If you had told us six years ago, as we stood on the roof of our first solar installation, that we would install 10 megawatts in the next couple thousand days - it would have seemed implausible. But that’s what we’re celebrating this week: our 1,000th install, and at an average of 10.15 kilowatts of solar per install, our team has put into service a distributed power plant that is making a tangible difference in our community and on our planet:
So how did Ipsun Solar realize 30% year-over-year growth to reach 1,000 installs and profitability in all but one year of its journey? Here are the five takeaways from building our business and reaching this juncture.
If it weren’t for starting the business with the right values in mind, and finding a larger community that shared them too, we would have been out of business a long time ago. The first thing we resolved to do was register as a Certified B-Corp, so that our guiding principles would be based on putting people and planet over profit, prioritizing good wages and benefits, work/life balance, profit sharing, and most importantly, a high incentive for retention of our team members, who are the backbone of the company. That’s how we consistently receive high job satisfaction scores from our team month after month, which allows us to hire from within and grow the company from the ground up. If the company takes care of it’s employees, the thinking was that the employees would take care of its customers.
But we never could have imagined back then that there was an entire like-minded community of solar companies who also shared our values. We found a buying cooperative, which was around 30 members at the time and has grown to over 70 today. It consists of many employee-owned companies, B-Corps, and mission driven companies who get out of bed every day to build a brighter future, more so than to make a buck. We share an online workspace with these folks, and consistently trade ideas, feedback, questions, and shared empathy for the many struggles of building a successful solar business. Without this community, it’s virtually unimaginable that we would have found our way. The resources and advice we have received (and in turn provided), cannot even really be quantified, because to share in the lessons learned of so many other companies who have been in your shoes, is beyond measure.
Growing a solar business requires a strong community inside and out, because this is very much a team sport that requires constant innovation. Because of that community, we are stronger company celebrating 1,000 solar installations, but more importantly we are better people too.
We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: Lots of solar companies go out of business for trying to offer the lowest price, take on too much outside work, neglect their service and maintenance, rely too heavily on sales and/or installation subcontractors, or just generally set the wrong expectations for their customers. It pains me to say that at times, Ipsun Solar has done all of these things to one extent or another.
Once we learned the hard way that life is much easier when your work is done entirely in-house, you turn service and maintenance into an asset rather than a liability, and you level with your customers about what it takes to operate a sustainable solar business, it becomes easier set a price point and explain to homeowners why you’re not the cheapest option for good reason. Once you’re able to sell on value and not on price, it transforms the business to a place where your values and your brand take precedence. Rather than you being the commodity, and homeowners seeing you simply as another option in search of the lowest cost, you can choose how many and which types of projects you want to accept, thereby turning the market itself into your commodity.
We tell every homeowner we speak to that to have a company who will pick up the phone and provide support regardless of the issue, well after the system is installed and operations, is worth more than working with whomever will give you the lowest price. And that’s especially true when putting a power plant on your roof. So despite selling at a consistently higher price than the competition, we continue to retain 30% closing rates from lead to sale. Turns out that when you’re open and honest with your customers, it builds trust and you’re able to sell at a higher price and a higher rate.
Alright, we’re not going to spend another few hundred words saying the same thing we’ve said before. But if we could do it all over again, we would have retained solid HR support in the first two years, rather than in the last two years. The ability to implement real structure in your hiring, recruiting, benefits, discipline, training, coaching, retention, and onboarding, is one of the highest ROI decisions we have ever made. We only regret not doing it sooner.
The result of having all of these is that our team morale and job satisfaction is higher than ever, the stress of the owners is significantly decreased, and the overall productivity of the company has allowed us to reach the 1,000 install milestone faster than we expected.
There’s this chicken and egg problem you face early in a growth business that would be vexing to any founder. Do you live in spreadsheets and softwares (specifically CRMs) that are affordable and give you room in the budget to invest in growth elsewhere in the business, or do you invest in software that allows you to grow to any size, but is so expensive that it suffocates your ability to invest in much anything else?
For us, the solution was ultimately a modular, scalable solution that allowed us to grow with the business: HubSpot. HubSpot allowed us to start with free or very cheap tiers that matched the volume of the business, and then grow into larger “hubs” as the business grew. That meant that we could have our cake and eat it too, by living in a CRM that could expand with the business indefinitely, while not not taking up all the available space in our budget.
It’s hard to say the same for our companion accounting and inventory system, which has always been extraordinarily expensive, despite also allowing us to grow indefinitely. Some software will give you a lower ceiling than you might expect, and that lower price on the front-end is going to result in big headaches and IT infrastructure upgrades on the backend. Other software is going to be so expensive that while you’ll reap the benefits in a few years when growth starts to build, you’ll struggle to pay for it in the near-term as you’re trying to reach that growth.
For us, HubSpot’s business model and architecture finds the sweet spot of both, and that’s why we continue to recommend it to solar companies as a foundation for their success.
If we tried to count the number of times a third-party vendor has offered us a service that would give us some nominal value in exchange for outsourcing our brand, we would quickly run out of fingers and toes to name them all.
Now, it’s not to say that there aren’t some amazing innovations out there. Inverters that provide great value, but want you to send your customers to their monitoring platform after commissioning. Customer portals that seem interesting, but want their name and colors and logo in front of yours for 30 years. Service and maintenance providers who may alleviate short-term bottlenecks in your O&M backlog, but don’t allow you to build an in-house service team that delights customers from inside the community rather than a call center thousands of miles away. They’re proliferating, and they’re happy for you to hand over the customer relationship to them and have you pay for the privilege.
Nothing is more important than owning your brand, because otherwise you’re just another commodity. We often say at Ipsun Solar that the difference between a solar installer and a solar company, is the difference between some people who can install solar panels, and a group of people with brand recognition, doing all their work 100% in-house from sales to design to installation to service. Solar installers can be found on your local marketplace where the lowest bidder wins because the customer thinks anyone can do the work, so they might as well choose the guy with the lowest price. Solar companies can be found through great, branded content, vehicles, and a customer portal that allows you to own the customer relationship from the minute they sign the contract through the 30-year life of the system.
That’s why we built Sunvoy: to help solar installers worldwide learn from our hard lessons and grow their businesses with their brand in mind, not someone else’s. At 100,000 systems and climbing, we’re determined to have an impact through our work at Sunvoy that is as meaningful as our work at Ipsun Solar.
We’re learning a lot and so will you.
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