Lessons from my Second Year in Business

SPV Market Research is midway through its second year in business and, having survived as well as experiencing growth, there have been successes, failures, decisions I would take back and choices I wish I had made. Here are 25 lessons from my first year and a half in business:

  1. Night sweats will (probably) not kill you, try thinking of them as a midnight trip to a Jacuzzi

  2. Networking is key, but, letting go of networking as the ladder to success and thinking of it as developing a sustaining community of partners and friends is crucial

  3. Every idea, even the bad ones, are worth considering

  4. Old fashioned realities are still true: You will spend more than you think and make less than you think on the way to developing a thriving business

  5. A thriving business will grow beyond you and no longer belong to you but to the ecosystem (clients, partners, employees and observers) you have created while creating the business

  6. Answer your calls and emails and send only emails and make only calls that are important to you and have a point – basically be polite with your outreach and considerate to the outreach efforts of others

  7. Say no to any work that goes against your values and mission no matter how potentially profitable, but be nice about it

  8. Keep your word – including the word you gave to yourself when you started on this path

  9. Volunteer to help others for no reason but to help others and if you cannot, be honest about why

  10. Always do your best work (yes, I know duh) and remember that the independent, objective and excellent work you do may not win all of the available market but will genuinely bring value to the customers and partners it does win over

  11. Please and thank you, seriously, say them a lot even if someone is rude to you – Mom was right, manners matter

  12. Don’t always have an agenda, they are obvious as well as annoying

  13. Take work that stretches your skills while staying true to your core values and vision, this is where creativity and success come from

  14. Use all that time lying awake at night wondering what the heck to do next to follow an original train of thought, or two or three trains of thought, to the business or personal epiphany that it or they might prove to be

  15. Never lose the joy of the very work that inspired the vision that led you to want to share that vision and stay true to it through unprofitable and profitable times alike – the work, the process, the amazing feeling of being fully engaged with the process and the work, this is your true core competency

  16. Stay true to your vision for your business and also be nimble and willing to retrace your steps and start again and again and again and yes, again

  17. Not all advice is worth taking, much of it is like a box of free clothes left on the curb, that is, worth discarding

  18.  Then again, there may be something in that box that fits you perfectly or can be altered to do so

  19. Unfortunately, if you are not terrified at least part of the time, well, you probably are not taking the interesting and worthwhile risks necessary to get you to where you never expected to go

  20. If you are not joyful at least part of the time, well, you took a wrong turn, turn back or, try a new direction

  21. Try and look kindly on the motives of others and hope that they are doing the same for you

  22. Not every decision has to be bottom-line based, try a new profit/loss equation: Interesting work + potential of a wider good – cost (and/or time) of doing the work + value (revenue) of doing the work = values driven profit

  23. ASK for the business, harder than you think

  24. Inspiration is everywhere, even in night sweats

  25. Finally, if you are only doing it for the potential of a huge payout, well, better pay closer attention to those night sweats

The solar industry has had little bandwidth to support consumer research — SPV Market Research is currently conducting research into the residential PV system buyers buying and leasing experience — the goal is to improve the buying and leasing experience for consumers of residential PV as well as to providing valuable education for the PV industry in the US.  Please support this valuable research by referring residential PV system owners or by filling out the survey — everyone who participates will remain anonymous.  The link to the survey is:

https://docs.google.com/forms/d/1NIYk5bbpOe4Zf4D7W-lT0U0-oBPn36EYSNl4aGwfJQE/viewform

It may be a stretch to think of it this way, but the climate is the consumer (customer) of the energy byproducts generated to support industry and progress, most of it polluting. As every business person knows, if you do not delight your customer they will go elsewhere and if you make your customer very unhappy, they may retaliate.

Unfortunately, whereas consumers of products can choose to buy another similar product, not buy anymore of the product in question and can also spread bad-word-of mouth, when the climate gets mad it gets destructive.

Despite mounting evidence and the appearance of the acceptance of this evidence, our climate customer has to resort to extreme weather, drought, famine, earthquake and disease before we stop arguing over the cost of changing our ways and simply, change. The climate doesn’t need as much overwhelming evidence to change – it is changing rapidly. The climate’s attention span does not wander during a lull in catastrophes; it just accelerates the changing process. Finally, the climate doesn’t need to sift through a mountain of arguments against making fast changes to the way we source our energy – again, it just keeps on changing.

