Nick Blitterswyk – CEO of Urban Green Energy

[quote style=”boxed”]Walk before you run. Early on we spent money on things like advertising that we as a company were simply not ready for. You will get pitched by advertisers, consultants, advisors, etc. about the value in adding some sort of expense to your books. If you feel you aren’t ready for it, even though you can see the value in it, politely say no and ask they come back to you later. These expenses are often a distraction and waste of money.[/quote]

Nick Blitterswyk grew up on Vancouver Island in western Canada where his parents were the caretakers of a nature reserve. Ever since, Nick has been passionate about preserving the awe-inspiring beauty of our earth. Becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the lack of progress we as a society were making, Nick set out to change the way the world views and uses distributed renewable energy. With a childish vigor about him, Nick has committed himself to promoting a more sustainable future.

Throughout this time, Nick has grown Urban Green Energy (UGE)  into the world’s premier supplier of distributed renewable energy solutions, with installations for global companies throughout the world. He is a strong believer in a happy, fun, and productive company culture. Nick is also a frequent guest on several TV and radio programs on matters involving UGE, distributed generation, small wind, and cleantech as a whole.

What are you working on right now?

Many things! First things that come to mind are sharpening our partner network, assisting with some of the large projects that we have in the works, giving thoughts and direction with marketing, giving feedback on our R&D efforts, planning our strategy for our UGE India new subsidiary, and speaking with investors.

Where did the idea for Urban Green Energy come from?

I grew up in a park in western Canada that my parents were the caretakers of and from Day 1 had a deep appreciation for the environment. My career took a detour as I had always been proficient at math and I ended up becoming an actuary at JPMorgan in New York. However, I always had this longing to do something big, something that made a difference and gave back, and so I was paying really close attention to cleantech in general. Through that I started to believe in the untapped power of distributed renewable energy, believed that for it to be truly effective required hybrid solutions, but couldn’t find a small wind turbine company I could get excited about. This evolution of my thought process took several months, but eventually it seemed so clear there was a hole there and we jumped in. Now with the world’s leading small wind technology we are chasing that original dream of distributed renewable energy in general.

What does your typical day look like?

There is no typical day! But when I’m not traveling it usually goes something like this: I am up at 6 and in the office between 7:30 and 8. Our VP Engineering and I are always the first two in and we’ll usually chat about some of the biggest challenges we are currently facing. As the day progresses it is usually filled up with a lot of emails, including usually dozens that came in over night, a lot of short interactions with members of the team, and a few meetings here and there. In general we try hard to limit the number of scheduled meetings and maximize the number of short interactions – there is no reason why someone should need to wait for a meeting to bring something up, a meeting should be mostly forward looking in our opinion. Our office is very open (no internal walls) to promote this sort of environment. For lunch I’ll usually invite a member of the team to catch up to try to get a feel for how everything is going for that person and to keep my finger on the pulse of the overall office. And I will usually check out at around 7 or 7:30 to meet my wife at home for dinner before rattling off a few more emails before going to sleep.

How do you bring ideas to life?

I’ve never been very artistic, though at the same time I think I am fairly creative. Usually the best means for me to bring ideas to life are discussing it with some of my closest colleagues as well as the marketing team, as well as writing down thoughts on paper (or sometimes with Google Draw). When something clicks I try to run with it while you have the momentum.

What’s one trend that really excites you?

The smart grid. That term got a bit cliche in recent years, but I really believe that the way we use electricity is changing drastically and that we’ve only touched the surface. We can have a more stable, efficient, affordable grid, not just here in the US but in the developing world as well, through the types of technologies coming on line, whether that be distributed renewable energy, storage, demand response, efficiency. Really it will be a combination thereof.

What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?

Life is what you make of it and I would never classify a job I’ve had as “the worst.” Those toughest times are where you learn the most, so even though I didn’t enjoy working in the consulting industry (prior to JPMorgan), those two years were extremely rewarding for me in that they taught me about hard work, professionalism, learning on the fly and many other things. Similarly, in high school I worked at a local Dairy Queen – sounds pretty terrible right? But in reality, that time taught me really important life lessons in terms of communication, managing people, and working efficiently, and having the money I earned from the job taught me about personal finances and even investing as I started buying some stocks with the money I was earning.

