I Love This Logistics Startup’s COVID-19 Pivot

As we are all beginning to discover, the complicated science of logistics doesn’t always respond so well to unknown variables.

The extreme household toilet paper shortage is only partially due to panic buying — the reality is that people really DO need more of the stuff, with everyone confined to their homes 24×7. Many of us are spending at least 40 extra hours a week at home. It adds up. So what’s happening to all the commercial product headed for empty offices and factories? Turns out it’s not so simple to divert stuff from a totally different distribution channel onto grocery store shelves.

The more life-threatening challenge, of course, is getting medical supplies to the locations that really need it — recognizing that those locations will keep changing as new hot spots emerge.

That’s something that Flexport.org, the nonprofit arm of logistics software company Flexport, is addressing head-on. Its software is dedicated to facilitating disaster recovery supplies. Right now, it’s entirely focused on trying to alleviate COVID-19 supply shortages around the world.

An early-stage startup making a similar pivot is Rheaply, a Chicago-based company that recently raised $2.5 million to bold out its platform for asset management. The company’s mission is simple: to help universities and companies “share” equipment that is going unused. The founder Garry Cooper, who earned his Ph.D. in neuroscience from Northwestern, came up with the idea after while studying there.

In response to the medical supply crisis, Rheaply has collaborated with Northwestern and state agencies to create a special application of its technology called the Emergency Resource Exchange. The system was developed to help hospitals make requests for resources such as N95 protective masks to gowns or ventilators — and also to list things as they become available. Yes, it’s free.

“We face tough challenges ahead, but moving with a united sense of urgency minimize risk of the virus’s transmission and brings us closer to being with our friends and families once again,” the team writes in its blog about the new resource.

It’s a local resource, but imagine the possibilities if this sort of exchange was expanded to other states. It’s clear that we can’t always count on an adequate national-level response.

BTW, I hope you felt heartened by the news earlier today that Washington state is sending at least 400 ventilators back to the national stockpile, so that they can be sent to places like New York, where the crisis is expected to surge this week. We need more of this spirit.

It’s time for tech companies to show their conscience

Spring is here. No, really.

If my 30-something-years experience as a journalist holds true, this will be the week many U.S. tech companies emerge from the relative radio silence that has characterized their public response to economic upheaval being wreaked by coronavirus to talk about how they plan to help — not just with immediate aid, but with resources to help inspire systemic solutions far into the future.

We’ve already heard a lot about Zoom, of course, the now virtually (pun intended) ubiquitous videoconferencing service that you and I both used umpteen times this week. In mid-March, it moved to make its software free for K-12 schools — and that was before many U.S. school districts officially closed their doors and turned millions of parents across the country into classroom aides. Pretty much any company with similar collaboration software is now offering at least a free trial.

These are wonderful, welcome gestures, and I am eager to see more like them. What I’m equally eager for are resources that help creative, innovative, entrepreneurial individuals mobilize on solutions — to seek not just to weather this crisis but to learn from it.

Sticking with education, one example is the new Teach from Home hub announced March 20 by Google, along with a $10 million “Distance Learning Fund” meant to support organizations working on solutions.

Here are some other initiatives that I’m looking into:

  • IBM updated the focus of its annual Call for Code solutions hackathon to “take on COVID-19.” The premise: use its open source software to develop technologies that could help. Last year’s winner was Prometeo. The team united a firefighter, nurse and three developers to create a smart device for improving firefighter safety by measuring air quality during disaster response.
  • Amazon’s cloud division committed $20 million intended to accelerate research on diagnostics approaches. Mind you, this money is going to existing customers but there are at least 35 global research institutions, companies and startups now involved. (Here are the details.)
  • Microsoft’s artificial intelligence underlies a number of the resources that are being used to share information, including those from John Hopkins University and the Centers for Disease Control, as well as to research the immune’s response to the virus. Read Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella’s letter to Microsoft employees last week.

