Building A Sustainable Future, With Jon Guerster
Now, more than ever, people have become more aware about the significance of sustainability. There are more conversations around it and have become an important cause many are getting behind, showing concern about the trajectory of our future. Jon Guerster has been in the sustainability space for years, devoting his life to building a sustainable future for all of us in the energy sector. He is a Partner at Activate Capital, the Chairman and Co-Founder of Therm Solutions, and the former CEO of Groom Energy Solutions. In this episode, he joins J.R. Lowry to discuss his life’s work and the ups and downs of starting in the industry—overcoming crisis, figuring out a leadership style, and growing the company. Jon also shares some tips on selecting a good advisor for a startup and deciding when to invest in companies.
Check out the full series of "Career Sessions, Career Lessons" podcasts here or visit pathwise.io/podcast/. A full written transcript of this episode is also available at https://pathwise.io/podcasts/jon-guerster
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Building A Sustainable Future, With Jon Guerster
Partner At Activate Capital And Former CEO Of Groom Energy Solutions
In this episode, my guest is Jon Guerster. He is a Partner at Activate Capital, a venture capital and private equity firm that invests in platforms for a sustainable, resilient future. He is also the Chairman and Founder of Therm Solutions, which is accelerating the world's transition from high global warming to potential refrigerants that are still used in more than 99% of the world's HVAC systems. Jon has been a consistent presence in the sustainability space for many years, having founded and run Groom Energy Solutions for several years, starting in 2005 through its acquisition by Dalkia in 2016 and up through 2021. Groom, now Dalkia Energy Solutions, is a market-leading provider of commercial and industrial building efficiency solutions.
Prior to entering the sustainability space, Jon's earlier career years were spent at JPMorgan, HP, open market, and Charles River Ventures. Along the way, he has also co-founded and served on the board of Digital Lumens and in an advisory capacity for Recurve and non-sibi ventures, among others. He is a patent holder and was a 2020 Environment + Energy leader Top 100 Honoree. Jon earned his Bachelor's degree in Engineering from Duke University where he was a few years ahead of me and his MBA from Northwestern University. He and his wife, Kim, live North of Boston and have three children.
Jon, welcome. It’s good to have you at the show.
Thanks for having me.
We were catching up before we started the show. It's been a long time since our days on the Pratt School of Engineering Board of Advisors. It’s good to catch up. What are you doing? Tell our audience about Activate Capital and your role there.
I started with Activate full-time in 2022 and have done it a bit part-time. It started like a lot of things in business. It started because I knew somebody I'd worked with in the past. I liked, respected, and trusted them and thought I'd want to be around them. Venture capital is an industry that can be pretty exciting. I had been in it for many years before. The platform is a growth investing platform. It's venture capital, but it's not early stage or seed.
It's a stage where the companies are still going to be raising capital to invest where they'll still be burning capital into big markets, but we like to think we can bring some value around probably three markets. It's energy, mobility, and industrial tech. Generally, it's under climate tech. I'm a Partner Activate, and a new fund that we raised was a $500 million fund.
You started with them as an operating partner.
That was in the middle of 2021. My background at that point was as an operating executive in the energy tech space. We thought I could start to work with some of the portfolio companies that were already investments that Activate had made, and we knew we'd be raising a new fund, which we announced in the middle of 2022. The operating partner role is common as a term. I've had some people ask me, “What's an operating partner?” It's very custom to the firm. Our firm is fifteen people. The term is normally more associated with private equity, which is ownership, structure, and investment, versus where we operate as a minority investor.
I'm sure we both have friends who are inside of the large private equity firm. Operating partners are typically specialists to try to help the portfolios that are of companies that are owned where the venture is a little bit different, and your capacity of influence is slightly different. As you and I reflect on how long it's been since we've known each other, I wear a hat probably more now as an operator than I do as an investor until I've been in it a little bit longer.
You caught the sustainability bug many years ago when you founded Groom. You were with Charles River Ventures and in the VC space prior to that. How did you get out of VC into entrepreneurship and into the sustainability space back then?
It was profound. Over my career in this broad set of sectors that you call sustainability, I've met people who literally out of high school were like, “We are going to focus on things that fit into the sustainability bucket.” I was not that. You and I were both Boston folks, and I knew energy tech was strong in Boston. I was hoping to try to find a startup in the energy sector, but I didn't have an understanding of the sector. I couldn't spell kilowatt-hour. It was a little bit more. I knew the broader sector was interesting. I liked the domain, and I was fortunate enough to meet some people who ended up becoming the basis for what we started which became Groom Energy.
