Top 5 Tips for Cleantech Startups Headed to Washington

800px-US_Capitol_SouthWith so much activity in Washington, D.C., these days — from funding opportunities to policies like cap and trade — that could affect cleantech industries, many startups have sent their executives to the capital or hired lobbyists in the hope of adding their voices to the debate. But cleantech startups need to be careful when it comes to dedicating their limited resources to these efforts. While spending time in D.C. can certainly bring rewards, once there it’s easy to spend tons of cash without much to show for it. Here’s our list of the top 5 things startups should know before hopping on a plane to Washington.

Don’t hire a lobbying firm first. Before ever stepping foot in D.C., identify which issues you think you can add value to, says John Stubbs, executive director of the Global Innovation Forum, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that works to promote innovation for solutions to global problems. Those issues could be cap-and-trade legislation, renewable portfolio standards, tax credits, stimulus, patent reform or others.

Then, if you want to dip your toe in the water, join a group that has a presence in the nation’s capital, like the American Council on Renewable Energy. Through the group, Stubbs says, you can participate in efforts to talk to legislators, their staff members and Obama administration officials. This will help you learn how you can fit in and how you can influence government decisions. Through this learning process, you’ll become more informed about what type of lobbying firm, if any, you might want to hire.

Don’t threaten to go to China. Business executives often think they can scare legislators and their staff into making policy changes by threatening to build their factories or take their businesses to China. Don’t do it, John Gimigliano, a principal at professional services firm KPMG, said during a panel discussion at the recent AlwaysOn GoingGreen conference in Sausalito, Calif. Even if it’s true, the threat has “lost its punch” because so many have used it, Gimigliano said. You have to come up with something else to grab their attention.

Focus on building relationships. What Congress and their staff are really looking for are experts on different topics to whom they can turn to for advice, says Betsy Mullins, senior vice president of government affairs for TechNet, which promotes technology and innovation in Washington, D.C. You’ll stand out if you can prove to policymakers that you’re an expert in your field and you have solutions to current problems. Focus on building relationships and demonstrating that you’re a thought leader in your field. If successful, Congress and their staff will start coming to you. Don’t leave the capital without having asked legislators: “What can I do for you?”

Don’t outsource your public affairs efforts. This relates to building relationships. Some executives think they can hire high-priced lobbyists who will then do their bidding for them, said Gimigliano. If a startup is serious about having an impact in D.C., then C-level executives will have to spend time there. They will have to meet with staffers and build trust. One smart way to do that is to form networks with other organizations around issues that matter, says Global Innovation Forum’s Stubbs. You can then approach legislators together, and you’ll be taken more seriously because it will appear that your issue isn’t just about you, but about an entire industry.

Manage your expectations. Many issues that involve government take a great deal of time to flesh out, says TechNet’s Mullins, for example patent reform has been under way for seven years and still isn’t resolved. You need to think about how you measure success. Certainly if your main goal is to get, say, an extension of a tax credit and it is extended, then that’s a success. But there are other ways to have influence. You could develop a strong relationship with a legislator or you could produce a white paper that gets broad circulation among staffers. Efforts in the capital should be seen as any other investment. They take time, and it’s not enough to just bring a checkbook.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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