Industrial waste, CEOs, and air-con politics: 2 weeks at RIG

RIG summer intern, Alex Crichton-Miller, tells us about his first 2 weeks with us:

Come Monday, I will no longer be the only intern in the office. I feel rather like an only child who, on finding out they will have a younger sibling, cannot help but feel a tinge of regret that it will no longer be simply me. The team at RIG is a very close-knit unit, reminiscing about antics on away days more than a decade ago as often as they argue about the most appropriate way to approach a client. I have been exhilaratingly swept up in it all from day one, meeting with clients and being asked to contribute right away. So these first weeks have flown by in a haze of acronyms, action registers and Gantt charts, cups of tea and arguments over the air-con (a divisive issue in the office to say the least).

As well as sitting in on meetings to get an insight into the breadth of work RIG does, I’ve been working on two things that couldn’t be more different: one, an ongoing piece of market validation for Ffion on industrial waste streams (which has promoted LinkedIn and EU legislation to the top of my ‘most visited’) and the other a piece of management structure work with a new client. In our two 4-hour kick-off meetings with the latter’s CEO, I managed to simultaneously type a Word doc longer than my thesis and catch an aircon-induced cold. It was certainly an experience, made still more intriguing by the chance to really let him talk about the organisation he runs, and then go away and brainstorm how we could solve his challenges.

RIG’s business model means that we have to wear a lot of different hats, which can be confusing when you’re trying to pin down at least one of the tasks you’ve got to do. The best thing about being here so far has been that, even though it’s tough, everyone that works here treats the world like an opportunity for deeper learning: I’ve been given tips on organisation, presentation, recycling, and even punctuality (for my sins!) by partners, helping me better navigate the choppy waters of small company culture. Some of that was put to the test yesterday when I attended the Rushlight Summer Showcase – where a huge array of Cleantech companies put themselves on show – and was required to go out and try and make contacts, get business cards, and talk persuasively about RIG. The jury is still out on where I did a good job, but being plunged into the deeper end of things is what makes it such a pleasure to intern here.

Helping to commercialise early stage technologies means that you can be doing one thing on one day, and something completely different the next. That might make an intern feel unnerved, but luckily the people around me have the ability, experience and (crucially) warmth to make that a thoroughly enjoyable experience. Bring on the next 6 weeks!

Water: it’s a precious resource, let’s start treating it as such!

I initially started writing this blog in the summer when it was so hot that I was struggling to sleep and was drinking water like it was on tap (but it is on tap Peter!).

It was late June at the time and I had decided that it was time for my second annual water blog.  Last year, I wrote about the impact that drought was having on hydro-electricity production in Brazil and agriculture in California, and how increasing droughts could lead to a greater focus on wind, solar and waste to energy technologies, particularly if they could reduce water usage, or, in an example of the latter, extract water from waste.

Unfortunately, although I started the blog, I didn’t get to finish it for various reasons but a realisation in early December motivated me to dust it off (and I promise it had nothing to do with a pressing blog deadline!).  Back then, before the January rains came, it seemed to me that we were having quite a dry winter up to that point, and not that I love the rain, but I didn’t feel this was something to celebrate.  I wasn’t sure at this stage whether this was just distorted perception or if we really were experiencing an unseasonably dry period.

Then I read that 2016 was the hottest year ever recorded, which further motivated me to conclude this blog, especially when Met Office data for December confirmed that rainfall was below normal almost everywhere in England with only 42% of average rainfall overall.

The severity of the crisis

660 million people do not have access to improved drinking water, and while this number is an improvement on previous estimates, it is still a huge number1.  Another 1.2 billion people were estimated to live in areas of physical water scarcity2.  The World Economic Forum ranked the water crisis as the risk likely to have the greatest impact on society3,4.

