My Solar Story - Brion Wickstrom
I started my solar career in 2004 at Mr. Sun Solar. I had been interested in solar for a long time and was intrigued by the energy independence it had to offer.
I was working random jobs while pursuing the inside electrical apprenticeship program. On the way to my job at the time, as a mover, I drove by Mr. Sun’s office every day. One day without thinking about it I turned my head in the direction of the Mr Sun office and not even sure what Mr. Sun meant, I decided to stop the van and go inside.
I ended up starting my first day of work with Mr. Sun about two weeks later. I showed up for my first day at what was known as the “old shop”, I think it’s now the old old old shop. I was excited to work my first day in solar! I spent the next six months of my solar career replacing a sidewalk, remodeling a bathroom at an apartment connected to the shop and fixing up John’s (Mr. Sun’s owner) house.
Finally, I was going to meet John to install a solar pool heating system. I was excited for my actual first day in solar! We met early on the job site and John stayed long enough to lay out the pipes, valves, gauges, etc. on the sidewalk. He pointed at two spots on the existing pool house piping to cut and suddenly he was gone. I was left to learn as I went. I must have done an OK job because the next day I was on to more solar projects.
Not too long after, I made it into the solar water heating apprenticeship program, the SOL. It wasn’t photovoltaics but it was solar; I was happy. Photovoltaic systems were still very expensive so not too many systems were going in. We installed domestic solar water heaters, pool heating systems, solar skylights, and attic fans all over Portland. This continued for the next six years or so. We went to solar festivals, fairs, earth day events, we traveled all over Oregon, Washington, and California promoting solar. I had a truck that ran on fryer grease. Free fuel! We just had to stop at restaurants to pump some dirty used fryer oil into the veggie tank and go. Those were “the good ol days”! Most years during slow season (Feb.-May) I would take a voluntary lay off. Until one year the economy crashed and solar didn’t pick up in the spring. There wasn’t enough work so I couldn’t go back. I couldn’t find another solar company that I wanted to work for. I wanted to stay in solar, but work for who? Work for me! I didn’t know much about business, but I thought I’d try anyway. I researched how to start a business, I made a task list and bought a portable file. As I completed tasks I checked them off the list and filed the papers. I was a business man!
In October of 2009, I was just getting Synchro off the ground but I decided I didn’t want to go it alone. I convinced Sarah, a co-worker from Mr. Sun and good friend of mine, to join me. I had a business license, a solar water heating license, and Sarah had her LRT (limited renewable technician) license so she agreed to join me and I became her apprentice. Finally, I could install photovoltaics.
Soon afterwards, I met Ian (a project manager at sustainable solutions) on a rafting trip. They had solar jobs to do but no one qualified to install them; we were qualified technicians without work, it was a match.
One day Sarah mentioned she knew a person who was interested in volunteering for us. We all met up for a beer and our company grew to three. Jeni volunteered long enough for us to realize we wanted her to be a permanent part of Synchro. Not having enough steady work meant cash flow was slim but we wanted to offer her incentive to stay. We offered her a 10 percent share of Synchro and a paycheck as we could afford it. Jeni agreed and we kept chugging along.
We installed systems as a sub-contractor while pursuing our own jobs. Our own sales were tough because we were a young company and none of us had any sales experience. We somehow managed to fumble through a sale or two. Eventually Randy (the salesman for sustainable solutions) approached us wanting to join our team. Again, not having enough steady work to support another position, we agreed to divide the company into four equal shares. Pay was based on a commission scale determined by need. The idea being we would we would all take as little as we could until Synchro could afford to pay more.
Our foundation was strong and because we all had a stake in the company we pushed hard. We were a young company that needed to prove ourselves and we did! We focused on customer service, intelligent designs, and high quality installations.
A few years later, I bought my partners’ shares and I now have 11 employees and I remain the sole owner of Synchro Solar… for now.