Those are just three quick examples. I’ll be hunting for more this week.

I Knew This Podcast Powerhouse When He Was ‘Just’ a Marketing Powerhouse

Over the past six months, my long-time friend Christopher Lochhead — the same guy who convinced me I COULD write a book, resulting in the July 2018 release of our book about entrepreneurship, Niche Down — has become a totally-on-fire host of not one but TWO podcasts.

They’re related, of course. “Follow Your Different,” is the evolution of his original vehicle “Legends and Losers” and it celebrates amazing enterpreneurs and ordinary folks who are anyting but. It’s pretty clear what “Lochhead on Marketing,” which is newer, focuses on. (Smile.)

Last time I checked, the latest one was trending within the Top 200 podcasts on iTunes for ALL CATEGORIES! Woot!

I’ve been on Christopher’s original show a few times, and my latest drop-in was over the summer. It resulted in this episode, in which I geek-out over one of my favorite business topics, the rise of a circular economy. (My latest article on that topic, “How Kohler turned production ‘waste’ into a new tile line.” Our debate on how to fund the next generation of transportation infrastructure is unresolved; maybe a matter for our next chat.

By the way, I literally just discovered that the podcast I co-host, GreenBiz 350, is listed in the Top 10 for non-profits! That’s quite a wonderful revelation. You can see the playlists at the first link. Subscribe here.

Catch Me On TV (DisrupTV, That Is)

Whenever I need a crash course in keeping a message succinct, Ray Wang (with Constellation Research) and Vala Afshar (avec Salesforce) drop in to give me a lesson — and to remind me that I tend to run off at the mouth sometimes!

Here’s our latest segment for DisrupTV, in which we talk about the basic infrastructure changes that will be vitally improvement for making the world more sustainable.

Among the things I ramble on about: an amazing infrastructure project in Kearny, New Jersey — the makeover of 100-year-old former shipyard. (By the way, you can hear some of my interview excerpts on Episode 183 of the GreenBiz 350 podcast!)

Plus: Why CEOs need to be bought into sustainability strategy in order for it to become embedded into corporate culture.

SolarCity Founders Charge Up African Energy Venture

Zola Energy now employs close to 1,000 people in five African countries.

This article is drawn from the Energy Weekly newsletter, running Thursdays. Subscribe here.

The co-founders of SolarCity, Lyndon Rive and Peter Rive, are back on the grid.

The brothers, who left their former solar energy services company in mid-2017 after it became part of the Tesla Energy division, were this week named chairman and operational and technology advisor (respectively) of a fast-growing solar-plus-storage company called Zola Electric.

There are two reasons this company isn’t exactly a household name. First, it recently underwent a branding change: It used to be called Off Grid Electric, but that proved to be a hard moniker to defend with the trademark lawyers. Second, its focus is squarely on improving “energy access” in emerging economies, starting with Africa.

“We are offering technically advanced solutions where the grid is unreliable or unaffordable,” Zola CEO Bill Lenihan told me earlier this week.

What is now known as Zola (a play off the Swahili word for “solar”) got its start in Tanzania about seven years ago, when founders Xavier Helgesen, Erica Mackey and Joshua Pierce started an organization dedicated to offering a cleaner fuel alternative to kerosene. Its system combines solar generation with batteries (more on that in a moment). Lenihan was co-CEO with Helgesen until this week, when the latter was named chief technical officer and Lenihan took on sole responsibility as chief executive. Lenihan’s background is in private equity.

The company’s mission has evolved significantly since then (learning from “mistake after mistake,” as Lenihan put it). It helps that Zola has raised more than $100 million in backing from the likes of DBL Ventures, Omidyar Network, Helio Partners (an African fund that is its biggest backer) and energy companies EDF and Total.

We are offering technically advanced solutions where the grid is unreliable or unaffordable.

