Inside Freedom Solar’s Hiring, Revenue Spike During Pandemic
December 31, 2020
As those working from home seek to reduce their electricity bills, the solar company has enjoyed increased demand and has responded with a hiring spree, as well as plans for multistate expansion.
With so many working from home during the Covid-19 pandemic, more expensive electricity bills have become a part of life.
That trend has forced residents to look for ways to trim the cost of electricity — a behavior shift that has driven demand for solar energy, as well as growth for Austin-headquartered Freedom Solar LLC, which also has been growing in Houston. The company moved to a larger Houston site, at 1234 N. Post Oak Road, in January.
The bootstrapped company, founded by Chief Installation Officer Adrian Buck in 2007, installs solar panels for residential and commercial customers. Bret Biggart became CEO in 2011. The business ranked No. 15 on Austin Business Journal’s 2020 Fast 50 List of the fastest-growing Austin-based companies generating at least $10 million in annual revenue.
“We’ve been cash-flow positive since we started,” Biggart said.
Freedom Solar’s revenue is up 60% year-to-date over 2019, Biggart told ABJ in November. The company’s residential-market business in October alone generated $14.5 million in revenue, and the CEO projected 2020 revenue would hit $80 million.
The pandemic-fueled increase in demand for its solar panels has boosted Freedom Solar’s customer base to about 6,000, Biggart said. And the company has been on a hiring spree to keep up.
The business currently employs more than 200, Biggart said, with about 125 of those based in Austin. Freedom Solar has hired 24 Austin-based employees during the past 60 days, and expects to hire another 50 or so during the next 12 months. Positions to be filled include those in sales, lead generation, project managers, designers and installers.
“Our goal since the beginning has been to become the largest solar installer in Texas; we’ve reached that goal,” Biggart said, adding that its statewide penetration in the solar market has reached 12.5%. “We think we can be 20% of any market.
”Freedom Solar’s Austin market share now is 40%, he said, adding that opportunities are ripe in other Texas markets. In addition to growing in Houston, the company also is expanding in Dallas and San Antonio, where it just moved into a larger space and is hiring.
The potential in deregulated markets like Houston and Dallas is particularly significant, Biggart said. Despite the lack of local incentives for solar in those cities, Freedom Solar is gaining traction, he said, due to solar energy’s current low cost.
According to Boston-based EnergySage LLC, a solar-energy company and marketplace, Houston residents using solar energy this month would pay $2.78 per watt. The average gross price for solar installation in Dallas is $13,900, EnergySage says. And with the 26% federal investment tax credit, combined with other government-provided incentives, “the net price you’ll pay for solar can fall by thousands of dollars.
”EnergySage estimated the solar-installation payback period at 12.66 years for Houston resident. And it calculated Houston solar customers would accrue $15,241 in savings over a 20-year period.
Witnessing the adoption of solar power in places that don’t offer local incentives “is the most exciting part of the business,” Biggart said.
The CEO is so bullish on the expansion opportunities that he estimated the company will be generating $300 million in revenue within two years and $500 million within five.
Freedom Solar also boasts offices in Denver and Colorado Springs, Colorado. It also recently closed deals in Idaho, West Virginia and Michigan. Biggart said expansion plans for the first quarter of next year include opening offices in Florida, North Carolina and South Carolina.
As of November, many of Freedom Solar employees had returned to working at the company’s Austin headquarters at 4801 Freidrich Lane, where it boasts a 35,000-square-foot facility. The business moved into those digs about nine months ago. They’re a big upgrade from the 7,000 square feet Freedom Solar had on Todd Lane. Stream Realty Partners served as the commercial real estate broker for the company’s new office space.
The CEO has implemented temperature checks for employees, socially distanced spacing in the workplace and mask-wearing requirements for in-person meetings, he said.
Companies that Biggart sees as Freedom Solar competitors include Louisiana-based Sunpro Solar, which is part of Marc Jones Construction LLC; New Jersey-headquartered Pro Custom Solar LLC, which does business as Momentum Solar; San Francisco-based Sunrun Inc. (Nasdaq: RUN); and, California-headquartered Tesla Inc. (Nasdaq: TSLA), which is bringing 5,000 jobs to Central Texas with the construction of its East Austin gigafactory.
Biggart said Freedom Solar differentiates itself from those competitors by not subcontracting its installers.
“We provide high-quality installation, produce a high-efficiency module, have the best warranty on the market and have the best stats for long-term production over 25 years,” the CEO said.
Biggart has found the transition to developing relationships with customers using virtual meetings much more efficient than the in-person model the company relied on prior to the pandemic. Now, sales people no longer need to drive to several cities in one day to meet with individual customers.
“Using Zoom has doubled our effectiveness,” he said. Doing business virtually has enabled the customer and the company to complete transactions and allow the customer “to move on with their life. It’s been a total surprise.”
Growing the company while maintaining safety as a primary focus is among the company’s biggest challenges during the coming year, the CEO said.
Biggart’s main goal is to retain the company’s focus on being as profitable and efficiently-run as possible, while maintaining its high-growth velocity, he said. Doing so could make Freedom Solar an attractive target for an acquisition.
“But if that doesn’t happen, that’s fine,” he said. “We’ll still have a good, healthy business.”
The pandemic has curtailed Freedom Solar’s commercial business, even while its residential segment has skyrocketed, Biggart said. Covid-19 forced the CEO to furlough one commercial team, but he also has been able to bring the majority of them back since, he said.
Coronavirus impacts also included halting plans to do door-to-door sales and lead generation, he said. The CEO shifted, instead, to focusing on call-center activities.