Marketing in Cleantech with First Light Technologies and Ocean Diagnostics
Cleantech Marketing – This episode of Cleantech Talks delves into the strategies and trends behind marketing in cleantech and how these two companies in different areas are tackling the challenges of everything from COVID19 to climate change. Hear about how digital marketing plays a role in overall marketing strategies, particularly as interactions, sales, and product demonstrations have all had to move to virtual settings. Get perspectives from a company that’s been in the market for over ten years, as well as a startup company that is in the midst of identifying their target market. The conversation also touches on the purpose behind marketing a business, the impact that the pandemic has had on marketing strategies, and how the future of marketing in cleantech might evolve.
- Mike Williams – Host – Alacrity Canada
- Ashleigh Erwin – Director of Marketing & Communications – Ocean Diagnostics
- Sean Bourquin – CEO – First Light Technologies
Hello and welcome to Cleantech Talk, Alacrity Canada’s podcast series focusing on the cleantech sector. Our host for this episode is Mike Williams, director and co-founder at Jetstream Digital. Mike is also a facilitator of the Alacrity Academy Digital Marketing Bootcamp, sharing his more than 15 years of experience and knowledge with students to help them develop strategies for performance-driven digital marketing in their own careers. Today, we’re talking to Sean Bourquin of First Light Technologies and Ashleigh Erwin of Ocean Diagnostics to see how marketing strategies in cleantech have evolved over the years, and particularly in response to the Covid 19 pandemic. Sean Bourquin is CEO of First Light Technologies, a Victoria-based company that designs and manufactures solar powered LED lighting products. Sean began First Light in 2009 and has been in the solar lighting market ever since. As a seasoned entrepreneur in cleantech, he has valuable insights into the space and how marketing strategies in it have changed over time. Ashleigh Erwin is Director of Marketing at Ocean Diagnostics. This Victoria, BC-based startup helps tackle the problem of microplastics pollution in our oceans by offering technologies and services that enable scientists, governments, environmental agencies, and even everyday citizens to collect data about our oceans and waterways. In her role at the company, Ashleigh leads the development and implementation of brand and marketing strategies.
Mike Williams 01:19
So first of all, welcome to the podcast. It’s really great to have you. Thank you, Ashleigh. Thank you, Sean. Can one of you – I’ll just let you guys take it and explain you know, your title, what you do at your company and what your role is? So Ashleigh, why don’t you kick us off?
Ashleigh Erwin 01:34
Great, thanks, Mike. So my name is Ashleigh. I’m the Director of Marketing at Ocean Diagnostics. We are an environmental impact company that’s focused on using technology to diagnose the health of the oceans. So particularly right now, microplastics. And my role at the company is to build our brand, create our marketing strategies, bring those to market, lead the teams that will launch our campaigns.
Mike Williams 02:02
Great, yeah. Welcome to the podcast. Thanks. Sean, why don’t you tell us a little bit about what you do and what First Light does.
Sean Bourquin 02:08
So yeah, Sean Bourquin, I’m the CEO of First Light. So we – we’re a Victoria-based company, we design and manufacture solar powered lights for all kinds of commercial applications, mostly pathways, parking lots, streets, those kinds of things. And, you know, what makes this interesting is we’re completely off the grid, we’re one of a number of different companies that have come out of the Victoria area that focus on solar powered things. So kind of a nice continuity, nice history in this town for businesses like us.
Mike Williams 02:37
Yeah, yeah, that’s, that’s great. There’s a lot of cleantech coming out of Victoria, if we can call it that. So just to kind of kick it off talking about cleantech and marketing. What is it like to market in a cleantech space as a cleantech company? What are some of the things that you do? And what are some of the things that you struggle with or challenges in space? Ashleigh, maybe you can start this one off as well?
Ashleigh Erwin 03:02
Yeah, so I’m actually fairly new to the cleantech sector. But what I’m noticing is, it’s definitely starting to get a lot more traction than I remember it having a few years ago. And I think, maybe one of the reasons is that, you know, as we get more complex global problems happening, we realize that technology is one of the solutions, particularly if it can be large scale technology. And cleantech not only helps with those problems, but is a way of mitigating more risks in the future. So it’s an exciting environment to be in. But I think it’s also a challenge as marketers, because we’re developing a new market. It’s something that is pretty new. So it’s something we have to kind of voyage ahead with and test the market and, and see how to go. I mean, one thing I’ve noticed is a lot of companies, particularly in a clean or sustainable space, really haven’t stood out among the crowd. So I think one opportunity for us is to really develop a sound brand and a relatable brand that can get more traction, and we still have to. We still have to be more relatable to customers. We can’t just be this untouchable entity because we’re in a cleantech space.
Mike Williams 04:21
Yeah, what are some of the tactics that you’ve used to kind of launch that to kind of build a brand from nothing and build the market yourself?
