In this episode, we catch up with Tara Russell, CSO at Photon Marine (an accelerator-funded green energy start-up). She shares how a Strategy Sprint case team from Management Consulted provided critical insights that led to an uber successful VC pitch.
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Our guest today is Tara Russell, co-founder and Chief Strategy Officer of Photon Marine. Photon Marine is a company that is developing high powered electric outboard motors for tourism, transportation, and municipal boat fleets. Tara and her business partner, Marcelino Alvarez, participated in our last Strategy Sprint project in January.
Strategy Sprint is a hands on consulting project where you get to work with a real client on one of their active business problems. Tara volunteered to have an MBB-led student consulting team work on a week-long project for them. She’ll tell us more about the problem she asked the team to solve in a few minutes. So Tara, thank you for being with us today. I’m excited to welcome you to the podcast and interested to learn more about your experience with Strategy Sprint.
Thanks, Beth. It’s really a treat to be with you. I appreciate your having us on.
Great. So to start, we’d like to give you an opportunity to share a quick overview of your background and tell us a little bit about your company Photon Marine. Then we’ll dive into your experience with Strategy Sprint.
Sounds great. My background is interesting. I started as a mechanical engineer, I studied at Georgia Tech. I talk about my first career in the consumer products world, and my second career as an entrepreneur, having built a variety of different social enterprise organizations, for profit, nonprofit.
I first worked with General Motors. Intel, and Nike and then have spent the last 15 to 20 years building a variety of different startup companies, everything from travel, most recently for Carnival Corporation, building a cruise line with them, but also being in the business process outsourcing space, food production, b2b food production. Also, having done a variety of different financial independence and job training organizations overseas in Southeast Asia.
We’ve launched Photon Marine just over the course of this last year. I’m so honored and fortunate to be partnered with a great team of co-founders, there are four of us. So you’ve met my partner Marcelino Alvarez. We also have two others, our Chief Technology Officer Nick and Charles Steinbeck, who’s our head of business development. It’s been an amazing thing just to work with such a seasoned and well rounded founding team. And it’s been a real treat.
We base the company out of Portland, Oregon, so we’ve got a lot of access to water and a lot of access to the broader marine space. And we’re really targeting commercial b2b fleet operators with this high powered electric outboard motor technology. In addition, we’re really working to spearhead the ecosystem and bring fleet management intelligence to the broader arena.
If you notice the space now, the context is still fairly early. There are other players, there is competition in the space, however, there’s really not anyone going after this kind of higher powered long range outboard motor space, and there’s not really much competition going after this commercial b2b fleet targeted customer.
That’s incredible, very exciting.
We’re super excited. It’s a really energizing time. And honestly, just the timing with which we were able to engage and work with you all at Management Consulted couldn’t have been better. And I look forward to sharing a little bit more about that through this conversation.
I love that! You were a client for our January 2022 Strategy Sprint. What was the problem you asked the team to solve?
We came in pretty focused because we’re in the process of raising capital. We’re early, we’re pre-seed stage and we’re building our prototype, and we’ve really been working to close our lead climate venture capitalist partner. And so we felt like it was really critical for us to drill in and zero down on a lot of our numbers. We have our go to market strategy and had already built that, but what we really asked your team to do was gut check our go to market strategy and to really work in tandem with us to size, on an even more granular level, that total addressable market and really our strategic slice of that market. And so it couldn’t have been more effective. We were really, really pleased with the work the team did.
Yeah, that is a fascinating question to research. I’m so glad that we had the opportunity to help you out with that. How involved were you in the project?
I was really involved with the project, and I was really fortunate to be involved with the project. It was a tremendous honor just to work with this team and get to know such a diverse group of people. I was, honestly, personally really impressed with the diversity and breadth and depth of experience that all of the participants on our team brought to the table.
We had everything from people getting different degrees, having already had worked and been in a variety of different industries. There was one guy that had been in the oil industry for 10 years, had his MBA but was really contemplating a career shift. There was another young man at USC who was a total eager beaver and brought a whole different perspective to the table.
