Episode 2 | May 1, 2018
Founder Adrian Buck and CEO Bret Biggart of Freedom Solar Power describe how they formed a 2+2=5 partnership that combines a love of solar and great customer service with an eye for a successful entrepreneurial opportunity. From the early days working out of Adrian's house, they have installed solar for five Whole Foods locations and thousands of other customers all over Texas. Two of their favorite projects are an off-grid system for A Child's Hope orphanage in Haiti and the solar carport at Strictly Pediatrics, the largest solar project in Central Texas at the time of installation.
This week Kyle Frazier and Sherren Harter catch up with the leaders of Freedom Solar Power, the title sponsor of Texas Energy Lab. Bret Biggart, CEO, and Adrian Buck, founder and chief installation officer, explain how they built their company and what the future holds.
A 2+2=5 Partnership
Bret and Adrian worked together to build a large and growing solar company in Texas. They each bring different backgrounds and unique skills to the business, yet they share a strong passion for entrepreneurship founded on outstanding customer service.
Adrian is a pioneer in Texas solar installations, a specialist who has been honing his craft for over a decade and one of the first ten certified solar installers in the United States by the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP). His semiconductor manufacturing degree led him to Applied Materials, and a chance encounter with a stranger at an Austin Home Depot sparked an interest in the solar industry. He went to Colorado for a year to learn the trade before returning to Texas and starting Freedom Solar in 2007, primarily subcontracting for other companies. He also recalls the lessons from his parents who both ran their own small companies. His dad Buzzy, who ran Buzzy Bucks Pizza Kitchen, and his mom who still runs Monogram Lady with his sister. “They instilled in me the importance of being passionate about what you’re doing and taking care of the customers first. That’s a key part of the reason we’re doing this.”
Bret worked in corporate finance, most recently at an energy hedge fund in Houston, the oil and gas capital of the state. When he moved to Austin seven years ago looking for entrepreneurial opportunities, a trusted colleague suggested that he consider solar. He was initially skeptical – concerned that it was too expensive, heavily subsidized, with rapidly changing technology. However, he began considering solar panels for home and realized that there may be a business opportunity. The costs were already declining, the subsidies were smaller than he realized, and the technology was improving yet stable. Moreover, when he called a couple of the leading solar companies in Austin for a quote, he never even got a call back. Bret sensed an opening: “At the crux of any entrepreneurial effort, the idea is to solve a problem, and for us the problem was that people didn’t understand the clear value proposition of solar.” He couldn’t find anyone who could easily explain the benefits of solar, the return, or how to get it financed.
As Bret talked to people in town about solar, Adrian’s name came up over and over. They met at a now-defunct El Arroyo that was near the Hill Country Galleria, where the company has a Solar Design Center showroom. At that meeting Bret shared what he saw – a fragmented industry growing quickly with competitors who didn't really know how to sell or finance it. Adrian wanted to branch out into direct sales rather than subcontracting, but he liked installing solar more than the hands-on running of a company. As Bret says, “we originally didn’t have overlapping skill sets so 2+2=5 with us.”
Starting with One Customer At a Time
At first the partners worked out of Adrian’s living room. Adrian drove the van around Sunset Valley, and they went door to door hanging flyers with Bret’s cell phone number. Bret still clearly remembers his surprise when their first customer, Robert, looked at his wife and said “OK, I think we want to move forward” and wrote them a check.
The company grew by word of mouth. Bret says that “the idea has always been to turn one customer into a couple more. If we do a good job for the customer then that will permeate through the community. It doesn’t seem like a magical solution, but when done right it has magical results.”
Their philosophy is to hire the right people, keep all of the work in-house to control quality, and most importantly, keep their promises to each customer. An example is Whole Foods, which approached them with a very small project in south Austin that led to 5 large projects and built credibility with residential customers. “Underpromise and overdeliver is the biggest recipe for success as a service business,” says Bret. Now they’ve expanded statewide and are doing 80-100 projects per month.
Notable Projects and A Bright Future
One of Adrian’s favorite projects was also one of their most challenging. Last year, in partnership with their commercial solar customer ABC Home and Commercial, he led a team to Haiti to install an off-grid solar project for A Child’s Hope orphanage in Haiti. Adrian says, “the cooler projects are when there’s no power in a remote location with people who are really in need of electricity. It was a life-changing experience.”
The Strictly Pediatrics installation in 2016 stands out for Bret. With rooftop solar and a carport structure on the top floor of the parking garage, it was the largest solar project in central Texas for an individual user at just under a megawatt (MW). Bret says the “final product was really amazing, and the coolest part was the customer coming back and saying: ‘My electric bill was $0 this month.'”
But their most interesting projects may still be ahead. The company sees plenty of future growth in the Lone Start State, especially in the deregulated markets like Dallas and Houston, where 75% of the Texas' electricity users live. These areas have huge solar potential, and lowering costs make it a more favorable financial decision.
As Kyle notes at the end of the show, the future looks bright for solar power in Texas.