Lone Wolves and The Unforeseen Predispositions of Tech Investor Culture

As my LinkedIn profile (https://www.linkedin.com/in/curtis-m-dowds-90773a15) makes clear, Solar Payoff needs investor resources to move forward.  No investor, at a minimum for our Proof of Concept trials, and several years of effort go down the drain, not to mention our own considerable investment.  But two websites are done at state-of-the-art.  The financial math for “rooftop” solar is more advanced than anything publicly available, demonstrating unequivocally the logic of solar ownership.  The underlying database work is well-structured and flexible.  Here and there improvements to make.    Still, more than a decent start and a much stronger commitment of our own cash than most startups before finding investors.  They say it’s about risk.    Check out www.solarpayoff.com and then www.suncraftersalliance.com.  Didn’t happen for free.

Unfortunately, that and a bag of chips is still just a bag of chips.  We’ve been told, three times now by three prominent incubators/accelerators, where the liaisons only meant the best, that we would not be admitted for mentoring and investor pursuit without first having built “a co-founder team.”   According to most interpretations, the essential component of a co-founder team is the “technical co-founder,” namely, a programmer (or programmers) willing to work for equity, no salary.

We’ve offered some equity for clean up work to our programmers who, after two plus years programming two complex websites, are like family.  Does this really take us where we need to go?   No, not really. An online marketplace will always need programmers.  We’ve got limited programming available for equity, with a stress on “limited” because our guys have to pay their bills by other work.  Even if they were available full time, however, programmers alone won’t get us there.

To move forward we need web marketing expertise to sharpen our search engine optimization (SEO) and help us craft very targeted advertising that pushes solar prospects to our website on relatively narrow geographies.   We also need a bank willing to write solar loans.   Most of all, however, we need adequate investor money to support the advertising required to build web traffic on our Proof of Concept service areas.

If our Proof of Concept trials are successful, we would presumably attract more investor money and, one would hope, the best loan-to-own consumer financing available.  In the meantime, Solar Payoff seems to be caught in a tech culture Catch-22.  A big one actually.   We don’t have a full “co-founder team” with the exception of our part-time  programmers and we need investors to find investors.

Which is to beg the larger question.   With what we’ve already accomplished which is substantial, why can’t I apply to an incubator/accelerator as a single entrepreneur – effectively, a “lone wolf” – and build my team within the incubator, learning what I need to do to attract the crucial start-up investors while I’m at it?  In my ignorance of the process, I thought “an incubator” would be a place to build a team.    Nope, not going to happen.   Absence of a “team” or a “co-founder team” or a “technical co-founder” appears to be prima facie evidence that you’re not investor-ready.

But what difference does it make when you form your team if the logic of your business model makes sense and you’ve already put a bundle of your own resources, time and money, into the concept as evidence of your commitment?   Apparently counts for very little if not nothing, from what we’ve seen.  One would think the incubator/accelerators and the investors themselves would extend that benefit of the doubt for Proof of Concept trials if the logic of your business model made sense and you were all in.   Not happening.

At Solar Payoff we never thought, even for a passing second, that we could do this on our own.   As a culture now, we lionize as stand-alone innovators a long list of tech and finance 21st century Croesus-rich celebrities who couldn’t possibly have accomplished what they did on their own.   Every successful firm is always about a team.   We get it.   Moreover, I have no problem giving up significant equity to persons with the right skill sets.  I’ve made it clear that I want younger people around me.  Totally don’t care about prescriptive attributes if the person is qualified.  Women?   Absolutely, come on in.   Not a problem.    You will be treated with absolute equality.

But think about it.  What if an equity position isn’t enough to attract the best talent which typically wants to be paid out the gate for its time?   Don’t most adults have responsibilities they need to respect and the resources to meet those needs. The work most people can do for free is limited.  Just how does one bring qualified people you don’t previously know to play start-up with no compensation for their work.

Maybe I’ll get lucky and my search for equity co-founders will “pay off.”  I’m looking hard everywhere.   But it’s the last thing from simple to recruit what I need without the resources to compensate that talent from day one.  If someone can build web traffic and attract real talent in this industry at this point without at least backing from a Proof of Concept investor, it isn’t obvious on its face, especially since significant local advertising almost certainly has to be involved.

Another blog post lays out the logic behind the business we would like to build, our “raison d’ệtre.”  That would be promoting ownership – not leasing – of “rooftop” solar, technically, distributed generation or DG.  We understand our market.  We urge anyone interested in our future to take the time to read that post ((https://renewableschoice.com/solar-payoff-investor-synopsis).     We have an answer to the “customer acquisition” problem.

Another blog post explores turbulence in the “rooftop solar” market and how we propose to respond.   See https://renewableschoice.com/reasons-to-not-invest-in-solar-payoff/.     However, good times or bad, the sine qua non for a true “online marketplace” – which isn’t just a channel to an 800# call-center –  is consistently heavy web traffic.

Solar Payoff’s websites have none yet to speak of.  To put it starkly, our websites are cyber nobodies, pushing the distributed generation envelope though they might.  We don’t need to program.   We need to market.

I understand along with the rest of the planet that “Silicon Valley,” which is as much a state of technological and mostly digital mind as it is a place, has given rise to amazing entrepreneurship and firms that are not only worth more than many nation-states but also creators of entire new ways of living and thinking.   So there has to have been plenty done right.

What I frankly do not understand is an insistence, especially by incubators/accelerators who are thought to serve as conduits to investors, so presumably by investors themselves, that a start-up come apply with a pre-formed “co-founder team” or even a “technical co-founder” qua programmer.

Why isn’t it self-evident to these gatekeepers of the tech economy that those of us who are long, long since out of a university dorm and who, for whatever reason, aren’t working currently in a firm or institution, especially one with a technology foundation, would find it much more difficult, needle in the haystack kind of stuff, to pre-form a “cofounder team” than someone who is surrounded at the outset of the process of enterprise building by some kind of collegial firmament, otherwise known as a professional network?

Imposing on Solar Payoff this apparently unexamined “rule” that we have to come looking for funding with a ready-to-go “co-founder team” is just tech group-think.    The formulaic conformity is surprising for a community that prides itself on innovation, to say the least.  Perhaps as importantly, it isn’t fair to a good idea which is rooted in addressing weaknesses in the current market for DG solar.

Which gets us to the “lone wolves” in the title.  I would guess that the incubators who rejected us think of me as an old lone wolf.   I don’t really know, of course.   Nobody’s called me that yet to my face.   But it’s the idea that seems to be floating out there.

Applied to humans, the term typically refers to someone who “prefers” to live and work alone, who enjoys his or her solitude, works better that way.  Clearly, not the personality type needed to build a business which proposes to be the hub of a small contractor network.  Maybe a writer or a poet or an engineer inventor.   Not a start-up business.

But lone wolves in nature are not what’s commonly understood, not untypically in our ignorance of the nature around us.   In fact, it turns out that the behavior of lone wolves in nature is completely contrary to the way we think about humans so labeled.  Lone wolves in nature are typically cast-outs looking for a pack or trying to form a new one, not wolves who prefer solitude on a permanent basis.

Why?   Because wolves are social creatures who more efficiently hunt in packs.  Only by necessity as cast-outs do wolves hunt alone.   Like most lone wolves in nature, I want to form a pack (probably not so much join one now but maybe even that under the right circumstances).   But that I need to have formed a pack as a threshold condition for receiving support, I have to confess I just don’t get.

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