Draw More Pictures

Drawing, you’ve been doing it since preschool. It’s so simple, yet so many struggle to use it as a business tool. Every single day very successful people struggle to communicate their ideas, brainstorm and compare thoughts with friends and colleagues. I’ve found that sketching and drawing will close gaps between people so quickly and so effectively that it’s shocking people resist it so often. I’ve used drawing in my day to day work for some time now, but it wasn’t until a couple years ago when I spent a weekend at a Lean UX bootcamp that this practice really crystallized with me.

Sketch of Customer Service Dashboard

Confidence and laziness. These are the two reasons people resist to pick up a pen, pencil or whiteboard marker.

Confidence, people simply don’t think they can draw. “I’m not an artist” or “I can’t draw” or “I failed art in high school.” These are poor excuses. Frankly, I’ve seen those who are the worst at drawing often get the most benefit from sketching or drawing for the sake of communicating or brainstorming ideas in a business setting. The pictures don’t have to be pretty. In fact a few lines and dots will do, these marks communicate a million times better than written words and a trillion times better than spoken word. Jason Fried of 37Signals has a great post on how they start product development, ignoring the details, and it all starts with sketching with a Sharpie. A low-fidelity way to get an idea on paper and quickly move forward.

On to laziness. People love to sit. Walk into a typical room of people meeting, they’re typically sitting, barely swiveling in their chairs. Around the room people are virtually glued to their chairs. But you can change this behavior. Get a whiteboard or tape a piece of paper to the wall, then stand up and start sketching. It rapidly becomes contagious, others will hop up as they start discussing and deliberating ideas… they may even pick up a drawing utensil!

I’ve done most of my sketching work with startups over the last few years, and it’s a highly effective way to get people aligned and moving forward quickly, something very important for cash and time-strapped organizations. But this art isn’t just relegated to the startup. I’m sure many Fortune 500 companies couple benefit from sketching, from the junior ranks through the CEO (especially the CEO).

You can truly sketch anything, here are a few ideas:

  • User interface (UI) for software
  • Technical specifications
  • Website design
  • PowerPoint presentation
  • Store layout
  • Restaurant menu
  • Mobile application
  • T-shirt design
  • Customer journey map
  • Sales process
  • Manufacturing process

Now for your homework. Next time you’re in a meeting simply pick up a pen or pencil, grab a piece of paper and start sketching, drawing and creating. Do you work with a distributed team? I highly suggest Balsamiq Mockups to help rapidly sketch and collaborate. It’s not just for wireframes, you can sketch pretty much anything using this super-simple, drag-and-drop software. Show your work to others in the room. You’ll be amazed at the reaction you receive, it will change the dynamic in meeting rooms and the outcome of your projects. Stick with it, as it will likely take a few sessions to get others on board, remember people lack confidence and are have been trained to be lazy, but that can change quickly.

Happy drawing.

 

 

Making Your Roof Pay Your Mortgage: Why Buying Solar Makes Sense Now

Roof Solar Panels

When you walk past a neighbor’s house with solar panels on the roof, you might envy their low electricity bills or be impressed by the clean energy they’re generating. What you might not realize is that they probably don’t own their solar panels and are paying monthly to rent them. A new startup we’ve selected for our portfolio has a solution designed to help homeowners actually make money from the solar on their roofs.

Solar leases were invented as an inexpensive option for homeowners to get solar panels. Solar panels themselves used to be very expensive: five years ago, the total up-front cost to outfit a roof was about $50,000. Because of that high cost, leasing solar has become by far the most popular option. Last year, 70 or 80 percent of people who added solar on their house in California, Arizona, or Colorado signed a lease.

That made sense then, but over the last two years the prices of panels have fallen dramatically. Thanks in large part to advances in Chinese manufacturing, the average price of solar has fallen to $20,000 per home.

As with a car or a house, most people buy solar if they can afford it. Leases and rentals mean lost value.

The real sting from leasing solar is that the company keeps the tax credits from installing the panels on your house ($7,500 from the federal government plus any state or local). You also miss out on the opportunity to increase the value of your home; you only get that bump in value if you own the panels.

So why are people still leasing? Until now, it took a lot of effort and some serious DIY work to buy and install solar yourself. There are literally thousands of panel options, multiplied by the many configurations to mount it to your roof, and figuring out tax credits is really tricky.

Kiwi, a startup company we’re working with at Greenstart, wants to simply this process so homeowners can own solar just as easily as they can lease it.

Kiwi packages together everything you’d need to go solar in a bundle called a Juicebox. They have five sizes of solar systems to choose from, deliver all the parts in one big box, match you with a local installer, and then help you cash in on tax credits.