That’s where the brothers Rive come in: Both made personal investments early on, Lyndon told me. And yes, both were born in South Africa, like their famous cousin, Elon Musk. Here’s Lyndon’s official statement about his appointment as chairman: “After witnessing and investing in Zola Electric’s impressive growth for many years now, I’m eager to play a bigger role as the company continues to democratize renewable energy globally. Zola’s business model and technology platform will enable countries around the world to leapfrog the electric grid.”

Zola doesn’t sell power as a service, but it has created a business model under which customers pay for its system over time — paying around $15 to $35 per month through a digital, microfinancing platform. Eventually, they “own” the equipment. As of this week, it has more than 200,000 installations in homes and businesses (such as kiosks, pubs and restaurants) in five African countries: Tanzania; Rwanda;  Ivory Coast; Ghana; and Nigeria.

The Zola system is meant as a primary source of electricity, defaulting to the grid when it’s available. It’s a way that individuals and businesses can buy independence in an environment of daily grid outages, according to Lenihan and Rive. The system replaces diesel generators, which are commonly used as a backup option. Switching back and forth between generators and the grid has traditionally been a very manual process; another benefit of Zola’s technology is that it handles this automatically, they said.

“The market in Africa and the customers’ understanding of electricity far exceeds most people in the United States,” Lyndon Rive said. “When you have an environment where the electricity always goes out, the customer becomes highly educated about energy.”

The loads that Zola supports aren’t that heavy: typically, the technology supports lights, radios, small fans and electronics chargers. Zola is working up to heavier loads, like for air conditioners, refrigerators and power tools (such as saws or drills).

Peter Rive’s role with Zola will be to help build further intelligence into the software that Zola’s equipment uses to interact with the grid, as well as to refine the components over time. Another intriguing twist to the Zola story is that a growing portion of the design, configuration and assembly of the systems is being done “in country” — Zola now has more than 1,000 employees across Africa, Lenihan said. 

Where next? The big focus for this year will be cracking massively complicated Nigerian energy sector, Lenihan said: “No other market is as messed up.”

Zola’s rise is yet another proof point for the value of distributed generation, and of innovation that wouldn’t be possible in a system, such as the United States, where many electricity consumers probably couldn’t tell you how much power they use on a monthly basis. Places such as Africa have a real opportunity to leapfrog progress in more established economies when it comes to adoption of off-grid electricity. (Hence the company’s original name.)

It is not lost on me that venture capitalist Nancy Pfund mentioned this company to me last fall, when we were chatting about which of her company’s investments had her most charged up for 2019. Now that SolarCity’s co-founders are involved, I’ll be watching this venture — and others like it — even more closely.

Interestingly, Accenture this week published research noting that 95 percent of North American utility executives recognize the disruptive power of distributed generation — and they’re actively looking for ways to profit. “Mass adoption of electric vehicles and the electrification of building heating is poised to alter demand growth and load shape in the longer term,” said Stephanie Jamison, an Accenture managing director, in a statement analyzing the findings. “The key will be to navigate this disruption by making the grid more resilient through greater use of smart technologies and utilizing all sources of flexibility including on the demand side, adopting a more customer-centric approach.”

Listen Up, Won’t You?

Want to know what makes me tick? Why I write my fingers off, even on weekends when I could be reading trashy, mindless novels instead? I was privileged to be an early guest on legendary marketer Christopher Lochhead’s insanely irreverent podcast, “Follow Your Different.”

During the conversation, we chat with a writer I really admire, Dushka Zapata, about the motivation behind the 2018 book, “Niche Down,” which I co-authored with Christopher and which forced me to live way outside my personal comfort zone for most of last year. Well, at least for the first seven months. I just got my first royalty check, and that was a great feeling! I haven’t managed to cash it yet.

