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on 16-Oct-2016 (Sun)

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THE MONOPOLY QUESTION
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In 2006, billionaire technology investor John Doerr announced that “green is the new red, white and blue.” He could have stopped at “red.” As Doerr himself said, “Internet-sized markets are in the billions of dollars; the energy markets are in the trillions.” What he didn’t say is that huge, trilliondollar markets mean ruthless, bloody competition. Others echoed Doerr over and over: in the 2000s, I listened to dozens of cleantech entrepreneurs begin fantastically rosy PowerPoint presentations with all-too-true tales of trillion-dollar markets—as if that were a good thing. Cleantech executives emphasized the bounty of an energy market big enough for all comers, but each one typically believed that his own company had an edge. In 2006, Dave Pearce, CEO of solar manufacturer MiaSolé, admitted to a congressional panel that his company was just one of several “very strong” startups working on one particular kind of thin-film solar cell development. Minutes later, Pearce predicted that MiaSolé would become “the largest producer of thin-film solar cells in the world” within a year’s time. That didn’t happen, but it might not have helped them anyway: thinfilm is just one of more than a dozen kinds of solar cells. Customers won’t care about any particular technology unless it solves a particular problem in a superior way. And if you can’t monopolize a unique solution for a small market, you’ll be stuck with vicious competition. That’s what happened to MiaSolé, which was acquired in 2013 for hundreds of millions of dollars less than its investors had put into the company. Exaggerating your own uniqueness is an easy way to botch the monopoly question. Suppose you’re running a solar company that’s successfully installed hundreds of solar panel systems with a combined power generation capacity of 100 megawatts. Since total U.S. solar energy production capacity is 950 megawatts, you own 10.53% of the market. Congratulations, you tell yourself: you’re a player. But what if the U.S. solar energy market isn’t the relevant market? What if the relevant market is the global solar market, with a production capacity of 18 gigawatts? Your 100 megawatts now makes you a very small fish indeed: suddenly you own less than 1% of the market. And what if the appropriate measure isn’t global solar, but rather renewable energy in general? Annual production capacity from renewables is 420 gigawatts globally; you just shrank to 0.02% of the market. And compared to the total global power generation capacity of 15,000 gigawatts, your 100 megawatts is just a drop in the ocean. Cleantech entrepreneurs’ thinking about markets was hopelessly confused. They would rhetorically shrink their market in order to seem differentiated, only to turn around and ask to be valued based on huge, supposedly lucrative markets. But you can’t dominate a submarket if it’s fictional, and huge markets are highly competitive, not highly attainable. Most cleantech founders would have been better off opening a new British restaurant in downtown Palo Alto.

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THE PEOPLE QUESTION
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Energy problems are engineering problems, so you would expect to find nerds running cleantech companies. You’d be wrong: the ones that failed were run by shockingly nontechnical teams. These salesman-executives were good at raising capital and securing government subsidies, but they were less good at building products that customers wanted to buy. At Founders Fund, we saw this coming. The most obvious clue was sartorial: cleantech executives were running around wearing suits and ties. This was a huge red flag, because real technologists wear T-shirts and jeans. So we instituted a blanket rule: pass on any company whose founders dressed up for pitch meetings. Maybe we still would have avoided these bad investments if we had taken the time to evaluate each company’s technology in detail. But the team insight—never invest in a tech CEO that wears a suit—got us to the truth a lot faster. The best sales is hidden. There’s nothing wrong with a CEO who can sell, but if he actually looks like a salesman, he’s probably bad at sales and worse at tech.

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THE DISTRIBUTION QUESTION
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Cleantech companies effectively courted government and investors, but they often forgot about customers. They learned the hard way that the world is not a laboratory: selling and delivering a product is at least as important as the product itself. Just ask Israeli electric vehicle startup Better Place, which from 2007 to 2012 raised and spent more than $800 million to build swappable battery packs and charging stations for electric cars. The company sought to “create a green alternative that would lessen our dependence on highly polluting transportation technologies.” And it did just that—at least by 1,000 cars, the number it sold before filing for bankruptcy. Even selling that many was an achievement, because each of those cars was very hard for customers to buy. For starters, it was never clear what you were actually buying. Better Place bought sedans from Renault and refitted them with electric batteries and electric motors. So, were you buying an electric Renault, or were you buying a Better Place? In any case, if you decided to buy one, you had to jump through a series of hoops. First, you needed to seek approval from Better Place. To get that, you had to prove that you lived close enough to a Better Place battery swapping station and promise to follow predictable routes. If you passed that test, you had to sign up for a fueling subscription in order to recharge your car. Only then could you get started learning the new behavior of stopping to swap out battery packs on the road. Better Place thought its technology spoke for itself, so they didn’t bother to market it clearly. Reflecting on the company’s failure, one frustrated customer asked, “Why wasn’t there a billboard in Tel Aviv showing a picture of a Toyota Prius for 160,000 shekels and a picture of this car, for 160,000 plus fuel for four years?” He still bought one of the cars, but unlike most people, he was a hobbyist who “would do anything to keep driving it.” Unfortunately, he can’t: as the Better Place board of directors stated upon selling the company’s assets for a meager $12 million in 2013, “The technical challenges we overcame successfully, but the other obstacles we were not able to overcome.”

