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Three Rules for Engaging with Goliaths: Lessons from Black & Veatch’s IgniteX Accelerator Program

Updated: Jan 15, 2020

As you may have seen in the news, Extensible Energy was recently selected to participate in the IgniteX Accelerator, a collaboration between giant engineering firm Black & Veatch (B&V) and the Kansas City Economic Development Council’s LaunchKC Initiative. While we’ve declined or ignored more incubation /accelerator/speedy-uppy startup-o-rama programs than I can count, this one caught our attention for several reasons.

First, as a lifelong energy nerd, I’ve known B&V for many years. They’re a highly professional organization with a very broad footprint (10,000 employees with more than 100 offices worldwide and projects in more than 100 countries), and deep expertise in all kinds of power engineering and other fields. They also have a relatively new focus on behind-the-meter solar in commercial buildings, which naturally interests us.

Most importantly, from my perch in the Powerhouse Access Innovation program—which I highly recommend to my other startup CEO friends— I’ve been able to watch how the B&V Innovation team engages with startups, and I’ve been very impressed. That’s why we applied for this one (along with 119 other early-stage companies), and were happy to get the news that we were selected along with six others to participate in a 10-week program.

As I described in the adjacent IgniteX video, Extensible Energy’s goal is to enlist B&V as a commercial solar developer partner for our DemandEx load flexibility software, which can reduce demand charges by 30% in commercial solar buildings without batteries. Having B&V as a partner will be a really big step up for us. And to take that step, I knew we needed to learn about their world, their projects, and their demand charge management pain points. After all, they showed considerable interest in us, so it’s time to return the favor.

Rule #1 for engaging with goliaths: go to their home turf. In B&V’s case, I traveled to their world headquarters in Overland Park, KS, just outside of Kansas City. If I can advise other startup CEO’s, let me say that you will never (never!) penetrate the critical nooks and crannies of a big company org chart by looking at a slide and asking your single “champion” for a couple of “key” introductions. If you want to gain any traction with building a long term partnership, you have to go to their corporate homestead and meet 50 people (100 is better), and network, and learn their culture, and find out what makes them tick.

Of course, this embed, meet, and learn approach isn’t foolproof (ask me about my Microsoft experience some time), but the IgniteX program is a good way to go about it. The program is structured around six gatherings in ten weeks, leading up to a Demo Day for the B&V management team, early-stage investors, and members of the Kansas City startup community.

Rule #2 for engaging with goliaths: Do something. No matter how good the “program” part of an accelerator program is, don’t just get hung up in meetings and exercises and networking and workshops, regardless of how good they are. Hence, make sure that in parallel to the process of learning to do business with your big partner, you actually do some business with your big partner. In our case, that means installing our DemandEx software at a B&V building in the San Francisco Bay Area. This pilot project has the dual objective of getting B&V comfortable with the results that our software can provide, as well as getting them comfortable with the process of implementing DemandEx for demand-charge savings at their own facility. The experience and lessons learned here will be applicable to their own customers. Which brings us to . . .

Rule#3 for engaging with goliaths: Divide and focus. When we started at the IgniteX accelerator, we thought, hey, maybe Ari and I can alternate trips, so neither of us would need to spend so much time out of town. Given the value of consistency of contacts and the importance of the pilot, we’ve now come to the conclusion that Ari will run the pilot installation at the local B&V building, and I’ll participate in all the IgniteX events. This approach plays to each of our strengths, and as a side benefit, I get to rack up the Southwest miles and get to write “lessons learned” blog posts on my way home from Kansas City).

I’ll have more lessons to learn and share about the IgniteX process and our own results next month. For now, I’ll just say that B&V has provided us with a great opportunity, and we’re committed to making the most of it.

Read Engaging with Goliaths, Part 2: Now that We’ve Finished “Accelerating” with Black & Veatch’s IgniteX...

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