I’m not sure whether I’ll ever dive into the process of writing another book — something will need to appeal to my heart very strongly for me to take on that responsibility. But I really loved the process of creating this one. It reminded me, again, of why “following your different” is such a great career strategy. Even if you’re not the entrepreneurial sort (being little Miss rule follower, I definitely am NOT), being honest to yourself is one of the best self-gifts ever. I love being able to use my writer’s voice to tell the story of courageous individuals who have dared to create and inhabit their own niche. You can follow my latest work at GreenBiz.com.

Dreaming of Starting Your Own Biz in 2019? Start Here

Tis the season for year-end reflections and year-ahead resolutions.

In that vein, I’m making a shameful, Black Friday plug for Niche Down, the book I co-authored earlier this year for legendary marketing guru and podcast conversationalist, Christopher Lochhead.

I know I’m biased, but if you’re thinking of starting your own business, this modest tome is meant to kickstart ideas. Our top-level philosophy: don’t try to compete on someone else’s terms. Look inside, find your “different” and tell the world.

Don’t buy this book if you’re looking for a step-to-step “how to” but we do offer some specific ideas for marketing tactics. BUT we do offer some vivid examples. One of my favorites is John’s Crazy Socks, which is just about as “niche” as you get. Plus, I’m a sucker for feel-good stories. How you can resist the tale of a father who helps his child with Down syndrome realize his business dream? I’d love to hear about more entrepreneurs who you think embody this philosophy: I bet it will be easier than you think. I can’t necessarily write about them — but if the example has something to do with fighting climate change — I’m much more likely to listen.

The process of writing this book forced some serious soul-searching. Throughout my career, I haven’t paused all that often to set goals. That’s not exactly something I’m proud of. My bad.

But one thing I’m confident that I’ve always done is stood behind my convictions, something that hasn’t always rubbed everyone in my path the right way. As someone with a “pleaser” personality, it is difficult for me to cope with the idea that not everyone likes what I have to say. I like being liked! But instead of apologizing for it, I’m embracing the fact that this makes me, well, me. I’m still working on the apology thing. I say “I’m sorry” far too often. One of my resolutions for 2019 is to say it only when it really counts.

What’s on my Christmas wish list? The hope that at least some small percentage of would-be entrepreneurs benefits from reaching Niche Down. What are you waiting for?

Legendary Entrepreneurs Are Relentless Category Designers

This post was excerpted from Niche Down, my new book with the legendary marketer and podcast conversation host Christopher Lochhead.

Legendary category designers never stop reminding the world that
they created the category. That they are the standard by which all others
must be compared. And that they haven’t stopped looking at the
original problem from new angles.

Take the story of GOJO Industries. You might not know this privately
held company’s name, but you’ll recognize the name of its most
famous product.

In 1997, GOJO, with its introduction of the consumer edition of
Purell20, convinced millions of parents and germaphobes that we
should use “hand sanitizer” before and after we touch anything.
Refuse to do so at your own peril!

In 1996, none of us even knew we needed hand sanitizer.

Today, millions of people carry the stuff with them everywhere. Hospitals and doctors’ offices worship it via dispensers hanging on the walls. You can find bottles scattered on hotel check-in counters and at the start of restaurant and cruise-ship buffet lines.

It’s even tough to make it through boot camp without being exposed to the brand: the military is a huge customer.

At its height, Purell owned an estimated 70 percent of the hand-sanitizer market category. (There was a brief change in ownership, but that’s a story for another book.) Its name is the one to beat for mindshare.

The brand that all other hand sanitizers are compared to.

There’s a corollary: The bigger and more urgent the problem, the more time and money people will invest to solve it.

You don’t want to be walking around with unsanitary hands now, do you?

The “overnight” success story behind Purell maker GOJO actually began almost 40 years earlier, in World War II-era Akron, Ohio, with a simple problem identified by tire factory worker Goldie Lippman — it was super difficult to get carcinogenic substances like graphite, carbon and tar off her hands with regular bar soap after a production shift.

You had to use benzene, which was irritating. Women, in particular, were interested in an alternative23 because who wants red, smelly hands?