Many years later, I'm better able to assess patterns of adoption. It's a feel-good category. It relates a lot if we're going to talk about running a company. If you're going to run a company in climate tech or oil and gas, you can guess it would be more fun to have a team you're promoting that you say, “We're going to do something that has a real fulfillment in life,” not that oil and gas. It doesn't for some people, but there is a broader awareness now than there was many years ago.
Certainly, the whole topic of sustainability and global warming, climate change, however, you want to describe it, there's significantly more awareness of it than there was back in the days when you started Groom. I described it a little bit in the introduction, but give the audience a little bit more of a description of exactly what the business is doing.
Groom Energy was an enterprise-focused, ESCO or Energy Service Company. The objective was to help commercial industrial companies reduce the energy consumption of their buildings. We started in 2005. If you can imagine what I was going through coming out of venture when I told my venture capital friends I was doing a building energy efficiency retrofit company where we were going to turnkey install projects that retrofit buildings so their energy consumption was lower, they tuned out and said, “You're not doing solar?”
It was such an awareness around the renewable side. Energy efficiency was definitely not sexy, but that's the business we started building in 2005, and it ended up working out. We can talk about the things that happened along the way. It was a straight services business that was in a category that has awareness around the sustainability category. It's easy to say it has an environmental impact, but it was enterprise selling. It was convincing corporate managers to change their behavior and make capital investments for reducing consumption.
Were you doing LEDs right at the beginning, or did that come later?
That came later. The loads in a building like your home are lighting, heating, and air conditioning, and then there are control systems on all those. That's true in most commercial buildings. Each building type is slightly different. What happened was when we started the company, we were doing well. We started in Boston cold calling. I can still remember getting hung up by every plant manager. We were doing industrial buildings and warehouses. We were using Google to look for big rooftops to find the biggest buildings because they had the biggest loads. We did a lot of lighting with fluorescent lighting retrofits off of the traditional systems. Because I had been in the venture and tech side, we started to study LED applications, and the math was broken.
It was a traditional curve of semiconductors. It was too expensive. Maybe in 2007 or 2008, we saw that the technology for the LED chips was coming along fast enough that we could anticipate within the next few years, you would see a way to do an LED product that was commercial industrial appropriate relative to cost. What I did was I went to some of my venture capital friends and said, “We have customers like GE, Thermo Fisher, and EMC. We're doing these things to save money. We can see where the math is going to work.” I wanted to recruit a team that had come from an LED company in Boston called Color Kinetics. I got some of my friends from venture capital or climate tech who didn't know the building side to give us a seed note to recruit the team.
When we started, we called it Groom LED, but we basically put them in the back of our warehouse, mocked up some things, took them out to the customers, and said, “Would this work relative to the application?” which was a computer light, the mesh network, and intelligence sensing because, in an LED system, we knew the chip was the most expensive part. It was much more of a venture capital type startup than what Groom Energy was. In Groom Energy, we didn't raise any capital. We started to do it on our own, then it grew into a company that could fund itself. It was a service business. It was a relatively low gross margin business compared to tech.
I was running Groom Energy as a service company and then telling the venture folks I can recruit a team, and then eventually, we would build a company as a partner company to Groom Energy. There was a period that was pretty entertaining where I was doing both. We'd raised a seed note in 2008. If you remember, there was a period in 2008 and 2009 that none of us can forget. The world collapsed. I reflect back, and that was a particularly challenging moment in time. You have those startup stories about when you almost died. I had two startups that I was working on at the same time at that particular moment. I can still remember where I was sitting with my wife Kim when the world collapsed. I was looking at her, and I'm like, “How are we going to pay our bills?” It was great.
I can imagine. I was a little curious. One of the questions I had planned to ask you was about the crisis because, on one hand, the real estate market completely blew up. On the other hand, you're offering cost savings because you'd come in. I remember you talking about this back when we were on the Duke Board together. You would go into a factory or a store or whatever and pretty much do the overnight work and have a pretty much immediate impact on cost in terms of operating those buildings. To some extent, you could argue it both ways. It sounds like it went more the negative way for you during the crisis than positive.
Principally, because we were in a capital expense business, and when the world paused, it doesn't mean people don't put capital towards savings. It's just there's a moment in time. It also wasn't strategic, and it certainly wasn't sexy. In a world where you're fighting for capital, building retrofits were not necessarily going to be at the top of anyone's schedule. There are moments in time when you try to assess how long the world is going to stay like this.