If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

We certainly haven’t done everything perfect, and when I started I really knew so little about the industry and about starting and running a company. The number of times I made a decision that wasn’t the right one could probably fill a book, but here are a few important lessons I learned:

Trust your instinct on people. For some reason I had it in my mind that having people in the company who you couldn’t see eye to eye with was a good thing, something about hiring people with different perspectives. What I’ve learned, though, is that there are some people who you just can’t see eye to eye with, and those people shouldn’t be in the company. Culture is extremely important, and if someone is not a culture fit you need to get them off the bus. That’s not to say that you should surround yourself with “yes men” – quite the contrary, you should surround yourself with people who are culture fits for the company, which includes having their own opinions they feel comfortable coming forward with.

Seek out negative feedback. This one is a bit tricky, because as I like to say persistence is the number one thing you need when starting a company and there are going to be days when you wonder why you started the company in the first place. But I think that in retrospect we launched our product a bit early and didn’t fully understand the market, and if we had listened to feedback a bit better we could have probably evolved a bit faster than we did.

And finally, walk before you run. Early on we spent money on things like advertising that we as a company were simply not ready for. You will get pitched by advertisers, consultants, advisors, etc. about the value in adding some sort of expense to your books. If you feel you aren’t ready for it, even though you can see the value in it, politely say no and ask they come back to you later. These expenses are often a distraction and waste of money.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

Try to meet with as many people within the company as you can to truly understand the pulse of the company, and in those meetings and in other meetings within the company try to pull out what challenges and frustrations people have. If you let things linger, or assume that everything’s okay, then any problems you have (and there are always some) will build exponentially.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

We started UGE in January 2008 and weren’t ready to raise money until late 2010. By that time the ability to raise money for a cleantech company had gotten exponentially worse than in the early hype years of cleantech (say, 2005-2009). We got through it through a combination of my co-founder and angel investor being extremely supportive of the team, along with watching expenses extremely closely. That included having extremely understanding and loyal staff that believe in the vision of the company and the team they are working with to accept lower pay than they could get elsewhere to work at UGE.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

Elon Musk keeps talking about his “hyper loop” lately without yet disclosing what he has in mind. I of course don’t know for sure, but I feel he may be thinking about a sort of train within a vacuum tube, where the train could shoot through frictionless from one station to the next. I haven’t put a lot of thought into it, but I think it has a lot of potential.

If you could change one thing in the world, what would it be and how would you go about it?

We need to put a price on carbon, not just in the US but worldwide (for that matter, we need to put a price on other greenhouse gases as well). If everyone knew we were moving towards a sustainable future then they would invest in ideas and products to get us there. But right now we have nearly half the US population doubting the science behind climate change – that’s pathetic, and much of it is promoted by politicians. The uncertainty of where we are heading is undermining our ability and willingness to do the hard work to get us there. In terms of how to do it, it comes to down politics unfortunately – politicians need to show the leadership and fortitude to do what’s right and get it done.

Tell us a secret.

When we launched our first website we were ambiguous enough to make it seem like we were well established and had been in business for years.

What are your three favorite online tools or resources and what do you love about them?

Definitely TED, I get inspired by watching TED talks. The other two I’d say are Blake Master’s notes from Start-Up, a class taught by Peter Thiel at Stanford, and, an online show hosted by Kevin Rose, the founder of Digg, where he interviews founders of various start-ups. I love both of them just because these are two people talking in pretty candid language about their experiences and the experiences of their guests. They’ve been there and they have lots of experience to learn from.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

Probably Good to Great. It’s now about ten years since it was printed, so the company references aren’t always perfect, but I love reading about great visionary companies and how different they are run compared with what you would be led to believe through the business media.

When was the last time you laughed out loud? What caused it?

I am a huge hockey fan and am dying here with the hockey lock-out, which, by the way, I see as 95% the fault of the owners. The other day I was watching a clip on Youtube called something like “The Ten Most Outrageous Hockey Moments” and there was one where a bat was flying around the ice and someone knocked it down with his hockey stick. In retrospect, poor bat . . .

Who is your hero?

I can’t say I have one. People I respect greatly are Al Gore, Richard Branson, Pierre Elliot Trudeau . . .


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