It is clear at this point that our customer, the climate that supports life on earth, is pretty fed up with how we interact with it. We pump chemicals through the ground to reach supplies of natural gas, referring to it as relatively clean and ignoring the lack of standardization in the fraccing (fracking) process, as well as the lack of public disclosure about the chemicals used and finally, ignoring the byproduct, methane. We continue to suffer through expensive environmental disasters caused by off shore drilling as well as accidental, or not, dumping of garbage and polluting industrial byproducts into rivers and lakes and we are only briefly shamed by the suffering of indigenous species that rely on these waters for sustenance. We consider the empty counter arguments of those who profit from continuing to pollute. We fly all over the world to talk about saving the climate while the very trips we go on contribute to the ongoing problem. We waste time by arguing over the cost of changing, ignoring that the cost of cleaning up is significantly higher. We waste this time because it requires change that might require, temporarily, an uncomfortable shift in the way we use our natural resources and a little extra work on our part but will ask for far less as time goes on while delivering far more in the way of a sustainable future.

It is time to ask ourselves if we would continue to do business with such a thoughtless provider of goods and services.

Think of the world and all the people on it as one big corporation with one customer. This customer, the climate, has already told us that she does not like our product, pollution. Our one significant customer is not buying it anymore but is instead retaliating and if we do not watch out we will be out of business.

We play many roles in our life, some of us are mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, we are professionals, non-workers, retirees, writers, readers, we are married, divorced, widowed, creative, analytical – we are so many different things in one lifetime that a dictionary’s worth of words does not come close to describing who we really are.

One of my roles that, early on I did not expect, was survivor of homicide. My mother, Lucia Elaine Roach Rothwell was murdered on April 2, 1990. Her body was discovered on April 3 and I, though I read the San Jose Mercury news every morning somehow missed the article. I found out about my mother’s death when I received a call from the coroner at work. My mother had a picture among her belongings of my brother and me. As I was married and had a different name, the only reason I found out about what happened to my mother was because someone I knew who worked at the coroner’s office recognized me and called me at work.

I remember every word of that call as well as how the inside of my head exploded as I fell to the floor screaming one word, no. If I shut my eyes even today, twenty four years later, I can hear myself screaming. My life changed on April 3, forever, but it really changed on April 2, 1990 when my mother was raped, murdered and left to be found near a chain link fence in San Jose, California, a mere five miles from my house.

My mother never did anything by half measures. She was a paranoid schizophrenic and before shock therapy as well as the medications necessary to mitigate symptoms and frankly, her fear of being shut away from society, transformed her exuberant and lively personality, she was creative, audacious, brilliant and frustratingly good at honing in on a person’s weaknesses. Oh my, did she drive my father crazy. And, oh my, though I know that motherhood was her favorite role, she could be terrifying in her madness. I must now, sadly, be honest about this last, when I was a small child she was often not present for me, or too present for me, and the war my parents waged with each other was almost always too much for my younger brother and for me. Knowing all of this, when my mother put on her mask of timidity I lost all the rest – from the rages to her bountiful imagination. I did not lose her courage. My mother remained courageous to the end.

In any case, back to no half measures – my mother’s murder was the jackpot of horrific crimes, she died a raped and murdered homeless schizophrenic who lived in a homeless camp so close to my – her daughter’s – house as to always raise questions about why I was not taking care of her at the time. The simple, sad, horrible answer is that I tried. I live with that sad answer even today. No one’s judgment about this, and plenty have judged, including the presiding judge at the first trial of her murderer, my ex-husband’s work associates and others, has ever been harsher than the judgment I have visited on myself – though this has made me far less judgmental of others and, hopefully, kinder.

My mother was the kindest, bravest, smartest and craziest person I ever knew. I did not appreciate all of the wonderful contradictory aspects of her nature when she was alive and I hunt for her kindness, strength of character and intelligence in every person I meet as well as in myself. If I can live up to even the smallest fraction of her true character, I will have lived a good life.

When she was alive and I was young, my mother took in every stray and gave completely of herself to help her friends, family and others no matter the personal sacrifice. No one else was ever as kind to her during her sad life as she was to every single person she met or knew. My father regularly put her on busses and shipped her back to her family in Tennessee, who then shipped her right back to us. These vacations from my mother were a part of my growing up. Yet, when as a family we drove to Tennessee to visit her parents, my parents held hands in the front seat of the car for the entire trip – one of life’s little contradictions. Life, I have found, is steeped in unappreciated contradictions. I am okay with these lapses; my life has trained me to expect a degree of upheaval and contradictory behavior.

