Policy Lab

10 tips to help climate startups leverage policy for growth

January 19, 2022

· 5 min read
Ian Chipman Editorial Director

For an entrepreneur, it may not feel mission critical to invest precious time and resources into influencing policies that can take months or even years to come to fruition.

But it is mission critical to be aware of the levers that policy can provide, and when it makes sense to get more involved. It’s also something that investors are increasingly asking about during the due diligence process. “Policy development is the single most important scaling factor for our business,” says Rob Niven, CEO of CarbonCure, whose technology introduces captured CO2 into concrete to reduce the carbon footprint of the built environment.

In partnership with Elemental, Rob and his team helped to draft and advance a resolution in Honolulu to require that city governments consider CO2-mineralized concrete in public projects. This low-carbon concrete policy was later endorsed by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, and helped accelerate the decarbonization of concrete in a growing number of markets, including California, New Jersey, Colorado, and New York State.

At a recent fireside chat with Cohort X companies, Rob and Josh Stanbro, who was Honolulu’s first Chief Resilience Officer and is now a Policy Fellow at Elemental, shared some tips around developing the right mindset and shaping an achievable gameplan to incorporate policy work into your growth strategy:

Focus focus focus. “Policy development can be like boiling the ocean,” Rob says, “and as a small startup, you do not have enough fuel to boil the ocean.” You need to focus where you can be effective, set goals, and be nimble and ready to pivot when needed. In other words, approach it like you would technology development.

Enlist a champion. Whether an entrepreneur is looking to partner with big corporations, looking for funding, or developing policy, finding an ally who is excited about your work is critical. Do you have any shared, trusted relationships with a policymaker that you can leverage?

Look up and down. To identify who might be supportive of new ideas, it’s important to understand the dynamics at different levels of government. At the top you might find a mayor or governor who wants new solutions they can put their name on. And at the entry level you might find younger people who embrace new ideas and are willing to do some legwork. The most tension, as well as opportunity for innovation, typically exists at the agency level with people who control a budget, lead vendor procurement, and have some decision-making authority. It’s important to know their drivers too. Are they motivated by protecting long-term vendor relationships? Are they mission driven and want to see positive change happen in their communities? Be genuinely curious, ask questions, and be ready to listen.

Partner on policy. “You don’t always have to be the point of the policy spear — look for opportunities that might benefit your technology with a bank shot,” says Josh. Is there a broader green procurement bill that would give your product an edge, or a building efficiency ordinance that might increase demand for your service? You can take advantage of non-profits or other organizations laying the policy groundwork, and ask if your voice could be helpful via testimony or meeting with decision makers to explain how the bill they’re considering could open up opportunities and jobs for companies like yours. It’s a low-risk way to lean in without putting the whole weight of a policy campaign on your shoulders.

Entrepreneurs love to talk about being “disruptive” or “transformational,” but you need to avoid those words like the plague with policymakers.

Decode risk. Don’t mistake risk aversion as an anti-innovation mindset. A policymaker’s relationship with risk is very different than an entrepreneur who is comfortable with failing fast to iterate and improve. A public servant’s number one role is to protect the public from harm and eliminate risk, because both their careers and people’s lives may be on the line. How can you help them do their job better?

Watch your language. Entrepreneurs love to talk about being “disruptive” or “transformational,” but you need to avoid those words like the plague with policymakers. Instead, emphasize how your company’s technology is safe, vetted, and being used everywhere. Often, the first question you’ll get asked is, “Who else has done this?”

Ladder up. Going straight after legislation can be tough sledding, and take years to come to fruition. But a resolution, while often symbolic, is a great way to notch a quick win, gain credibility, and start building toward something bigger.

Build a pipeline. Treat policy like a sales funnel, and constantly ask “Who’s next?” Put as many qualified leads into the top of the funnel and go after them to make sure you don’t fall into a one-and-done situation.

Meet the moment. When it seems like a legislative victory is within reach, you need to double down because that’s also when the detractors will be pushing the hardest against you. Just as you would when you’ve put your blood, sweat, and tears into closing a round, apply your killer instinct and don’t leave anything to chance.

Develop a momentum mindset. Once your policy gets passed, you need to already be looking ahead and thinking bigger. Whether you’re targeting another municipality or state, or even the federal government or a different country, you can build on that accomplishment by making sure they’re aware of the good recognition your work has received.

Visit Elemental’s Policy Lab for more insights.

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