Rule one for UK clean tech firms looking to do business in the US: Get the President's name right
It is often said that the business of America is business, and you can certainly see what they mean.
The first day of this year's Clean and Cool Mission, which will see 16 UK clean tech start-ups tout their wares and power point presentations to San Francisco's (and hence the world's) most important investors, started with a brunch for the mission and local entrepreneurs, hosted at the home of PR guru Susan Best. If anyone was looking for the difference between California's hyper-successful entrepreneurial culture and the UK's perennial problems turning successful start-ups into multi-billion pound businesses they could do worse than examine the concept of the Sunday business brunch.
Apparently they are a pretty common feature of San Francisco's corporate life, with executives giving a sizable chunk of their day of rest to host and attend networking events with friends who also happen to be colleagues and business partners, or, more importantly, potential colleagues or business partners. You quite simply could not imagine it happening in the UK.
However, that is not to say there are not plenty of similarities between the UK and the US. For one thing, it is clear that just as in the UK, clean tech, climate change, and the green economy are having something of a moment on this side of the Atlantic.
The extent to which the Republicans have linked anything that is in the least bit green with an act of sacrilege means that both politicians and to an extent businesses are reluctant to talk explicitly about the emerging low carbon economy, much less climate change. But the issues are so all-encompassing and the transformations they will provoke so significant that the topic cannot be suppressed.
As a result climate risk is approached through the proxy that is tumbling US temperature records this Spring, which last week reached such heights in the President's home town of Chicago that he could not fail to admit that he was a touch concerned.
Meanwhile, clean technology, the low carbon transition, and resource constraints are discussed through the proxy that is oil prices.
The debate is everywhere and it is intensifying. The 24 hour news channels are providing frequent updates on the oil price, which is currently standing at $3.80 a gallon (low by European standards, but a record high for this time of year in the US); the Republicans are blaming President Obama for the surge in prices in the global oil market, ignoring the fact that it is their sabre rattling on Iran that is partly to blame for the recent price hike, and making absurd promises to magically bring down prices; and the President has responded (some would say belatedly) with a series of speeches on his "all of the above" energy policy outlining the need to switch to a more diverse range of cleaner alternative fuels, and hints that he could indulge in an act of election year opportunism and tap the US strategic oil reserve. Meanwhile, more and more businesses and investors are getting on with it and attempting to identify means of bringing down their soaring transport and energy costs - exhibit A: there will be a record 700 attendees, including plenty of the world's top investors, at this week's Cleantech Forum in San Francisco.
This debate was apparent even before I got off the plane. My complimentary copy of the Economist (thank you Virgin) contained a great column from Lexington highlighting the President's problems at the pump and the extent to which high oil prices could shape an election that, despite what anyone says about the weakness of the Republican field, is far from being in the bag. There was another reminder in the in-flight movie, the impressive political thriller The Ides of March, which saw George Clooney's fantasy Democrat presidential candidate deliver a series of speeches highlighting the blood and treasure that is spent as a result of US reliance on foreign oil. That Hollywood scriptwriters would choose to make a pledge to phase out the internal combustion engine within 10 years a mechanism for characterising an idealistic and progressive presidential candidate is telling.
What does all this mean for clean tech companies and, in particular, the 16 UK clean tech companies taking part in this year's trade mission?
The most obvious point is that there is a huge opportunity here. The conventional wisdom suggests that without a clear win in both presidential and Congressional elections for the Democrats the US clean tech sector will continue to be hamstrung by the absence of a coherent policy environment. But it is not that simple. Yes, climate sceptic Republicans would be bad for the clean tech sector, but the underlying issues driving green investment would not disappear overnight. High oil prices and climate impacts would continue to drive the transition to cleaner and more efficient technologies regardless of the political backdrop.
The key question is how to tap that opportunity?
Tomorrow, the company's involved in the mission will be given advice from one of the sponsors of the trip, law firm Orrick, on how to pitch to investors and do business in the US. But last night and this morning there was some intriguing advice on the simple steps UK firms should take to maximise their chances of attracting investors and opening up the US market.
The first and most obvious piece of advice was to talk to people, to, and it is a horrible phrase, "network". There is no place for traditional British reserve. Advisors from UK Trade and Investment (UKTI) who organise these sorts of missions for a living made the point that a UK firm might have technology that is as good, or even better, than a US rival, but the US firm will confidently assert to anyone who is listening that they have a product that can change the world. Cultural stereotyping? Absolutely. Justified based on the evidence? Almost certainly.
The Mission companies were implored to talk to as many people as possible, make connections, and talk up their technology and business model. The US investors and potential partners they are speaking to will expect nothing less.
The other important pieces of advice came from PR consultancy Grayling, which is supporting the trip and trying to get stories of these innovative UK firms into the US press. First up, companies need facts and figures to back up their claims, without interesting data and a clear news hook nothing is going to get in the papers (as a journalist I can heartily second that). Secondly, no one likes to hear foreigners telling them where they are going wrong. Talk of the problems created by the US political system and its volatile clean tech sector is verboten. If you have to talk about these problems, call them "challenges" and try to look at how they can and are being overcome.
And, best of all, get the President's name right. The Brits and even that bastion of correct pronunciation the BBC tend to call the Leader of the Free World "Bareck Obama", using a soft second "a". But he calls himself Barack Obama with a hard "a" throughout his first name, and apparently the incorrect pronunciation is often used by Republican supporters in an attempt to subtly undermine the President. As the mission's PR consultant pointed out, it is a small thing, but it is the Democrats who love clean tech companies, so don't put their backs up from the start by getting the President's name wrong.
Get all that right and you might just be able to do business with the US.
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