This morning, WIRED magazine’s Alexis Madrigal and Michael Kanellos of Greentech Media joined W2 Chairman Larry Weber in a panel discussion co-hosted by Racepoint San Francisco and Digital Influence Group on “Powering Clean Tech with Social Media.” Despite the early hour, the panelists jumped right in, discussing hot topics including green washing, alternative fuels and funding.
Alexis, who is writing a book on the history of the greentech movement in the U.S., called for a new sense of “Manifest Destiny” in relation to clean tech. He reasoned that since we have to transform systems on earth, we should acknowledge up front that its going to be hard, messy and part trial-and-error. Both Michael and Alexis agreed that the innovation needed to transform the space has to come from innovators from within and outside the clean tech industry. They cited the Gates Foundation’s work in health as a prime example of this type of collaborative innovation — working together the industry can achieve the changes needed to make real strides in clean tech.
As for social media, both panelists agreed that blogs, twitter and social networks can serve as effective conduits for organizations to get their messages to businesses, and that few organizations are successfully using social media to reach consumers. All is not lost on the social media front, though. This just means organizations have a lot of room to grow in their communications with consumers.
All three participants cautioned companies to participate in social media with a thoughtful approach and, above all, a clearly defined strategy. They noted that one of the biggest social media mistakes companies make is to engage without first learning the community’s standards. Overall, they expressed a sense of excitement that people are using social media more and more to communicate about clean tech and other issues of shared interest. It is, after all, a much more normal and personal way to communicate than traditional types of media.
This is the second part of our conversation with Marc Gunther, which took place on Tuesday. Part 1 can be found here.
RaceTalk: Marc, I noticed one company speaking at Brainstorm: Green is Better Place. I also caught that you’ve written about them recently. They’ve had a lot of media attention and I was wondering if you could try explaining what it is about them that makes them so interesting. Especially with so many other start-ups in the green space competing for the same media attention.
Marc Gunther: They have a charismatic CEO ,who’s a great salesman for the company in Shai Agassi. They also have a mass model. So I’m more interested in Better Place than I am in, say Tesla. If you believe Shai he’s going to put cars on the road for a lower price comparable to today’s cars, maybe even less. Also his model is – if you’re interested in business – really interesting; because he wants to not only make the biggest change ever since the invention of the combustion engine or air conditioning, he also wants to totally rewrite the model of the automobile industry. Making it look like a cell phone model, where you’re basically not exactly owning the car battery – you’re kind of leasing it, paying for minutes. It’s a little hard to explain. He would do it much better than I would. But, it’s a very intriguing idea. I’m also really interested in other electric car companies, but more those that have the ability to scale up. I’m really interested in the Chinese company BYD. We’re actually going to have a major shareholder of BYD at the conference. A guy named Li Lu who is absolutely fascinating. Li Lu was one of the leaders of the Tienanmen square uprising twenty years ago this June, I think it was. Came to the US for school, became a venture capitalist and a private equity investor, and ended up being the guy who connected Warren Buffett to BYD. He hasn’t really spoken in public before, so he’s going to be a great addition to the event.
RT: So I know we talked about Bill ford. I was going to get your thoughts around Detroit. Going way back, you worked at the Detroit News and Detroit Free Press.
MG: But I didn’t know anything about cars then, and I still don’t know anything about cars.
RT: My question is around Detroit’s newspapers – do you have thoughts around the Detroit Free Press ending deliveries on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays?
MG: I don’t think it’s a good sign when any company tells consumers what day they can get its product. I mean it’s just not a good thing. Imagine if, pick a company, HP said we’re only going to sell you our computers on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays because that’s when we sell a lot of them and we’re just going to shut down the other days of the week.
RT: Richard Perez-Pena of the New York Times had a good piece today basically saying that there were no newspapers delivered yesterday in Detroit on one of the biggest news days in the city’s history.
MG: If you say its kind of a transition to an all-digital model then you could think about what it means. But it clearly can’t be a – it doesn’t work as a long-term model. You’ve still got huge infrastructure, presses, all that kind of stuff. If anything, the model at work is the model where newspapers print their own paper and print the national edition of the Wall Street Journal and then they print some competitor’s publication. You know, you can’t – it can’t work long-term. But maybe it’s a way to get people used to the idea of reading online.
