No more guiltless grocery runs

Sat. will mark 2 weeks since we became a single car household after turning in our Nissan Leaf at the end of its lease. Is we both had offices downtown or better yet lived on a great transit core, it would sound simple, but we don’t. The big adjustments — when I need to be on UW’s campus 2 days a week and we can’t arrange around each other’s plans and commitments — are still a month off. But I’m already feeling “Leaf loss” pains.
A key Seattle freeway was closed for the start of the work week and, like everybody, I sat in some heavy traffic Monday. Our Subaru Forester, which made the Mt. Baker hiking weekend immediately before this such a piece of cake, reports its own mileage efficiency every time you shut it off. My mileage some times inching home from UW on Monday made me wince. The Forester’s Mt. Baker mileage had all been great. I vowed to be organized and never make short runs where the engine wouldn’t have a chance to really warm up and start performing.
And then I realized just how little thought I’d given to that type of thing in the 2 years we’d had the Leaf. A run to PCC (our local co-op) used very little charge, so we went whenever, as if we were using our feet to pop into a market next door.
My husband used the Orca card (Seattle’s Metro Transit system card) I’d had for years to get to dentist appointment and lucked into perfect connections that zipped him home in no time. He needs to go get his own card. We’re likely to need cards in different parts of the city at the same time some time. We both signed up for Car2Go, which we haven’t used yet but plan to just for education sake before I go back to school. Meanwhile, “my” side of the garage has 2 bikes parked in the bay, saddle bags permanently attached. I have slowly begun to get my tailbone used to a bike seat again.
We decided we were going to see how this quarter goes and then revisit our one-car commitment Jan. 1. I think I’ll file a monthly report here to share our experience. And the Jan. decision. Because after all, I still want a Tesla …


The other day, I caught part of a PBS piece on environmentalism in China. Among many stories, one was about Mao’s war on sparrows. The Chairman had identified “4 pests” he wanted gone and one of them was sparrows. An elderly woman told the story from her childhood of throngs of people (lots and lots of children) making all kinds of noise and waiving flags to prevent the sparrows from landing — anywhere. Exhausted, the poor little birds literally fell from the sky. By the thousands. On old film image, a smiling Chinese man picks up a dying sparrow and holds the poor panting little thing in his palm.
I was heartsick. I shut off the TV and went to the deck where little birds, finches, swallows and sparrows, swooped by. The old gospel song “His Eye Is On The Sparrow,” sung best, in my opinion, on a Preservation Hall Jazz recording, wouldn’t leave my brain. We are, I thought, a hideous species. Wrecking havoc on all other species because we can or because we just do. “I don’t know what the sparrows did to piss off the Chairman,” the woman had said. As a child, she too had been sad.
The first time I had a car to drive to college (a Corvair my dad had gotten me for $250 from a customer of his), I hit a sparrow. I was only about 20 miles from home. I started crying so hard I had to pull off the road until I could get a grip. “His eye is on the sparrow …” in my brain, but that time in the voice of a church congregation.
Sparrows don’t even belong on this continent. They were brought here by European settlers and they, like all invasive species, wrecked their own havoc, nearly polishing off native blue birds.
I don’t care. Leave the little birds and their trees alone.

Done right? Or done your way?

Screen Shot 2014-07-24 at 8.18.48 PMWe recently hired a landscape maintenance company. Too often, the old saying about having to do something yourself if you want it done right pops into my head. So I sat down and really thought about it. Were they not doing the job right? What was “right?” What if a more accurate statement was “If you want something done the way you’d do it, you have to do it yourself”?

I think that might actually be the case. After all, my husband never does anything around the house the way I’d do it, but it gets done. Back in my agency days, my staff never did anything exactly the way I’d do it but the end product was normally quite good. My students … well, that’s all together different anyway.

When we were moving from St. Paul to Seattle long ago now, we hired a contractor to help get finish work done that we’d ignored for years in order to put the house on the market. I was already in Seattle, staying in temp housing, but my husband often worked side-by-side with the guy since we had a deadline. Frequently, the critique wasn’t glowing and the contractor’s intelligent response (and I mean that sincerely) was: will it affect the price you get for the house? The answer was always no, because the work that wasn’t done the way we would have done it was never a big deal. The query was a constant reminder to keep our eye on the objective.

It’s not a bad question to ask. So what if it’s not done the way you’d do it. Is the outcome genuinely unacceptable? Will it have an adverse affect on your brand reputation? Customer relationships? Employee satisfaction? Genuinely? If not, is it truly not being done “right”? Or it just not being done the way you’d do it?

