What does Renewal Funds’ Joel Solomon look for in a pitch?

By Marc Stoiber

Joel Solomon is more than an investor. He’s a force of change.

“In the coming years, $30-50 trillion is going to transition from people without a strong sense of environmental and social mission, to a younger generation with an extremely strong sense of this mission.” Solomon wants to discover, and build the companies and ideas this new generation can believe in.

I’ve known Joel for years. When I left mainstream advertising and started a green ad agency in the heady Al Gore / Inconvenient Truth era, Joel was one of my earliest supporters. He introduced me to the movers and shakers in the movement, many of whom became my clients.

Today, his enthusiasm remains undiminished. What’s changed is that the world is finally beginning to catch up with his vision.

Much like tech, I believe ‘mission-driven’ will cease to be a category of company in the near future. Every company will be working smarter, thanks to cutting-edge technology. And every company will be aligned around a strong people / planet / profit mission.

In the interim, though, I want to celebrate people like Joel Solomon. He was doing mission before it was cool.

I had the opportunity to interview Joel as he announced his new book The Clean Money Revolution (due for release in Spring 2017 – you can get updates here). What emerged was a philosophy on investing that every startup looking to survive and thrive in the coming years would be wise to heed.

If you’d like to listen in, simply click on the podcast play button. If you’d like to skip to the Coles Notes of our interview, read on.

Either way, enjoy!

Ripe for reinvention

Solomon has spent 30 years investing in energy, transportation, food – all areas that are ripe for reinvention. He believes his job is planting flags and pointing this out.

“The key thing is, that there is an increasing market for doing something that actually matters” he underlines. “What Renewal Funds does is plant those flags. We’re working to push wealth managers into these areas.”

It’s wonderful to have the clarity of this mission as a filter for pitches. But there needs to be more than a mission in the business plan.

“We call ourselves mission venture capital – we use a values screen first and foremost when we’re looking at companies. But we also look for the perennial things – companies that solve perennial problems.”

Not to mention companies with a solid grasp of perennial concepts of customer, competition and monetization.

We want to see a million dollars in sales

Solomon is very clear on what he wants to see in a pitch. Facts, realism, a fundamental understanding of the business, traction…and a strong sense of integrity and purpose throughout. As he says, “We need to get a sense that these are people we might consider being partners with.”

There are two simple questions he believes need to be answered. Can you paint a logical picture of why your venture is going to work, and why are you going to do this better than anyone else?

Interestingly, Solomon has transitioned from investing in startups to working with companies that have strong traction. It is, as he says, a promise he made to his investors. It also reflects that fact that there are now enough mission-driven companies out there to support this condition of investment. The movement is growing, and profitable mission-driven companies are no longer the exception.

Spare me the hype

When I asked him what he never wants to see in a pitch, he had an immediate answer. Smoke and mirrors.

“We don’t mind vulnerability. We don’t mind companies that don’t have all the answers. As long as there’s honesty and integrity, we know we can work with them.”

To Solomon, being good at pitching isn’t the same as being good at dealing with people and relationships. He wants to know how the CEO deals with employees, tough questions, investors – how they hold up in a power relationship. These are fundamentals, and they’re critical to growing a company from a million in sales to a hundred million.

“You need to be good at driving, learning, pushing toward a direction.” Words of wisdom from a person who understands the strength of character it takes to stand by your values when all around you seem content to cash theirs in. It’s this integrity that forms the foundation of a strong relationship of trust and openness.

I’m always open for a surprise

Solomon is very cognizant of a truism that became apparent to me working in green advertising: many companies founded on a mission believe they should succeed simply because they’re fighting the good fight. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The company that’s going to succeed needs to deeply understand everything from consumer psychology to supply chain dynamics – all the fundamentals of business. And in a pitch, the company needs to understand that attraction and persuasion play a role.

“I like theatre. I like to feel that sense of surprise as the lights go down, and you’re quickly engaged by the story, the dynamic tension between the players, the journey.” To Solomon, being able to craft a pitch with great story is akin to effective networking – it helps establish a human connection and curiosity quickly.

If you can telegraph a great show within the first 30 seconds of the pitch, all the better.

Don’t promise to make electricity out of air

Solomon considers himself a bit old-fashioned. “We want clients who are interested in working together, who are interested in partnership, who want to grow.”

He believes it’s easy, and tempting, for companies to default to playing the lust card in a pitch. But promising to make electricity out of air, making a billion dollars in the process, belies only hucksterim or naivete. Neither of which are a solid foundation for a relationship.

To Solomon, delivering a pitch that hits the credibility and integrity button is a solid step in the right direction. As he says, it creates a gut reaction in him that this is a company that can be fostered and partnered with.

Open for conversation

Like every investor I’ve spoken with, Solomon welcomes companies reaching out long before they need to ask for investment. Relationship-building takes time. His name is his handle in social media.

And my final note: look for his book, The Clean Money Revolution, due to hit the shelves Spring 2017.

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