5 Questions in 5 Minutes: Rex Northen


We find it fascinating to learn why people do what they do and think what they think. This summer, we sat down with Rex Northen, Executive Director of the Cleantech Open, during the Cleantech Open Academy in San Jose.


Why do you do what you do?

This is a nonprofit (my first) and it requires different disciplines and different skills than running a conventional startup or a corporation. It’s a great challenge. You’ve got to do a lot with a little. But it’s an organization with a big profile and a terrific group of highly energetic people. One of my theses is that the cleantech space is driven by a moonshot mentality. But while going to the moon was a nice-to-have, cleantech is a must-have. So the people involved tend to be driven, passionate and—very important to me—good people. Cleantech entrepreneurship is at the intersection of economics, driving successful businesses, and the environment. It’s living in a better way on a better planet.


What’s the most rewarding aspect of your job?

The people—working with this very, very special group of people. And not feeling that I’m leading them so much as being inspired by them. I clearly need to be a leader and a source of inspiration, but I derive a huge amount of inspiration here. When I walk into a Cleantech Open  room, the energy! It’s not me, it’s a movement.

In your experience, what’s the one thing that most often gets in the way of great marketing?

In terms of cleantech entrepreneurs, it comes right back down to the basics. Can you clearly, crisply, concisely and compellingly paint a picture of what you do, why someone might buy it and how it’s better than the alternative. If you can do that in a way that reflects genuine passion and employs concrete visual vocabulary rather than abstract terms and technical terms, then you’re already way ahead. People often don’t understand the importance of the USP [unique selling proposition]. It needs to stand out in all communications: why you uniquely solve their pain point and the benefits to them. Marcomm is very often about us and the product, not the customer. Another obstacle? People who have already made up their minds. In this space, it’s “Are you preaching to the choir or appealing to people who are in some way philosophically opposed?” As soon as you mention “clean energy,” you’re tarred with the “treehugger” brush. It’s tough, especially here in the U.S.

What’s the most important lesson that you’ve learned as a marketer/advocate?

You create your own good luck. Timing is a huge piece of this. There are macro factors, and there are micro factors. You can have the right product in the wrong market, or hit the right market at the wrong time. You cannot boil the ocean or try to be all things to all people. It’s the importance of choosing and owning and dominating market segments—or creating your segment or category. Keep going until you find the people who cannot live without your thing.

If you could wave your wand and make any product or service in the world a smashing overnight success, what would it be?

Something as close as possible to cold fusion. Maybe the ecatalyzer? Things that look really “out there” tend not to get very far at first. I’m very excited about some of the technologies I’m seeing here [at the Cleantech Open] this year. It seems there are a lot of big-picture ideas coming out of these companies. There are companies here who could take a lot of plastic out of the waste stream. If someone cleaned up the Pacific gyre, that would be great!


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