Climate tech is my next big thing

This has been a wild year. I guess I’ll start from where I left off on that children’s book I wrote about a year ago.

Coming into 2022, I was doing really great. I sold MightySignal to Airnow and was enjoying the process of moving into our new and improved house. I’d spend my evenings in the cottage (which wasn’t described at all in that long blog post — an accidental oversight) working on a web3 project and listening to loud music (thank you, Sonos surround.) I was really happy.

Then I started teaching again and my routine completely changed. As soon as I finished prepping for one class, another one was around the corner. Spring semester this year I taught thirteen units in five sections across four classes. Two of the sections were 90-minute lectures, back-to-back. It was a lot!

I figured since I was working from home that I could fit this all in: my startup obligations, family life, exercise, creativity, and yes, teaching. A whole shit-ton of teaching.

I was wrong, of course. What suffered was my creativity. I never missed a work call, rarely missed my share of walking my kids to the bus or taking them to practice, and even managed to do a lot of cross training so I wouldn’t wreck myself on the Belgian Waffle Ride. I got into the best shape of my life, actually, and would knock out 13 miles trail running, or 2,000 yards of swimming, or 50+ miles with some major climbs on my road bike, on a whim. I could wake up feeling like doing several hard hours of exercise and totally crush it. I found a way to make that all work. But I stopped writing for fun. I didn’t have anything left in the tank for that.

Meanwhile, my first year under Airnow was rapidly approaching. I figured I would stay a while because I really liked my team and I wanted to take MightySignal “all the way” — basically to see it become something of a big deal in the mobile data industry. Airnow, it seemed, would get us there.

But as the post-COVID boom collapsed, inflation soared, and the war in Ukraine reigned in global economic optimism, a new reality set in. There would be no huge victory party for us in 2022. MightySignal was still in a stagnant growth pattern and it wasn’t clear to me how the rest of Airnow’s business units were doing. The last few months have been hard.

So, in the midst of all my teaching, I started to think about what I would do next. It was an aggravating experience. I sent a few feeler emails out and got some responses, eventually leading to a couple of offers. One in particular was fantastic: an opportunity to lead another B2B SaaS company, build on my resume as a hired CEO, and take its $4 million revenue and $1 million net income startup into double digit millions. I could work from home, get good equity, and increase my salary by 40 percent. It was a virtual phone service company, a solid business with room to grow.

The only problem was I didn’t want it. It took me a month to figure that out. When I turned it down, they offered me more money, and I turned it down again. “What kind of asshole turns down a job like this?” I texted a friend.

But I was relieved. It felt good to make a decision symbolic of what I really truly want to do next: work in climate tech.

It’s time. It’s time for me to take another big risk. It’s time for me to work on something that I actually care about. It’s time for me to combine my extracurricular interests with my day job.

I didn’t always see it this way. The turbulence en route stemmed from the recognition that a job doesn’t need to mean everything. I don’t need to love mobile data to work in it. If I’m passionate for something else, I can do it in my free time, which I’ll probably get more and more of as my kids get older and older. So why not take a job that checks every other box and just let my job be my… job?

Well, I suppose, the answer is it’s just not that simple. Not for me, at least. I won’t do my best work unless I can get truly excited about it, and I know I’ve been diluting my focus these last few years because I don’t really care about the companies I’ve been running. The companies are functional means-to-ends, unfortunate necessities to allow me to volunteer and teach and do other community stuff that makes me happy.

But all along I’ve had the nagging question: why can’t my day job also do this?

So I’m going to find out. I’ve been telling people around me, including the guy who owns that virtual phone service company, that I’m doing climate tech next. It feels great! And along the way I’ve been networking with new people and re-networking with old contacts and beginning to sense where in the space I’m going to land. I’ve settled on two approaches: the well-funded startup and the unfunded idea, both in the residential retrofit space.

There is an incredible amount of work happening in climate tech. Here are just a few of the most interesting companies I’ve found:

  • Twelve, which makes critical chemicals from air
  • Brimstone, which makes carbon negative Portland cement at market cost
  • BlocPower, which finances residential and commercial property decarbonization
  • Carbios, which uses enzymes to break down plastics
  • Climeworks, which absorbs CO2 from the air and stores it underground
  • WattCarbon, which sources carbon offsets from buildings

It’s all fascinating, incredible stuff. I would love to work at any of these companies and be on the frontlines of growing a business that is poised to make a lot of money while preventing humanitarian crises. I could see having boundless enthusiasm for this work.

But it’s competitive, and being ten years out of the professional environmental game, I’m not anyone’s top pick for a senior role. I’ve tried and failed to get some of these interviews. I’ll keep trying, but I also have another way to get in. I can build a company myself.

I thinking seriously about a couple of ideas. One was around financing residential decarbonization using carbon offsets. I wanted to find a way to use the market value of the future unused CO2 to subsidize carbon-free renovations. It seemed like there should be a way to do this, but the pathway is far from clear. Nobody has figure it out yet, but WattCarbon seems to be the closest. My revenue model would be an arbitrage between what the company pays to homeowners for their carbon credits and what the credits sell for in the market.

My other idea was to quantify how green a home is. This would be a pure software play, or possibly with some hardware if partners don’t cooperate. This company would ingest indoor temperature and air quality, thermostat and water heater usage, smart device usage, and any other home-related data streams we can access. Besides analyzing this data to give tips for living greener, it would be a database of households’ “home stacks,” or the specific appliances that they use. The revenue model would be freemium — free to use with some paid upgrades on the consumer side and possibly some paid advertising on the business side. This is a variant of the Clime idea I evaluated previously.

The possibilities are endless, and I’m relieved to have finally settled on one idea, Shovels, which is not purely a climate business but one that fills a critical gap in the climate data puzzle.

Now the way I describe what I do and why I chose to work on Shovels is that I found the intersection, after a lot of hard work, between B2B data and climate technology. Shovels is both and it’s exciting and hard and… perfect for me.

In the coming years I will learn a lot about real estate and construction. I’ll take another run at venture capital and running a high growth business that has to spend ahead of revenue. I can do it right this time and I’m very excited to use my scar tissue to my advantage. The current economic climate is also ideal for an entrepreneur with my background.

I’ve known excess. I’ve known frugality. The ground in the middle is very fertile.

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