By Canute Haroldson, account manager, Folsom Labs
How do you build a successful solar software business? Once you find leverage points in the industry, what’s the best way to attack them? At the 2017 S3 Solar Software Summit, MJ Shiao of GTM Research gathered Bryan Birsic of Wunder Capital, Deep Chakraborty of ENACT Systems, Thomas Enzendorfer of Soligent, Paul Gibbs of Folsom Labs and Eric Reinhardt of Sunrun to understand how solar software developers build and deploy their software.
Solar software has to be built to address the needs of both five-person companies and 500-person companies. So far, solar software developers have tried to target the entire market, but whether they realize it or not, they are making tradeoffs. Enzendorfer noted that the installers that comprise the long tail have historically had difficulty using software, in large part because it’s built for such specific problems.
As we saw from Paul Grana’s introductory talk, there are an incredible number of different workflows. For smaller installers, this means that their unique processes may not be addressed by any of the software that currently exists in the market. Large installers have bigger targets for their workflows, and demand software that fits into their existing processes.
So what are the best parts of the workflow for solar software to attack? Reinhardt and Chakraborty are pushing for outside standards and processes to consolidate so they can automate large chunks of solar development. The many utilities, AHJs, states and policies need to be simplified to move beyond being strictly manual processes.
For now, these developers have focused much of their effort on post-build solutions that target O&M and construction management. Because both Sunrun and ENACT focus mainly on residential and small commercial systems, optimizing for a standard construction process offers significant improvements on both cost and speed. For developers like Gibbs and Birsic, they lean toward owning growth to maximize the value of solar software.
“Construction management is interesting but it’s marginal to me in terms of thinking about the future,” Gibbs said. “It seems like the market is being won on growth in customer acquisition.”
For Gibbs and Folsom Labs, the best way to make money is to help customers make money. Regardless of which path is favored, both groups believe that this eventually evolves into O&M software as solar assets age.
As software solutions have been developed for the industry, one of the most common questions is whether companies should build them or buy them. Developers like Birsic build solutions, as they are focused on delivering financing, and the surrounding systems must conform to the specific needs in that context. When developing software internally, you can cater directly to a particular type of customer rather than searching for a software that fits a specific need. In his words, “we think delivering those customers things that they’re not inherently good at and they’re not good users of is the way to bring software to this industry, not to arm them with tools.”
So how does this approach apply to software companies that are offering tools like ENACT? “We cannot build everything to go first… we have to partner with all of the different players in the ecosystem to really make a platform work,” said Chakraborty. Instead of building out their in-house solution for a particular customer, companies like ENACT try to piece together the best solutions on the market. By contrast, Folsom Labs aims for a land and expand approach, where they specialize in one particular area and build integrations with other area specialists.
Regardless of what solar software is built for, the most important thing is whether it’s actually used. For Enzendorfer, seamless software adoption means a heavy focus on UX and UI, something the industry hasn’t focused on enough. In his eyes, “our customer base is not interested in learning a lot about the software, they’re not interested in learning something different.” He later elaborated on this point, saying that “[users] don’t need a workflow management system, they know how to do their job. …Let’s make sure we don’t overcomplicate something that is not to be overcomplicated.”
There’s a lot to be said for product simplicity, and all the panel members agreed that software will need to be simplified, or at least standardized. Reinhardt pointed out that training needs to be fast and simple as well. In solar we all know that there is high turnover, enough that there’s distinct value in being able to onboard people as quickly as possible. As Reinhardt said, “I’ve been to a lot of solar trainings with various partners, and sometimes these trainings for a sales rep are five days, right? That training should be two hours.”
Forward-thinking developers like Sunrun and Soligent are making onboarding and ramp-up time a mission-critical metric to be tracked and improved. This has been echoed by Gibbs at Folsom labs, who pointed out that a number of his customers have focused on cutting new-hire onboarding time—and have succeeded in reducing it from two weeks to two days, in large part due to HelioScope’s low training ramp time. To sum this all up, Birsic pointed out that regardless of who you sell your software to, what matters is if every person on the ground understands how and when to use it.