David and Goliath

Interactive Age Dictionary: "Upstartup"

"And the best part is we stole the rainbow logo from Kodak's Polaroid camera!" up∙start∙up

/ˈəpˌstärtˌəp/

noun derogatory

noun: upstartup; plural noun: upstartups

  1. A company that has risen suddenly to wealth or high position and annihilated its old-school competition through the savvy use of social media and Internet technology.

See also: Instagram v. Kodak, iTunes v. Tower Records, Netflix v. Blockbuster Video, Skype v. the telecom industry, Oreo v. Twinkie, Expedia v. the entire travel agencies industry, Amazon v. Barnes and Noble, New Era Colorado v. Edison Electric Institute, The Huffington Post v. Newsweek …

Xcel's spreadsheet of missteps: How the Internet upended corporate communication

"OK! You can have the Bentley, too. Just get me outta here!!" We’ve had a lot of fun picking at the bones of the 20th century mastodons that stampeded into the tar pits of the Interaction Age, but we haven’t witnessed one of those big boys going under in real time … until today.

Xcel Energy is currently in an existential fight with New Era Colorado—a band of dedicated (if not a little misleading) activists who believe they are “on the verge of setting an important precedent that has national significance and could threaten not just Xcel Energy but the very core of the business model, and the billions of dollars in profit that come with it, of the dirty coal energy industry.”

Considering the reaction to date from Xcel—and the energy utility industry in general—they may be right.

In 2011, the good people of Boulder Colorado voted to wrest control of the power grid from Xcel and make it a locally owned utility. Xcel fought back by getting an initiative on the 2013 ballot that would scuttle the deal if it were to pass, setting up a showdown that will have profound repercussions for the utilities industry if Xcel loses.

(Ever humble, Xcel initially denied having anything to do with the ballot measure. But after it was revealed that “the language of the proposed amendment … is identical to language that was tested by Xcel in an April poll,” Xcel acknowledged its involvement.)

New Era Colorado got the jump on Xcel with a well-produced video that laid out their case for why voters in Boulder Colorado should not overturn the 2011 election results. The highlight of this video is the revelation (at 3:35) that there is a “textbook” published by the Edison Electric Institute that Xcel and other utilities are using to fight the growing movement to localize power supplies. The advice in this “textbook” on how to “nip the movement in the bud” made it quite obvious that this 11-year-old manifesto needs updating.

Among the pearls … “develop fact sheets and other information you can leave behind,” “feature charitable activities in bill inserts,” and establish a website because “increasingly, individuals are turning to the Internet for political information.” (Can it be that it was all so simple then? Or has time rewritten every line?)

But it looks like Xcel is going to need more than a textbook and some yard signs to prevent its business model from unraveling. According to a more recent report commissioned by the Edison Electric Institute (January 2013), the entire industry faces a “cycle of decline [that] has been previously witnessed in technology disrupted sectors (such as telecommunications) and other deregulated industries (airlines).”

In other words, “Like the U.S. Postal Service … utilities will continue to serve the elderly or the less fortunate, but the rest of the population moves on,” at least according to David Crane, CEO of NRG Energy, a wholesale power company based in Princeton, N.J.

As we’ve learned from Kodak, the Yellow Pages, Twinkies, Newsweek—to name just a few—it’s a brave new world out there. If you do not adapt, you will die. And the bigger you are, the faster you will be swallowed up by the tar pit. (The Internet does not subscribe to the “too big to fail” philosophy.)

So learn from the mistakes of the once-masters of our universe. The days of talking to are over. You now have to communicate with your customers partners, honestly and transparently.

New Era vs Old Errors -- What corporate titans can learn from "those dang activists"

"Seriously. Do NOT make me get off this bike." If David keeps toppling Goliath—which seems inevitable these days—we’re going to have to retire the idiom.

The latest giant-slaying is going on right now between the New Era Colorado Foundation (David) and Old Errors Xcel Energy Corporation (the soon-to-be vanquished Goliath).

New Era wants Boulder to wrest control of the power grid from Xcel because they believe that the city can provide cleaner energy for less money. As you can imagine, Xcel—which stands to lose $35 million in profit that the good folks in Boulder shell out annually—disagrees.

In a fascinating video clip that rivals Kony 2012 in its rousing help-us-save-the-planet climax and (some might argue) creative presentation of the facts, New Era boasts:

“Back in 2011, our community did something no other community had ever done before: we voted to explore taking control of our power supply for the sole purpose of lowering our impact on the planet. … If we win, we trigger a national model that can be replicated across the country.”

Upworthy posted the video last week and urged people to share it. Huff Post picked up the story and—to no one’s surprise—the video went viral. Big time. (You can track the real-time financial score board here.)

It’s not shocking that a bunch of energetic kids with honorable intentions and decent video production skills could end up in the eye of a media storm, especially with the help of Upworthy, which is considered the Punkin Chunkin catapult of viral-video launches.

But it is nothing short of genius that they were able to get such a response through creative positioning.

Consider the claim, “Back in 2011, our community did something no other community had ever done before: we voted to explore taking control of our power supply for the sole purpose of lowering our impact on the planet.”

Taken at their word, you might think that Boulder is on the verge of becoming the first municipality ever to commandeer the power grid from an evil for-profit corporation. But they’d actually be the 18th city in the last decade to do this.

However, they would be the first to do so “for the sole purpose of lowering our impact on the planet,” a caveat which—and this is pure gold, Jerry—enhances their case rather than diminish it, as caveats usually do.

You might even believe, as the video states:

“Boulder is on the verge of setting an important precedent that has national significance and could threaten not just Xcel Energy but the very core of the business model—and the billions of dollars in profit that come with it—of the dirty coal energy industry.”

Well, not really. There are dozens of cities considering making the break, including Minneapolis, the city that Xcel is based in.

But the most brilliant bit of magic is found in the pitch at the end of the clip.

“The only way David beats Goliath this time is with your help. Because the only way to counter money is with PEOPLE. … They might have the war chest, but we have the ARMY. And we are here to recruit YOU. Right now, more than ever, we need YOU. Your financial support will help restore our community’s voice this election.”

Yes, we need YOU … to give us YOUR money.

Normally, I’d advise against stretching the facts to make them fit your fattened claims. But this was done so creatively and has been so successful that, as the Anchorman once said, “I’m not even mad. That’s amazing.”

Tomorrow: Xcel’s Spreadsheet of Screw-ups