Thriving Company Culture through the Eyes of a Company Founder
By Tamara Staton, Owner Thriving Solar - This is the first of a series of interviews in my exclusive column series on Thriving Culture. The intention of this series is to give you, as a solar professional, a sense of where and how culture is thriving in the solar industry, and how you might choose to strengthen company culture in your own company or place of business. I conducted this interview with Jordan Weisman, owner and founder of Sunbridge Solar, which, at the time of the interview, has eight staff, with one team of installers. I chose Jordan because he is a company founder, and through my work with him and his team, it is clear that Jordan holds a strong commitment to creating and maintaining a thriving culture at Sunbridge.
Tamara: What led you to start Sunbridge Solar?
Jordan: I’ve always been somewhat of a serial entrepreneur. In college, I had my own pasta-making business called ‘Pasta of the Month Club’. I had 100lb bags of semolina flour and pasta hanging all around the house. As a younger kid, I think I had an entrepreneurial spirit, always selling things on the street. My dad and my step dad both have had their own businesses, so that was the model that I knew. After I took my first job in the solar industry, I finally found what I loved to do. I was happy to be learning but quickly began thinking about how I could apply my passion and someday start my own business. After three or four years of working for other people, I had planned how I would do things differently and what I would want to do in my own business. I’m also just not very good at working for other people...
Tamara: So, to transition to the primary topic for this interview, what does ‘thriving culture’ mean to you?
Jordan: To me, thriving culture is when employees feel invested in the business they’re working for. They feel that there’s a reason to come to work, more than just for the paycheck -- though obviously that’s part of it. They feel like they’re part of something greater, as if they’re contributing, that they’re voice is heard, that they’re working towards something, and that they are moving in a positive direction, as opposed to just stagnating in their ability to provide opportunities for growth for everybody involved.
Tamara: What aspects of positive or thriving culture had you experienced elsewhere, in your career or otherwise, that had you committed to creating such a culture at Sunbridge?
Jordan: That’s a tough one, because with a lot of the other companies I worked with, I felt the absence of it. But I guess there were times, working for other businesses, when the owner did seemingly small things, like showing up with Gatorade on a hot day for us as installers. That had such a big impact and was appreciated so much. Seeing that, I realized that it doesn’t take a lot to show your employees that you appreciate them and what they’re doing.
One solar company I worked with, similar in size to Sunbridge, was in Boulder, Colorado. Every Monday morning we met at a bagel shop where the owner bought us bagels and coffee. We took time to chat about our weekend and discussed installs for the week. That’s something I wanted to emulate because I would look forward to work on Mondays -- it was an exciting way to start the week and felt valuable for us to be spending time together outside of the office.
Tamara: Where are you seeing aspects of thriving culture at Sunbridge?
Jordan: Nowadays I see people come to work in the morning and they seem like they want to be here. I try to get on site more often, and generally people are happy to be at work and working (which hasn’t always been the case during some rougher patches). I also see the guys hanging out independently outside of work. I have noticed a lot of the guys excited to be working towards their licenses, or their education to become LRTs. They all seem pretty invested in what they’re doing, and really care about doing a good job. And I see the results in the customer reviews -- generally you can see it reflected in what is said about the crew.
Tamara: So, in that vein, how does business improve when the culture is positive and employees are supported and have what they need?
Jordan: It will commonly trickle down to the experience of the customer. Often, when employees aren’t doing great, that can have an impact on the customer because they can pick up on tension which can negatively impact the project. When things are thriving, it will generally lead to happier installers, which can lead to a better customer experience. I think happy employees can be more efficient when they’re working, and when you’re more efficient, you’re more profitable.
Tamara: What specific things have you done to support a positive and thriving culture at Sunbridge?
Jordan: I genuinely do want to hear from the people in the field about ways to improve, all the time. Very often, we can enact ways to improve quickly, which is the benefit of being in a small company. I think it’s difficult for that to happen when you’re in a big company, there are often too many layers for change to occur quickly. I think that’s something I like to do.
I think ‘Fun Days’, as silly as the name is, is a way for me to say thanks for all their hard work. It’s a paid day for the guys to do something fun. We’ve done some pretty cool things and I know they look forward to those. Last year, we went white water rafting and stayed in a house in Hood River. We have spent a day playing frisbee golf and went to the Gorge to BBQ and play volleyball. We’ve gone to the batting cages and driving range and we’ll often go out to lunch. This year we also went skiing on Hood.
I also think it’s important to support the job with real benefits. I think it’s going to be hard for any company to retain their employees if you’re paying them a low wage and they don’t get any kind of sick time, holiday time or vacation pay, and aren’t offered insurance. I think all of those basic things are very important to have a strong company culture. You can do everything you can possibly think of to have a strong company culture, but if they don’t have the basics, I don’t think employees will stay happy in the long-term.
Tamara: What challenges have you needed to navigate in the process of supporting people and creating positive company culture, and how have you overcome some of those?
Jordan: One of the things I realized last year when we were growing is that when we had more employees, personalities were more difficult to navigate. For me, it was a bit easier to have fewer people. As we started to grow, the biggest challenge was navigating the interpersonal relationships. It’s like when you’re traveling with one or two other people, it’s not too difficult to make a decision. But with a group of six, it takes like four hours to figure out where to go to dinner. The more people you add, the more complex it becomes, and that wasn’t something I was fully prepared for.
The way we attempted to work on that was through working with you at Thriving Solar, and realizing that sometimes we, as business owners, don’t have all the answers or all the tools to be able to solve every problem. Just being open to seeking outside help when necessary is valuable.
Tamara: Is there anything that you’ve tried, in regards to instilling positive team culture, that didn’t work? What did you or might you change about those attempts?
Jordan: There have been times when I saw that there were challenges. We would try to address them and have an open conversation about it. But when you’re dealing with people or any relationship really, there are ways to talk about and handle things, and ways not to. Even if you have the best intentions of being open, sometimes it still just doesn’t work because you’re dealing with a person who reacts in certain ways. I feel like we tried to handle things when we were struggling internally, and despite our best efforts, they weren’t resolved. Which brings me back to what I was just mentioning about knowing our limits and when it’s time to look outside of ourselves for an alternative approach that can help move things forward.
Tamara: What ideas do you have in mind to try for a stronger culture in Sunbridge’s future?
Jordan: One of the things I’ve thought a lot about is some kind of employee ownership or profit-sharing. I think that’s something that would really encourage people to stick around if they really felt invested in the business. If the business does better, so do they, financially.
Also, when we do bring on a new person, I want to do a better job of engaging everybody in the process a little more, since we’re such a small company--not necessarily including them in all of the hiring interviews, but at least involving them in the type of person we’re looking for. I think that would be helpful.
Tamara: Thank you so much, Jordan, for sharing your time and perspective. Is there anything that you want to add before we wrap up?
Jordan: I don’t necessarily think that Sunbridge Solar has a superior company culture to any other solar company out there. It’s a work in progress trying to figure it all out. For me, I really do care about all the people who work here, and I like the business to have a family kind of atmosphere. And I try to do everything I can to make it that way.
Should you be interested in learning more about integrating a thriving culture into your own business or team, contact Tamara Staton directly at thrivingsolar.com. You can also find related articles on her blog that can support you in the strengthening company culture, including her most recent publication entitled, Four Steps to Resolving Interpersonal Conflict.