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Podcast Transcript: Matt Smith, solar without sales people.

Speaker 1 (00:04):
Welcome to another episode of the Solar Podcast. Today Dave is talking to Matt Smith, Co-Founder and President of Project Solar. They talk about how his company just raised 23 million in funding, the future of the solar industry and how Project Solar is changing the renewable energy sector. Let's get right into it on the Solar Podcast.

Dave Anderson (00:29):
So Project Solar is a business, it's started to make some serious ripples, if not huge waves in the solar space so we're thrilled to get Matt Smith, one of the founders on the podcast. So Matt, if you don't mind, I'd love to get an introduction for our audience about who you are and maybe you can segue that into talking a little bit about your business. Maybe you don't separate the two, maybe from your perspective, they're one and the same.

Matt Smith (00:54):
Sure, yeah. Thanks Dave. Thanks for having us on. So yeah, Matt Smith, I was originally a high school English teacher and that's what I went to college for and then one summer jumped on with a tech company and the tech company was in its beginning stages, they were thinking about financing and how are we going to get this thing up and running. And so I helped them with funding just from past people that I knew. And one of the people was my was current business partner, Trevor Hiltbrand. And so I stayed on with that company for about two years, watched it grow to 140 employees, do a couple funding rounds. And I was going, "Man, this doesn't seem like it's that difficult. These guys are doing it really well and if I did it half as well or a 10th as well, that would be great."

And so Trevor started pitching me on this idea for us to jump into the solar industry. And basically a year later after that, Trevor sold one of his e-commerce companies, it was like his nest egg and called me and said, "Hey, I'm really serious. I actually just sold..." Transparent Labs, was the name of his company and he was ready to dive into solar. And so I ended up leaving that tech company and both of us not knowing anything about solar, were thinking through the lens of, okay, if door knockers are getting paid five or 6,000 bucks every time that they are getting a system installed and if we can do that cheaper via e-commerce and Facebook and Google, whatever type of marketing advertising, then we're going to have a more efficient business model. And so originally we thought, well why don't we do DIY kits because that is a very e-commerce friendly way of doing things, you don't need an install network and all these things.

And we're like, "Well let's see if DIY works." And so he had had a guy knock on his door for I think 45 grand or something, offer him a 10 kilowatt system. And Trevor was like, "I don't know if this is a good deal or not, is this expensive or cheap?" And so we ended up just jumping on his roof and doing that full 10 kilowatt install and I think we installed it for 10 or 12 grand or something like that just in the equipment costs. And so Trevor was losing his mind, he's the e-commerce guru and he was going, "Dude, we could blow this out of the water. If I have a thousand bucks to go acquire a customer, that is a ton of money, we should be able to make this work." So yeah, we initially thought, "Well why don't we create this DIY model because it's e-commerce friendly."

And then when we launched in February of 2021, at first it's crickets and you're nervous and we've spent a couple thousand bucks or whatever and we started looking at our pipeline and changing up our pipeline and trying different things. And really now it's funny because we've probably been through 300 iterations of different types of pipelines and landing pages and whatever it may be. And finally figured out how to create a funnel that works really well. So yeah, I think in our second or third month we had about 200 customers who were checking out, paying us money saying, "Hey, we want to go solar through you guys."

And at that point it was no longer DIY, we realized, hey, a lot of these people want full install. And so I was just cold calling installers all the time. We'd get checkouts in Texas or in Florida or in California and then I'd just be reaching out. And now we have... The phones have turned and as we've started to advertise in the solar market now we have a list of hundreds of installers we have called us and said, "Hey, we want to install for you." And so now we're pulling from that list and that's what Project Solar is today. People check out and we are either facilitating DIY that we still offer that option, but mainly we're doing full service install.

Dave Anderson (04:52):
Wow. So we have to talk about being a high school English teacher. So that's a pretty big... It's a long way away from doing solar. So how long did you teach high school English?

Matt Smith (05:04):
For three years.

Dave Anderson (05:05):
Three years. And how long has it been since you were actually in the classroom?

Matt Smith (05:09):
Yeah, 2018 is when I left. And so what are we four years now? And I'll probably get back to there. That would be the goal. Retirement doesn't sound very fun to me and so I think I'd love to be teaching when I'm 60, you know what I mean? It's so fun being in the classroom.

Dave Anderson (05:27):
I was going to ask you if you missed it. So what is it about the classroom that you miss?

Matt Smith (05:33):
As cliche as it is, its just the kids. Its so fulfilling. So I actually... I don't... I'm terrible at English. I was very strong in math, really good grades. I don't think I read one full book in high school. I just did not like to read, was a poor writer and decided while I was in college that hey, if I'm going to round off some edges here, I should probably dive into that problem head first and I'd really need to learn how to read and how to analyze. And that is how I see English and that's why it's an exciting passion for me is because I'm not like, "Hey, I want to go read books with kids." It's more I want to analyze and dig deep into problems and help them learn how to think and not necessarily learn how to think as if I'm the one who knows, but just engage with them in discussions and develop them as humans in that way.

Dave Anderson (06:28):
Yeah. So with the passion that you seemingly have for teaching generally, but then teaching English secondarily, I think you touched on it a little bit, what precisely pulled you out of the classroom and decided, hey, I need to spend some of these early years in tech?

Matt Smith (06:44):
Yeah, it was just an opportunity. I wasn't married at the time and I had a couple cousins who had gotten married and they were in their professions and so they couldn't take these entrepreneurial moves that they wanted to. And I was going, I'm spending 800 bucks a month right now, if you have 20 grand saved up, you're good for a couple of years. And so I was like, why don't I just jump and then see if that works and if not, I can just come back to teaching. And so I jumped and fortunately it worked, but that was the motivator.

Dave Anderson (07:13):
So you had a measure of success for the last handful of years at the previous tech company and apparently you fostered some good relationships in Trevor, your now business partner. And so when you guys decided to launch your business, you said you've gone through a lot of iterations. What are some of the things that didn't work that you discovered over the last year in route to getting where you are?

Matt Smith (07:36):
So many things don't work. I don't really even know where to begin with that because you can get super granular. It's like you're trying different colors, you're trying different... Our very first website that we built was just all wrong. We probably spent, I can't remember maybe 10 grand trying to get this whole thing built in every single aspect of it. We basically, we built this thing and we're staring at it, we're going, "This is crap, dang it. This is not what we want." And so I don't know if I can point to necessarily specific things, but that's been something interesting that I've learned as an entrepreneur learning from my business partner, he's a really good decision maker, he doesn't get emotional about things. And I remember that moment where he was going, "We got to scrap this and we have to completely go this other direction." Which is what our website is now, and a more beautiful but straightforward, simple aesthetic. Before it was more complex and whatever it may be.

Yeah, there's just been so many things that we've tried, different marketing channels and throwing money here and money here. And one thing that I learned a lot in the tech company that I was with was again, how to raise money and just basically sales and le