Mike Hart | Crain's Sacramento

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Mike Hart

Background:  

Sierra Energy specializes in waste gasification and renewable energy technology. The Davis, California-based company’s first commercial system, the FastOx Pathfinder, converts nearly any form of waste into clean energy such as electricity, and renewable fuels such as diesel and hydrogen.

The Mistake:

Back in the early 1980s, I used to drink a can of Coke every day at lunch. But then I decided I didn’t want the sugar, so I had the idea of putting water in a can, or even a bottle, and trying to sell it.

I found out that the government does canned water for emergency rations, so I knew there were canning lines that could do it. I wanted to do something similar commercially and call it “Can-teen.” I just simply wanted to try to get into the business.

I started talking to major beer bottling companies and asked if they would be open to the idea. I got shot down everywhere I went. The common refrain I heard was, “No one would ever pay for water – it’s free.”

Ultimately, I decided that I should listen, because these people were the experts and knew what they were talking about. I gave up. In retrospect, that was a big mistake, because there was a market for bottled water. But back then, the only thing sold like that was Perrier.

So instead of just starting my own business and getting on with it, I allowed people to convince me to not pursue it. Obviously, other people did, and did it successfully.

What it comes down to is, if you know you’re right, do it. It really doesn’t matter what other people think. But that’s something that wasn’t obvious to me when I was in my early 20s.

We wouldn’t have made it if we listened to the naysayers.

The Lesson:

In countless business ventures, I’ve learned that most people are wrong when it comes to considering new ideas. Very few people can envision anything new. That may be surprising to someone who has a new idea, but it’s true. Many people have a hard time picturing something that doesn’t currently exist.

One of the problems with the term “visionary” is that sometimes the vision you’re seeing is so compelling, it’s difficult to not see it when you don’t want to. With the canned water idea, I had a crystal-clear vision of what I wanted. But I couldn’t get these other folks to see or share the same vision I had.

A lot of people tell you it’s important to pay attention and learn. But the truth of the matter is, if you believe in something, you need to listen to other folks only to a certain extent. Because for the most part, what you’re hearing are people’s opinions. You need to factor that into your thinking.

I’ve done dozens of projects since then where I’ve decided that this is a thing that needs to happen, and, regardless of anything else I hear, I just need to proceed. I guess you could say I’m bullheaded. But that approach has been very successful for me.

At Sierra Energy, we’ve spent 13 years developing clean energy technology. We’ve had an endless chorus of people saying, “It’ll never work. It’s too complicated. It’s been tried before.” Just a constant negative drumbeat. We have a case like that right now: Our first commercial waste gasification system was just delivered. It’s exciting – all those years of effort are finally paying off.

But we wouldn’t have made it if we listened to the naysayers.

Follow Sierra Energy at @FastOx.

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