We're going through now in our market. With startups, we live in it nowadays with some of the companies I talked to that how you weather storms is a real test of, “Do you have something you believe that fundamentally can survive, like mini-cycles?” Longer cycles are different. At some level, it's a reminder of what we have with all startups, which is cash is king. You have to be able to weather the storm with cash, in some cases. We didn't have a balance sheet for either company at that moment.
Go back to the earliest of days. How would you grade yourself as an early first-time entrepreneur? What did you get right and not get right?
I don't think I imagined I would even be CEO of what became Groom Energy. When we first got it started, I thought of myself as a venture startup kind of person. In most cases, we know that in growing companies, the report card is your own every day and every year, but in the end, a lot of these are measured on outcomes, maybe unfairly so. At that particular period in 2005, 2006, or 2007, I felt like I was leveraging my skills pretty well because I had a venture connection set that would trust me that there was something there. I believed there was something there and they had conviction, and I think it turned out well.
On the services side, there are a couple of these key things like, “How do you hire? How do you manage?” I wasn't an experienced manager when we were starting Groom Energy. What you learn in startups is you're not born a manager. You grow into it because you're in a situation where it presents itself in many cases in startups. Some people flourish in that, and for some people, it’s not well suited to them, but it did work for me in that particular circumstance that may not for others.What you learn in startups is you're not born a manager. You just grow into it because you're in a situation where it presents itself in many cases. Click To Tweet
One of the things you reflect on is when were you happiest. I definitely wasn't happiest when the world collapsed. I was happier at different points where we had a lot of things going on. As many customer-focused startups are, we were happy when you had a bunch of customers saying, “What you're doing is helpful,” either to their wallets or through them telling you that felt like you were doing something useful.
I know you're not going you're not doubling down and going for entrepreneurial experience number two, but if you were going to do it again, what do you think back and say, “I would do this differently this second time?”
You have to ask yourself what are the motivating things around anything entrepreneurial. Nowadays, it's a more hot term to be used. Even many years ago, startups were not as professional as it is nowadays. It’s doing something that's risky. I can remember at one point, I was at JPMorgan. I was considering going to business school, and it was a startup software company that was recruiting me to help them out. I decided not to go there for a couple of reasons. One of the core reasons was I don't think I had an unfair insight into that particular market. I knew enough, but if entrepreneurs are pursuing things, you go back to like, “What's the objective? What's the real insight?”
You find very bright people and they figure out things, pivot, and move along. For other people, you go after markets that are at the right moment for a startup to grow into it. I'm more biased toward the market side of it if you want to have great teams and a bunch of things work out. I first start with markets. If you ask yourself, “If I'm an entrepreneur going after the market, what do you understand about that particular market?” The matching feature, which is hard, is young people who have not been in markets per se, but have insights are trying to validate, “Do I have unique insight? Do I know enough about a market that there's something that can be applied?”
When those things work, that's a good reason to pursue it. The second thing that matches it is, “How do you choose those who you do it with?” My principle for that has been pretty basic, which is, “You follow great people who you want to be around and be like them.” I used that a bunch in my career. If I was doing a startup, I was in my twenties and I had this solution or there was some fundamental insight, a master market, or however I got there, the risk profile is great when you're young. You should do it.
You have fewer responsibilities when you're young. I have some friends who are in the entrepreneurial space who would say that experience is a bad thing and that you need to come in with a fresh perspective on a problem. It's harder to do that if you've been in an industry for a long time. If you think about this in like, “Do you go for the people? Do you go for the market? Do you have experience? Do you not have experience?” you create that into a two-by-two. If I went and asked 100 entrepreneurs, you'd probably have reasonably dispersed distribution about where they would say the sweet spot is in that two-by-two matrix. It's interesting how different perspectives come to bear on that topic.
We're burdened at our age. There's a lot of head trash that goes with reasons that markets were hard. I've seen the movie before the problem. You're always trying to balance that with some level of optimism bias. If you have fundamental insight into why adoption might happen, you got to ask yourself where that came from.
To some extent as an entrepreneur, you need to have a certain degree of irrational exuberance. Otherwise, you wouldn't even start, because the odds are you're going to fail as most do.
It's functioning your risk profile for startups. I still think that there's a question on how different it is because startups are more professionalized, the infrastructure, financing and awareness of perspective on of employees, it used to be that you recruited someone to a startup and you're going through like, “How does equity work?” Nowadays, everyone coming out of college has already learned a ton more than I knew after I'd been in them for a while. It helps make it feel like the risk might be less.
That’s a good point. Think about all the accelerators that are out there, the wealth of material that's available, the Y Combinator model, and all of those things that you can get access to. You didn't have that back when you were starting your company. You had to figure out a lot more for yourself.
