Scaling A Startup
This article was published in the Winter 2019 issue
by Ben Peterson, CEO, Blue Raven Solar
Five years ago, Blue Raven Solar had $100,000 dollars in revenue — today, we have $100,000,000 dollars in revenue. We’ve learned some things along the way. Here are four lessons you might consider as you scale a startup.
First, your business model might be wrong.
We are a residential solar company. In the beginning, we acquired customers and sold the projects to local installation companies. The business model was simple, scalable, and asset-light… or so we thought. In reality, projects were delayed, quality was poor, complexity of managing partners was high, and our brand suffered. In hindsight, we should have concluded that our business model was wrong much sooner than we did. But once a team gets moving in a direction, it can be very difficult to pivot.
We eventually pivoted and learned to fulfill our own customer demand. We now have close to 1,000 employees. Yes, our business is more complicated – but in exchange, we control quality. It shows. On solarreviews.com, a leading online solar decision platform, we are the number one rated solar company in the nation.
Bite the bullet and make the hard decision as soon as possible, whatever that may be for your business. We waited too long.
Second, don’t be afraid to build custom software.
Early on, we got caught up in endless software vendor evaluation. Which company offers the best software for this function? What software does that thing we really need? As a startup, it didn’t really occur to us that we should build custom software to support our core business functions. Money was tight, and we reasoned, “Surely, somebody had already figured out software solutions to our business problems.”
Wrong. So, we hired software developers. (Thankfully, we have access to a very strong talent pool of software engineers in Utah.)
Fast forward five years, and when people ask me what differentiates us, I think, “our software.” Yes, we are a residential solar company but it’s our software that sets us apart. Blue Raven Solar systems are the backbone of a better experience for every stakeholder in our ecosystem. While “renting” software is certainly the answer for some portion of your technology stack, building custom software has potential to unlock tremendous value. Finding great developers can be difficult, but you have a leg up if you’re along the Wasatch Front. You will typically get what you pay for. Don’t be afraid of the investment.
Third, hire great HR earlier than you think.
Does the following progression of your business sound familiar? Your business begins with a product. Next comes sales and marketing. Then fulfillment. Then finance and accounting. Then more sales and more fulfillment. Then legal and compliance. OK wow – we now have a lot of employees. “Oh no… we forgot about HR.”
Human Resources shouldn’t be “added” when you reach a certain number of employees. A great HR leader is essential to unlocking the value and talent of your most important asset, which is your team. And they should be present uncomfortably early on.
We were about a year late on professionalizing Human Resources. I was too focused on sales and operations. I avoided HR because it seemed like a cumbersome cost center and it always felt like a “back office” consideration that I’d tackle later.
Learn from my mistake and bring on a Human Resources leader early, early, early. Find an HR leader who will learn your business. When you interview a prospective HR leader, pretend like you are hiring a core sales or operations leader. Find one who asks what your sales were last week, or what your operations cost you last month. Don’t hire an HR leader who doesn’t first check the business aptitude boxes.
Finally, don’t ever compromise your values.
In order to not compromise your values, you first need to identify your values. At Blue Raven Solar, we have three values. 1) Develop a High-Trust Culture, 2) Be Efficient, and 3) Continuously Improve. Each value is accompanied by four statements that describe what living these values means for us.
Value 1d for us is “disagree constructively.” I have often thought about this value when tempted to “go along” with something that doesn’t sit right with me. Because of this value, I will vocalize my thoughts, even when unpopular or uncomfortable. I’ve seen others do the same.
Within their first month of employment, every new hire at our headquarters in Orem will attend a 60-minute session with me about our mission and values. We talk about what it looks like to live our values. I end the session by giving every employee a copy of the book, “The Go Getter.” “Be a go getter” is value 3d. Our team is filled with go getters.
Entrepreneurship is hard and it’s not for everybody. Sometimes it feels like I’m living in dog years. (The gray hair has also certainly come in sooner than expected.) But it’s also incredibly rewarding to watch employees develop professionally and personally and to contribute to Utah’s economy.
In five years, Blue Raven Solar has offset more than 130 million gallons of gasoline consumed which is the equivalent of taking over 250,000 cars off the road. Our mission is to make homeowners’ lives better by reducing their energy bills, by increasing their reliance on clean and abundant renewable energy, and by providing a world class customer experience through a reliable sales process and a speedy, high-quality installation. We are proud of the impact we’ve had on our customers, employees and families, and environment.
Read the rest of the articles in the Winter 2019 issue of Silicon Slopes Magazine