It’s everyone’s challenge

This year I want to challenge readers (no matter how few you are) to consider how you too can address this great water challenge that we face. And it is a great challenge, even if it’s severity and importance appears to be lost amongst the news of melting glaciers, rising seas, floods and storms associated with climate change.  Equally, when you live in the UK or Ireland, it’s hard to digest the message that there is a water crisis when it appears to rain so much. But, as the Met Office data for December suggests we are not immune to suffering a shortage.

So, whether it’s recycling water, being more efficient with the water you use, capturing rainwater for domestic/commercial use or using cleaner processes that reduce the treatment required for waste water, make a contribution to the challenge.

Addressing the water challenge

Thankfully, there is a host of technologists and companies seeking to tackle the water challenge and I wanted to share a few of those that have recently caught my eye:

  • NVP Energy have solved the challenge of sustainably treating low strength wastewater including at low temperatures using anaerobic bacteria. It reduces CODs by 80%+ and TSS by up to 50%. It generates high quality biogas as a by-product which can be used as an onsite energy source and produces 90% less sludge than alternative treatments.
  • CustoMem is addressing the contamination of water supplies by industrial contaminants. It seeks to treat the 0.04% of micropollutants that are difficult to capture and are also highly toxic such as heavy metals. Furthermore, the solution not only captures the pollutants but enables them to be recycled.
  • MIT researchers have developed the solar vapor generator which uses inexpensive materials to clean and desalinate water. The generator consists of a metallic film, a bespoke sponge and bubble wrap as its skin. It heats, boils and evaporates the water, leaving behind unwanted products.
  • Sundrop farms have sought to address not only the water shortage but also the food and energy shortages in the design of their solar powered sea water desalination plant to irrigate their tomato crops.

Facing into 2017, this has all re-affirmed to me how critical the climate change and water scarcity challenges are for humanity. It has motivated me further to contribute to the solution by supporting the technologists seeking to commercialise solutions and has reinforced how these are everyone’s battles.

 

1: http://www.who.int/water_sanitation_health/monitoring/jmp-2015-key-facts/en/

2: http://www.un.org/waterforlifedecade/scarcity.shtml

3: http://water.org/water-crisis/water-sanitation-facts/

4: http://reports.weforum.org/global-risks-2015/#frame/20ad6

 

Overcoming the listed company innovation paradox – Part 1

I was recently interviewed as part of a research project into corporate innovation by a group seeking to establish how large corporates could create new service and product lines.  It was early in the morning, so I was at my most blunt.

Me: “Tell them not to waste their time and money.”

Interviewer: “Why?”

Me: “Corporates cannot innovate.”

Nothing ground breaking here; nothing to see, move on, move on.  I’ve taken a side in one of life’s eternal arguments; I’ve occupied the space for years.  Corporates cannot innovate.

Respondents to the ‘can corporates innovate?’ question usually results in people taking binary positions; of course the reality is more subtle.  My less-blunt view is complex: corporates will always struggle to compete as innovators, particularly if they seek to innovate ‘from inside’, yet they can enable significant innovation – and the challenge for them is how they benefit rather than suffer as a result.

I am a shareholder.  If I am honest, I don’t care if the listed businesses I invest in continue to do what they are doing or change business lines entirely (within limits of what is morally and ethically acceptable to me) – as long as they make profit.  This places me at odds with the vast majority of people employed within the companies I invest in; corporates employ people who are (I hope) process experts – they should drive the hell out of the business models the company operates to create shareholder equity for myself and my fellow shareholders.  They do this because, I’d always hope, they enjoy it (or the remuneration for doing something they don’t particularly enjoy adequately compensates them for the inconvenience).  I don’t want livewires employed in these businesses – not livewire innovators – yes, I’d want inspiring people from the top down, but I don’t want too much free thinking.

Why?  Because I invested in the business because I like the results of what it’s doing and I don’t want to upset the apple cart.  I don’t want any of these highly paid executives using their salaries to indulge themselves as start-up gurus (in their heads, at least).  Yes, Unilever can buy a new food line, or a new deodorant line, or even design their own – but if I read an annual report that said they’d set up a team to create an Amazon competitor I’d be upset.