I was amazed by the diversity of different industries that the representatives on the team brought to the table. I thought that was really helpful and unique in terms of just how people were looking at the problem. So we had everything from medical industry to oil and gas to a variety of different sort of services industries. And I think that really enhanced us getting to the right numbers throughout the course of the week. So it was really a joy to work with them.
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We really have an impressive mix of people on our team. It really does help to hear different perspectives from different areas. That’s amazing. So what was it like to interact with the team during the week? How did that work?
It’s interesting, because before the project, I didn’t have a whole lot of imagination or expectation about how much could really be done in just the course of a week. So we sort of had, I would call it, three primary touch points throughout the week, maybe even four.
I felt really grateful that we made the space to do the midweek check ins, because I felt like it allowed us to get even deeper into the market numbers that we were really hunting. And from a strategy perspective, it really allowed us to hone in and double down on what we’re doing in terms of our phase one customers and phase one sales. And so it was enormously helpful.
We had an early kickoff with the team, and got to meet everyone from Stephanie and Nare, and the broader team and hear about their backgrounds and experience, and really work with them in terms of bringing the context of our marine electrification industry space to their mindset, and really just helping paint that picture of the world of boating, everything from the recreational to the commercial space, and then helping them understand the different segments of that market.
I thought the kickoff was enormously productive, and also just really fun and informative and insightful. And then, almost immediately the team dove in, got to work. And I couldn’t believe how quickly they were ready to sort of do a gut check on some things. I think it was literally maybe a day or two later, we had sort of a midweek check in and questions, we might even have done that twice.
The amount of information this group of young people brought to the table in just 24 or 48 hours was really mind boggling I thought. For people that didn’t have the kind of background and familiarity of travel and tourism that some on our team have or hadn’t been spending months, you know, digging through R&D around this kind of space, it was really exciting to see how aggressively and honestly how much curiosity they brought to the project.
I would highly encourage anyone else that’s thinking about doing a project to make space during your week, even if it’s really hard. I think we did one later at night, but just make space to check in with your team leader at least, because you’re able to direct the ship a little bit better towards some of the core and key questions that your business is trying to solve for.
For instance, for us, one of the things we were really looking at from a strategy perspective was the broader US market and the central Latin America-Caribbean market compared to the European market. We’ve really been trying to discern in terms of phase one sales – do we go harder at just the US and Florida, Caribbean, Central America? Or do we straddle and try to be in two places? Or do we just go to Europe or whatever.
I think we felt pretty confident that the US – West Coast as well as Florida, South Caribbean-Central America area – makes a lot of sense. But it was amazing to have the team come back with such detailed information and numbers to really affirm for us that we could not just tentatively step into that space, but that we could run hard.
Since then, and it’ll be fun to share some of the progress, but we just started running hard out of the gates as we wrapped up the project with the Management Consulted team, because it really validated for us what we had as a hypothesis, and it gave us that much more ammunition as it relates to really aggressively not just presenting to investors, but having these really meaningful dialogues with customers. So again, I’m happy to give some updates to that if it’s helpful.
We’re going to talk about the findings and recommendations. So at the end of the week, the team presented a final presentation to you. What was the biggest takeaway for your team from that presentation?
It was amazing validation of some of our directional strategy. And it really crystallized that, yes, 100% marine tourism is the right focus for us. The lion’s share of our focus is on this broader marine tourism and transportation fleet. So you can think about that as everything from water taxis along sort of coastal municipal areas, to cruise line related surrounding industries. So things like whale watching, scuba diving, snorkel boat trips, wildlife viewing boat trips, we’ve got some really interesting customers and pilots coming together that are in those spaces.
And so, whether it’s transporting employees in a cruise related business, or whether it’s transporting guests, for more of an excursion type experience, those hyper repeatable trips, in terms of their distance and the power required, are exactly what we’re looking for. And so I think what was great is we had much more granular level numbers around the travel and transportation space.
