools. Public Spaces. Sports stadia. It helps if your invention/idea/product can have multiple customers, even if they’re using the product for the same thing.

Pavegen systems will also offer significant data capture and information opportunities for customers in the future – see 8.

If you’re inventing in a niche – look for a wide and deep customer base to sell to.

3. Be patient and tenacious

When Laurence was first charged with the idea of harnessing kinetic energy to create lighting, he failed. He was fired.

He spent 3 years in his bedroom perfecting the technology to prove it could be done (possibly not without coming out at all but it makes a good story – see point 4).

He learned how to bootstrap and live on very little money.

He leveraged the support of his tutor from Loughborough University laboratory to gain access to some of the best engineering equipment to help build functional prototypes (see more on like-ability below).

He applied to 150 different venture capitalists who rejected him.

He applied to every start-up funding opportunity available finally securing £5000 from the RSA in London and a place on Shell’s LiveWire programme to support graduates.

He pulled together investment from friends and family to help him get started.

He’s brilliant at doorstepping people he wants to contact. Favourite trick? Find out where someone lives, knock on their door with a wallet saying you’ve returned X’s lost wallet and put your card and 1 page business plan inside!

The V3 product launched this week has taken 6 years, and 129 prototypes to arrive at a design which is commercially top class.

4. Be a great storyteller and be nice

Private equity investors and angels don’t always invest in the most obvious opportunities. There are no real golden rules of how you attract investment – although knowing your numbers is essential. But of all the investors I have spoken to – one thing stands out that they are looking for. It’s character. The character of the individual can matter more to them than the potential for profit – sometimes. Are they going to have fun with you? Are you great to be around? Are you an adventurous spirit?

Laurence Kemball Cook

Laurence Kemball Cook

Laurence has all these qualities in spades, plus he is like-able. He is an excellent storyteller – could easily have had a successful career in brand development or advertising – and he never misses an opportunity to promote his product and brand. All done with charm and without anyone ever feeling he’s overstepped the mark and is aggressive. He is an extremely eloquent communicator, his presentations are polished and easy to understand. He knows the value of a crisp soundbite.

When I first met him at Sustainable Brands in London, he had just stepped off a plane from Washington having closed a deal with The White House, but he stepped on stage with a spring and was one of the most entertaining and informative presentations of the day. If his presentation style isn’t natural, he has worked hard at making it look effortless.

When I interviewed him for the Purposeful Enterprise Summit, he could barely contain his horror with my technical camera incompetence, but he did!  Never be rude when you can be nice. I’m sure no cool entrepreneur wants to be called nice, but nevertheless….  You can get a long way being nice.

5. Invest in your brand (not your premises) as and when you’re ready

If you think that being in clean tech means you don’t need a well crafted brand, think again. The attention to detail at Pavegen radiates right throughout the brand – when and where it’s needed.

Pavegen’s premises in north London are in a humble but vibrant space. There’s plenty of energy in the office, but there are no expensive gilded accoutrements. The desks are basic, functional and so’s the space. There is no money wasted on expensive offices – it all goes into the tech and the search for customers.

Pavegen logo

New Pavegen Logo

But. When necessary, this company knows how to put on a show. This week’s launch at BAFTA headquarters of stage two in the Pavegen journey was immaculately put together. The graphics were beautifully designed to tell the story, the venue chosen with care, the interactive presentation crafted with polish and detail. Giving the audience an opportunity to walk the floor on stage was inspired and simply great fun. The new brand identity is a classy reflection of the way the tech has developed – from square to triangular. The new identity is reflected in a  highly finished website replacing the original functional one which was perfectly serviceable for a young start-up before it was making serious money.

Again – know when you need to spend on your brand, invest when you need to and not before.

