Today Smart Commercial Solar turns 10 years old!
We were Incorporated on the 9th of February 2012.
We are now one of the most prominent and arguably most respected commercial solar company in Australia. We have installations in every state in every jurisdiction and we've achieved a lot of milestones. I have 26 excellent human beings that I get to work with everyday, a great culture, really excellent quality of workmanship, and have around 60 contractors on roof any day of the week. We have 1,500 customers and thousands of commercial projects delivering clean energy to their clients everyday. We are currently saving our customers around about 20 million dollars a year and that number is growing exponentially each year. And I can say that every day I still wake up excited about what we can do for our customers; with our customers and with my team.
But, it's a tough industry! and I thought I’d share some of my experiences a bit of our story and maybe what I've learnt along the way.
We call our industry the “solar-coaster”. And yes, it has been quite a rush. It certainly doesn't feel like 10 years! It feels both longer and shorter… They say a day in our industry is the equivalent of a year in most other industries; it's so dynamic, rapidly changing and has so many influences. The industry is exposed to all the domestic business challenges, it's a political football, it's subject to FX, global market changes, what Europe does, what America does, changing government rebates and most importantly whatever China decides to do in its domestic market, all significantly affects us.
But before I get too carried away let's talk about this little business.
I registered this business with $1,000 dollars that my Opa (grandfather) left me on his passing. An immigrant from Post WW2 Holland, he arrived in Australia with my Oma, 3 young boys and a box of clothes but little else. Working hard, in a world that we have long forgotten, they had little but appreciated all of it. By the time of his passing, he had 13 grandchildren and had asked that his final year's salary was divided amongst them. I had only some savings and certainly no external investment. But I did have 5 years of selling domestic solar, I was becoming an expert in my field and I also was one of the few in my industry who live off-grid, (more or less self-sufficient as far as energy goes). But most importantly I had the backing of my (now) wife. And my family, who, for some crazy reason, thought it was possible that I could build a business.
The reason I started smart was because I had a bit of an ethical issue with selling solar to homeowners who we're not home in the middle of the day to make use of the power and yet at the same time, with a background in commercial building, and a history of project management in commercial construction I saw a vision where those businesses were using energy in the middle of the day and needed a truly commercial service to provide for their needs.
I remember sitting at my table, in February 2012, in my lounge room, looking out into my picturesque bushland valley, thinking “damn it’s quiet”... Unlike these days the phone was not constantly ringing. No one even knew I existed. All I really had was an idea that businesses needed a solution and that I had worked out that we could supply and install solar systems free-of-charge and bill for the energy it produced over time thus creating an immediate saving to our clients and a solid return on investment for our solar systems.
I assembled a team of experts from the industry that I thought would be helpful been getting this business off the ground and out of 20 people I started out with, one came with me. Dylan Free. Whilst we don't work together anymore (we are still friends) it was his encouragement, in the silence of the lounge room, that meant everything. Since then we've had many employees come, grow and some have stayed others moved on. Many great employees, many experiences.
When I started Smart it was potentially the worst time of our industry with most of the rebates having come off, the feed-in tariffs were being pulled back in each state, and the commercial market, for which I had a vision, hadn't yet really started. And, in reflection, it was also possibly the best time to get started in the industry as well. The discipline it required, the tenacity, the financial sense and the customer focus meant we took nothing for granted.
I originally started working in solar, 15 years ago, we were installing BP165 Watt panels. now we're installing Trina 500 Watt panels. The cost has come down from $20,000 per kilowatt to $1200 per kilowatt. We used to install maybe 500 kilowatts in a year; we now do 40 megawatts per year. We used to sell to “Greenies” now we mainly sell to capitalists.
I would drive halfway across the country just to sell 2 kilowatts. Now we sell megawatts using satellite tools and software from our office. We never really knew what was happening with solar systems after they were installed, now we know everything that is happening every minute of every day on every solar system we've ever installed. Renewable energy was less than 1% of the annual provision in Australia, now its around 20%! Times have changed!
So what have I learnt over 10 years in business and having survived the many very aggressive ups and downs of the energy sector? The three or four different governments that I have experienced, and the various global movements in this industry? Looking back it seems that all my lessons have been learnt the hard way. But they are good lessons for any business owner.
Good People make Good Business:
It's no revelation to anyone that good people make a business. What I've discovered along the way is that everyone has the potential to ‘be good’ but a business is simply a platform to enable people to exercise their goodness. My company is built as a platform for all my staff to work with integrity and honesty and do a great job. I back them to back my reputation and they back me and the business reputation.
Play The Long game.
Business is built with the long game in mind. We sell energy over time; we do not sell a product or a particular solar system to a customer. Our motivation is to grow a relationship. That means that even if we don't make money right now we have a relationship and a future vision of products and services that will turn into money for us at some point in time. It means that we are not transactional and can hold our customer needs as our focus.
Take on tough projects
Few lessons are learned by following status quo. (Unfortunately) most of my most precious lessons have been learnt the hard way. We have made mistakes, then fixed them. Painful, and I wish I could learn another way! We have taken on people, partners and projects that we shouldn’t have. They cost the business and myself dearly, but in the end we have learnt, grown and achieved great things by stretching ourselves. And if you can learn and take good lessons from bad experiences, then you are always progressing. And doing the occasional edge of your ability project is a great way to grow, provided you take responsibility as well.
Be honest with yourself and Act quickly.
I get to meet a lot of customers, suppliers, and obviously employees. Quite quickly you get a gut-feel as to whether you're dealing with someone who shares your values and your way of doing business or not. You must be honest with yourself about it. For me I’ve found that I can't work with people who don't share my values. The moments where I've acted, hoping that a toxic personality can turn into profit, has always been sorely disappointing and ultimately cost more money than what they delivered. So if you find someone who's great to work with embrace them, work with them, forgive them when they stuff up and work together for a better future. But if they don't show your values move on, get out of there, or protect yourself well, whatever you have to do; it won't work out well. But working with great people: there is nothing more rewarding. It’s the best part of my job.
In growing teams:
Some people can't hand over responsibility to others. The excuses they come up with such as “well by the time I train them I might as well do it myself”, or “if they stuff it up I'll have to go back and fix it”. You need to find employees who share your values and then you CAN trust them to do the work. Once you trust them to do their work don't step on their toes and go and do it for them; trust them, that they can do it, and even if they stuff it up, that they will fix it, and even if they can't fix it that you will help them but ultimately a good business is built on trust between workers. Good, true, intent rarely fails to find a good result.
Technology will change, We change, But Need for services never changes :
“Strong opinions, lightly held” – (Paul Saffo) is a great way of considering our industry. Solar is a great solution right now, and a great product in general, but broadly speaking the energy market is always changing and technology is certainly changing rapidly. We focus on our customers problem, and aim at fixing that, adapt to customers needs and with whatever the most appropriate clean tech and we are not dogmatic about the method. This has lead Smart to be extremely innovative and do things that have not been done before. Always being prepared to learn and grow with new ideas and change our opinions on externalities are important to how we do business and important not to loose in the future. Remaining humble and being prepared to second guess what we hold true can really help us evolve.
I am proud of what we have done. I am proud of my team and what we can do. But we are constantly changing and are focused on the next 10 years, I believe that the last 10 years have been a great training ground for our next 10. Which will be the best. And for the first time in my life, I can honestly say, I get to work with the best team, for the best customers, in the best industry in the world and its going to be a wild ride!
Thank you and sincerest appreciation to our Customers, Partners, People, Families and Friends.
Huon Hoogesteger - Founder