It doesn't mean it wasn't this challenging for either side now or back then. It's just a different bar. The bar for nowadays, like if you ask, “Anyone who has a bias towards that risk problem, why would you not try it if you felt like you were around people in a market that you liked?” I think there was concern around when startups failed that you were marked. To your point, if most of them are going to fail, it's around trying to, “What chapter of experience do you want it? At what point? What market? With what people?”
Going back to many years ago when the dot-com market blew up, there were many people who had gone off to do a startup in that late ‘90s boom. After that, it became a lot more acceptable, to your point, to have tried, not succeeded, and learned a lot from it that you could apply to the next job that somebody who had maybe bided their time in a big corporate job wouldn't have been able to bring it to bear. It works in your favor to have that experience. I certainly would encourage people to give it a go at some point.
The other thing is tech, in general. The tech maturity for everyone is much higher. It is pretty fundamental. At Activate, the bet is that we're looking at basically tech stacks that can affect energy, mobility, and industrial tech broadly, where the next level of adoption is not the first time they've done something. It's that some of the solution sets that are being built are fundamentally changing industries. The tech leverage is across all these industries, yet the employee bases are all much more aware of it. Tech isn't narrow. It is horizontal.
Being a tech geek became cool, somewhere along the way. Maybe it was all the tech companies, like Google, Facebook, and others or maybe it was the Big Bang theory. It was probably a combination of all of those things, but it's cool to be a geek now. You had a tremendous amount of opportunity running this company and being the CEO and founder of it to set the tone that you wanted to set. How did you approach it in terms of your own leadership style? How did you think about the kind of culture that you wanted to create in the company?
Imagine you are going to be running something at some point. For me, you went on a couple of base principles. I can still remember only we were 10 or 15 people. I have four bullets every year. I said, “Get smart. Work smart. Do what you say you are going to do, and be ethical at all times.” Those are pretty basics. The get-smart part that I was trying to apply was because we were only 10 or 15 people, I want everyone to solve on their own what they need to know, “Study that. Get out of everything you can find.” There's enough on the net to solve at that point that they can go study anything, technical business, or whatever it was.Get smart. Work smart. Do what or say you're going to do, and be ethical at all times. Click To Tweet
The work-smart thing was, in startups, there's this concern about burnout. The principle I always want to apply is that I don't want to micromanage, “I trust you. If you're driven, you're going to work as smart as you can not to burn out, but you're going to work smart at every level. You're going to make decisions around what isn't worth your time or something that's a priority,” because the other thing about that particular moment in time was there was no management infrastructure. Everyone had to trust that it was flat.
The, “Do what you say you're going to do,” for us was pretty critical. That I had to apply because we were working from home with the first fifteen people. We had people in 5 or 6 states when we were 15 people. Back then, that was maybe a newer thing, but it reminded you that the only way you can work remotely as a team, and we didn't have this kind of format, living on cell phones, is that you had to trust it. If someone said they had the baton, they were going to carry it and finish it.
Being ethical and honest at all times is the priority. Those are four that I lived on. I thought about that later. When I was finishing up when we were leaving, I looked back at some of those things. They applied. There were much better and more mature versions of that. We had employee documents where we had statements of, “This is what you're going to sign up to do. This is what matters to us. These are our principles. These are our safety policies.” We had all that at the time I was transitioning. These four simple things I came up with in 2005, I still use themes.
You hinted a little bit earlier at what mattered to you in terms of the people that you wanted to surround yourself with. What did you think about hiring people? What did you look for in particular?
We were talking about LinkedIn before. Even back then, I was using LinkedIn. I remember cold-calling people on LinkedIn. We were looking for a team member in Atlanta. I found exactly the engineer we did in Atlanta because we were building a product around the country. We needed people to be near the buildings. I remember calling someone who I unfairly critiqued their background on LinkedIn. They were at the right age. In the last job they had taken, they had been promoted. I called him and said, “You don't know me, but my sense is, you should be talking to us about a role where you would be the business development lead in the Southeast.”
I didn't know how that conversation would go. What's fun if you unfairly critique someone on LinkedIn and provoked them on a cold call, you see how they react. That was the most revealing way that I would engage with something as opposed to later when we had search firms helping us. We had no traditional recruiting. What I always applied and apart from the basics of what you try to assess in any interview about someone, “Are they motivated? What drives them? What decisions are they made?” all those things aside. Everything that I lived on in venture capital and also as a manager was this blind due diligence on people, which is not that glamorous, but it's a pretty important way to validate your view of, “Is someone going to work for the team?”