Am I 100% satisfied with what these guys are doing in the gardens? No. But do they look a whole lot better than when I couldn’t keep up with the growth? Yes!

Accepting Realities, Changing a Blog

I have been, rather obviously, a terrible blogger. My commitment lacks. And I’ve finally come to accept the fact that the root cause, the core reason, is that what genuinely interests me fits squarely in the advocacy realm, beyond the previously published scope of this blog.

So it’s time I accepted the fact that what I really want to write about it everything I see and read and consequently think about the choices society makes, not just those made by brands. The Clarity Blog has been given its pink slip. It has been retired. In its place will be my 2 cents. Broad ranging subjects will still be the environment, entrepreneurship, marketing and communications, probably in that order. But don’t expect counseling or teaching. It’s unlikely you’ll find either here. Just My 2 Cents.

Helping a market grow as a segment shrinks

I grabbed the New York Times with lunch today and found myself very curious while reading today’s Advertising story about Miracle-Gro’s new campaign focusing on gardeners rather than gardening results. Why, I wondered, would the brand change course and begin trying to grow the total market rather than continue its decades-long push for greater and greater share? What was up?

I have to digress just a second here to explain my connection to this topic. I spent the bulk of my years in Minneapolis doing PR and marketing communications work for home and garden clients such as Weyerhaeuser, the Canadian Peat Moss Association and Toro. I approved the expense to have one of my staff members test for her Master Gardener certificate. I know a couple things about promoting gardening products. Second, I now have a lot of square feet of gardens at my house. ORGANIC gardens. So I decided to dig a bit.

And I dug up a couple clues to the macro trends that might be behind this effort.

Gardening, as a hobby and an expenditure, is growing slowly. The 2013 National Gardening Survey report from the National Gardening Association (NGA) showed a small increase, for the second year in a row, in lawn and garden participation and sales, with national chains continuing to dominate market share. Nationwide, the survey showed a increase of 2 million more households (2%) in 2012 compared with the year before. The study also reported that U.S. households spent $29.5 billion on their lawns and gardens in 2012 with average annual spending flat at about $347 per year. This data alone would lead industry associations to consider consumer campaigns to get more Americans to garden.IMG_0163

But then I found another, seemingly small statistic from 2008 Environmental Lawn and Garden surveys: The number of U.S. households that use only all-natural fertilizer, insect, and weed controls increased from an estimated 5 million households in 2004 to 12 million in 2008.  That’s a 2.4x increase.

Also interesting was why they only used natural fertilizers. The top 5 reasons given were:

  1. it’s better for the environment (73 percent);
  2. to reduce the risk of exposure to chemicals in my yard (59 percent);
  3. to reduce water pollution through fertilizer runoff (54 percent);
  4. it fits my way of life (43 per cent); and
  5. to produce my own, safe, fresh produce (37 per cent).

The Survey also asked respondents with a yard or garden how likely it is that they will start using all-natural gardening methods in the future. Of the estimated 100 million U.S. households with a yard or garden, 17% reported they definitely will start using all-natural gardening methods in the future, 22 % said they probably will, 28 % said they might or might not Only 10 % said they probably will not with just 2 % reporting they definitely will not start using all-natural gardening methods in the future.

Miracle-Gro does make organic fertilizers and sells bags of organic gardening and potting soil. But to most organic gardeners, natural fertilizers don’t come in bottles and bags. Don’t my word for it, check Wikipedia and read it for yourself. Given that, the gardening trends might be keeping the folks at Miracle-Gro awake at night. Now I understand the push to get more people gardening.

Planes, Trains and Automobiles — And Brand Consistency

We’ve been looking at a lot of these recently.

Driven by an acceptance that we really need a mountain-worthy car and it was time for the cute little sports car to go, in the last few days we took test-drives, sold a car to Honda, bought another from Subaru that won’t arrive for a month and arranged to borrow one from Nissan, part of our deal as Leaf leasers, if that’s a word.  A lot of automotive dealer conversations in a very short time.

And a few things stood out in the sales, customer service and brand consistency categories. The combined experience made me think about the realize – for the first time – how little brand consistency there is with a lot of automotive companies in terms of product families, brand image and customer experience. I’m going to pick on Nissan here for a second and focus on the brand family.

Everyone who knows me or has read this blog knows I have a Leaf, at least until Aug. There’s a lot to love about a Leaf, especially when you have your own garage and only have to plug the car into a wall socket to charge it every night. There are a few issues, like the heater that sucks the battery dry and the range that makes long days with multiple trips even in the city nerve-wracking as you watch the charge slip into the red zone. But for the most part, it’s fun to drive, comfortable and I love feeling like I’m trying to reduce my personal impact on the planet.