That problem inspired Goldie’s husband Jerry, who invented a formulation that was less harsh and that was delivered in liquid form. The two entrepreneurs mixed up the product using a washing machine and packaged the soap in pickle jars pilfered from local restaurants.

Yes friends, GOJO (the company’s name is a mash-up of the founders’ first names) was also the designer of the “liquid-hand-soap” category!

Before GOJO, most individuals used “bar soap” to scrub their hands, faces, feet, clothes.

And the venture also came up with a way of controlling portions, so that it was more cost-effective for business owners to buy the product.

Today, more than 70 years later, GOJO’s identity is still synonymous with the hygienic benefits of keeping your hands clean. That’s true in large part because it has never stopped thinking about the original problem and new ways of addressing it. “You don’t go up against the giants unless you have a category-defining brand,” GOJO’s current CEO, Joe Kanfer, (the Lippmans’s nephew)  for a corporate profile published in 2013.

Have You Niched Down Yet?

It’s odd to realize that my first ever book, Niche Down (How to Become Legendary by Being Different), with Legends & Losers podcast host Christopher Lochhead has been officially on sale for a whole week.

So far, the feedback has been humbling: we’ve been cycling through the #1 bestseller spot for the entrepreneurship and small business categories since the launch. (Right now, we’re #1 in new releases.) And, check it out: someone even donated a billboard in Melbourne, Australia, to help get the word out! Thanks to our marketing entrepreneur friend, Vaughn O’Connor, for this stunt down under.  He apparently is Christopher’s kindred spirit when it comes to lightning-strike marketing tactics.

I’m pausing for some vacation until early August, but just wanted to say thanks for making my birthday extra special this year. I’ll be back with book excerpts and such after my return.

What Makes a Legendary Entrepreneur

So, I’m finally doing it. My long-time friend and legendary CMO Christopher Lochhead (that’s awesome retired marketing guru to you acronym-phobes) has convinced me to help give voice to his second book.

I’m terrified, but also incredibly excited about the subject — an exploration of what turns entrepreneurs into queens or kings of their market category. The working title of our e-book is Niche Down: How to become legendary by being different. (But we reserve the right to change it!)

The thesis is pretty simple: the most successful ventures you know — whether it’s the small biz down the street or a mega-corp with a multi-billion-dollar market capitalization — don’t try to compete on price. They got to where they are by solving a problem in a unique way, and “niching down” to capture the conversation around it.

You hear about the big guys and gals all the time. (That’s the focus of the first book about category design co-authored by Christopher, Play Bigger.) This new tome is dedicated to solo-preneurs and new ventures that fall into the “small e” category of entrepreneurship.

Why I Said ‘Yes’ to This Project

A bit of trivia: the first regular freelance gig that I landed out of university many years ago for a now-defunct trade magazine involved profiling entrepreneurs. It hooked me. That led me to a long-time collaboration with Entrepreneur magazine, and I’ve lived and breathed tech startup-dom for close to three decades. That’s where I met Christopher. YIKES!

I’ve been asked to co-author books before, but nothing has ever caught my heart like this project. No more playing coy. So, here I am, doing something I’ve never done before in my life. You’re never too old!

If all goes well, we should debut said e-book by the end of June. Meanwhile, if you’d like a sneak peek at the arguments, here’s what you should do:

  • Take a listen to Christopher’s no-holds-barred podcast, Legends & Losers. (Warning, he swears like a sailor. You can’t deal? Your loss.)
  • Tell him what you think, with a review on your fave podcast platform.
  • Email a copy of the review to blackhole@legendsandlosers.com. Copy me for good measure at heather@heatherclancy.com. (Sorry, I’m not making these links live/clickable because of spambots.)
  • Eh voila! We’ll send you a copy of our book “teaser.”

So easy! Want to start a dialogue in private? Reach out via my contact form.