The other technique that I used that was the most important was I wanted to interview whoever we were going to hire for so long that they felt like they were working for the company by the time they joined. I had one team member who said that to me whenever we had a launch. He said, “I've already been working for you. You don't have to give that to me now.” That is only possible when you start a recruiting process early. We say, “We're not ready for you right now, but a year from now, I bet we're going to grow six months from now.” It takes a lot of time.
For the early days, when you're hiring skeleton teams on startups, where each person is much more critical, and then the organization is fragile, I could do that. That breaks the next point on, but the base principles are still the same, which is you try to get back down to diligence to validate your assumption on someone and make sure that they know absolutely everything about the company that solves itself through that process, even if it isn't exhausting for nine months.
There's been even an article on Box about how laborious the interview processes are becoming with personality tests, mock presentations, group interviews, and all these things, and, to some extent, saying like, “Where's this all going? It's getting to be almost consuming.” It's funny that you bring up the notion of saying that the person would say that they almost feel like they were working for you already before they joined the company because one of the things that people are feeling is like they're being put through their paces.
People sit on both sides of this argument about people saying, “It shouldn't be this hard to hire somebody.” I understand why people are doing more diligence because legally, it gets harder to get rid of somebody as laws continued to tighten around that. You want to make sure you're making the right decision.
I think the reverse is true as well. I'm putting a lens here toward startup and growth companies. Big companies can't do this. Once I was part of EDF, the French utility with 180,000 employees, I could not do what I was doing when we were a startup. It's very much a function of what size company and what kind of team members you're looking for.
The company survived the crisis. You went through a period of growth between then and when you were acquired. What did the company look like at the point where you did the deal? What made that the right time to do that?
We were tracking that in our particular sector, the building energy efficiency sector for commercial industrial buildings in the US. What we knew was going to be the most valuable thing. This was never going to be a public company. There was one public company in the sector called Ameresco. We didn't anticipate we could grow into anything like that, but the European platform companies were going to come to the US. It happened over a period of a few years, they started to come to the US. We knew we were going to be a target for someone like that. I stay close to a banker for ten years.
Every year, I told him about our business plan we did. I said, “I want you to know when the market says are looking for something else. I want to be getting that call. I want to have the first right of that meeting.” The Europeans were coming through. We were acquired in 2016. They started coming in 2014. What that means is the biz dev people were looking for platform companies, and we were a good target for that. I didn't know how it was going to go, but we grew substantively. We were a leader in our sector for commercial industrial customers. We had Walmart, Target, and lots of big enterprise customers. We were working on buildings across all the country.
We had done enough work across the country that we were national in nature, although we all had employees and 22 or 23 states. We were a good target for European players coming in. I knew that, and it happened that in the end, EDF was a company that we chose to go with. That brought on another chapter, in which any entrepreneur who sold the company knows the founder's dilemma of what's the right time to sell. We had investors. I raised a little bit of private capital, not Digital Lumens.
We had raised venture capital, but for grown energy, we only raised from private capital. Effectively, it was our decision to manage that process without having to manage investors, as closely the investors were supportive of whatever you decide is right, that someone should be buying you were supported. That worked out great for them, obviously. The judgment they can make went well because they got a lot of capital back. After we were acquired, one of the questions was, “How did that go?” The process was efficient. We didn't write a PPM.
I said, “I'll do a Zoom call. I'll come to see anyone.” I didn't involve any of my team. We first started conversations. I tried to flush out. We didn't even sign the banker until after we had the term sheet because I had a handshake saying, “I don't want to spend time with us unless we think it's real.” That worked out well. I was proud of the efficiency of many companies getting caught up in the acquisition M&A cycle. It can blow the company up. I was determined not to have that happen.
We closed in September 2016. It was acquired by EDF, the French utility, which is now 85%, owned by the French government, and soon to be 100%. They're going to take it back. I was a French government employee. That was a pretty wacky journey after that because we remember what was going on in 2016. There was also some amount of challenges around our political situation regarding what was going to happen relative to the change of the motion of the country. I signed up for an earn-out, which it was ended up being longer than I had planned then I learned the next 3 or 4 years how to be a French government employee.
I was curious about that because, on paper, you were doing the same job, but being part of a massive, mostly government-owned French utility, they had to feel different. What was similar and what was different for you in your role post-acquisition?
I was still running the company, which is my objective. If we were going to become part of a European company in the US, my preference for me was that we were the first of what would be a series of acquisitions. The part that was exciting to me is that we saw a way to be the lead that we would stitch in other companies to do a fuller solution set of energy-building companies. I was double-timing it relative to running what was green energy that became Dalkia, the division that we were under, then also looking at what else might fit relative to acquiring other companies, which eventually we did acquire more companies.