Ashleigh Erwin 04:28
Yeah, good question. It took us a while actually, to develop a brand. We had to think of, not only who we are and what we want to do, we are, we’re a tech company, but our mission is to do good and to advance scientific research in the oceans for the health of the ocean, but we also have to be relatable. So it’s hard to develop a brand when you’re not really sure who that target market is. So kind of anticipating doing the market research around where do we think our customers are? Who are they and there are a variety of different sectors and different interest levels from investors to environment and governments to researchers and everyday citizens who want to participate in microplastic science. So we kind of took a look at all of their characteristics and looked at that market and tried to see what are the similarities between those markets and which ones resonate most with our company? And then how do we make that a relatable brand?
Mike Williams 05:30
Right, and Sean, so you’ve been at this for over 10 years. What are some of the cleantech or marketing and cleantech tactics that you’ve used to build a brand to build, you know, the market as well? What’s it like marketing in cleantech for solar for First Light?
Sean Bourquin 05:47
Yeah, that’s a good question, Mike. The, you know, the cleantech term is a newer one for me. So when I started in solar lighting, I think I first touched it back in 2000, really got into it in 2005. You know, I’d never heard the word before. And, you know, solar lighting is always kind of been a, you know, a niche thing hanging off the side of the lighting industry for, you know, maybe since the mid 90s, you know, was sort of this garage, niche thing. And, you know, when I started First Light, it was really going backwards from a problem. You know, it was a couple of problems. One is, you know, how do you do outdoor lighting better, and by better I mean, you know, faster, cheaper, simpler, more reliably, you know, we’ve done a done a good job doing that, you know, the first thing we do — the funny thing about marketing, cleantech is really, it’s, in some ways, the cleantech side of what we do is is almost an afterthought for our customers, because the first thing we do is we just save them a lot of money doing outdoor lighting. And then we come with these ancillary benefits of okay, all the lighting is off the grid, there’s no power bill. There’s no wiring, there’s inherent resiliency in what we do if there are power outages due to hurricanes or storms or any other issue. So, you know, we started out by: Look, if you have to run wires, we just save you money. That’s our, that’s our marketing strategy. And, as Ashleigh said, you know, we’re really trying to develop more of a brand and we are a purpose driven company. Personally, I’m driven by the idea of trying to do something that’s helpful, something that’s better. And First Light does that, you know, in some parts of, say, the US, for example, if you market yourself as you know, like synonymous words, but coming out of cleantech — we’re a renewable energy company, yes. We’re a sustainable company, yes. We’re an energy efficiency company, yes. Solar power? Yes. LED lighting? Yes. You know, there’s all of these different ways of talking about aspects of what’s clean about what we do, even our local sourcing strategy, right? It’s all aligned around this idea that we want to make a positive contribution. Or, if you want to turn it on a skeptical angle, where we’re trying to make the world a little less bad. You know, and the fun thing for us is, every one of our lights, it’s, it’s, you know, sustainability benefits. They’re pretty modest, because it’s just a little solar powered light. But now that we’re 11 years into it, you add up the install base that we have now. Well, last year, we avoided about 6 million miles driven in a car, you know, in terms of avoided impacts. And it’s like, okay, well, that’s starting to make a dent. And we’ve saved people tens of millions of dollars, not having to do a bunch of complicated design and installation work for what normal lighting requires. So I think it’s becoming a better time to speak more about, you know, if you’re gonna do cleantech, or any other work kind of like that, it’s got to present a better option. Because if you’re going to try to do a greenwash play, where you’re just a token effort that some company’s making to show that they’re trying to be clean or green, you’re not going to last, you know, you have to come with these long term benefits. And you gotta have an economic value. That’s clear. We had that right from the very beginning. And now it’s just trying to balance all of the value that we provide people, whether it’s cleantech value, or whether it’s simple economic value. It’s an evolution where we’re trying to balance those factors and present them to our different customers in ways that make sense.
Mike Williams 09:08
Right. So – sorry, go ahead.
Ashleigh Erwin 09:10
Sorry. I agree with that. I think you know, before if you talk about clean and green, the space was a bit fluffy and kind of a passion project for people that didn’t connect that with the economy, and I mean, working in the ocean space, the ocean is untapped. Lots, like the economic value is in the billions. So we have industries that rely on lighting and power industry and in the oceans, there’s, you know, aquaculture and fishing and different resources that are available. Like those are really big economies to tap into.
Sean Bourquin 09:44
Yeah, yeah, that’s definitely true. And I think, you know, in the past, maybe if someone talked about renewable or sustainable or cleantech, another word that would probably go with that was expensive. Right, you know, and then people try to make that argument sometimes still. Oh, I don’t want to pay the money for this solar thing, it’s like, well hold on a second. In our case, you know, and you probably have similar examples, Ashleigh – is, in our case, we tend to save people 50% of what they would spend to do it the old fashioned way. So we’re now in a position of telling people like, look like, if you’re not thinking, in our case about doing solar lighting first, you’re crazy. You’re wasting so much time and money. You know, that’s how compelling this has now become. Before, 10 years ago, solar light – it was more of a tap dance about long term payback and then there’s some benefits sustainability-wise. Now it’s like, this is just faster and cheaper and you’re kind of nuts, if you don’t look at it first.
