Markus Wilhelm built up one of the largest solar energy companies without initially having any knowledge of the industry.
Wilhelm gave the keynote address at “People. Planet. Profits” at UNC Kenan Flagler on Nov. 19. The Center for Sustainable Enterprise (CSE) sponsored the panel as part of Global Entrepreneurship Week at UNC.
Also serving on the panel were Ginger Dosier, founder of Biomason; Rachel Cook, founder of Seeds; and Jennifer Curtis, founder of Firsthand Foods. Carol Hee, CSE director and UNC-Kenan Flagler professor, moderated.
Wilhelm had worked in the publishing and direct consumer marketing industry when he saw an opportunity in solar. “When I encountered solar it felt as disruptive as digital was in the early ‘90s,” Wilhelm said. “It could have a similar impact on the economy and everything we do the way digital had.”
He started Strata Solar with his wife, an environmentalist, in 2008, and it now ranks as the fifth largest utility scale solar company in the United States. Triangle Business Journal listed Wilhelm as one of the 10 people to watch in 2013.
“(We saw) a real opportunity for an experienced entrepreneur who had built companies before, but we also had a great degree of ignorance,” he said. “We had no idea what we were getting into.”
Entrepreneurs need to build up organizations through hiring talent, developing and selling a vision, hiring staff behind a developed strategy, staying focused while being open minded, and being opportunistic.
“The one thing that a lot of entrepreneurs want you to believe is that always big strategy and great vision,” Wilhelm said. “It doesn’t always start this way.”
Wilhelm shared an anecdote about his friend, Richard Branson, Virgin Group founder, to demonstrate his point. When he was about 28, he needed to fly out of an airport quickly but there were no flights. He asked if he could rent a private plane but the airline said he needed at least 200 people. So Branson went back to the terminal, wrote “Virgin Airlines” on a chart, sold tickets and made a profit on the rented plane.
Not worrying about failure is important for entrepreneurs, Wilhelm said. “If it doesn’t work, change it,” Wilhelm said. “Keep on failing until it works.”
Wilhelm closed his speech with advice from his friend Seth Gordon. “You can’t do it half-ass,” Gordon said. “You’ve got to put all your chips on the table and go for it.”
The panelists discussed the importance of developing an organization’s culture and shared advice and observations advice for entrepreneurs.
- “Create a culture that is cohesive.” If you hire people who aren’t a good fit for the company, correct your mistakes, said, citing the old adage “hire slowly, fire quickly.”
- General Electric measures employees on two scales: skills and attitude, Wilhelm said. If an employee has a four in attitude and a one in skills, they train and invest in that employee. If an employee has a four in skills and a one in attitude, they fire him.
- “Something that’s really important when you’re starting out is if you’re a founder, to be very open and honest about your strengths and weaknesses,” Cook said. Be open to feedback and hire employees to cover skills that are your weakness.
- Dosier succeeded as an entrepreneur because she fully immersed herself in starting her company, giving up a career she had in India to come back to the United States. “You will fail. You will make assumptions that aren’t correct,” she said. “But I learned more about the failures than I ever did from the successes.”