Not In The Job Description

August 8, 2022 |

By Jonathan Sherwood, VP, Finance at Sweetwater Energy

When I first interviewed at Sweetwater for the VP of Finance position, I was not asked, “How good are you at shoveling manure?” But, just six months after that interview where I’d sat in a crisp suit and new tie, I was knee-deep in some of the most foul-smelling glop I’d ever imagined.

And it’s the perfect metaphor for working at Sweetwater.

Wait, I should clarify—it’s not that working here stinks, but that everyone at this tough little startup is willing to get down in the dirt if that’s what it takes to make this company fly—titles be damned.

Anyone who’s made the mistake of asking me why I love working at a startup has suffered through this speech ad nauseum: the startup mentality is that you are valuable, not your position. Sweetwater needed a finance VP, yes, but it also needed someone who could write grants and press releases and handle our IT needs. One of our engineers handles our social media, and another contributes to sales calls. The person who handles HR also books our flights. No one at Sweetwater does just one thing, and that’s because no one here is just punching a timeclock.

We aren’t doing our jobs—we’re doing whatever is needed.

So six months after I came on board, Sweetwater won a contract to supply cellulosic sugars to a company to produce biochemicals from our sugar through a Department of Energy grant. But the deadline was extremely tight. We had one little pilot system running at the time, and that system took all the attention of our two operators to run.

Today, Sweetwater processes corn stover and wood, and has a commercial-scale system operating in Estonia (and it’s so well automated that a single person can run it), but Sweetwater’s original plan was to convert silage to cellulosic sugar.

I shared an office with our head of sales at the time, and when we got this contract, we knew what we had to do, so the next day we showed up at the plant in messy jeans and began shoveling silage. For those of you who are fortunate enough not to know, silage is fermenting corn and stalks which is bound up on farmers’ fields in the fall and is fed to cattle all winter. It’s the consistency of sludge and smells like all the sewers of the world backed up into a single dump truck and caught angry fire.

For two weeks, the sales and finance departments (all two of us) slung pitchfork and shovel to feed the pilot system. We learned that the smell was so insidious that we kept our clothes in garbage bags in our trunks, otherwise everything we came into contact with picked up that stench. It was a crazy two weeks, but we fulfilled the contract.

And we still do crazy stuff like that today. On a recent company call when our chemists said they were in a scramble, our CFO asked if he could come to the lab to wash beakers. Being in a startup means you use whatever skills you have to contribute where you can. You don’t limit your thinking to the box around your job description.

It’s what makes Sweetwater a tough little company, and it’s why I have no doubt we’ll succeed.

Though if we ever go back to silage, I’m making the intern shovel it.

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