Ashleigh Erwin 10:38
It’s an interesting way to look at the market too is, you know, in a lot of markets, there’s a defined problem, what you can help them to solve, but in our markets — I know with ours, people don’t even realize that the equipment and technology their using either doesn’t exist, or is so archaic that they are wasting a ton of time and money, even though they’re using what seems like a simple, inexpensive fix. It just takes them so much money to act and time to actually collect and analyze the data. Whereas our technologies and machine based learning and all of that stuff can do it rapidly for them and save them so much time.
Sean Bourquin 11:15
Yeah, and you’re right, that is a gigantic marketing problem for us, as many of our customers don’t know that they had a problem. Like, this is just the way they’re used to doing it. This is the way it’s always been done. And it is an inherent marketing problem that is an issue of awareness and knowing that this alternative really should be their go-to option. It’s a big problem to solve, like, our largest competitor in the lighting industry would be about $3.3 billion. And here we sit in Victoria as a local manufacturer, trying to make a dent in this industry. So it – you know, it’s not just a cleantech marketing problem. It’s just a gigantic marketing problem.
Mike Williams 11:52
Yes. So it sounds like you’re not necessarily leading with cleantech as a marketing angle. I mean, it’s a part of it. But if you’re not solving problems, and you’re not addressing, you know, the market with their needs, it’s not gonna matter whether you’re green or cleantech. Is that, is that correct?
Sean Bourquin 12:11
In my case, it sure is because, if we had led with cleantech, we’d be dead by now. You know, people, people talk about what you know, and it’s this that is changing. There are agencies who have mandates where they won’t consider a solution unless it does meet their sustainability goals, or climate change goals, or whatever sort of resiliency or efficiency goals that they have, you know, those are becoming meaningful, where people are putting those things in place. And in the early days, we didn’t depend on that at all, and we just focused solely on: look, we just saved money, we’re gonna save time and money. And this is why you should consider it and all these other benefits today — for me, it’s like, if they don’t want to buy it because it’s green, fine. But you know, if you, if you buy it because it saves you money, you’re going to get those green benefits, whether you want them or not. So personally, I didn’t care if they valued the sustainable part of our products, you know, as long as they bought them, we win, the world wins, everybody wins, because now this thing is less dirty than whatever else you were gonna buy. You know. So it’s like, if you want to value it, that’s wonderful, and more and more people are placing value on it. So this is where we do have to adjust and, and really bring forward more elements of how we are clean, you know, and a better long term solution, in addition to be economically superior.
Mike Williams 13:28
Ashleigh Erwin 13:29
I think for us, yeah, our — we really focused on our mandate and mission, which is protecting the health of the oceans and waterways from microplastics. And then as we get in the sphere, realizing that, oh, hey, our technologies can actually be applied to other things like plankton and potentially ocean DNA. And so then we get into also talking with, you know, autonomous underwater vessels, and how we can pair our technology on with them. And now we’re a cleantech, blue tech company. Whereas we, when we started out and still really focus on what it is we’re trying to achieve? And what are we helping people to do?
Mike Williams 14:03
Ashleigh, you mentioned blue tech. Can you explain what blue tech is? I assume that’s to do with the ocean.
Ashleigh Erwin 14:09
It’s very new to me as well. I’m assuming it’s cleantech, specifically in the ocean. But I mean, we’re seeing tons of… The ocean is a new frontier because a lot of technology dollars in the past have gone – not even tech, but exploration dollars – have gone into let’s say space, for example. We want, investors want, and funders are excited to invest in the next thing where they can discover something new. And what we’re realizing now is there’s so much to discover in the ocean, and now we’re starting to have the technology to be able to do that. So, beyond what we do – I mean, there’s other sensing technology that’s preventing whales from colliding with boats, you know, all kinds of technology that’s going deeper into the ocean and finding out more about our ecosystems and, and what’s there so it’s an exciting space, and I believe that’s where the blue tech comes in.
Mike Williams 15:01
Right. And, as people become more educated about cleantech and blue tech or green, have you seen that change the market at all? Like, the more people know about it, does it start to pull in different directions? Or do they bring forward, you know, more interesting challenges or questions? Sean mentioned agencies that won’t work with them unless they meet a certain sustainability level. People are becoming much more educated about climate change and cleantech. Has that affected your market and how you market?
