When should cleantech startups invest in marketing?

A few weeks ago, I spent an interesting day sitting through ‘Dragon’s Den’ style pitches at ecoConnect’s Cleantech Innovate event.

Around 40 ‘startups’ of varying maturity presented their propositions to an audience of private and institutional investors. The startups were seeking investments from tens of thousands to millions of pounds.

It was fascinating to see a broad range of innovative cleantech technologies on offer, spanning energy efficiency and storage, energy generation, green buildings and infrastructure, and water, wave and tidal.

As well as getting to grips with the technology, it was enlightening to witness the different presentation styles and content on offer. Some were very slick – especially those from the younger entrepreneurs, while others seemed tired and wanting.

About mid-morning, I found myself struggling to understand what some of the presenters were really talking about – what is it that their companies actually do? I initially put it down to having to get a 6:30 am train, but my comprehension wasn’t much better after the coffee break...

After one particularly obscure presentation, another member of the audience opened up the Q&A with a very direct “Sorry – could you just explain what your product does?” Okay, so it’s not just me.

Of course, I shouldn’t have been surprised. Engineers, who are very close to the technology and sometimes struggle to communicate the benefits of what they are working on, invariably run early-stage companies. I should know; I used to be one.

I asked a private investor what he thought. He offered that he could see through the gloss – he wasn’t impressed by flashy logos at this stage, but messaging was pretty important.

And that nicely encapsulates our recommendations for those cleantech startups that are thinking about how to approach marketing from day one. Messaging is key in the early stages. You can have the best solar-powered mousetrap in the world, but if you cannot communicate the benefits to your target audience, nobody will care.

The other ‘marketing essentials’ are market and competitor research. The output of both of these activities will help to inform your messaging – and probably more importantly the viability of your proposition.

If you do a good job on these aspects, early stage investors and even early adopters of your technology will forgive you the rest.