What was different was that a large company that buys a US company, we're the first one. There's an educational process, a relationship development process, and an administrative process. The first time I got the ETF compliance manual, it was Electronic Thud Fact that was this thick. I hadn't been around that since my days at Hewlett-Packard and JPMorgan.
I knew that was coming. I took on the role for the first year of trying to grow our employee base into the benefits, but not the tax, of being part of a big platform company. That was my adjusted role, in addition to running the company, and trying to look for M&A that would help us grow a national platform. I'm not saying that was the easiest. I'm saying that was a role that was required to play.
You mentioned Digital Lumens. What was that about? How did it fit in with what you were otherwise doing it?
We were a reseller. As Digital Lumens, eventually, I hired the first 4 or 5 people with the capital we had raised. We built the first product, then fortunately, I was able to recruit a CEO to take the company to the next level of the pilots. The first product was designed and the patents were filed. Groom Energy was a reseller. Digital Lumens was working with our competitors as well. Digital Lumens went on to raise a bunch more venture capital and was acquired by another European company Osram in around 2016 and 2017. We were both at a stage where, for different reasons, we were considered targets for acquisition.
I know you've done some advisory work over the years as well, advising startups. Having been an entrepreneur and play that advisory role, what do you think makes a good advisor to a startup? How should an entrepreneur think about selecting the right advisor for their particular situation?
To generalize, the best entrepreneurs who are seeking some advice, call it a formal advisor, are someone that they lean on for certain things to know how to fill in their blind spots, and how to get validation for the things that they are trying to make decisions on. Advisors are different from governance and board structure. Advisors a more loosely affiliated. There's some context. In some situations, I've been someone where a CEO can vent to me, and I'm my job is to shut the heck up and listen.
I had my own way of getting that done with Groom Energy. Digital Lumens was different at a board structure. It's very much a function of what the individual believes they need as opposed to the formal adviser thing that says that there's somebody who's bringing visibility to the company, and perhaps where a lot of people think of advisory boards is saying someone who's senior who's in the sector, who has customer connectivity or context for the technology. I played more the role of someone who can listen because I worked as an executive in a venture.
If I can answer or react to some ideas, it gives slight validation to what might be things are. You're lonely sometimes as an entrepreneur or CEO in trying to figure things out. That's typically the role that I've played more of. I do know that other advisors bring something different, which is they're visible. They have super senior conductivity. They know the technology stack. If you have blind spots where you have needs in any of those, you can assemble a handful of advisors who each bring you something very specific.
That portfolio approach to it makes a lot of sense getting people with different backgrounds and skillsets and using that to fill in for each other in addition to filling in for you as the founder and CEO in those situations.
For me, what was hard was when I left EDF. I was doing some more advisory work I had been in a CEO role. I was used to doing something that I had done for a number of years. I was probably unused to not knowing the answer from my experience base when I was trying to advise anyone because what I realized is how little you know about a company. The frequency of communication, the types of materials you read, and how you provide any reaction to anything, I was reminded during the year after I left EDF. I was more humbled. When you're trying to be an adviser to anyone, you have to start every conversation with qualify, “I know this much,” because you know even less than that.
I'm pretty humble about that, even with the companies that are on our portfolio. If you have advisors that fit your personality, where you want to share your experiences with them, develop relationships, and there's going to be a regular dialogue, and it's more natural, those are probably the ones that you should first focus on if you're looking for advisors. You have to get energy from a conversation and find that it's not a tax from a handful of people. You have to want to invest to teach them more about the business because they're not going to learn otherwise. The reactions are going to be highly qualified.
Across the different things you've done over the years, you've been in tech, banking, and the energy space. Sustainability has certainly been a key thread for you over the last years. What have been the other consistent threads that are woven through your career?
At the end of the day, I still remember the core principles of, “Focus on who you work with.” I went to my first startup in ‘94 or ’95. It was an internet startup. I couldn't spell the internet. I had been at Hewlett-Packard. I was going to take a job at CSE index as a consultant because I was trying to figure out to grow into what was related to the internet. I was following someone from Hewlett-Packard who went there. I got involved with Weinberger. Through Bob's joining this startup, I met a couple of other people.