Part of the deal with leasing a Leaf is that Nissan will give you loaner cars when you want to take a trip the Leaf can’t handle, read: anything out of town and on a schedule. When we leased the car, the sales guy made it sound like we could borrow any Nissan we requested if it was available. But that’s not true. There are a couple models available and you take what you’re given. One Nissan we borrowed this summer was a genuinely awful car and a huge disappointment. An Altima we borrowed to take to Oregon last Sept. was great. It was comfortable, handled well and got decent mileage for a sedan of that size. But what really strikes me now is this: Nissan doesn’t make any other cars that really appeal to me. I went out of my way to get a Leaf but there’s nothing else in the lineup that fits me. Why, let’s start with some assumptions about how drives a Leaf.

Why drive a Leaf?

There are essentially two groups of people likely to lease or buy a Nissan Leaf. The first group is all about the environment and reducing their carbon footprint. They’re seeking high fuel-efficiency and maybe low impact manufacturing if they’re paying a lot of attention. Nissan’s new Sentra can get up to a respectable 40 mpg, but not best in class. Nissan’s hybrid Pathfinder gets 28 mpg on the highway, 4 less than our coming Subaru Forrester, which has just one engine under the hood to maintain. You won’t find the Nissan name on The U.S. Dept. of Energy’s list for best fuel efficiency  or Automobile Magazine’s list.

But it’s not only ecofreaks, as I refer to myself, to might go for a Leaf. Tech lovers unable to spring for a Tesla, wait for the Model S to come out or — like me! — fit it in their little garages are good Leaf prospects. If you wanted to get in early on EVs, you pretty much had to get a Leaf. Despite its “Innovation that Excites” slogan, Nissan isn’t the automotive industry’s leading edge technology company either.

So how does the Leaf fit with Nissan brand? Is someone considering a Leaf supposed to identify with the Rogue ads where the driver races up a ramp to land on top of a train to … You’ve seen it. What’s my takeaway? How does that fit in the same brand family as world’s leading EV?

If the family fit together, the loaner program would be a great way to get Leaf drivers to look at other Nissan vehicles and hook them on Nissan as their brand because it fits their personal brand values.

Granted, not every company can be Tesla with its brand spanking new and very clean brand image and there’s bound to be a lot of shaking out to come as carmakers decide what to do about the carbon footprint of their cars and manufacturing. Meanwhile, I confess confusion about what message most are trying to send.


What’s the Cleantech forecast for 2014?

The Washington Clean Technology Alliance’s annual Crystal Ball Forecast breakfast is always an educational way to kick off a new year. Merrill Lunch Financial Advisor David Beck opened with predictions of a volatile bull market that may extend 10-15 years and three megatrends. The first would be in U.S. innovation leading to energy independence (yes, with fracking). Second will be great market shifts in terms of labor and capital flow with a big rotation from bonds to stocks and quantitative easing (which I had to look up).Expect a mild correction in the first half of 2014. The third trend will be geopolitical including an aging global population and the emergence of a larger global middle class that will want more meat (and everything else).  There likely will be 9.1 billion people on earth by 2050. Beck also mentioned impact investors, a group that didn’t exist 10 years ago, noting that more than half of investors under age 44 invest this way. (There was an interesting article last month on lessons impact investors can learn from microfinancing, if you’re interested.) He was bullish on 2014. 

Next up was Bank of America Merrill Lynch Analyst Krish Sankar focusing primarily on solar whose time, if I may paragraph enormously, is coming, particularly for rooftop solar. One of Sankar’s charts summed up the argument for solar: if you’re paying more than 15 cents per kilowatt hour, go solar. The low, low prices of natural gas will continue to challenge solar adoption, but Sankar believes that will only slow things down, not change the trajectory. I like that. He sees the U.S., Japan and China driving solar adoption, representing a move away from Europe which has led the charge up to this point.

The forecast continued with a panel talking about financing cleantech development here in Washington State starting with Richard Locke from the Wash. State Dept. of Commerce, Todd Myers from the Wash. Policy Center and Brad Boswell, a lobbyist with a keen view into what Olympia may really be capable of doing this year. Spoiler alert: the answer to the last question (for the impatient among us like me!) is very little of significance. The big focus here for me was Todd Myers who outlining the differences in favored climate policies between Democrats and Republicans in Olympia and then quipped “Politicians have a very limited view of the future” before outlining his arguments for a revenue-neutral carbon tax. Myers’ blogged about Climate Policy in Washington Jan. 8th This is a push I’m happy to get behind aggressively. Snoqualmie Falls 011

Wrapping up the event, WCTA  CEO Tom Ranken mentioned Sunday’s 60 Minutes The Cleantech Crash segment. I hadn’t seen it, so I pulled it up online when I got back to the office. The piece I respected more, however, was written by Katie Fehrenbacher on Gigaom: What 60 Minutes got right and wrong in its story on the “cleantech crash.” 