Ashleigh Erwin 15:32
I mean, overall, I think that consumers in general, are looking for technology to be a solution to the problem, especially if it’s convenient technology. So, as Sean said, if it’s going to save them time and money, but also, if it’s extra effort that they don’t have to go out and do it themselves, and technology can fill that gap. And technology is also helping to avoid human risks. So human error, but also dangers for people who would otherwise do those jobs. So I think the need is there and there’s – the more that we storytell and apply it to how it’s affecting people’s everyday lives, the more that they’ll resonate with it. Whereas if we just say, you know, “we’re out here in the cleantech space, innovating all these revolutionary technologies, but you’ll never touch them in your household” isn’t quite as compelling as how is this gonna affect your life and change your life. And for us, certainly that is, the more understanding we have about microplastics — where it is, how much is in our water, how it’s affecting our health — the more people are going to start to be involved and pay attention.
Mike Williams 16:39
Yeah, and that – I, I just watched a documentary on Netflix, about plastic and how it’s like inside of us, inside of us. Like, I didn’t realize that, like, I only found that out recently and it’s super scary, and I can only assume it’s going to get worse. So the more people that know about that, I assume the more interest there’ll be for funding and investors and, you know, customers in your space. It’s quite a challenge that’s ahead of you.
Ashleigh Erwin 17:05
I mean, for us, that’s why we’re in it is because there’s actually not enough data available to say how it’s affecting us long term, how it’s affecting our fish stocks, how it’s affecting ecosystems and food chains. And so, with our technology, we’re hoping that that will actually bring that data because it will allow researchers the access to the data that they otherwise wouldn’t have, or that was too inaccessible for them to use, rapidly get those results so that, when we do get the results, policymakers, you know, can make informed decisions. And then we get into the regulation part where it’s like, okay, now we know that this is a problem and how it’s going to affect everything. Now we need to regulate it. And now we need the technology to be able to do that because if you’re monitoring water across the globe, from rivers to oceans, and everything in between, that’s a lot of, first of all, jobs for environmental consultants, but also for technology.
Mike Williams 18:01
Right. So Sean, over your, over your 10 years, 10 years plus, I don’t know, you must be coming up on 11 pretty quick…
Sean Bourquin 18:09
Just passed 11.
Mike Williams 18:10
There you go. How have you seen the market change as people start to learn more and understand, you know, not just about cleantech, but also solar lighting? And where does solar lighting outcompete wired? You know, and has it surpassed the performance and those sorts of things?
Sean Bourquin 18:28
Yeah, there’s a lot of change. You know, it’s kind of an understatement. So there’s a bunch of things, macro factors that have happened in the last decade that are really creating a meaningful difference. So we’ve got core technology changes where everybody, you know, 10 years ago, how many people knew anything about LED lighting? You know, and today, you’re probably hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t use it day-to-day in their home or their work? Right? It’s absolutely, you’ve had a fundamental shift in the world of lighting. So in the early days, people had no idea about it. And, you know, solar power was kind of a hippie thing. Why would anyone do solar? It’s expensive, it’s crazy. And the solar industry economically has just, has transformed itself to be, in most cases, as some less expensive way to do something. You know, battery technology is another one where we’ve gone away from lead acid batteries. And, you know, a lot of these techniques over to lithium and things that aren’t, aren’t inherently harmful to people. And so there’s a lot of tech changes where it’s become – to your point, it’s the best way to technically solve the problem, like you know, in the old days, solar, like, oh, if you gotta run power a long way, then consider solar lighting. And you know, it’s whatever, it’s not as good and it’s expensive and complicated, but it’s better than running a wire for a mile. Now, it’s changed to, if you have to install a wire at all, you should consider solar lighting. You know, economically it’s a lot less expensive than it used to be. In our case, our technology has really been around productizing it, taking it from a project to a product, that’s been a big change for us, whereas now it’s more comfortable for the types of customers that normally buy this kind of lighting, we’re just normal to them. Other than that you don’t have to do a whole bunch of stuff you used to do, like, figure out how to design and wiring electrically and contractors to dig in and run this wiring. And, you know, it greatly simplified their lives. But a bigger trend though, is we see with a lot of our end users, we work with a lot of municipalities, a lot of resorts, universities, different types of governmental agencies, large private companies – these are our customers, which is kind of fun, because, you know, one might think that most of our customers are innovators, early adopters, those kind of people on the front end of tech. And that’s not true for us. Most of our customers are — they’re slow, they’re careful, they’re, you know, committee based decisions where they really don’t want to make a bad call, and they’re really not apt to want to try a new tack. But the text’s been around long enough, we’ve been around long enough where people aren’t a guinea pig anymore. And from a clean tech perspective, you know, we see our customers taking climate change seriously. You know, for example, we’ve got a resort client in the Bahamas where we’ve been through eight hurricanes with them. And they went with solar lighting, because they were so tired of having hurricane stuff getting flooded with saltwater, wrecking their wiring, and having to fix it. They’re just constantly fixing things. And we’ve been working with them for eight years. And yeah, eight hurricanes. Or a customer in Houston, where their park is totally flooded with water and the only thing sticking out of the water are some poles with our lights on them. So this, the part of cleantech that’s starting to become meaningful is this resiliency idea of what we can provide. And you know, even if you look specifically at solar lighting, the fact that we have climate change, and things are changing… Well, old fashioned solar lighting won’t survive because most of it is based on datasets that are 20 years old. So if you’ve modeled a system to work in a certain place, and things are changing, well, you may have a new problem where what used to work now doesn’t work. And our tech solution allows our lights to be more adaptive, more resilient, and just survive all kinds of things where nothing else will. And so you know, at the end of that people are just valuing it more. The things that were inherent in our products from day one, where “yeah, let’s just focus on saving money,” these other things are beginning to matter, and be considered as part of what customers want from us.