Additionally, we really got this interesting and key insight that the US market between now and 2026, in our realm in terms of this broader electric outboard motors space, the US market is growing at two and a half times the pace of the European market. And we did not understand that nuance until we had this project with the team. And so it was enormously valuable and insightful to allow us to bet all of our chips hard right now into what we call the broader West Coast US, so everything from Alaska, Washington, Oregon, California, and down through the coast.
In addition, we’re really heavily focused on Florida, the Caribbean, and then Central and Latin America. So all the water stuff that would happen off a Miami based Caribbean cruise. So anywhere that a ship might go in terms of a week or a two week vacation, as far south as Belize, or something down in Central America and really all throughout the Caribbean to the Bahamas are a massive market opportunity area. But as you know, the Caribbean is an enormous opportunity zone for us because there is so much water based tourism experiences.
That’s huge. That’s a lot of territory to cover.
Honestly, it was so amazing, because – and I don’t even know if I’ve told you this yet – we met with the team on Friday in terms of our final presentation. And I feel like we did that final readout with the team about mid-day. Literally, the next meeting we went into, after the final presentation from Management Consulted, was with a climate venture capitalist investor group called Urban Us who just happened to lead our round. They closed the deal with us later that month. We literally finalized the deal with them over these last couple of weeks.
I have chills even telling the story because I personally remember talking specifically to Sean, the partner at Urban Us about some of what we learned with the team in terms of those granular numbers about the true size of the 2026 space, what it looked like, electric outboards versus inboards, the detailed numbers between commercial and recreational. And I just personally had so much confidence to share that detail and that data with boldness, and it has really energized our whole team.
I mean, from when we finished with you guys January 14 to now, just six weeks later, we’ve closed our lead climate venture capitalist who’s leading our investment round, we’re four weeks from getting our prototype in the water, so our prototype is almost finished. We just came off the Miami International Boating Show, and we have an normal amount of leads from customers. We’ve wireframed our two initial customer pilots, so we’ve got those in development. And we have a variety of investor conversations, probably 10 to 15 investor meetings a week now – we just can’t even keep up!
It really was mission critical timing, and we’re trying to really hit this window because the electric vehicle world and honestly, the infrastructure development, both on land and water, is coming along so aggressively, that we really needed to be able to be running hard now. And I’m not sure what would have happened with that lead climate venture capitalist partner that we were working with, we couldn’t have found a better partner.
I feel like I went from swimming a normal cadence with work to just racing now. We are running hard, full speed ahead. And honestly, the momentum we feel as a team, I have enormous gratitude for all of you in terms of your willingness to work with us in that time frame, because it’s almost like hindsight is 2020.
Amazing. It’s so wild to hear that you were able to implement the team’s recommendations within hours, within days.
Within literally 30 minutes. (laughs)
I love that, it’s pretty wild.
Can you estimate the financial impact of the project for your company?
I was thinking about that today and it’s difficult to quantify how impactful this project has been for us because we’re so early in terms of our broader roadmap as we bring this baby to life, so to speak. And yet, there’s no question that the project helped us land that initial climate investor. So to give you a sense, Urban Us invested $250,000 with us. So I would say it was at least that helpful to close that lead investor.
But the truth is, as you know, with every company that’s rapid growth stage, we’re now having such an accelerated pace of conversations with investors. And a big part of that is because we were able to secure Urban Us as our lead. And it kind of drives the flywheel and the momentum faster, further and it really is getting us into different circles of conversation.
To give you a sense, one of the things I’ve been working on today is prioritizing our next investor meetings and conversations and just doing some due diligence and really working just to know and understand how well some investment funds might overlap to our mission and vision or not. Whether in the for profit world or the nonprofit world, it’s mission critical to really understand your target and your audience and I think so often people tend to take a machine gun approach. They just shoot bullets out in the wind and just hope something lands. In my personal experience, that’s a terrible mistake because it’s a waste of your time and it’s a waste of their time and it’s not as professional as you could be if you do your homework, right.
And so I feel like what we’re trying to do is really ensure we’ve done our background legwork that we understand and know what the investment hypothesis or thesis is with a fund, and make sure that their portfolio and investment approach are aligned with what we’re trying to do, either on the hardware side or the software side.
