Saturday, April 6th was the day we that we validated our business model. Our challenge was to find out whether entrepreneurial students who were given minimal training could canvass an unfamiliar neighborhood and successfully qualify homeowners for their ability to go solar with our mobile app. Mission accomplished.

This is validation enough for us to move forward with our current business model, which aims to empower an under-employed labor pool of high school, college and graduate students to become solar evangelists that can generate pre-qualified solar leads, reducing the cost of customer acquisition for solar installers.

Last weekend, I concluded a trip to the Bay Area with a visit to Sustainable John in Berkeley. The preceding five days were filled with meetings with prospective buyers of our yet-to-be-created, pre-qualified leads. After a number of very positive interactions with residential solar EPC’s who expressed interest to buy well-qualified leads, the weekend was crucial for us to not only test out our new mobile app with homeowners, but also to learn whether we could actually generate leads with it!

Sustainable John organized a crew from across Cal’s undergrad, ERG and Law School to canvass Berkeley. We all met on a Wednesday night at Jupiter to get acquainted, have a few drinks and plot our plan of attack on the Berkeley hills. If nothing else, this was a great opportunity to get to know some awesome, motivated young people who are just as interested in educating homeowners about the benefits of going solar as I am… but it turned out to be a great camaraderie building activity.

John had printed up a few maps of the hills and suggested a few routes for each one and two-person team to canvass so that we wouldn’t cover the same territory. One of our undergrad canvassers, Jenny Tang, offered to pull some census data about proportion of homeowners vs. rentals by block so we could overlay that on our maps and concentrate our efforts in areas with a higher density of homeowners (this definitely improved our efficiency so we’ll be designing some software with this feature embedded to support our future canvassing teams). After our second pizza, the team broke and planned to meet up on Saturday.

Saturday morning we met in Downtown Berkeley. I purposely had not trained our volunteers to use the app prior to this morning. Our challenge was to find out whether entrepreneurial students who were given minimal training could canvass an unfamiliar neighborhood and successfully qualify homeowners for their ability to go solar with our mobile app.

The training went relatively smoothly, despite some minor browser compatibility hick-ups. SolarList v1.0 didn’t work properly on a Nokia with IE (we’re working on a fix) so we ended up pairing that person with another to canvass as a team of two. This turned out to be great for our learning process because after the day was done, it appeared as though some homeowners were more receptive to pairs rather than singles who knocked on their door (lesson learned, noted in the training materials).

After spending ten minutes running through the app, I spent another ten minutes running the canvassers through some Frequently Asked Questions that a homeowner might ask. This is crucial because as “solar evangelists”, we are first and foremost educating homeowners about the benefits and cost savings that they could reap by going solar… and second, connecting them with installers if they opt-in to receive a quote.

Finally, following a quick pep talk, we hit the hills… I set up a group text conversation so that we could share experiences as we canvassed our respective routes. It turns out that immediate positive feedback (i.e. – someone telling you, “Congrats, nice work!!”) is actually a great motivator for someone who experiences rejection at the door quite frequently, which is expected but can still be de-motivating. This gave us the idea for an immediate text message to be auto-generated and sent to future canvassers with some congratulatory and motivating words.

We all found ourselves trying to survey rooftops for solar potential before even bothering with knocking on a door. “Would this even be a good lead? No, there’s a tall tree on the south side of the house. But that one across the street is perfect!” Ultimately, this experience spawned the idea to develop some software to help a canvasser plan his / her day in advance so that he / she could follow a scheduled route and hit houses that have what appear to be good rooftops. In one experience, a canvasser went to a door and found out they already had solar on the south facing roof which could not be seen from the street. Pre-existing installations are another data point canvassers may need.

My first quick win was with a woman who answered the door and was very interested in going solar and hadn’t yet attempted to contact an installer. We filled out the questionnaire together and the app indicated that she was a great candidate to save money by going solar. I texted the group, received some congratulatory words… then texted Tyler, monitoring how the software was holding up from New York. A few blocks later, I received a message from him that the app had a bug and didn’t record the woman’s contact info! I was so bummed. “Remember how we expected things to go wrong?”, he replied. That’s why we were out there: to test the software, perfect our process, refine our pitch, get doors slammed in our face… and then figure out how to improve the overall experience for the canvasser and homeowner. He quickly pushed a fix to the app, and the day was saved.

Four hours later we all reconvened over beers at Triple Rock, split a plate of nachos and watched the end of the Louisville-Wichita State Final Four game. The first experience we shared was a correction of our original expectations for how many homeowners we could qualify in an hour. It turns out that two homes qualified per hour on average is a reasonable assumption. We were expecting about twice that, however, two qualified homes could mean as much as $35/hr for a canvasser. We had also been walking up some mean hills that day. Coincidentally, we happened to encounter a Greenpeace “frontline canvasser” on the street as we walked to Triple Rock. This kind young woman is tasked with asking random people on the street (not too dissimilar from what we had just come from doing) to become a paying members of Greenpeace. In conversation, she gave us some insight into how much she got paid, what motivated her, and how she was under constant threat of being fired if she didn’t perform! Over beers, John and I were chatting about how the experience we just had would factor into how we expected to be able to pay our canvassing teams. It turns out, we’re pretty competitive and in many ways better at compensating canvassers who also serve to provide an immediate education to homeowners about the benefits of going solar.

The next day, we set out with a smaller team than the previous day. We were pumped, having learned a lot from the first day of canvassing and set out on a different route. As we were walking to our destination, Jenny and I discussed how we could have even gone back to the routes we’d canvassed the day before to hit all of the doors we knocked where no one answered, however, it would have been difficult to manage our day because we didn’t record that information. This spawned our idea to develop a customer relationship management (CRM) software tool for our canvassers to track where he / she have been, who opened the door, who said no thanks, what houses could be hit again, etc. This tool is currently in development.

We hit one street that appeared to be a gold mine (compared to the previous day)… we were able to qualify four homes in one hour! However, only one person opted in on the spot to be contacted by installers. This is extremely important to note. As I’ve previously stated, we expect our canvassers to be solar evangelists first and foremost. As such, educating a homeowner about the benefits and cost savings that they could reap by going solar comes first. The prospect of being paid on a commission basis for doing so comes second. So the final question that a canvasser asks a homeowner who would benefit from solar is whether or not he or she would like to be connected with an installer. The homeowner must opt in to receive a quote. This transparency builds trust between the homeowner and SolarList as an organization whose mission is to help the homeowner make an educated decision about going solar based on a real economic assessment of their solar potential. If a homeowner does not opt in on the spot, the canvasser must inform the homeowner that SolarList will email him or her a copy of the assessment so that they can review it in further detail and even change any of the assumptions made on the desktop version of our free software. There’s still a good chance that the homeowner will opt in at a later time based on the information that was sent to them (which would of course still be credited to the canvasser who originated that lead). However, solar companies will not be interested to buy SolarList’s pre-qualified leads unless the homeowners are expecting a sales call. It is based on this experience that we’ve put in place a system that systematically checks whether a canvasser is collecting genuine data as a safeguard against someone tarnishing the SolarList brand name.

Saturday, April 6th was the day we that we validated our business model. Our challenge was to find out whether entrepreneurial students who were given minimal training could canvass an unfamiliar neighborhood and successfully qualify homeowners for their ability to go solar with our mobile app. Mission accomplished.

This is validation enough for us to move forward with our current business model, which aims to empower an under-employed labor pool of high school, college and graduate students to become solar evangelists that can generate pre-qualified solar leads, reducing the cost of customer acquisition for solar installers.

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