Friday, April 19, 2013

Water deals

It's been said that water is the new gasoline--I hope not, it will be hard to drink. ;-) I am a big believer in water investments; in the US we pay a fraction of a penny per gallon of water, while in the rest of the world it is priced by market forces--many times higher than here. As it did in telecom, deregulation will hit this industry and fortunes will be lost and made. In my real estate investments I have a partner who has been in bottled water for years, and is seeing a disproportionate escalation of water-related real estate values (i.e., land with springs and no waterfront). About 10 years ago I helped a friend with a European water bottling outfit differentiate his product using laser marking--there’s a stretch of technology. ;-)

In China and India, clean water is on the top-10 list of key infrastructure needs for the future. Coming from Australia, which is almost always in drought, I have a keen appreciation of how critical water is. Israel is a source of exceptional water-related technologies because, as with most things, need drives solutions. So far I have seen quite a few water deals, but I am having trouble finding the killer app/technology. There are membrane technologies that filter the water, specialty plumbing systems that recycle gray water and use it for non-potable applications, and there are software suites that model and optimize flow. It's a really large and fragmented industry; it's hard to make sales and they are usually consultative and long, with slow-moving technology adoption. Sound familiar?

So we laser jocks or telecom experts should be good at this area…maybe.

So many of the areas we plan in have this same characteristic, but the water industry exacerbates all the usual obstacles to selling for a startup: you are small and they take a long time to make a decision (you may burn through two rounds of financing before they put you in a field trial). If you win the field trial, then you have to support it, and if you get a design win, then you have to convince them you can supply and you'll burn through a third round of funding just doing that. But then you can ride the wave. :-)

There are some great, venture-investible technologies that help the water ecosystem, despite its fragmentation and selling difficulties. Acoustic leak detection systems using sonar, fiber-optic pipeline monitoring, unique algaes and chemicals that simplify and improve water purification, and also new electrolytes and electrode materials that make electrolysis easier to separate H2 out of water driven by solar energy. As with Palm Oil, water may be seriously undervalued--but we had better hope people don’t start turning it into energy for fear of making life's vital quantity-priced like gasoline...

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Course correction

One of the key gifts of a great entrepreneur is their ability to execute real-time course correction in response to market changes, team changes, morale changes, and investor and customer sentiment. :)

As a hardware guy, it's fascinating for me to observe the truly real-time nature of management of Internet companies, and the amenability of the data to real-time analysis. For example, a retail web business continually tweaks its Web site -- everything from background color to placement of the buttons and core code -- but they do it in an endless series of micro tweaks, then measure the changes in site metrics to determine whether it was the right tweak or not. I saw the extrapolation of this metrics-based management in a company that sells specialty products to women when they tested a series of "hardware" initiatives in the same way they would test Web. In this case, they tried selling their product through real-world parties with interested women customers and measured the effects of different party structures and formats across multiple events to determine the optimum. When I heard the results and analysis and ultimate conclusions, I was struck with the simple question of "why not just ask someone who has done Tupperware parties or Avon, how they do it, and why?" Especially when some of the conclusions on the formats that didn't work were based on fairly obvious problems like, "if the women in the group didn't know each other, we didn't sell as much…" Fairly obvious, even to a non-Avon user.

Contrasting Internet, software, and hardware highlights to me a fundamental difference and issue in the area of product management, which is always the Achilles' heel of startups. Despite the experiences of VCs, most startups still suffer badly from poor product management -- it's not a well understood discipline, and confused with marketing and sales as much as marcomm is confused with true marketing. Being one of the classic failure points, I am always surprised when investors don't want to spend $ on a solid product management expert before "developing the technology" -- how on earth will you know what to develop? In any hardware company -- take your pick from semi to medical device -- the product is always late because the software isn’t finished. :) The software guys can't really test until the hardware is done. For the hardware guys, the product management and vision had better be perfect. Otherwise, the chip that took over a year to design, tape out, and FAB may work great but have the wrong interface or attributes, or control software that simply doesn't suit the customer -- and another spin takes at least 6 months more. :) These issues are somewhat amenable to analysis (not as in a consumer Web site), but largely the work of a very thoughtful and usually somewhat visionary product manager who understands the customer, the technology, the market, and the likely changes. Good startup CEOs know the fatal error of asking the customer what they want and building the product based solely on that (you get the same product you have today, but at a lower price with more features).

Let's face it, software might be trying to eat the world but if you really know what you are doing, you do it in hardware. :)