Mike Williams 22:29
Yeah, and so it sounds like, you know, this education and understanding of the market, you know, the consumers being, you know, having a little more knowledge around cleantech is less of, less of a problem. Maybe we’re still coming out of that a little bit, but we’re in the middle of a global pandemic, you know, which we can’t not talk about. How has that impacted your marketing strategies, your business? I mean, this is an economic health crisis around the world. How has that, you know, made you rethink things or change direction on any of your marketing strategies currently?
Ashleigh Erwin 23:04
Yeah, I mean, for us, first of all, marketing should be there to support business and business goals and what the business needs in every sector. Over the last several years, those have been big challenges businesses are facing from the economy to cybersecurity, going digital, everything. And so now you throw in environmental problems, social justice, COVID, you have to be really agile and ready to move, and also listen to your customer. Everyone across the world, in every industry, their customers are operating out of fear sometimes. And so, coming in with that knowledge that clean tech is there to actually help these really complex problems and, and right to the household. You know, like Sean said, having, you know, if your lights all go out, because you’re in an environmental disaster, you have solar lights that can help you out. And so it’s kind of I think, COVID has its own challenges with marketing in terms of how do you reach your customer? Are they going to pay attention? How can you relieve some of their fears? But also, internally, how do you internally communicate with your team? How do you — How does marketing support the business goals of keeping things afloat during COVID? And, and keeping communication open and all that stuff? So I think the role in marketing during COVID really pivots to not just focus on external, but also the internal communication side of things.
Sean Bourquin 24:30
Yeah, I find it’s been fascinating, you know, COVID you know, our business continues to grow during COVID. But it doesn’t mean — COVID hasn’t been helpful. It’s been difficult. But what I find is, it’s – I’m pretty comfortable with it, because you know, we do solar lighting, it’s disruptive at its core anyways. So COVID is yet another disruption. And for us in the world of lighting, it’s actually a spectacular opportunity because the way that people have sold lighting historically, you know, marketing is not the, you know, supports the sales efforts of most lighting companies. It’s kind of, in some ways an afterthought, you know, just make spec sheets and fancy trade show booths, you know, and it really hasn’t had the, the importance that it really sh– Well, COVID is forcing it to have. Everyone’s at home. So the old fashioned way of selling lighting is to drive around and you meet bring doughnuts, and you meet people face to face, and you show them a sample. And, you know, it’s all face to face. Well, forget it, that’s gone. And I don’t know that it’s ever coming back. And for us here sitting on an island, nothing changes for us. We sell remotely, we always have. So all it’s done from a marketing perspective is put more importance on digital marketing. And in all its forms, you know, so people are sitting at home, like our ability to reach our customers that actually, in many ways improved because of COVID, because they’re not sitting in meetings with sales reps from lighting companies all day… or you know, are out on a jobsite, right? They’re at home or stuck in and sitting on their computer, maybe listening to a podcast. So our opportunities to reach customers have improved or increased and marketing is another way to support — you’re right, those business goals and, and our sales team. So, it’s another opportunity. You know, any one of these challenges are — spin it 180 and it’s an opportunity. And that’s how we’ll choose to look at COVID, is how it allows us to up our game and outcompete people who maybe can’t react the same way that, you know… Many cleantech companies are startup mentalities or pure startups still. So one of the benefits of being small is that agility that you can require and capitalize on new opportunities, kinda like Ashleigh said.
Ashleigh Erwin 26:42
Yes, well, we’re in the startup stage, we’re only in the year and a half, two years of our business. And so the challenge for us is we know we have to do content marketing — you can’t get around it. And the challenge is having the revenue to bring on a marketing team when you’re a team of five or six and, and you’re starting out. So it’s a lot of – I notice a lot in the cleantech, but also startup world, you’re getting your hands into all kinds of pots that, you know, you otherwise maybe haven’t done that job for a few years. So it’s been a, it’s been a little bit fun also just to get to be back on the ground doing the groundwork and, and the more creative side… But yeah, I think you’re right, Sean, it’s really everything is digital so if you’re still working on how to bring your business to digital and content marketing, you’re way behind the game.
