It’s hard enough to launch a company out of your house without entrepreneurial experience or funding.
It’s even harder when your core thesis contradicts the conventional wisdom of the moment. But that’s what Sara Ross did when she turned her difficult experience getting solar on her own home's roof in 2009 into Sungage Financial, one of the oldest and largest solar loan companies.
Ross was convinced that customer-owned solar made sense at a time when third-party ownership dominated and was seen as the future of rooftop solar.
Fast-forward nine years, past unreceptive pitch meetings and financial close calls, and history is proving Ross right.
Ross opened up about how she made it happen at last month’s live taping of Watt It Takes, a co-production of Greentech Media and Powerhouse, the Oakland cleantech incubator. Hear the conversation below, or keep reading for Ross’s strategies for surviving when the industry thinks you’re wrong.
The next live Watt It Takes taping will feature SunEdison and Generate Capital founder (and Energy Gang co-host) Jigar Shah, at Powerhouse on the evening of March 13. The event has sold out, but a waitlist is available here.
It’s not easy being right too early
In her previous careers in international development and domestic public policy analysis, Ross spent her days translating good ideas into practicable policies. Faced with an $81,000 cash requirement to purchase a solar system -- with no financing options from her local installer -- she started thinking of new approaches.
At first that seemed daunting, because she had not worked in solar or in finance.
"Finance is just arithmetic and jargon," Ross recalled her husband, a finance professional, telling her. "OK, I can do arithmetic, and jargon, yeah, I'll learn the jargon."
After three years of seed-funded operations, it was time to raise some significant capital. Ross started making the rounds of both fintech investors and cleantech investors, because her company straddled both sectors.
She faced persistent rejection. For one thing, her “background full of public sector and academic mumbo jumbo and four years of stay-at-home mom-ness” didn’t fit the pattern VCs were used to seeing for a successful founder.
Beyond that, Ross’ product flew in the face of the residential solar industry’s accepted wisdom at the time. In those days, the third-party ownership model’s leases and PPAs were ascendant. SolarCity and Sunrun were on a tear.
"The crazy part was, when I pitched the financial investors, they couldn't understand what this lease product was doing being the dominant product in the sector," Ross said. But when she talked to cleantech VCs, "I heard nothing but, 'Why is there a need for any other financial product? How can you beat zero down? It's like the end-all, be-all.'"
The assurance of the cleantech experts dissuaded some of the fintech investors from taking a chance on Sungage. Ross pushed back by relaying her own experience going solar and the small army of installers and customers she'd assembled who grappled with the same problem. She knew her concept would work because she’d seen it work so many times.
"At the time that's all I had: the story and the conviction," she said of her early days. "I didn't have the know-how; I didn't know how I was going to get all the way from A to Z, but just a conviction that at some point the world will look like this new place."
Since those days, the market has proven her right. Rapid declines in the cost of solar modules have made the product more accessible, while a proliferation of solar lenders has made finding a loan easier.
In 2016, a fateful switch occurred: More customers began buying their solar rather than leasing it.
Even SolarCity, the early champion of third-party ownership, has changed course to pursue cash deals as new owner Tesla strives to make it profitable. Sunrun has bucked the market trend and continues to deliver third-party-owned systems to almost all of its customers.
Find people you can be important to
Sungage faced problems early on when a large investor pulled out of a major equity deal at the last moment.
"Big balance sheets, big partners, big strategics can be very enticing and they can consume a lot of energy from you, and yet if you're not important to them, those relationships can be very fragile," Ross said. "That's exactly what happened to me: As soon as there was a bump in the road, there was no real purchase there on the other side of the table; there was no real, 'We have to make this happen.'"
From that experience, Ross learned to look for partners who would be more than just another potential investment vehicle.
"Make sure when you invest in these conversations with people across...the table that you are important to them and you understand why you're important to them," she said.
Sungage found such a partner in Bryan Garcia, president of the Connecticut Green Bank. He had a pot of money the state had just dedicated to financing clean energy; Ross had experience working with solar customers and a financing mechanism that had worked at a small scale.
"He needed to prove the business model of the Green Bank, so I gave him an awesome opportunity to put his checkbook to work," Ross said.
Garcia signed on with $5 million to lend out for solar.
"It was one of those [times when] he was willing to jump in with two feet without knowing where we were going to land," Ross added.
Unconventional ideas call for unconventional funding
Ross didn’t have any formal funding available when she made her first solar loan. But she did have a potential investor who didn’t ask too many questions.
“I decided that my daughter wanted to be a bank, so I took her college fund," Ross said. "She was six at the time."
That money has since been repaid, and the company went on to raise seed rounds and a Series A and B.
These days, solar loans have become mainstream. When asked where the solar industry needs more financial innovation, she named loans for nontraditional solar installations, as well as expanding the spectrum of FICO scores that qualify for a solar loan.
Venturing beyond the realm of well-to-do homeowners will look risky to many, but there are sources of capital out there that could go to work for those customers -- if an entrepreneur makes the right pitch and finds the right partner.
For more in this series, see: