Solar Empower Interview with Bret Biggart, CEO of Freedom Solar Power
June 7, 2023
Originally Posted on SolarEmpower.com
Can you please introduce yourself and tell us a bit about your personal history?
My name is Bret Biggart. I’m the CEO of solar panel company Freedom Solar Power. We’re headquartered here in Austin, Texas.
I grew up in Austin, went to the University of Texas and then Rice for graduate school, and then stumbled into solar in 2011. On the personal side, I’ve got two kids that are 12 and 10, and I race motorcycles. I’m a complete junkie for racing motorcycles. I’ve been doing that my whole life and probably will do that for the rest of my life, if God willing, my body holds up. I live here and we’ve got a team of about 750 people right now.
Can you talk a bit about the beginning stages of the company? Given you were not there from the very start.
I was a finance professional with a background in corporate finance when I became interested in solar energy for my own house. However, when I reached out to two solar companies for assistance, neither of them responded. This experience made me realize that the solar industry lacked clear information and customer service. I saw an opportunity to make solar more accessible and understandable for residential customers while providing a seamless and efficient process.
In 2011, I met Adrian Buck, who ran a small subcontracting business called Freedom Solar. We decided to partner up because his expertise lay in installation and design, while I had a finance background and a vision to create a customer-centric solar business. We started the company by directly approaching customers, addressing their lack of information and making the economics of solar clearer.
What was the main idea behind starting this company?
Our goal was to solve a problem in the market, which was the limited knowledge and understanding of solar energy among potential customers. We aimed to provide the necessary information and handle the entire process for them if they chose to proceed. The feedback we received from customers and their interest in solar confirmed that we were onto something. Even today, the solar penetration rate remains low, and many people are still unfamiliar with the benefits and potential of solar energy. Throughout the years, we have focused on being better and faster, rather than cheaper. We prioritize customer care, installation quality, and providing a hassle-free experience. While there may be cheaper alternatives in the market, customers value other aspects such as system monitoring, professional installation, and having a single point of contact. We have built our business around these values.
Can you talk about the growth of the company in the initial years?
Since our humble beginnings, we have experienced significant growth. In our first year, we aimed for a million dollars in revenue and now achieve a million dollars in revenue daily. It’s crucial for us to remain clear about our vision and what sets us apart from others. We continually seek individuals who share our beliefs and rally around our vision, ensuring that we deliver on our promises.
What do you think contributes to the success of a company, in general?
To achieve success, I believe in creating a strong team that aligns with our vision. By providing the right environment and culture, we empower our employees to reach their full potential. I firmly believe that most individuals operate at a fraction of their capabilities, and it is our responsibility to foster an environment that allows them to thrive. By focusing on these principles, we have been able to grow from a startup to a multi-hundred million-dollar business.
I’ve witnessed firsthand that people are capable of giving much more than they initially believe. As an endurance sports enthusiast, I’ve experienced moments during races where I felt like giving up. However, by focusing on taking one step at a time and persistently moving forward, I’ve been able to push beyond my perceived limits. This same principle applies to life in general. When individuals are encouraged and provided with an environment where they can thrive, they often surpass their own expectations.
In the early days of my business, I didn’t give much thought to the concept of culture. We were simply trying to accomplish our goals and tackle the numerous tasks that came our way as entrepreneurs. But as the business grew and we brought on more people, I realized that the culture we fostered became a reflection of who we were and what we believed in. It became essential to define and articulate our values, to write them down and make them clear to everyone involved. This way, we could attract like-minded individuals who shared our beliefs and were committed to moving in the same direction.
However, creating and maintaining a strong culture is not as easy as it may seem. It requires intentional effort and a genuine commitment to the values and principles that define your business. But when you succeed in building a culture that aligns with your vision, it becomes a powerful force that enables individuals to perform at their best and achieve remarkable things. So, in essence, I wholeheartedly agree that culture plays a vital role in harnessing the full potential of a team.
What does it actually take to grow a company from the ground up?
We started with nothing. No money, no investors, just the determination to make it work. Our strategy was simple: sell our first deal, turn it into a second deal, and rely on word-of-mouth to bring in more customers. Coming from a finance background, I didn’t want to rely on investors expecting returns. Instead, I focused on identifying a need in the market and serving it. If people valued what we offered, then we had the foundation to grow.
Fear played a significant role in motivating me during those early days. I had just overcome my struggles with addiction and had to make this venture succeed. The fear of not being able to pay bills or provide for my family became a powerful driving force. It pushed me to do things I wouldn’t have done otherwise, simply because I couldn’t afford to be complacent. Of course, having a solid idea and a niche that people found valuable was essential. In our case, it was delivering solar solutions to residential customers.