Sean Bourquin 27:31
Yep. Yeah, I find it for, for me personally, I find it a bit of a deja vu because First Light was founded in 2009, right in the midst of a brutal economic crisis. And the mentality at that time was like: look, if we can get through this, then we can get through anything. And here we are COVID; a totally different thing, but similar, similar impact, where, you know, things were buzzing along pretty nicely. And then oh, here comes a pandemic, like, what do we do about this? And now it’s like, okay, if we can adjust and adapt and up our game with respect to marketing, then we’re going to be better situated for when this passes because it’ll pass and then something else will happen. So it just, it keeps you on your toes, you’re right, Ashleigh, and you got to be willing to get your hands dirty and figure out new ways of doing things because anybody who wants to do whatever the old way of doing things was, good luck to you…
Ashleigh Erwin 28:24
Well, especially in technology, I mean, we’re innovators. So you always have to be agile, and you always have to be thinking about, you know what you’re doing now, but also, how’s the world gonna change and predicting — I mean, we couldn’t – we didn’t predict the pandemic, but what’s the next thing that the world’s gonna need? And, and being innovative and creative and kind of always looking at it that way. You can’t be in marketing or business without having that attitude, I don’t think…
Sean Bourquin 28:52
Yeah, and I summarize it the same way – you have to pay attention. So okay, you know, maybe some people knew a pandemic was coming. But, you know, I didn’t really think about it, because I don’t know what value it has, me thinking about a pandemic. So here comes one and now, what does it mean to my business? I didn’t, you know, I was really concerned and March, when we send everybody to work from home, you know, I didn’t know if our customers would be there still to answer the phone or everything was stopped dead, or what if we shipped them things and no one’s ever received them, or no one’s there to pay for them? Like, what’s going to happen here. And I think the thing that I’ve been encouraged by is people’s ability to adapt and carry on. It’s been kind of a cool thing to see, you know, but like I say, we deal with all different kinds of customers and all different kinds of places, and they’re still there. They’re still trying to move forward. They’re still trying to make the best things. And I found it… you know, this is not a good experience, but it’s been good to see the way that, um, you know, our team here, you know, and it sounds like people in Victoria — like a lot of companies have grown through this. Some have suffered. You know, if you’re near the tourism side and things like that, right. It’s pretty difficult to avoid the difficulties of this, but I’ve found universally that people are attempting to make the best of it. And that’s, that’s encouraging.
Ashleigh Erwin 30:07
And we’ve definitely had to pivot a little bit in terms of even getting our beta units out. The organizations that we’ve partnered with to originally test had to put some of their projects on hold. And so then we realized, “hey, that that product that we’re making to actually deploy off a kayak would be perfect right now” because people need to be out on their own, away from other people. So there’s been challenges, but definitely opportunities there.
Sean Bourquin 30:35
Yeah, it’s one of those things where I think in this town or in cleantech, or startups, for example, right, you have to have the ability, when you got a bunch of lemons of COVID, you got to find out how to make lemonade, you know, and that’s where we go back to our standard value prop: we save people money. So we’re looking ahead to, okay, we’re running record deficits, you know, budgets are going to get pinched. So okay, well, maybe that’s good, because if you got to do lighting, definitely don’t think about running wires. Do it this way, it’s way easier and cheaper. You got less, less people power in your business, less time, less budget. But you know, one of the trends going back a little bit is a safety element. You know, people are doing outdoor lighting, to add safety, to add usability to facilities. And that’s another macro trend that’s really helped us is the health of people. The rates of obesity, for example, in the US really encourages people to encourage multimodal transportation, biking and walking, let’s get people out of cars. You know, these other trends also have a cleantech spin where, you know, solar lighting just allows people to feel safe to walk to their car, to walk down the path. You know, to add an element of usability where there wasn’t one before. And so, you know, in the midst of COVID, we allow people to achieve those goals in a better way. So it’s our way of making lemonade out a bunch of lemons.
Ashleigh Erwin 31:58
Yeah, I think you’re right, if we can trickle that hope – that hope, I guess I’m going to use that word – into our communications with our customers too like, we have to pivot and we see the optimism in it. But we have to bring that to them as well, because they need that sense of relief during really difficult times. And there’s so much fake news going on and fake content that if we can provide something a little more positive and something that’ll last for the future, that’d be great.
Sean Bourquin 32:23
Yeah, I think you see that, you know, that’s one thing that probably does bind a lot of, you know, cleantech is so broad, but it’s – I think it’s one thing for the people that I’ve met under that umbrella, you had a lot of purpose-driven people, right? And, and people want to do things that are better. Ashleigh spoke to it already. And that’s, that’s our motivation, too, and we have our way of applying it just like you do. You know, Mike, I know, you personally are purpose driven, too. And so I think that binds us all together, we’re here to try to help. And I think that’s what goes synonymous with most, most cleantech companies. So we’re gonna try to find a way to help throughout this, you know, COVID situation and having people actually, you know, the word authentic’s kind of getting wrecked – everyone’s sort of buzzword. But, you know, we’re here to authentically want to help, you know, by doing — You know, we’re not here to make money, per se, that’s not our prime motive, our prime motive is to help. And by helping in the right way, we form a profitable business that gets into another triple bottom line cliche, where that’s inherently what we’re doing here. We’re trying to help people, help the planet, make profit, do all of those things that form ethical business that really probably is a foundation in cleantech.