My position builds from my conceptualisation of ‘innovation’.  A few years into my career a guy I went to university with told me about his work in the innovation function of a major bank: they were implementing Salesforce.com across the sales teams.  At that point Salesforce.com already had a $20bn market capitalisation, and I observed that I didn’t really consider implementing tried and tested software products from major vendors as ‘innovation’.  I accept today that from the banks perspective it was innovative, but not innovation as I would consider it – they were making an incremental change to process (which as a bank shareholder I would have been happy to see happen), but coming from a background of innovation I felt the term was being abused.  I don’t consider incremental process improvement to be true innovation – true innovation disrupts the status quo; improvements are not a disruption but an inconvenience to business as usual (no matter how the process people feel!).

True innovation requires major disruption to business processes and practices, and this means that – rather than supporting these – the vast majority of corporate entities, and particularly listed ones, will actively oppose innovative activity.   Consider some examples of why resistance will take place:

  1. Sales team incentivisation structures.  Going back to Salesforce.com, what CRM consultancy sales director in 2005, with a remuneration package based on big ticket Seibel deployments, would have been able to switch to selling the low cost, out of the box Salesforce.com option?  Whilst the client’s bank balance and cash flow would have felt a benefit, his or her bank balance and personal cash flow would have felt quite differently.  Similarly, corporate sales teams incentivised to sell the same big ticket items will have no desire to take several years of financial pain to sell disruptive, lower cost options.
  1. Earnings growth.  Earnings per share has to be one of the key metrics considered by investors looking at listed companies, and personally I want to see stability (potentially with some growth) over time.  True Geoffrey Moore-style from-the-bottom-up-value-chain-disrupting innovation tends to have a significant impact on the way in which companies earn, and in the short term are likely to significantly reduce earnings per share (EPS; consider the Saleforce.com versus Seibel example given previously).  Only with the most understanding shareholders in the world would the CEO of a company be able to hold onto their job whilst explaining to the market why they appear to be introducing innovation that’s ruining the company’s EPS track record.  I would suggest that the vast majority of CEOs do not want to have to do this, and the vast majority of shareholders do not want to hear such apparent insanity.
  1. I have experienced these throughout my professional career; the empire might consist of a professional and their secretary, or involve offshore teams with hundreds of operators diligently executing to improve existing processes.  As a social animal, most people are externally driven – and perception is incredible important – empires ‘improve’ how executives are perceived.  Having built up a position of power over others, how many executives would have skin thick enough to reduce their empires to dust in order to drive improved shareholder performance?  It will take the most extreme pressures to induce such change (and we often only see this in firms who are themselves feeling the earnings impact of innovation brought to market by other players).

All business people have, knowingly or unconsciously, experienced these situations and others.  The conservative, innovation-resistant agencies in a shareholder owned business are brought to bear on to resist change.  However, many businesses also know that they must embrace change – the question is ‘how?’.  How do I benefit from innovation, remain relevant, grow this business for my shareholders, and create long term value?

My ideas on how listed companies can innovate will be addressed in a future post.

Want to succeed? Get used to failure.

A few years ago, at a startup networking event, a colleague of mine asked a budding entrepreneur how he was going to grow and scale a business. His response? “Build the app. Marketing. Go viral.”

Now, while I admire this individual’s chutzpah and ambition, this is not likely to be a successful strategy. Why? Because it does not allow for failure.

There are plenty of stories to be told of hugely successful entrepreneurs who started with failure before finally ‘making it’. Bill Gates with Trof-o-Data, Henry Ford with numerous failed automotive ventures, and even the iconic Colonel Sanders who, penniless at 65, decided that age was no barrier to starting a business that would eventually spawn a global food empire.

Inspiring and intriguing as these tales are, they do not explain why it is that failure is such an important part of the tapestry of success. Before I go on, I should say that yes, some people will achieve success at the very first attempt. But I would venture that there is always an element of good luck in this and, more often than not, this will not be repeatable.