But beyond the idea, grit became the defining characteristic of our entrepreneurial journey. It meant being relentless and determined, willing to do whatever it took to make things happen. Even when faced with setbacks and failures, we persisted. Last week was tough for us, with plenty of challenges, but when we tallied up the wins and losses, the wins outnumbered the losses. That’s what being an entrepreneur is about—making progress and moving forward, even in the face of adversity.
Building a successful team was another crucial aspect. We learned the importance of seeking out team members with complementary skill sets. If everyone has the same abilities, it leads to conflicts and stagnation. In my partnership with Adrian, for example, we each brought unique strengths to the table, allowing us to work together seamlessly. As we expanded the team, we sought specialists who excelled in specific areas, such as marketing or operations. Today, we have a highly successful team of experts who excel in their respective roles.
Initially, as an entrepreneur, you end up wearing multiple hats and doing various tasks. But over time, you learn to delegate and surround yourself with specialists. It takes time to build such a team, but it’s worth it. Grit and determination keep you going during the early stages until you can assemble a group of talented individuals who contribute their expertise to the overall success of the business.
What were some of these problems you came across in these early days, were there any that made you think about quitting, but decided to move forward anyways?
I feel that when we deliver excellent service to our customers and everything goes smoothly, it creates momentum. If we meet their expectations, provide what we promised, and make them happy, they become powerful advocates for our business. A satisfied customer can promote us better than I, as the CEO, ever could.
But there are times when things don’t go as planned. For instance, when we were starting out, we installed a challenging 80-kilowatt solar system for a commercial customer. I assured her that the system would work perfectly and even offered to fix any issues personally. However, a few months later, the system underperformed due to problems with the modules. The company responsible for the warranty went bankrupt, and we faced a difficult decision. We could have simply walked away, but instead, we chose to make it right for the customer. We replaced her modules at our expense, and she became a tremendous advocate for our business. Seeing her appreciation reaffirmed that doing the right thing is worth it, even when things go wrong.
These instances of setbacks and unexpected challenges with customers are common and still happen today. For example, we recently faced a panel shortage due to supply chain issues, and we couldn’t meet customer demand. I personally reached out to customers, speaking to each one individually and addressing their concerns. It was like removing ticks from a dog—one customer at a time. Through empathy and transparent communication, I conveyed that we had made a mistake and were committed to making it right. It often meant spending money or accepting losses, but we managed to turn upset customers into satisfied ones. Ultimately, as the CEO, my goal is to search for the truth within the business. Are we succeeding or failing? And if we’re failing, why? I strive for honest assessments without any self-deception. If something isn’t working, we stop doing it or find a way to change it and improve. It’s about eliminating blame and being willing to try new things, accepting failure but focusing on the results and learning from them.
This principle of searching for the truth in the business is challenging because emotions can cloud judgment. However, we aim to instill this basic principle in our company. We’re committed to making sober evaluations of our performance, stepping on the gas when things are going well and hitting the brakes when they aren’t. By doing so, we make more good decisions than bad ones, accumulate more wins than losses, and ultimately make progress. It requires discipline, but it’s a vital approach to running the business.
I believe that the way we run our business has a direct impact on our customers. It’s more than just a philosophy or an approach—it’s about creating a culture that prioritizes transparency. I make it a point to have regular calls with all our employees, where I openly discuss the performance of the business. I share details like our financials, whether we’re meeting or falling short of our plans, and the reasons behind it. This practice of radical transparency extends to nearly a thousand people who work with us.
I firmly believe that everyone in our organization is an adult, and I treat them accordingly. We don’t operate like a sweatshop or exploit child labor. Treating people as adults means being honest with them, sharing both the good and the bad. We have to come together as a team, facing challenges head-on and working together to find solutions. By fostering this transparent environment, our employees understand how the business is doing. When we treat each other with transparency and respect, it naturally extends to how we treat our customers.
Ultimately, it’s about our commitment to doing what we say we’ll do, following through on our promises, and making things right when we make mistakes. We’re dedicated to taking care of our customers, no matter the cost. I can’t think of a more serious commitment to offer our customers. But for that commitment to be genuine, it has to start from within our organization.
So, it’s about creating a culture of belief. If we truly believe in our principles internally, then it will translate into how we interact with customers. Our belief in following through, making things right, and prioritizing customer care will shine through. But it all starts with believing in these values within our organization.
I’ve heard a lot of people talk about transparency. And a lot of people I’ve personally worked with, but at the end of the day, none of them delivered on it. What do you think about it?