Ashleigh Erwin 33:36
And I think one of those misconceptions that floats around is that technology is taking away from jobs. And I’m sure in some automation cases, it is. But for us, it’s also creating jobs in STEM and giving people the opportunity to be part of something where if you have the technology and engineering and science and math and communication skills, then those can be applied to technology and future technology now, you know, it’s really important.
Sean Bourquin 34:06
Yeah, that’s, that’s another, you know, thing that’s not explicitly cleantech, but we share that feeling to where, you know, first and foremost, we take great pride in the fact that we design and manufacture – we assemble every light that we sell is assembled here in Victoria. Our business is composed of a broad skill set of people – we’re quiet, you know, we want to contribute to our local economy of people who assemble lights. We have marketers, salespeople, finance people, engineers, you know, we have any kind of skills that you might need in our company. And we take a lot of pride that we can create those jobs as opportunities. And you know, when we buy parts for our lights, we don’t just go to the lowest cost center, we go to people who are aligned with our values and who do business in areas that we do business. You know, we like that circular mentality about how we do stuff and I think it helps build resilience into our local communities because we’re not selling monoculture, we’re diversified. And it’s, I think it’s a better, a better way of doing things. And, you know, I, yeah, I like that people see that and we want to promote that. It’s not necessarily cleantech, but it’s one of those things that we do to do things better, you know, and maybe better is really kind of the core for what most cleantech is or should be: you’re doing something better, and there’s many layers to what that means.
Ashleigh Erwin 35:31
Yeah, it’s been nice for us too, to be able to partner with local universities and give job opportunities or experience to students who are thinking about what they’re going to do in their career, but also then to be able to have jobs in the tech sector in Victoria, where otherwise people would have to leave because jobs of that, in that sector aren’t available here. And we’re seeing more of it come to Victoria, which is really exciting, particularly for jobs coming up in the economy here, so it’s really nice to see a smaller city growing on that front.
Sean Bourquin 36:03
Yeah. And I think there’s marketing value to that, you know, we’re, you know, we’re not just trying to take people’s money, so we can go live large, you know, we’re, we’re trying to help. And, you know, sharing that authentically, with our customers, letting them know who we are, and why we do what we do and we’re here we got your back, you know, we’re, we’re gonna help you no matter what… You know, throughout COVID, you know, help you with your challenges around sustainability, or resilience, or efficiency or economics, you know, that’s, that’s how we’re gonna succeed. It’s not one thing, it’s everything. And I think it’s, you know, when you share those stories with people, you’re right, it’s, you know, business is about relationships, it’s about trust, and making sure you’re credible; when you say, you’re going to do something, you do it. And that’s been tremendously helpful to our businesses. We get a lot of repeat business, we get a lot of referrals because people know that we do that, and we’re happy to share with them, you know, we’re not going to hide because we’re buying some crappy thing from somewhere where some child’s putting it together in a really, you know, with a bunch of plastic that’s gonna end up in the ocean. No, we’re not doing that, you know, we’re trying to be conscious of all of those elements so that we maximize the value that we can provide.
Mike Williams 37:15
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, what I’m hearing from you guys is just like, there’s lots of challenges. And you know, COVID is just one of them. But there’s lots of marketing challenges. There’s lots of challenges in cleantech, but you both seem very optimistic. And how values, your company values are really informing the direction and marketing. And one big question that I kind of have is, you know, we’re talking about what’s currently happening, or what’s happened in the past, but where are we going? What is the future of cleantech marketing and how will it evolve? Or can we predict where we’re going with this?
Ashleigh Erwin 37:51
I think it’s staying ahead of technology, what’s the new technologies coming up for communications and marketing? We already have tons of digital tools and software that we can use now. People are creating technologies to make marketing jobs easier, which are fantastic to use, from, you know, project management to social scheduling and listening tools. But then also, how are we – some of those platforms and channels that we use to communicate, so you know, is Facebook and Twitter going to be there forever? What’s gonna be the next thing? And virtual reality we’ve heard talk about for a long time, or augmented reality – things like that. And it hasn’t really taken off yet, so is it going to take off? Or is it going to fizzle in the marketing sphere? What’s the next technology coming out? So I really see technology and communications and marketing as being very central to one another. So I think it’s, it’s staying ahead of what’s coming up and how are people responding to it is the big one, right?