 

Ffion's Blog

 

It is important to learn to fail but to fail fast. More often than not, we will learn what works from learning what does not work. That is how we as a firm enable both ourselves and our clients to achieve commercial success more quickly; we have been there, we have made those mistakes, and we know how to avoid repeating them. Now, this isn’t to say that we have a magic wand for avoiding failure. We will and still do experience it. But, having become familiar with some of the pitfalls facing early stage companies trying to commercialise their technologies, we now know how to navigate around them, and that makes for a shorter road to success.

Think about how you would approach a challenge. If you did not know how to overcome it, would you put all of your eggs in one basket and go with one approach? Unlikely. Would you be more likely to employ a tactic of trial-and-error, taking slightly longer to find the solution, but also avoiding fatal errors and, eventually, learning what works? I’ll wager it would be the latter.

In this way, we are naturally predisposed to learning from failure but for some reason, this is a bit of a blind spot when it comes to building a business. Too many of the entrepreneurs that I meet, fear failure. When things don’t go as expected, I tell my clients that it is a good thing. We learnt how not to do something and can therefore quickly move on to trying a different approach. This process of constant iteration is very much at the core of what we do.

As Samuel Smiles said, “We learn wisdom from failure much more than from success. We often discover what will do, by finding out what will not do; and probably he who never made a mistake never made a discovery.”

RIG client named in Deloitte's Technology Fast 50 for Ireland

For the fourth consecutive year, RIG client, Export Technologies, has been awarded a place in the Deloitte Technology Fast 50 for Ireland. The company came 15th in a list which is comprised of Ireland’s fastest growing Technology companies.

This award recognises the company’s sustained growth over many years, as well as its commitment to the continued research and development of its technology. Export Technologies is recognised as an enterprising company which is now looking to grow further and expand beyond Northern Ireland.

The company’s eCommere platform, the IRP, has been responsible for growing and driving the online sales of many well known retailers, including Chain Reaction Cycles, which is now ‘the world’s largest online bike store’.

What I Know About Hiring and Firing: Part 1

In this four part mini-series on recruitment, I will share my insights into the hiring challenges of growth companies.

As a body of ideas, I make no particular claim to originality. Rather, I hope that the filter of my experience of working in and around entrepreneurial ventures for over 15 years will inform my perspective with insights that are borne of experimentation and practice.

My search has been one that always seeks to balance ‘the art of doing’ with a ‘scientific approach’: to inject some science into art and some art into the science.

My thoughts are written with founders and untested first time CEOs in mind. Theirs is an incredibly challenging role and chief among their challenges will be ‘hiring and firing’.

Ensuring that the coffers never run dry is a fear-inducing imperative. And yet, of all the issues that a CEO must tackle, people issues can be the most agonising and the most difficult to act upon decisively and with the intended effect.

As the company grows, people management comes to the fore. The company is its people and ‘growing’ the company almost invariably means growing the number of people as well as ‘growing’ the people themselves to meet the challenges of growth.

1.       Don’t delegate ever

As a general rule of thumb, as a company grows, the CEO must delegate. Failure to do so will create a ‘cartwheel’ organisation that will stymie growth.

For the CEO, the critical questions are about ‘what to delegate’ completely and ‘when to delegate’. Yet when it comes to hiring, the answer is simple. Don’t. Ever. Hiring is simply too important to delegate.

Consider this: the earlier the stage of the company, the more critical each new hire is. If you are a small five person team, the new hire will represent  17% of your team. An attractive opportunity for the new employee:  a critical, foundational decision for you.

This person will become part of the fabric of your organisation and will influence and shape it for better or for worst. A great hire will add expertise and will balance your team.  A poor hire will add little and leave weaknesses unaddressed.  Sub-optimal hiring equates to a brake on the development of the organisation and loss of opportunity.

Look out for the second part of this series to be published next week.