“Ask anyone in the local clean-tech industry and they will tell you that Daniel Sullivan is the go-to expert for all things solar. Daniel is the most passionate, intelligent, dedicated and hard-working person I have ever met. People, including myself, can’t get enough of his American Dream, rags-to-riches story, of a young entrepreneur with a big vision, that has brought our company to where it is today.”
These moving thoughts are from the employees of Daniel Sullivan, president and founder of San Diego solar installation company Sullivan Solar Power. In our latest Ask A Vet podcast, the 13-year solar veteran talks about why he founded his business, the values he instills in his team, his favorite projects and more. Some of the discussion is shared here, but be sure to listen to the entire interview as well.
After 13 years in solar, is it harder or easier to be a solar contractor today?
It’s easier in some ways, but harder in others. When we started the company, the challenge was getting people to understand that solar makes sense, how it works and to trust and believe in it. To some extent that’s changed, but now the challenge is for people to believe us, believe that we are not like other companies who may be promising things that aren’t rooted in reality. It’s a new set of challenges today. Are those challenges easier to overcome? Maybe. We’re much larger than we were 13 years ago. San Diego was named the No. 1 city for solar installed in 2016. There’s solar in most neighborhoods around here. That makes it easier for people to take the lead.
Policy is a whole different story. The utilities have become much more focused and effective in delivering their message to policymakers and legislatures. And that message, unfortunately, is a false narrative that distributed generation solar is a problem. That’s the biggest challenge we’re facing. When you have one of the most powerful industries on the planet gunning for your industry, it’s a pretty daunting challenge, but it’s one we’re going to embrace, overcome and ultimately prevail. I like challenges so it keeps it interesting.
Your company has an A+ rating with the Better Business Bureau. You’ve never had a complaint filed against you. How do business morals and ethics contribute to that?
When the company started, I had $2,500 in the bank account so every decision I made had to be a sound one. It had to be rooted in doing things the right way—making sure that customers were taken care of and became advocates for what we’re trying to do. As the company grew and I brought more people in, it was important those people shared the same values and ethics. That proves to be a very difficult challenge, finding people who are aligned with you. But I’ve been very fortunate and blessed that when people outside of the company see how we approach business and customers, they want to be part of that.
There are now more than 700 companies in our territory that put solar panels on roofs. I can’t say that they’re all doing it in an ethical way; in fact, I know many of them are not. When you have to make sales in a certain period of time, sometimes people find themselves conflicted between making sales and making sure they’re adequately representing the value proposition of someone going solar.
We’ve had people get mad at us because we’ve refused to do their installation because their house is completely covered in shade. We’ll tell them it’s not in their best interest and they’ll reply, “I don’t care, other companies say it’s not a problem and I want you to do it.” We’ll decline the installation. We can’t have someone who spent $10,000 to $30,000 on their solar power system and is not realizing their return on investment because they will become a detractor, not only for our organization, but for the entire industry. There is much too much of that going on today.
Companies who were installing solar a decade ago, by and large were doing it for the right reasons—they wanted to see change in the world. It was an uphill battle for them, like it was for me. For some companies, making money is at the core of what they do. When that’s your bottom line, money and profits, you are not aligned with the interests of your customers. You’re not aligned with the interests of moving our region and ultimately our world away from fossil fuels.
It’s a challenge for any business owner to balance ethics with results. One thing we’ve tried to instill in our team is that ethics come first.
Check back monthly for a new episode of Ask a Solar Vet, in which editor Kathie Zipp brings you the unique perspectives and insights of those who have spent more than a decade in solar.