Because of some of the unique features of our markets and customers, early-stage cleantech startups quite often have to walk a fine line when figuring out how to describe themselves to the outside world.
At the heart of the problem is that the entrepreneurs have two completely different target audiences for these messages. The first are prospective customers, who are typically change-averse, can be somewhat technophobic, and often aren't currently seeking a solution. But the second major audience is funders, and VCs want to find something that's very "different," that's somewhat daring, that they can describe to the partners at their firm (and to their LPs) as something "sexy" and market-changing.
It can be nearly impossible for a startup to satisfy both groups with the same message and positioning. Not to mention other potential audiences, like strategic partners, government types, or prospective employees.
The approach tried most often over the past decade has been to go after the funders, and along the way grab journalists' attention, by trying to sound as revolutionary as possible. Get enough funding and enough media attention, and you can build enough apparent momentum that customers will eventually "get it" and beat a path to your door. Sound like you're going to blow up the status quo and force the market to pay attention to you. Frankly, more often than not once I've drilled down into a startup's pitch past all the buzzwords to get to what they're actually doing, it turns out to be pretty simple anyway. But for some reason the message had to be radicalized.
This "get on board with the revolution" approach to self-description has had only limited success -- in part because there's so much random noise out there (see the last column on PR) that these can't all be revolutionary ideas. But mostly because the customers appear to have been more turned off by talk of revolution than turned on (at least until it's obvious the revolution is going to win and they're about to be left out, but we're a long way from that threshold in most cleantech markets).
Absolutely, there are some technophile early adopters out there. And not coincidentally, they tend to be the customers Silicon Valley VCs run into, or talk to in a diligence call, or reach when they speak to a technologist at a large corporation.
But if you actually want to scale revenues with the much larger body of "normal" customers, you can't sound too disruptive -- even if that's what you are. Whether it's the Bloom Box or Zipcar or my own portfolio company Digital Lumens, even radical game-changing ideas seem to do better with these customers when positioned as fitting into their existing patterns and simplifying their lives, not as "bleeding-edge" technologies. Bloom Box started out as an SOFC story (f/k/a "IonAmerica"), and on 60 Minutes there was the breathless mention of how it could radically change how your home is powered. But where it's making progress now with customers is as a replacement distributed generation solution that is flexible enough to be able to use renewably-produced methane (which then is further simplified to just "green uninterruptible onsite power"). Zipcar has a lot under the hood (so to speak), but has been successful because they used all of that to simply tell customers they could have wheels when they want them. And Digital Lumens' embedded-intelligence lighting solution is so much more than just efficient lights -- but to prospective customers, that's what they've learned to lead with, only later bringing into the conversation all of the powerful operational advantages (even beyond lighting) that the products and services offer. All three companies then secondarily tell investors and strategic partners about the disruptive solution they are offering -- but they make sure to not lead with that message with customers.
So that would be my suggestion: Focus on prospective customers when developing messaging, even early on. Let investors and others (even, at the right time, customers!) discover only later how cool it is that you're bringing them this solution in this amazing new way.
I know investors will tell you you need to be disruptive and that they're not looking for "incremental solutions." So figure out how to explain in a 1:1 conversation how your seemingly simple solution truly is disruptive (if it is), or aim for a different type of investor (if it isn't). But don't make that the public face of your company. Because at least for now, it's more important to make sure customers aren't scared off by your message than to worry that investors won't find your solution to be exciting.
For investors, nothing is more exciting right now than revenues, anyway.