Kiwi co-founder Nick Yecke claims the lifetime value a homeowner gets from a mid-size Juicebox is $70,000, when you include savings on energy bills, tax credits, and increase in home value. This can even be as much as $106,000 in Long Island, thanks to generous tax credits. In comparison, a solar lease has a lifetime value of about $12,000, made up of a 10-20 percent discount on energy costs.

Solar leases aren’t a bad option, and they were a necessary step in making solar available to the average homeowner.  But comparing apples to apples, owning solar is a much better investment in the long run.

Yecke says the biggest obstacle to getting Kiwi to customers is helping them understand the lifetime value of their systems, and opportunity for homeowners to cash in on big tax credits. Kiwi is currently active in Colorado, Florida, North Carolina, New York City, Chicago, and northern California.

This Company Thinks It Can Get You To Pay Thousands Of Dollars For Solar On Your Roof

The past few years have been undeniably depressing for anyone interested in clean energy; Solyndra was the most well-publicized failure, but it was hardly the only one. One of the only bright spots has been in the home solar industry, where solar leasing companies like SolarCity and SunRun have convinced homeowners that they can save money on their electric bills (and feel good about themselves) by leasing home solar arrays for a low monthly cost. In California, two thirds of new home solar systems are leased, compared to 93% purchased in 1997.

Kiwi JuiceBox

Kiwi, a San Francisco-based solar startup wants to make a dent in the trend by convincing homeowners that it’s worth it to buy a photovoltaic system and part with their many thousands of dollars. The hope: that convenience and good marketing are enough to get them to do it.

The past few years have been undeniably depressing for anyone interested in clean energy; Solyndra was the most well-publicized failure, but it was hardly the only one. One of the only bright spots has been in the home solar industry, where solar leasing companies like SolarCity and SunRun have convinced homeowners that they can save money on their electric bills (and feel good about themselves) by leasing home solar arrays for a low monthly cost. In California, two thirds of new home solar systems are leased, compared to 93% purchased in 1997.

Kiwi, a San Francisco-based solar startup wants to make a dent in the trend by convincing homeowners that it’s worth it to buy a photovoltaic system and part with their many thousands of dollars. The hope: that convenience and good marketing are enough to get them to do it.

The past few years have been undeniably depressing for anyone interested in clean energy; Solyndra was the most well-publicized failure, but it was hardly the only one. One of the only bright spots has been in the home solar industry, where solar leasing companies like SolarCity and SunRun have convinced homeowners that they can save money on their electric bills (and feel good about themselves) by leasing home solar arrays for a low monthly cost. In California, two thirds of new home solar systems are leased, compared to 93% purchased in 1997.

Kiwi, a San Francisco-based solar startup wants to make a dent in the trend by convincing homeowners that it’s worth it to buy a photovoltaic system and part with their many thousands of dollars. The hope: that convenience and good marketing are enough to get them to do it.

Read the full story on fastcoexist.com

Startup Kiwi Uses Social Media To Sell Solar To Homeowners

Solar electricity may be cleaner, but that attribute alone often isn’t enough to entice consumers to buy and install a set of solar panels on their roofs. A San Francisco startup called Kiwi believes it’s come up with a game plan to make solar attractive to homeowners and is making Denver its first market.

Kiwi Solar's Nick Yecke

The startup takes orders from homeowners, works with solar equipment manufacturers to assemble solar electric systems, ships those systems to homeowners and then arranges for installers to set up the systems on the rooftops. This process isn’t so different than what many other solar retail service providers are doing. What Kiwi can make a difference is how it markets and convinces consumers that they should spend tens of thousands of dollars on a solar electric system.

Founded in 2009 as a distributor of solar energy equipment, Kiwi was called PVPower before it changed its name just recently to focus on selling solar electric systems to consumers rather than installers. The company just completed a 3-month boot camp run by investment and coaching group, Greenstart, to help young green tech companies make a big push in tackling new markets.

The new name for the company is part of the strategy to grab consumers’ attention. The term “Kiwi” is meant to evoke something “juicy and intriguing,” said its CEO, Nick Yecke, especially when many solar retailers today use words such as “solar,” “sol” or “sun” in their names. A solar electric system from Kiwi is called a “Juice Box,” and it comes in three sizes, from 3 kilowatts to 5 kilowatts.

“The name is much more consumer friendly and a warmer brand,” said Yecke, who was an executive at two digital advertising agencies before co-founding PVPower. “It’s a fresh take on solar and something we can build on.”

The company launched its OwnKiwi website on Tuesday to formally kick off its new brand and business plan, though it launched the service in Denver earlier this month. The website will be the main vehicle for the startup to educate potential customers about solar energy. Kiwi plans to use social media campaigns and face-to-face sales to win over customers and word-of-mouth recommendations from them, Yecke said. Exactly what Kiwi will do to grow its business remains to be seen, though, since the company is still finalizing its marketing plan.