Sean Bourquin 38:47
Yep. Yeah, I think from, you know, the tools will change, I think we can bet on that. You know, but the importance of marketing, obviously, will increase over time. And to me, that’s two things: one, it’s listening, and two, it’s engaging, you know, based on what you hear. So our ability to better understand our various types of customers, you know, we have to increase that, but there’s so much noise that we all deal with day-in, day-out is learning how to cut through that noise, and, and be able to engage in a way that makes sense to people. You know, that’s something we have to do better and better all the time. If you’re tone deaf to whatever someone’s issues are, that’s not going to go anywhere, no matter what tool you use to do it. So, you know, for us, it’s a refinement. It’s paying attention to what their lives are like, better understanding and forming those authentic connections, deepening relationships in ways where, you know, people actually care. Because what I found personally, and this is our challenge is, you know, when we meet with people face-to-face, we always win them because they do get a sense of – we’re pretty stoked about what we do. We’re excited. We know what helps and they know that we’re going to have their backs and we get that through conversation all the time. And our, our efforts are to how do we digitize that? How do we ramp that? I want to, you know, any – any conversation I enter into with any kind of customer, I don’t start by talking, I start by listening, I start by asking questions. And then I want to find out: how can I help you? And if I can’t help you, I’ll tell you, but I definitely want to learn something, and I definitely hope I will give you some kind of value. So it’s just taking those things that, you know, as a startup, most of us are pretty good at engaging customers and winning, especially as a founder, you know how to do that, but trying to build that into some wholesome marketing strategy is, is our challenge. So yeah, it’s paying attention to technology, leveraging it, accepting that remote ways of doing things are going to be the normal… — You know, getting on planes flying around all the time, that’s gonna be – who knows when that starts again, if it ever should. It’s, yeah, it’s a realization and acceptance that what we’re doing here today – like normally, we might be sitting face-to-face having this conversation, but here we are sitting on Zoom. I hated Zoom six months ago, or nine months ago, like I don’t want to get on some stupid video thing. I want to go have a conversation with someone. But that’s simply not a reality anymore, so fine, we adapt. And it’s just that that continuous adaption and utilization of these tools that we have now, be ready for the next ones.
Ashleigh Erwin 41:15
Yeah, technology’s always going to change. And I think you mentioned it before, though, Sean — it’s storytelling, like, technology will always change, but human beings are inherently storytellers. And that is marketing. So if you can tell a story and you can figure out what tools and channels that you need to tell it on and how to tell it on there, then you’re gonna stay relevant and I don’t think marketing is going anywhere.
Sean Bourquin 41:37
Yeah, I think it goes away from pure promotion, you know, or some more of these PR things, or, you know, I think it goes to more authentic connections with people. It’s like, we’re not looking for better ways to sell sugar water, we’re looking for ways to authentically help people in a meaningful way. And it’s not just about selling something, it’s about helping, and using marketing to do that, to form those connections to find ways like: look, if I, if what we do at First Light isn’t a fit for someone, we’re gonna be the first ones to tell you because we’re not after the buck more than we’re after helping you. And if we can’t help you by selling you something, we’ll help you by telling you that we can’t help you and that this other solution might be a better fit for you. It’s really that I think people want, you know, in this age of fake news, and you know, you talked about it, Ashleigh… it’s like, you know, there’s gonna be a pendulum swing back and can we just get back to facts and back to trust and back to truth? Let’s go there. And we’re already there. And using marketing to engage people, and it’s like: look, if you don’t like us, or what we do, I’m okay with that. But this is who we are, this is what we do, this is why we do it, and that’s a fit, great! Because we’re not going to be everything to everyone and accepting that and using marketing to get that across is, you know, that will never go away.
Ashleigh Erwin 42:57
Mike Williams 42:59
Yeah. And, you know, there’s no shortage of challenges for any startup or any clean tech or tech company, in general. But what it sounds like to me from what I’m hearing from from you guys, is that, you know, the core fundamentals of business, of marketing, of storytelling, connecting with people, those don’t really change. You know, the medium is changing a little bit or things kind of move around. But if you stay true to those things, your values and, you know, what your business is about, and helping people and solving big problems, you should be able to succeed in cleantech. And then the path that the – that you choose to communicate that is just you know, whatever is kind of trending at the time. It’s a really, really interesting space, obviously changing all the time, both on the tech and product side, but also on that marketing side and the sales side. So I really appreciate the two of you coming on and joining this conversation. It’s been really enlightening and interesting for me. So thank you, Ashleigh. Thank you, Sean. Thank you so much for being on the Alacrity Cleantech Talks today.
To find out more about First Light Technologies, please visit firstlighttechnologies.com. More information about Ocean Diagnostics can be found at oceandiagnostics.com. And for more on Alacrity’s clean tech program, visit alacritycanada.com/cleantech. Thanks for listening and catch us next time on Cleantech Talk with Alacrity Canada.