RT: Finally I caught that Google officially launched their VC ARM today with Google Ventures.
MG: That’s really interesting – isn’t it?
RT: Yes, they’ve pledged to make this their new venture arm for some of their Google.org interests and it sounds like they’re planning to invest at least 100 million in green tech and clean tech over this year. I was wondering what your thoughts around that are? With a lack of current exit strategies, VC’s strapped, is this going to be a big deal for the clean tech and green tech sector?
MG: I don’t think it’s financially a huge deal. It’s not a large amount of money and I don’t think they said all of it would go to clean tech. But it will be a part of that. The value that Google has is when they invest in something, they automatically make it cool because they’re just such a cool company. So, interestingly, in my blog, a week or so ago, I ran a story about Bill Gross’ car company called Aptera and the headline on it was “Google’s favorite car company”. The traffic was huge. If I said “Here’s Aptera”, the traffic would have been very small. So the value for Google – they have fascinating investments. They’re in this company call Makani Power, which is sort of some kind of combination of kite and wind power company.
RT: Yeah, high altitude wind power.
MG: Yeah, that’s what I guess they call it. When Google invested in geothermal that personally got me interested in geothermal so I think their cache is really worth a lot and that’s why Google interests me.
RT: So like you said, it could potentially create more buzz around these green tech projects and a bigger umbrella for them.
MG: Yea and also it’s possible if Google’s smart, that they’ll do what other VCs do and connect these companies up with one another. I’m sure they will do that. I mean Google’s energy story I think is one of the really interesting kind of under-reported stories out there. I actually did pitch it a couple of times to Fortune, and couldn’t quite get them to go for it. But I would really like to know how and why that’s happening and how they’re doing it all.
The timing of his exit was especially baffling given President Obama’s recent election, which foreshadowed green becoming an even bigger storyline for businesses and the country as a whole. While Gunther still contributes to Fortune from time-to-time he’s moved onto “greener” pastures in growing the online distribution of his stories on sustainability.
Yesterday, Ben and I got a chance to catch up with Marc, who is in the process of penning a likely cover story for Fortune, to find out what he’s up to these days, his thoughts the upcoming FortuneBrainstorm: Green show and how he’s utilizing his blog as a sustainable-news wire.
Here’s part 1 of our conversation.
RaceTalk: On December 16th you wrote an eloquent post for the Huffington Post, entitled “The Recession Hits Home,” in which you discussed being scooped on your own layoff from Fortune and the current perils of the media industry. The news came as a shock to many as the demand for news around green has skyrocketed – and Fortune had been leading the charge with you and Todd Woody (who was also let go as well, but still contributes). I thought you made some interesting points in your post, and I know one of the first bloggers , who scooped you on your exit, shed light on the possibility of environmental reporters being endangered. Wondering your thoughts, as it seemed to be a strange move on Fortune’s end with the focus on green stories only growing.
Marc Gunther: I mean, was I surprised that Fortune let go of the 2 people who had most focused on business and the environment? Yeah, I think it’s obviously a big important issue both on a kind of global, social level, which should matter, but perhaps even more importantly for a business magazine, I think it’s becoming a really core business issue as well. I also think it’s a job of newspapers and magazines to write about things that are really important and I don’t think there’s much that’s more important than the climate change issue. Even if the midst of this terrible economy.
RT: I guess one of the things that crossed my mind is, is that it’s obviously a horrible time for the media, too, so you know they’re thinking of their magazines as businesses. Do you think it’s still hard, to sell advertisers around leading edge, green, story-lines?
MG: I don’t get involved in the sales side of the magazine at all. However, I actually don’t think it’s that hard. I think there is advertising that’s ready to be paired up with reporting around environmental issues. That should be a help to people who want to write about the environment – the fact that there are advertisers out there who want to associate themselves with that. I do think there’s advertising interest in the topic and you can tell that just by watching even broadcast television, cable television or looking at magazines and newspapers. I mean look at the huge branding campaign IBM has been running for months around a Smarter Planet. I think it’s really a good campaign and fortunately for them it actually matches up with what they’re doing.