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THE SECRET QUESTION
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Every cleantech company justified itself with conventional truths about the need for a cleaner world. They deluded themselves into believing that an overwhelming social need for alternative energy solutions implied an overwhelming business opportunity for cleantech companies of all kinds. Consider how conventional it had become by 2006 to be bullish on solar. That year, President George W. Bush heralded a future of “solar roofs that will enable the American family to be able to generate their own electricity.” Investor and cleantech executive Bill Gross declared that the “potential for solar is enormous.” Suvi Sharma, then-CEO of solar manufacturer Solaria, admitted that while “there is a gold rush feeling” to solar, “there’s also real gold here—or, in our case, sunshine.” But rushing to embrace the convention sent scores of solar panel companies—Q-Cells, Evergreen Solar, SpectraWatt, and even Gross’s own Energy Innovations, to name just a few—from promising beginnings to bankruptcy court very quickly. Each of the casualties had described their bright futures using broad conventions on which everybody agreed. Great companies have secrets: specific reasons for success that other people don’t see.

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THE MYTH OF SOCIAL ENTREPRENEURSHIP
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Cleantech entrepreneurs aimed for more than just success as most businesses define it. The cleantech bubble was the biggest phenomenon—and the biggest flop—in the history of “social entrepreneurship.” This philanthropic approach to business starts with the idea that corporations and nonprofits have until now been polar opposites: corporations have great power, but they’re shackled to the profit motive; nonprofits pursue the public interest, but they’re weak players in the wider economy. Social entrepreneurs aim to combine the best of both worlds and “do well by doing good.” Usually they end up doing neither. The ambiguity between social and financial goals doesn’t help. But the ambiguity in the word “social” is even more of a problem: if something is “socially good,” is it good for society, or merely seen as good by society? Whatever is good enough to receive applause from all audiences can only be conventional, like the general idea of green energy. Progress isn’t held back by some difference between corporate greed and nonprofit goodness; instead, we’re held back by the sameness of both. Just as corporations tend to copy each other, nonprofits all tend to push the same priorities. Cleantech shows the result: hundreds of undifferentiated products all in the name of one overbroad goal. Doing something dif erent is what’s truly good for society—and it’s also what allows a business to profit by monopolizing a new market. The best projects are likely to be overlooked, not trumpeted by a crowd; the best problems to work on are often the ones nobody else even tries to solve.

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TESLA: 7 FOR 7
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Tesla is one of the few cleantech companies started last decade to be thriving today. They rode the social buzz of cleantech better than anyone, but they got the seven questions right, so their success is instructive:

TECHNOLOGY. Tesla’s technology is so good that other car companies rely on it: Daimler uses Tesla’s battery packs; Mercedes-Benz uses a Tesla powertrain; Toyota uses a Tesla motor. General Motors has even created a task force to track Tesla’s next moves. But Tesla’s greatest technological achievement isn’t any single part or component, but rather its ability to integrate many components into one superior product. The Tesla Model S sedan, elegantly designed from end to end, is more than the sum of its parts: Consumer Reports rated it higher than any other car ever reviewed, and both Motor Trend and Automobile magazines named it their 2013 Car of the Year.

TIMING. In 2009, it was easy to think that the government would continue to support cleantech: “green jobs” were a political priority, federal funds were already earmarked, and Congress even seemed likely to pass cap-and-trade legislation. But where others saw generous subsidies that could flow indefinitely, Tesla CEO Elon Musk rightly saw a one-time-only opportunity. In January 2010—about a year and a half before Solyndra imploded under the Obama administration and politicized the subsidy question—Tesla secured a $465 million loan from the U.S. Department of Energy. A half-billion-dollar subsidy was unthinkable in the mid-2000s. It’s unthinkable today. There was only one moment where that was possible, and Tesla played it perfectly.

MONOPOLY. Tesla started with a tiny submarket that it could dominate: the market for high-end electric sports cars. Since the first Roadster rolled off the production line in 2008, Tesla’s sold only about 3,000 of them, but at $109,000 apiece that’s not trivial. Starting small allowed Tesla to undertake the necessary R&D to build the slightly less expensive Model S, and now Tesla owns the luxury electric sedan market, too. They sold more than 20,000 sedans in 2013 and now Tesla is in prime position to expand to broader markets in the future.

TEAM. Tesla’s CEO is the consummate engineer and salesman, so it’s not surprising that he’s assembled a team that’s very good at both. Elon describes his staff this way: “If you’re at Tesla, you’re choosing to be at the equivalent of Special Forces. There’s the regular army, and that’s fine, but if you are working at Tesla, you’re choosing to step up your game.”

DISTRIBUTION. Most companies underestimate distribution, but Tesla took it so seriously that it decided to own the entire distribution chain. Other car companies are beholden to independent dealerships: Ford and Hyundai make cars, but they rely on other people to sell them. Tesla sells and services its vehicles in its own stores. The up-front costs of Tesla’s approach are much higher than traditional dealership distribution, but it affords control over the customer experience, strengthens Tesla’s brand, and saves the company money in the long run.

DURABILITY. Tesla has a head start and it’s moving faster than anyone else—and that combination means its lead is set to widen in the years ahead. A coveted brand is the clearest sign of Tesla’s breakthrough: a car is one of the biggest purchasing decisions that people ever make, and consumers’ trust in that category is hard to win. And unlike every other car company, at Tesla the founder is still in charge, so it’s not going to ease off anytime soon.

SECRETS. Tesla knew that fashion drove interest in cleantech. Rich people especially wanted to appear “green,” even if it meant driving a boxy Prius or clunky Honda Insight. Those cars only made drivers look cool by association with the famous eco-conscious movie stars who owned them as well. So Tesla decided to build cars that made drivers look cool, period—Leonardo DiCaprio even ditched his Prius for an expensive (and expensive-looking) Tesla Roadster. While gen...

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