The first step can sometimes be the most important.
Look at the Macintosh. A TV ad during the Super Bowl convinced the public that they could strike a blow against tyranny by selecting their office products more carefully.
Or the Dymaxion, the three-wheeled car. It crashed during its public trial in 1933.
One of the true joys of this job is attending public unveilings of the new and unexpected. While it is often hard to predict who will succeed from Day One, here are some hints on how to make that debut sing.
1. Try Coy Mode. In coy mode, a company tries to draw attention to itself by not talking. Coy mode often gets confused with stealth mode. In stealth mode, however, the companies simply shut up. Coy mode involves ostentatiously advertising that you’re secretive.
Bloom Energy perfected this to an art in 2009. Consumers and execs became obsessed with the company and would peruse its nebulous website and utility filing for clues.
The latest king of coy is C3, the energy management company founded by Tom Siebel. Although C3 has only vaguely described its plans or services and come up with a logo, it loves to tout who sits on its various boards and organizations.
Names include Condoleezza Rice (former Secretary of State), Spencer Abraham (former Secretary of Energy), Steve Ward (former CEO of Lenovo -- great guy, actually), Kristina Johnson (former Undersecretary for DOE) and Andy Karsner (former Assistant Secretary of the DOE).
It's hard to recall so much former greatness in one place at one time!
Other C3 associates, however, include Andreas Schierenbeck, who runs the building group at Siemens, Shankar Sastry, dean of engineering at UC Berkeley, and Mayo Shattuck III, the CEO of Constellation Energy. So maybe they do have something.
But watch out. In the end, C3 will likely come out with a system that pretty much functions like those from EnerNoc, Scientific Conservation, BuildingIQ and others, but analysts and reporters will act like a new era of civilization has dawned.
2. Play the Google Card. If you hold your event at Google, or have Google as an investor, the press world will descend on the event in droves, and not just because Google is known for its stellar snack platters.
Exhibit A: WeatherBill. It sells crop insurance. Google is an investor. Coverage of an outing this month was moderately breathless. An intriguing idea, yes, but when was the last time you saw soybean insurance covered by the New York Times?
As an added bonus of the Google effect, WeatherBill technically wasn’t even unstealthed at the event: agricultural magazines had been writing about the company for months.
There is also a Kleiner Kard. But be careful -- celebrity halos can backfire. Don’t forget Optisolar: a few weeks after 60 Minutes and Arnold Schwarzenegger attended the solar maker’s unveiling party, it collapsed under its own weight.
3. Have Fun With Numbers. Transphorm earlier this year unveiled gallium nitride components to efficiently convert AC to DC and vice versa. It’s a great product, but I particularly enjoyed how Transphorm described what it does.
The company says its “power modules eliminate up to 90% of all electric conversion losses.” True. What it doesn’t highlight as much is that current power modules are around 90 percent efficient. Transphorm, in other words, takes you from 90 to 99 percent. A true achievement, but phrasing it that way takes out some zing.
The company also said it could save hundreds of terawatt hours of energy a year -- New York City only uses 50 terawatt hours. True enough, and a great meme, but unrealistic.
4. Don’t Mention Your Competition. Not because it makes one seem un-genteel. Instead, people might begin to realize they won't follow you in the long term.
Serious Materials has never said, “We believe we have a chance to leap ahead of Knaup Tianjin and Lafarge in premium drywall.” Instead, CEO Kevin Surace keeps the conversation going with wacky factoids about gypsum mining.
Go back to Transphorm. You won’t hear them compare themselves to STMicroelectronics or National Semiconductor. If they did, you’d be sleeping by now.
5. When Forced to Backtrack, Rely on Facts. Solyndra was at one time secretive and exclusive. Back in 2009, the company’s security team chased a reporter out of the parking lot. In 2010, the Wall Street Journal, a paper notoriously critical of all things green, touted Solyndra as top green startup. Obama came to inaugurate the factory.
Since then, Solyndra had to postpone an IPO and curb production.
Solyndra skeptics abound. But check out CEO Brian Harrison and other Solyndra execs these days. They are discussing -- in detail -- product roadmaps, costs and projected efficiencies. The company, still private, even stated that it achieved over $140 million in revenue in 2010 while development partners have demonstrated how Solyndra’s panels can be cheaper than alternatives.
Is a rebound in the offing? At least the company seems to have a better platform for debating its merits.
6. Don’t Wait Too Long. The Fisker Karma. It's coming out soon.
7. One Word Names Beat Ones with Two or Three. I still forget where to put the plurals in Twin Creeks Technologies or Silver Spring Technologies. Kudos to Positive Energy and Sustainable Spaces switching to Opower and Recurve.
8. Boil It Down to a Sentence. Ostara Nutrient Recovery Technologies? They take human sewage and convert it into fertilizer. You won’t forget it now. Bonus points for calling its final product Crystal Green, which sounds like that powdered drink mix once advertised by Linda Evans.