I went to interview them. I left, saying, “I don't know what the internet is, but I have to work with them.” I had the same experience when I even finished up Duke because you and I both did the Duke thing. I was an engineer, and I was going to go work for GE in one of the manufacturing management programs. I went to Wall Street and JPMorgan. I interviewed with a bunch of people, and I'm like, “I don't know what banking is, but I want to be with these people.” It was not about a domain. It was my interview of them while they were interviewing me. It wasn't because they were identical to me. It was the energy I got from the interview process that taught me that it was secondary to what the company did at that moment.
That principle is probably true nowadays. I look at it when we're investing in companies because when you invest in companies and venture capital, you're investing for a long time. It doesn't mean you have to be best friends. There's something you get out of those relationships that you think is going to make you smarter, more fulfilled, push you to be a better version of yourself, and all those clichés. That theme is probably true nowadays even when I talked to my kids coming out of college, like, “What do they want to pursue?” I'm like, “Start with that.”When investing in companies, you should have something to get from those relationships that you think is going to make you smarter, more fulfilled, and push you to be your better version of yourself. Click To Tweet
What have been the best times for you professionally? What was it about those that made them particularly special?
Part of my role is I'm looking for light times, not like the ring-the-bell-when times. I measure like, “If you're in meetings with team members, and people are laughing and having fun, in addition to having great outcomes, match those where people bring energy from literal laughter.” I can remember the best times when we had success when the open market went public. That was a big moment. A moment in time was a journey up there. That was a defining moment. I can remember selling companies as being moments in time.
My daughter and I have a term called nervex, nervous and excited together. The nervex periods were the best. They were the ones that ended up being more defining as like, “We went public. We were acquired. We got a great customer.” We signed a key customer that's a company forming, but it was the nervex part leading up to that. People were energized. The other thing I measured was laughter in the room during the process.
You and your daughter have your own word for it. That Psychology Literature would back you up in saying that it's something like if you're 15% out of your comfort zone, that's where you perform at your best because you know you've got to be on your toes. It's not rote. It's not so out of your comfort zone that you feel overwhelmed or completely uncomfortable about what you are doing. Daniel Pink's written about that in his book Drive if you've read that book.
The thing that you can relate to when you've been through these journeys is what were those around you getting out of the process. For me, if you go back to the CEO and investor, I remember times when our teams were more fulfilled individually and collectively. I felt lucky to have been around that. Those were defining moments where I can see teams have success together, and I happen to be part of it. That was stunning.
On the investor side, when I talk to companies, in many cases, I find myself saying, “Memorize this moment,” because of the way they're articulating and we're a growth investor. You're hearing these stories where inflection is coming so that I can see through their characterizations of the moment in time they're in, “Let me memorize this because it's spectacular. It is this wonderful, nervex kind of thing.” They have confidence, but it's not exactly sure how it's going to play out. Those are probably the most important times when you're in the startup apart from the ones where you're worried about the company going under.
Those are probably more nervous than excited.
It makes you respect some basic things. You appreciate when things are going well, and customers are paying their bills, or when you have your first close of key customers and when you have cash. Some of what's going on now, which I hear folks are age considering as people haven't been through these cycles necessarily, it doesn't matter, but the point is that there are some learnings. In some cases, it's head trash or tax that like, “Remember when it was bad.” The optimism bias that entrepreneurs usually have can get you through it, but it's a healthy respect for the fact that sometimes situations are good. We have cash. Customers say they like what they're doing. We're growing. We've hired a bunch of crazy people, and it gets over all the other stuff that's not easy.The optimism bias that entrepreneurs usually have can get you through it. But it's a healthy respect for the fact that sometimes, situations are good. Click To Tweet
What do you do to recharge your battery?
Nowadays, it's a lot harder with getting away from Zoom. It will help manage your calendar because the calendar fills in and you can't get away from it. You asked about how you get mental getaways. For us, we went up to New Hampshire, where we go by a Winnipesaukee. The drive for that is therapy for me because it's a pretty drive. Where we go, there's not much traffic no matter what it is, even in the summer. That's an escape we get to. The other thing that I did appreciate, we have two dogs, and you see the meme or the cartoons for COVID with a dog like, “No more walks.” Over the last few years, dog walking, as silly as that sounds, has been my getaway time. I take these out of my years. I don't take my phone. There were like basic things you do like, a drive and a walk.
Both those things are physical environment resets, which then gives your brain a little bit of a chance to reset particularly if you leave your phone at home.
That's a special skill you have to have. What's your escape?
Hiking episodically more week-to-week. Day-to-day, it would be the running. It gets me out. We are living in London. It's more city running, which I don't love, but you do get to see different parts of the city, particularly on some of the longer runs. I can get the places that I would necessarily normally walk to that are closer to where we live. It's a little bit harder living in London and not having a car, but I get out there, and it's the same thing. It's a mental reset.