6. Partner with the best people you can’t afford

From day one, Laurence has been focused on bringing the best people he could probably not afford into Pavegen. The board is peppered with influential and experienced names from industry and tech. Greg Colando from Interface – one of the world’s leading sustainable flooring brands was one of the first big hires. Jonathan Keeling head of partnerships at crowdfunding platform Crowdcube is a supporter and helped them to raise £ 2million in one of their first funding rounds. Engineering design specialist Craig Webster from Cambridge Consultants was secured as Chief Technology Officer and has helped to drive the latest development which is set to explode the commercial possibilities of the business. The latest partnership is with Jeff Martin of Tribal Brands to leverage the possibilities of the data in the commercial space.

Bringing in the best and most experienced help, and being humble enough to recognise you need that help, is essential to success.

7. Connect with the culture of the world you live in

If you want to get make a difference, you’ve got to get noticed. If you’re innovating and creating something no-one has seen before, you’ve got to create your own market. So many inventors and technicians create brilliant innovations but they never get the investment they need because they don’t know how to create a market. How did Pavegen do it? They leveraged the power of established cool brands.

They partnered with some of the world’s best known brands like Nike, CocaCola, Adidas and Uniqlo and created installations at their events which entertained people by allowing them to participate and create light shows with their energy and weight. They went to Ibiza to capture the cool crowd and did the same. They went to the favelas of Rio di Janeiro with backing from Shell to help young people power their football pitches with their own weight so they could play in the dark. They built a story. They went where the people were and leveraged celebrity and fame of the era to build a sustainable brand.

This is about being brand savvy, and understanding that even when your passion may be a sustainable future for cities, you’ve got to work with the culture you’re living in. Another company that understands this completely is Interface Global. If you want to attract the brightest brains and the best investors it helps to be fun, funky, and cool as well as worthy, purposeful and sustainable.

8. Eyes Up and Spot The Opportunities

From conceiving your original idea, you’ve got to keep your eye on the horizon and look for what’s coming at you and be adaptable and flexible. You’ve got to be able to spot the opportunities for future use of your product if you adapt it or partner with other new emerging technology. Pavegen technology also provides the possibility of data capture which has the potential to offer consumers the ability to vote with their feet – literally.

It can capture footfall data and measure exactly how many steps and how much energy is created from a single person or many – very useful in retail. It can also connect to someone’s mobile as they cross the floor and in the future it will be able to allocate that energy to the individual owner of the phone.  That could offer store and venue owners the possibility to connect with consumers very personally by letting them know how much energy that their footfall has contributed to the environment, or offer incentives and rewards for their contribution to clean energy, or even share it with charitable causes.

Even more importantly, there is the possibility for creating a movement by tracking in the future which organisations generate the best energy profile.   Consumers will be able to choose a hotel, a store, a venue based on its energy use profile. We will be able to generate energy with our feet and vote with our feet. Our footsteps in the future will matter if this technology is installed globally. It’s a simple way of connecting with consumers. By making energy visible and understandable, we are more likely to take ‘behavioural’ action and vote with our feet. In a world where reputational currency is steadily growing – especially with Millennials – this could be an invaluable competitive advantage for business in the future.

The brand savvy connections made in the early years of generating interest and creating a market are now a spin off into a business of its own – Pavegen Live. Pavegen Live provides entertainment opportunities at events worldwide. From the dance floors of festivals in Ibiza to the favelas of Rio, from the Olympic park to retail stores, clients include Uniqlo, Nike, British Gas, Adidas, BASF, Hyundai and Harrods are all customers.

Pavegen launched V3 with aplomb at BAFTA HQ this week.  A public appeal to the new Mayor of London to invest in the technology won’t go missed.  Again, culturally relevant and right for the moment.  This is what it takes to build a successful start-up in the clean tech space.  This is what it takes to build any successful start-up.

I was lucky enough to interview Laurence for the Purposeful Enterprise Summit.  Here’s our full interview.  Without the glamour of his own brand presentation, his honest straightforward story should inspire anyone, and is a reminder of the tenacity, hard work and vision required to create a  change maker brand today.

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