When she was alive and I was young, my father would grow frustrated with my mother and beat her. I do not think many days passed when my mother escaped a beating of some sort, and yet when my father lost his temper at his challenging teenage daughter (who loved to talk back and often climbed out of her bedroom window at night) and approached me in a menacing way, she stood between us until he backed away. My mother was not even five feet tall and she was always very slight. I can picture her standing there, willing to take blows that were coming my way and I know in my heart the courage and strength and love it took her to stand there – I have never encountered a quieter or more steadfast courage since.

My father took great pains to make sure that my brother and I, but especially me, stayed far away from her. I grew up avoiding her – and, oh, how that must have broken her heart. My mother had the most expansive heart that I have ever come across. In comparison my own heart is a relatively lean organ.

I miss my mother’s intelligence, her insights and her frustrating ability to understand almost instantly the most complex situations and problems – she was by profession a teacher. She was, by all accounts, a very good teacher. People who knew her remember her as the smartest person they ever knew. My mother put this to work during my school breaks by making me read all the classics, which I secretly loved and never thanked her for making me do. 

Lucia Elaine Roach Rothwell was murdered on April 2, 1990. I miss the teacher, the mother, the beautiful woman she was until shock therapy, medication and just the sad life she lived robbed her of her looks. Someone else robbed her of her life and my chance to make it all up to her. I miss her strength and wish I had half as much. I miss her kind heart, and wish I were a fraction as kind. I remember her now and always but on April 2, I remember everything.

The US government has spoken. Instead of extending the 30% ITC or allowing this crucial tax credit to decrease to 10%, it will be replaced at the end of 2016 with a refundable production tax credit, PTC, which is based on electricity generated after the system is built. In news that certainly does not make up for this action, the 2015 solar budget increased by 9.8% from $257.1-million in 2014 to $282.3-million in 2015.

From the budget: FY 2015 funding supports the SunShot Initiative goal to achieve a cost of solar power of $.06/kWh to make solar power cost-competitive without subsidies by 2020. This includes solar photovoltaic R&D; activities that enable a 50% reduction in non-hardware “soft costs”; and development and demonstration of innovative solar energy manufacturing technologies to increase U.S. competitiveness, in support of DOE’s Clean Energy Manufacturing Initiative. FY 2015 funding also supports development of advanced thermal storage and supercritical CO2 power cycles so that concentrated solar power can achieve base-load grid parity.”

While it is gratifying to see renewed support for domestic manufacturing, it is difficult to understand the US government’s purpose in replacing the ITC with the PTC, nor are the significant downward expectations for the cost of solar electricity potential outcomes of which are abandoned systems, bankrupt systems and disappointed investors. 

 It is possible that the US Government reasons that the installation cost is low enough currently to switch to a system that rewards output. It is unlikely that consideration was given to the potential consequences of this significant change, which range from business as usual (with only the well-healed able to participate), to a rapid cessation in deployment. The new plan throws support for solar deployment back into the laps of the states and does nothing to defray the capital costs of solar construction and will most likely slow the market for solar in the US. Before it slows, however, there will be a mad rush to complete projects before the deadline. Given the long development timeline for most projects, this means that some will not be completed by the deadline and will not be available for the ITC, having to settle for a PTC.

1)     It requires curiosity first and foremost

2)    It requires constant learning and relearning

3)    It sends you on an investigation every single day – the clues are in the data

4)    It focuses on specifics, data, and unbiased results but does not ignore the nuances of human behavior

5)    Overtime, it allows you to identify the historical and current trends that define an industry’s behavior

6)    It is constantly challenging

7)    It teaches you to let go of preconceived notions as they institute bias

8)    It is critical thinking on steroids

9)    Done correctly you are jettisoned out of your own vacuum and forced to consider the entire environment (macro micro everything) that can have an effect on behavior

10) It constantly pings the imagination as the unexpected must be considered and factored in, that is, markets and industries are made up of people, and the actions of people are often impulsive, reactive and illogical, that is, natural disasters, among other things, will act on human nature to produce unexpected results.

One of the things I love about market research is that it allows you to professionalize your curiosity.  To me, it is art and science, you begin with a blank canvas — the subject matter — you must then develop an unbiased result by asking the correct neutral and un-leading questions that will elicit responses that, with the appropriate sample size, will be representative of the population studied.  Market research should be methodical and consistent and the process should always be more important than the result. When you find yourself hoping for a specific response this will leak into your research and weaken the result by instituting the researcher’s bias.  A market researcher should not be trying to prove anything.  A market researcher should also be aware that misleading results are entirely possible — for a variety of reasons.  Asking someone what they shipped, bought, what they paid, what they sold it for in a vacuum without questioning the responses, meaning asking many questions of an appropriate population and cross checking everything, will lead to skewed results.  The joy in market research is in the process, not in being able to announce the results.

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