We're all adjusting to the work-from-home thing. The whole time we did Groom Energy, it was always a work-from-home company. When COVID hit, we were doing Google Meet. We did some amount of video because we were doing that with the French to try to save on some flights. I do work-from-home company. We were all SaaS in everything. Everyone had access to everything, collaborating and then we would fly to see each other for projects and meetings. We're all witnessing this. My office is at home it literally is I can do everything from here. The escapes are a lot more what you figured out, which is to get outside and don't have electronics.
Last question, any last career guidance you want to provide for our readers?
The one we didn't talk about was how you get through the challenging times, as far as 2008 and 2009. One of the tougher things that you have to consider is when people need to transition from companies. When you were saying, “What are the highlights or the best moments,” I can think of the most challenging that aren't as extreme as the world collapsing. Number one, it’s when you have to transition someone from a company. Those are very defining for people I can think of some situations for me, which I'm very proud of how that went. I can think of other ones where I was literally scared for how it would go.
To me, the most difficult moment to know is what you're doing correctly as a judgment, as much as we have systems nowadays for tracking performance and it becomes obvious. Ultimately, from an operating standpoint for startups, and for any stage company, you have a healthy respect for anyone who's had to go through transitioning people both individually, but even what's going on in the tech markets, which is layoffs.
These are the things that are the badge of honor if you do it respectfully, and you do as best you can. You're never going to feel good, but I'm more aware of that to have been part of the chapters that we wrote that were difficult, and I still feel satisfied. It's part of what the world is going through that everyone has to appreciate. You cope with your own style. There's no set of rules, but it's the hardest thing.
It is hard. It's funny that you bring that up because I've been through a lot of rounds of layoffs. I have been on both sides of them over the years. It comes with a corporate territory. If I were to answer that question about the times that have been the toughest for me, the times that have been the toughest are when I felt like I'm banging my head against the wall. No matter what you do, there are some constraints around you that are preventing you from having the kind of success you want. For me, those are the most frustrating times that I've been through.
We shouldn't end on a bad one. To the extent to which you write chapters in any company, whether it's by year or company, it is the case that we're all trying to assemble a set of experiences inside of our career journeys that somehow feel like they're building on each other, that you'd like to manage that. When I reflect back on the chapters, I see relationships between them that sometimes at the moment aren't obvious, but later, you can see how you've assembled a set of things that are built on themselves. You're more capable of having an impact and becoming fulfilled.
All those things they do come together, the accumulation of things you've done in the past, what you've seen, what you've experienced and have been through outside of work, all of those things come to bear, and the wise take advantage of that.
Sometimes, you have to learn it in retrospect.
Jon, this has been great. Thanks for your time. I appreciate it. If you're in another stop on the reunion tour of people I haven't talked to in a long time, I'm getting a chance to catch up with you. Hopefully, it will not be quite as long between now and the next time, and it's good to get an updated sense of what you're doing.
I'm glad you're part of PathWise. This program is great.
Have a good day and weekend.
I want to thank Jon. It was great to catch up with him to discuss his career journey, what he's been doing over the last few years, and his long-standing commitment to building businesses focused on sustainability. If you're ready to take control of your career, visit PathWise.io. If you'd like more regular career insights, you can become a PathWise member. It's free. You can also sign up on the website for the PathWise newsletter or follow us on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook. Thanks, and have a great day.
About Jon Guerster
Jon Guerster is a Partner at Activate Capital, a venture capital and private equity firm that invests in platforms for a sustainable, resilient future. He is also the Chairman and Co-Founder of Therm Solutions, which is accelerating the world's transition from high global warming potential (GWP) refrigerants that are still used in 99% of the world’s HVAC systems.
Jon has been a consistent presence in the sustainability space for almost 20 years, having founded and run Groom Energy Solutions for 16 years, starting in 2005, though its acquisition by Dalkia in 2016 and up through 2021. Groom, now Dalkia Energy Solutions, is a market-leading provider of commercial and industrial building efficiency solutions.
Prior to entering the sustainability space, Jon’s earlier career years were spent at JP Morgan, HP, Open Market, and Charles River Ventures. Along the way, he has also co-founded and served on the board of Digital Lumens and served in an advisory capacity for Recurve and non sibi ventures, among others. He is a patent holder and was a 2020 Environment + Energy Leader Top 100 Honoree.
Jon earned his Bachelors’ Degree in Engineering from Duke University and his MBA from Northwestern University. He and his wife Kim live north of Boston and have three children.