How to attract potential customers’ attention and successfully sell them solar electric systems and services is a big challenge for solar retailers. Many retailers know to put up websites, run Google ads, show up in community events, create funny videos, hold the solar version of the Tupperware party and use social media to drive interest. Some companies use online games and competition – or turn to radio ads and billboards – to get their messages across. The success rates of converting people who visit a website into paying customers vary, and anecdotal accounts put the rates at low as 2% to over 10%.

Companies that focus on marketing and signing up customers have emerged in recent years as the solar market grows and matures. Big venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins is backing one such firm, Gen110.

Right now, Kiwi is focusing on selling solar electric systems to consumers at prices ranging from $12,000 to $24,000. Part of its sales pitch is to show homeowners that they could get more value by owning the systems, Yecke said.

For a homeowner in Denver, the value can be as much as $80,000 over 25 years (the length of a typical solar panel warranty), if you factor in the electricity savings, the increase in home property value and the federal and local tax breaks and rebates for installing solar equipment, Yecke said. The value would be much lower for someone who opts for leases because the system is then owned by a bank or other investors who also get to benefit from the tax incentives, he added.

Solar leases have grown in popularity in recent years, however, because they require little money down and deliver solar electricity at rates lower than what people pay to their utilities, at least in the first year or so. Startups that offer this type of financing models have also grown quickly and attracted venture capital investments. One of them, SolarCity, filed to go public earlier this year. Homeowners also can buy solar equipment and installation services – instead of singing up for leases – from many of these companies. Kiwi, which hopes to raise $500,000 to expand its market reach,  will have no shortage of competition.

Read the full story here on Forbes.com

Climate Cycle – 125 mile Ride

This past weekend I enjoyed a 62.5 mile bike down to the Indiana Dunes State Park, camped out and biked back to Chicago on Sunday morning, another 62.5 miles. A total of 125 miles in a weekend! This was by far the most biking I’ve ever done, and I loved it.

This ride supports Chicago-based Climate Cycle, who helps educate Chicagoland students about renewable energy and builds eco projects, including solar installations, with these Chicago students. It’s a great organization, and a fantastic event.

I was also very lucky to have a ton of support by friends and family. I raised over $2,000 for the organization, leading up to the event. This should help put a few more solar panels on schools, and educate students about renewable energy and exercise, two very weighty topics.

Thanks again to all my supporters, the t-shirt I made and wore to honor your generosity is below in one of the pics. Check out a few moments we captured from the weekend, along with a video highlight reel, made by my partner in crime for the weekend, Scott Mestrezat.

Thanks again to everyone, I’m looking forward to next year… and my next long ride.

Hands on coding

One of my goals in attending Code Academy was to get more hands-on with PVPower and the execution of SolarBear. Not to be “the guy” executing the front end, but to be able to pitch in when needed and get my hands dirty. Well my first project is upon me, I’m working on coding up a generic design that we had created. This is a great way to learn… and get frustrated.

Sneak Preview

Why the heck am I doing Code Academy?

Code Academy Logo

I started Code Academy last week, not the traditional Ruby on Rails track that they offer, but the design track. On Monday nights we meet from 6-9PM to learn HTML and CSS. Then on Tuesday nights for another 3 hours we meet to dig deep into User Experience design. And after a week I’m a bit tired from the hectic schedule, but quite excited about what I’m learning.

So why am I doing this?

Well, for a couple of reasons. First, many moons ago I studied Management Information Systems (a mix of computer science light and business) in college and I’ve grown increasingly frustrated with not being hands-on in the world of programming and making things the last few years. This has grown to be more and more of a frustration as I’ve worked with the team in getting PVPower and SolarBear off the ground.

Second, I want to be able to make stuff. This is closely tied to #1, but a little different. I want to be able to make a prototype of our next marketing page, or interface design or even a one page website for my brother. Just something, I want to make something and this seemed like the next step.

So why Code Academy when there are so many books and online resources covering the same material? I’ve been excited about Code Academy since they launched a year ago, they seem to be executing very very well, with a high level of energy and authenticity, all things that are very important to me. Also, one of their mentors, Troy, is one of our mentors and biggest supporters through the years and I felt the need to further explore something he supports. I then attended their demo day a couple months ago and saw the energy and legitimacy of Code Academy first-hand.

I look forward to becoming much, much better at writing my own HTML and CSS and applying advanced UX design techniques to PVPower and SolarBear over the next 10 weeks.

Now off to do some homework before class…

Check out SolarBear

SolarBear has been in use by solar installers for over 3 months now, since early January and is getting great response from our customers. At PVPower we’re quite excited about this, and the work that lies ahead in building the platform that powers America’s independent solar installers. Check out the 2 minute demo below.