RT: It matches up with what the administration is saying, too.
MG: That’s the other reason it seems to me that newspapers and magazines should be paying more attention to this set of issues because of what’s happening in DC.
RT: Right, it’s on the front of the agenda.
MG: It really is. I mean in a way that it has literally never has been before.
MG: I’m not actually. I’m writing, speaking and consulting for a variety of people, but I do have a great relationship with Greener World Media. They’ve given me a title of Senior Writer and I’m doing some work for them, but it’s not my employer. I’ll tell you what the model is because there’s nothing secret about it. Basically what I did was, I went to Joel McCauer, who runs the editorial side of Greener World Media, and I basically said I’d like to license my blog to you because the blog is mostly now about sustainability. In exchange for having the ability to run my blog content I would like you to pay me $x per month. We had some negations and in both cases, we worked it out in a really good way where they’re paying me a certain fee per month to run my blog, and then I’m also going to do some original content for each of their sites. But, I’m not an employee of anyone. Other than myself.
RT: That makes sense.
MG: I’m actually hoping to expand the model and be as widely distributed as possible with anything I write on the internet and supplement that with some exclusive content.
RT: So you’re continuing to kind of choose your own beat. Are you trying to stay focused solely on sustainability?
MG: Yes, definitely. Not only trying to. I’m going to.
RT: How often are you still contributing to Fortune?
MG: I have what I believe will be the cover story of the next issue, because it’s an issue tied to the environment and the Brainstorm: Green conference in April. I’m still working on Brainstorm: Green as a sort co-chair of and helped to create the agenda. I’m really leading with Brian Dumane – the guy who is the environment editor there. Beyond this story though it’s not clear what, if anything, I’m going to be doing for them. We haven’t really worked anything out. I’m hoping to do more writing for them, but the challenge is, again, it’s a skinny magazine these days. They have a good staff of talented people and we just don’t know what the appetite will be for freelancers. We have a good relationship and everything – it’s just a question of what they need.
RT: As far as the conference this year, I was reading that you have Former President Clinton speaking as well as Bill Ford. Who do you think is going to create the big buzz there? What major themes for the conference should we expect?
MG: In terms of the big buzz, let’s just say I managed to avoid moderating the panel that comes on after Bill Clinton. That was my major accomplishment having to do with the conference. It was not doing that.
RT: Who’s interviewing him? Andy (Andy Sewer, Managing Editor of Fortune)?
MG: Andy is going to interview Clinton. Although I don’t think it’s really going to be an interview. I think he’s just going to talk. I mean I’m really happy with the event and how it’s shaping up. I think we have the right auto chairman in Bill Ford because Ford could end up being the last US automaker standing and I think they haven’t gotten as much recognition around environmentally friendly cars as they should have. I also think he’s a fascinating guy because he wanted to do a lot more with Ford than he was able to. So I’m hoping he will be able to talk about what the forces were that stopped him from making Ford more the green car company 5, 6, 7 years ago when it wasn’t just rhetoric on his part. It was a really sincere desire to make that happen and he didn’t make it happen and I want to know why. So that will be good. We’re going to do a lot of Washington stuff. We haven’t yet got confirmation, but I’m pretty confident we’ll have some administration people there to talk. I mean I’m interested in a lot of things. I’m doing a panel called Sustainable Consumption, which is going to include the CEO of SC Johnson, Smith Johnson, who’s a really progressive environmentalist; Carl Bass from Autodesk; the CEO of the big architectural firm HOK; Bill Valentine, who also is very passionate about the environment. I really want to dig down there into the question of how do you have growth companies that want to sell more stuff and do it in an environmentally sustainable way. That to me is sort of the core challenge for business, which is how do you mesh the growth imperative with the sustainability imperative? That’s what I’m going to talk to Paul Hawken about at our first night dinner. Sort of why going green isn’t enough. What the difference is between green, a term that really doesn’t mean anything, and sustainability, a term, which actually has a specific meaning, which should be the goal companies. That means, essentially using all renewable resources, all renewable energy, zero waste. That should be the model. Throw nothing away. Don’t use anything that can’t grow again.