And, you know, the space we’re playing in is mobility, it’s transportation. It’s a very capital intensive space. And some investors are allergic to hardware, I’ll put it that way. And other investors, like the one we’ve secured as our primary lead partner, are really organized in a way to support hardware-focused technologies.
And so, one of the benefits that we already feel with this lead investor is they have become a partner and almost like a player on our team. And so weekly, we are working with them to understand within their portfolio of companies, as well as within their broader holding structure of various companies, what are all the resources that they have that can support our journey, how they can help us most effectively with supply chain parts, how they can help us down the line with the right debt capital, how they can help us secure the like-minded startups who are maybe a season ahead of us who’ve potentially gone over some hurdles that we’re going to have to cross ourselves.
And so it feels impossible to me right now to quantify the value that the team has really helped us secure, because it has so many different layers. And it also feels like an octopus. The longer we’re, for lack of a better word, the longer we’re in bed with this group that we’ve just kicked off with in terms of our climate partner, the more we get to know them and their holding structure, the more value there is to uncover.
We’re so new to that – we’re only about a week into working with Urban Us formally. It’s been a couple of weeks, I guess. But even just in these last couple of weeks, the wealth of resources that we have – and I have teenage children and they’re trying to get their head around me raising capital, and this whole process of entrepreneurship.
And they’ve been alongside me the whole time in various different startups. And they’re both very like entrepreneurial, environmentally focused kids, and both very strong leaders. I found myself at dinner the other night telling them, so basically we identified the right partner, Urban Us, and they’ve essentially invested to lead our pre-seed round. And I said, in other words, they are paying us to be a part of our team. I couldn’t really figure out a simple way to tell a 14 and 16 year old who are trying to get their head around, what does it mean from an equity and dilution and blah, blah, but it was sort of like, I wanted them to understand this is more than the money. It’s not just a financial investment, it’s really a vote of confidence, it’s an additional set of resources to come alongside our team. And it’s a wealth of rich resource data that we can dip into over these coming 3, 6, and 12 months.
We’re very rapidly moving from pre-seed to seed stage. And so our prototype will be in the water this next month, and we’re right behind closing this note, we’re raising our seed round. And so, for a hardware-focused business, raising capital is going to be a high amount of our energy for the next three to five years. And I think that, you know, there’s no question you guys really helped launch the plane, so to speak, as we’ve kicked off, so thank you so much.
That’s so great. What would you tell a company considering entering a project for consideration in Strategy Sprint?
In my personal opinion, I don’t know why someone wouldn’t. It’s a wealth of knowledge, experience, resource, and in some ways you get out of it as much as you put into it. And so as a bootstrapping startup, whatever stage of the company a growth-oriented entity might be, in my personal opinion, there’s no question. There could be an enormous amount of value.
If we had the chance to go do it again, we would dive back into it in a heartbeat because as long as you spend time really thinking about the area of focus you want to dive into and as long as you can, with clarity, effectively describe the problem you’re trying to solve for or the data you’re really trying to hunt and mine, the better you can focus the team and give them the context, the education, the background, in a quick way, if you can sort of teach them up, so to speak on your industry, and then also equip them with some tools, resources, they will be off to the races, there’s no question.
And what’s really fun is the diversity of professional backgrounds and experiences that your consultants bring to the table, it’s kind of where the art meets science. Because how each of the team members chooses to dig into stuff is more artistic than it is science. And I felt like it was really fun just witnessing that and having different people present and talk through aspects of the program.
We even, I think at our mid-week check in, we were able to say to them, “Hey, this is great detail on California and on Florida, would you be willing to give us a gut check on Europe?” And that’s when they pulled the rabbit out of the hat in terms of the final presentation, us understanding that holy cow, the US market is growing at two and a half X the European market. It was just the nugget we needed to bolt down the final nail into this phase one focus that we’ve got now.
That’s so good. Thank you for sharing your story. I just know it’s gonna help a lot of people know exactly the benefit that you got from Strategy Sprint.