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Tips for radical innovation and entrepreneurship

Water market creates waves and craves revolution


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I recently had the opportunity to be part of a panel discussion at Galvanize Denver-Golden Triangle. The evening was part of Colorado Water Conservation Board’s Tap-IN program and focused on water entrepreneurs: How we overcame obstacles and navigated the rough waters of entrepreneurship. The water sector is a market craving innovation and prime for new solutions and so naturally, Galvanize was the perfect host. It was an honor to be recognized for what we have created and unpack the history behind creating Water Sage, now the largest online integrated water and land information platform in the country.

Water Sage launched in 2013 with a challenge: 'Give me a way to understand water, land and the relationship between them by myself. Give me a solution I can use while enjoying a coffee at the kitchen counter on a Sunday morning.'

Water Sage was the result. It’s been an extraordinary five years. As I reflect on what I said and heard are Galvanize, here are some thoughts on the water startup journey:

#1: Have a clear vision

Water Sage users are as diverse as the spectrum of stakeholders in water and the mission is to make information accessible to them all. This means everything from empowering basic research to enhancing professional workflows by understanding how users need to access data and integrate it into the work they do. Flexibility and creativity are key. The team knows that as the water challenges we face grow increasingly complex, accessible data and purpose-built technology can make huge contributions to problem solving. Operating under the fundamental belief that access to information, transparency in markets and simple, elegant UI facilitates better decision-making, everyone experiences benefit. The vision started with data access and grew after proof of concept.

#2: Don’t hate the haters

You’ll likely have naysayers. Here a few favorites:

  1. Folks are unfamiliar with the approach or do not understand the ways in which you are trying to creatively tackle an old problem
  2. Folks who have their way of doing things and are not really interested in change
  3. Folks who think your product is easy to replicate

I hate to categorically generalize anyone, but No. 1s and 2s can be thought of as the ‘old guard’ defining the expression “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”

By no means am I trying to compare myself to Steve Jobs, or Ponderosa Advisors to Apple, but the same resisters and naysayers said home computers would never take off. The No. 3s are the naïve “new guard”. Water Sage is like a duck floating on a lake. It presents a very simple image from the surface but you can be sure those feet are paddling like crazy underneath. All three commonly make snap judgements before they understand a solution or don’t think through long-term implications of this kind of pivotal technology. We’ve learned to simply smile and stay the course when we confront these folks; they can go from being skeptics to your power users and biggest proponents when they see the light. In our case, the fact that we continue to bring on new users and expand into new states speaks for itself.

#3: Stay true to your mission

Be aware of pressures to convert you and your product.  These “what if” inquiries may come from a good place and help you test the boundaries of all the things you could do with your company and/or product.  But, they become a distraction quickly. You absolutely must evolve, just remember to keep your mission in focus, always. In the end, my advice is to stay true to what you set out to do.  When we built Water Sage, I never imagined bankers and real estate agents in Montana would be some of our largest group adopters, but our mission to make information accessible and useful served business requirements we were unaware of when we started. It took discipline not to jump down rabbit holes along the way.

#4: Surround yourself with great people

Rome wasn’t built in a day; neither was Water Sage. Our systems have evolved a lot in 5 years and we upgrade/enhance constantly. We roll out 5-10 new features and enhancements every month across all our products. It takes a lot of work, a lot of getting your hands dirty, a risk appetite to go out on a limb and make a mistake and, most importantly, listening to your gut, your team and your clients. Your team must believe in the product, align with your mission and be willing to work as equals in the trenches. We are a close-knit team the likes of which I’ve never had the privilege of working with. Choose wisely and make tough decisions when things aren’t working. Surround yourself with creative, brilliant people who are not afraid to challenge you.

Entrepreneurship is a rollercoaster ride with ups, downs, and sharp turns.  At any given time, you find yourself experiencing exhilaration, fear, joy, frustration, nausea – sometimes all at once! It is a thrill when the first person votes with their money to buy your product or service; it’s equally painful when you are rejected. Making a difference, being able to measure your impact on your customers is what it is all about. I really wish I would have kept a better journal along the way.

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Kelly Bennett

Kelly Bennett leads a number of Ponderosa's research efforts and market engagement. Prior to joining Ponderosa Advisors, he was a Manager of Energy Analytics at BENTEK Energy, where he founded the company's global energy desk, creating industry-leading fundamental analysis for the European natural gas and power markets, as well as the global LNG market. He has been involved in numerous consulting projects focused on asset acquisition, management, and investment strategy.

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