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UnThink Solar
a div of Impress Labs
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Phone: 415-395-0941

Solar Fred's 5 Lessons Solar Companies Can Learn from Steve Jobs and Apple

Update 10/5/2011: This post was originally written after Steve Jobs stepped down from being Apple's CEO. However, the content is still appropriate as a eulogy today. I've also just written a new post for solar thermal here. RIP, Steve. Thanks for your vision. — Solar Fred.

As I write this blog post, I’m writing it on a 2010 MacBook Pro. If you call me, I’ll answer on an iPhone 4, and if I’m reading your PDF’d report or a new marketing book, it is on an iPad2 — and I’m one of millions who can say the same thing. What was Steve Jobs’ secret of success and what can solar companies learn from his tenure and life at Apple?

Books have been written about Steve Jobs and Apple. This is a mere blog post, but I sincerely believe that these basic observations are valuable to the solar industry, from panels to inverters to BOS to installations. Naturally, if you have more observations to add, please do contribute your comments below. Meanwhile, here are my thoughts:

Apple-Solar Lesson #1: Innovate and take risks. In 1984, Jobs and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak introduced the first Macintosh with an unforgettable Orwellian ad campaign launched at the Super Bowl. At the time, Microsoft PCs dominated the market and still do to a large extent, but that didn’t stop Apple from saying: “So what? We can do personal computing better and profit.”

While solar PV and hot water appear to be getting more commoditized, my suggestion to you is to stretch and take risks. Like the first Mac, take the solar cell, inverter, or solar service, and continually challenge yourself and your engineers to improve it, perhaps even radically, breaking the PV Orwellian mold.

In addition, apply the same risks to your solar marketing. Apple’s 1984 commercial not only launched a new computer, but I would argue that it launched their brand personality that has only grown stronger since. At its core, Apple’s brand says, “We are very special and creative, and we don’t care what’s been done before. We’re here now and we are the future. Microsoft, eat your heart out.” Can you apply that same attitude to your marketing? My belief is that everyone can if you’re willing to take risks and have confidence in the value of your solar product.

Apple-Solar Lesson #2: Cheap doesn’t necessarily mean success and profits. I am well aware that solar PV manufacturers and installers are chasing prices. I doubt this will change any time soon. But remember that computers and laptops are also commodities. So are cell phones. Apple’s computers have never been the cheapest computer in the store. And while they don’t have the largest market share of computers, they have zero debt and are one of the most profitable companies in the world today.

Why would people pay consistently more for your solar product? Lesson #1 above has something to do with it, but there is also the intangible brand mystique factor.

Apple products are essentially luxury items. When people buy it, they don’t just need a laptop or a cell phone, they want and desire that iPhone and that MacBook, and they're willing to wait hours in line to get it first, despite the price and the time.

Can your solar product be a luxury product? Probably not, for reasons I won't go into here. However, if it’s solid technology and performs as advertised or better, and you can get customers to evangelize about how well it works, perhaps how good it looks on the roof, and how helpful your sales staff is, then I think you’re justified in charging more for fostering and maintaining that feeling of security and brand ownership. Easier said than done, I know, but hard work never stopped Jobs. And that brings me to:

Apple-Solar Lesson #3: Failure is part of the journey to success. Looking at Apple’s success now, many forget that it was near bankruptcy in the late 1990’s. As for Jobs, people also forget that he left Apple in the early 90’s to create NEXT, another computing platform that was quietly folded into Apple when Jobs returned in the late 1990’s. Jobs failing never stopped him from continuing to innovate and charge higher prices. It also didn’t stop him from finding partners. In this case, it was merging back with his old company, but it could have been Dell or another manufacturer—assuming they were on the same page.

Two points here. First, success doesn’t happen over night, so plan for a long journey to riches. Second, unique visions and creativity often fail for one reason or another.  It takes courage and more hard work to learn, recover, and try again. Once a stock market darling, Evergreen Solar is in liquidation today. Whoever buys their assets and takes their talent into their folds, good for you. It’s a dark time now, but Jobs is a lesson to former Evergreen innovators to move forward and try again.

Apple-Solar Lesson #4: Simplicity, design, and customer service.  You know why I switched to Mac? Because I was so fed up with my PC crashes, the long start up times, the complicated ways it forced me to do simple tasks, plus the long wait times and defensive customer service. My MacBook and iPhone changed all of that. I paid a higher price, but I’m so satisfied with my computing and phoning (not to mention my music selection process) that I don’t care about the extra cost.

Whatever solar widget you sell to whatever sector, try to keep your sales and designs as simple and elegant as Apple products. Eliminate installation steps where possible. Have patient customer service personnel who know solar and know your product and for the business-to-business (B2B) world, know solar installer business concerns. If your product breaks, replace it without a fuss or a complicated return process. All of this will probably cost more, so you may not be THE cheapest solar widget, but if you’re 10 percent higher with extra-mile service and support – and you can simply explain/market those added values – like Apple, customers will pay more, and it’s a win-win for you and them.

Apple-Solar Lesson #5: Perhaps you’re not just a solar company after all. Apple recently dropped “computers” from its official brand name. They no longer want to be seen as just a computer company, but as a general electronics brand. Even that doesn’t describe it well, since they’re also a music and media and book distribution service too. With the iPad, the book, magazine, and newspaper businesses are being transformed.

I know that many solar companies have merged with or are starting to offer their own energy efficiency services. Roofing companies are also branching into solar, and visa versa. Perhaps just focusing on these two related sectors is good enough – or not.

SunPower just made a deal as one stop solar shop for Ford’s new electric car launch. Are they in the car business?  They are now. A few solar companies are now offering services in Home Depot and Lowes. Are they in the home improvement business? Yup. And where will these new relationships lead?

I believe in focusing on one thing and doing it well. At the same time, I also know that people like Steve Jobs can see beyond their focus. They can make ah-ha connections and say, “nobody’s doing that with solar. We could. Let’s try.” (See Lesson #1 again.)

Want more insights about solar and Apple? I’ve got plenty more, but they’re not going to be the same as yours. So here’s my suggestion: This weekend, go to your nearest Apple store. Play with their products. Talk to the blue shirt “geniuses.” There’s a lot to be learned from HOW they do things, not what they do.

To me, it’s just another way to UnThink Solar.

Tor Valenza a.k.a. “Solar Fred” advises solar companies on marketing, communications, and public relations. Contact him through UnThink Solar or follow him on Twitter @SolarFred.



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