What I do know is that the status quo isn’t an option. Unless your definition of relaxation is sitting in a beach chair on a hill watching the oceans rise and warm. So what’s the alternative? Every new industry ever created is littered with the bodies of dead companies and lost investments. Unfortunately, that’s the only way to vet the winners. I’m with Vinod Khosla whose quote ended the 60 Minutes segment:

In fact you need dreamers to stretch. I probably have failed more times in my life than almost anybody I know. But that’s because I’ve tried more things. And I’m not afraid to fail because the consequences of avoiding failure are doing nothing.

Entrepreneurial Opportunities for Environmental Innovation?

In preparation for our first Environmental Innovation Practicum class at the University of Washington tomorrow, I did a little unscientific polling among the regional cleantech community to ask about their environmental priorities, where they feel we most need environmental innovation and where they see the greatest entrepreneurial potential. I also asked for ideas they’d like to see student teams tackle as part of the class — or elsewhere. The results are fun. Of particular interest to me were the intersection of environmental priorities and entrepreneurial potential. In some areas, ranked priority and perceived opportunity line up nicely. In others, not so much.


I’ve got a terrific panel talking about this tomorrow afternoon. Meanwhile, I just wanted to share.


Lean Course Development?

So much about the Lean Startup model appeals, particularly the idea of testing a minimum viable product and letting customers guide further product development. If only it could work for developing classes.

The disconnect struck me as I added the link to John Sechrest‘s bio to my class syllabus recently. John wears a lot of hats: Project Director at Seattle Angel Conference; Co-organizer at Lean Startup Seattle; Global Facilitator at Startup Weekend. On my syllabus, he’s Lean Startup Guest Speaker and I’m thrilled to have him coming to class to talk about about the lean startup model. Completely redesigning my class has been a good deal more work than I remembered from creating it in the first place years ago. If there’s a way to a minimum viable product approach to developing a product for university credit, I haven’t figured it out. Seems to me it has to be fully baked on Day One. The testing comes during the first class (sorry Fall Quarter class, you are the test market). Only students in subsequent quarters can benefit from lessons learned Sept. – Dec.

Yet maybe that is as close an academic equivalent can get to a lean model. The big difference is that, unlike those innovator customers willingly trying out something new, the students didn’t opt in; they’re stuck with it.

Of course the other big difference is that I’m not searching for a business model; I’m just developing a product. The business model belongs to the University. Many would argue that secondary education could use a new business model. But that — thank heavens! — is not my job. I just have a couple classes to teach.

5 Tips for Any Business Pitch

There is some absolutely amazing cleantech innovation happening in the Pacific Northwest! I know because last Thursday, I was in Portland and then on Friday in Seattle helping the regional teams competing in the CleantechOpen improve their pitches. Some of the teams were innovating in areas I’ve come to expect from entrepreneurs in our region. Others took me completely by surprise. It was a delight to meet all of them.

I found myself giving many of the teams similar advice to strengthen their pitches, so I thought I’d share the same tips here:

Know your audience.  This is imperative. Find out who’ll be in the audience, what they’re likely to know about your subject and what matters to them.

Grab my attention immediately! You can do this with a bold description of what you’re doing or with a powerful outline of the customer’s pain. Don’t lose that opportunity to make your first impression count.

Convince me there’s a problem and it’s big enough to matter.  Only one team out of the 11 I saw had no need to strengthen their story here. In that case, the need is so glaring obvious it wasn’t worth wasting pitch time addressing. If there’s a problem but it’s not big, you’re talking about a lifestyle business, which is fine if that’s what you want. Otherwise, this is your chance to prove this work is important.

Convince me you have a viable, working solution. I want to understand exactly what you’ve built/are building, precisely how it addresses that market need you just uncovered in talking about the problem AND that you are the team to do this. Recognizing you have competitors and acknowledging their strengths is part of this argument as well.

Convince me you know who’ll pay for your solution. It’s absolutely fine to have a number of potential target customer segments you genuinely believe will want what you’re creating it. But show me which one has the greatest initial potential because they really want this and are willing to pay good money for it.

This also marked my first trip by train to Portland, a ride between two renovated historic train stations. I had to be a tourist and snap this picture of Seattle’s gloriously bright King St. Station. Fun. IMG_1784Thanks for saving these landmarks, Seattle and Portland!

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