I’ll share a funny story with you. Last week, I had a call with all my employees, and we had an open Q&A session where they could ask any questions they wanted. It was an unscripted and lively discussion. After the call, I had another conversation with the CEO of a larger solar company, twice the size of ours, regarding a business deal. I mentioned to him how I had just shared our financial performance, including net income, with all my employees during the call. I also mentioned that there was some feedback, and a few people were a bit hostile at that moment. He was surprised and said, “Dude, you do what? You talk to all your employees about the finances?” I replied, “Yeah, every week.” He thought I was crazy, but it’s a different approach that has really worked for us. Treating our employees like adults and giving them transparency has garnered respect, authenticity, and a stronger commitment to what we do every day. It may not be for everyone, but it has proven effective here.
The solar industry is a people-intensive business. This business is highly dependent on human interaction. Sure, there are aspects that can be automated, but when it comes to installing systems on roofs or salespeople engaging with customers in their homes, automation doesn’t cut it. Even Tesla tried and couldn’t fully automate these processes. We’re in the service business, serving customers as individuals. When you have a people-intensive business, it’s all about the interactions with people.
Just think about your own relationships. You wouldn’t want to deal with someone who constantly bullshits you, right? Ideally, we only want to engage with people who are genuine. There’s a quote I love: “You get what you’re willing to tolerate.” It applies to life in general. If I’m willing to tolerate whiny kids, I’ll have whiny kids. If I’m willing to tolerate a partner who mistreats me, I’ll have an unhealthy relationship. The same goes for a company culture. If there’s no transparency and lack of respect among team members, that’s what I’ll end up with.
So, it’s a matter of what I’m willing to tolerate. My personal standard is excellence. I’m willing to share openly, be transparent, and maintain a high level of respect. When I embody that, people respect it in return. At the end of the day, it all comes down to people.
Any final thoughts or advice to our readers?
I’ve dedicated a significant amount of time to helping people improve their efficiency in whatever they do. Deep down, I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit, although it took me a while to realize it. I ventured into various corporate jobs that brought in a lot of money but left me feeling miserable. It became clear to me that I needed to make a change in my life to prioritize happiness. I had to discover the equation that would make Bret Biggert truly happy and then pursue it.
As it turned out, the world of entrepreneurship and taking calculated risks resonated with me. Entrepreneurs have a unique ability to handle risk, something that sets them apart from most people. Additionally, I have a naturally high level of energy and find it challenging to sit still and engage in mundane tasks like working on Excel spreadsheets all day. It’s not something I enjoy, even though I’m capable of doing it.
The concept of finding where you truly belong is crucial. It’s about discovering a sense of usefulness and purpose that aligns with who you are. For me, I’ve found that fulfillment and gratification in the realm of entrepreneurship. It’s like finding your rightful place in the world. At the age of 35, I finally uncovered where I was meant to be, and it has made all the difference in my life.
I think it’s important to focus on the things we’re good at doing, rather than simply chasing our passions. I mean, I’m really passionate about racing motorcycles, but I couldn’t make a living out of it, no matter how much I tried. That’s where the solar industry comes in. What I’m truly addicted to in the solar industry is the entrepreneurial aspect—the thrill of growing a business, building a team, and all that exciting stuff. It’s amazing that we also get to contribute to a greener environment by installing solar panels on roofs, but my journey into solar wasn’t driven by a burning passion to save the world. It just happened to be an unexpected convergence of my entrepreneurial interests and a positive impact on the environment. That’s how life works sometimes, you know? The unexpected can lead us to incredible opportunities, and timing plays a role too.
I recently attended a business hall of fame event where five successful business figures were being inducted. One of them happened to be our investor, so I was there. It was fascinating because all five of them, without knowing what the others would say, emphasized two key factors in their speeches. The first was the importance of building a strong team. They all agreed that the success of a business heavily relies on how well you assemble and nurture a team. It’s rare for a single person to possess such extraordinary intelligence that they can single-handedly revolutionize an industry. Figures like Elon Musk are exceptions rather than the norm.
So, there were two key points that stood out from those discussions.
- The first one was about the importance of building a successful team, and all the successful individuals being inducted into the Business Hall of Fame emphasized this. They had achieved great things by assembling strong teams around them. It’s clear that building a successful team is crucial.
- The second point is quite surprising but resonates with me. It’s about the role of timing and luck in achieving success. Sometimes, being in the right place at the right time can make all the difference. The world works in such a way that opportunities present themselves, and it’s up to us to recognize them and seize them. Reflecting on our own success, I realize that 11 years ago when I entered the solar industry, there was a lack of responsiveness, communication, and understanding in the market. But fortunately, the world changed, and the timing was just right for us. People began to embrace solar energy, and we were there to fulfill their needs. I’m truly grateful for that. While we can’t control luck or timing, we can control our ability to spot opportunities and capitalize on them.
All in all, I found these insights to be quite cool and valuable. Building a strong team and being in the right place at the right time are two factors that contribute significantly to success.