Don’t be intimidated by people more educated than you. In starting my first business, I was 25 years old and I had to learn how to lead people who were 10 or more years older than me and went to college. That was intimidating at first. But you learn that it is you that they are seeking answers from, and you need to be that person for them. You have to learn what it takes to handle that role.
As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jayson Waller.
Jayson Waller is the CEO and co-founder of POWERHOME SOLAR. He founded the energy efficiency and solar installation company in 2014, and in just six years, has led its growth to nearly 400 million dollars in annual revenue, currently employing more than 1,600 people.
POWERHOME SOLAR was ranked as the №7 residential solar installer in the U.S. by Solar Power World in 2020, and in the same year ranked №255 on the Inc. 5000 list of the fastest-growing private companies in America, marking the third time in four years that the company has been among the top 300.
Waller has earned several high-profile awards as well, most notably being named an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of The Year® 2019 Southeast Award winner in the Emerging Services category.
Under Waller’s leadership, POWERHOME SOLAR has developed partnerships with five professional football franchises (Carolina Panthers, Cleveland Browns, Detroit Lions, Indianapolis Colts and Pittsburgh Steelers), one professional baseball franchise (Cleveland Indians), and one university (NC State Athletics) to help reduce grid energy consumption and help promote the use of solar energy.
Waller is also a champion for the community, helping guide efforts to assist members of the military through the company’s partnerships with the Lifetime TV miniseries “Military Makeover” and Major League Baseball star Justin Verlander’s Wins for Warriors Foundation, among others.
Raised in a trailer park with no clear path to success, kicked out of high school multiple times and faced with becoming a father in his teens, Waller is the definition of an underdog. He is now leveraging the challenges of his past, sharing motivational tips and inspiring stories from his life experiences and that of his high-profile guests on his popular podcast, True Underdog. The podcast has over 30 million views on YouTube and over 600,000 in active subscribers, followers and downloads.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
After spending 10 years in the home security industry, I felt like the growth potential for me was just not there anymore. I saw Vivint’s Todd Pedersen branch into solar, and his success made me believe that solar was the future. I have always told myself that if I see an opportunity, I’m going 100 percent all in on it. I don’t want to be the guy who sees an opportunity and never ends up doing anything about it and then regrets it. When that horse comes along, you better be ready.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
At the end of my first year with POWERHOME SOLAR, the company was losing money and I had to consider shutting the doors. Cash flow was a real problem because we weren’t getting paid until after projects were installed, and that was tough. I felt like the shot clock was running out and I just needed more time. I had to talk my wife into listing our lake house for sale because we had built some equity and we could go and buy a smaller house with cash and not have any bills. We were at that point. I’ve never been defeated before. I have, but I’ve never quit. What do I do? I was struggling with it. I was tearing up. My wife said, “You need to pray about it, figure it out. I trust you, I have faith, you always come out on top, you always find a way.” With that I made the decision to go all in. It was a huge risk, especially when my life savings were gone from my two prior businesses, but I love betting on myself.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you have no alternatives. I cleaned house of some company leaders that were not buying in and I started running the sales department and training reps myself. I sold deals, did all I could to turn things around and got our team passionate about the direction we were headed. It started working, and the business started to grow. Through selling my house and getting some cash flow relief from vendors that started paying us a portion of deals upfront because of our performance, things started turning for the better. My first paycheck came 18 months after starting the business. My rule in every company I’ve ever built, ran, been a part of is you pay your staff first, you pay your vendors second, you pay yourself last. That made it easier to keep going, but it was still far from easy. A lot of entrepreneurs want to pay themselves first, and that’s a mistake. You have to be humble.
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
We’ve built a business at POWERHOME SOLAR that has made the Inc. 500 list of fastest-growing private companies three times in the last four years, and we’ve virtually doubled in size each of the last two years. As our numbers get bigger, doubling annually is harder to do, but we’re super excited about our growth trajectory and the prospect of one day having a life-changing event for our employees through an IPO. They supercharged the growth in this company, and they need to be rewarded for it.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Can you believe that I didn’t know what EBITDA was until a couple of years ago? In building a team around me to grow the business, I found those people that helped me learn about the importance of EBITDA. You can never be scared of adding talent to your team and finding people who can fill critical roles. I’ve come to realize that I can’t be Superman. You need a team of Avengers to really do everything well so a company like ours can prosper.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Our company culture stands out. When COVID-19 reached pandemic status, we needed to decide whether to remain open amid the uncertainty. The four members of our executive team and I believed it was best to move forward, so we temporarily removed ourselves from payroll to give employees the opportunity to continue earning paychecks, but also gave concerned workers the chance to take leave without losing their jobs until conditions improved. What was amazing and got us emotional was that dozens of POWERHOME SOLAR staffers and other company leaders offered to give up a portion of their pay to ensure that cash flow would not be an issue for the business. While the company encountered soft sales over those first 30 days, we had no idea that seven straight months of sales records were ahead. We found homeowners with strong appetites for taking control of their energy futures. That’s how we’ve gone from 750 employees to more than 1,600 during a pandemic. It’s about this team and the culture we’ve built.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Take time out for you. Whether that’s spending time with family or friends or getting to the gym, finding that balance is important. I found it helps me to have a routine. I help get my kids to school in the morning, and that’s my time with them. After work, I carve out time for their activities. It’s something that I work on every day.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
For me that person is my wife Liz. She’s the one who held everything steady in raising our family and allowed me to pursue opening my first home security company on nights and weekends when I was still working for a cell service provider as a business account manager. There are still times where she gives me the stink eye for investing too much time in the business, but I always try to make time for us, whether that’s in having game night with friends or watching TV together in bed before going to sleep. I appreciate her letting me play VR poker after that though!
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I believe a CEO should be very involved in the community, and not only be involved, but be passionate about it. If you’re going to employ people in a local area and you’re going to serve customers in that area, you need to serve the community and be a voice. You’re the leader of your organization and you need to bring that out to the people in the locations you’re at. You want to make a difference not just for your business, but for the community. I think we’ve done a great job with that at POWERHOME SOLAR. Whether it be supporting “Military Makeover” by giving deserving veterans a free solar energy system, donating thousands to the GivePower Foundation in support of providing clean water to people around the world, or in outreach efforts like Gobble Gobble Give or Toys for Tots, we want to make a difference in everything we do.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
1. Don’t be intimidated by people more educated than you. In starting my first business, I was 25 years old and I had to learn how to lead people who were 10 or more years older than me and went to college. That was intimidating at first. But you learn that it is you that they are seeking answers from, and you need to be that person for them. You have to learn what it takes to handle that role.
2. Don’t be afraid to let go. When you build something from the ground up and know it better than anyone else, it’s hard to see inefficiency happen and not want to step in and fix it right away. But I learned it’s far more important to give people that opportunity and let them either sink or swim. Letting go is so hard, but it is truly what I needed to learn to take our business to the next level.
3. Don’t ever talk yourself out of saying, “Why not us?” We have a goal at POWERHOME SOLAR, which is to be the biggest and best solar company in America. Some might say, “How can that happen when the guy leading the company was a high-school dropout who also had his first child in his teens?” Thing is, there’s never a cap on what you can accomplish. But you have to put in the work. You have to take the stairs. There is no elevator to success. You have to grind; you have to want it more than the person next to you. Look at where we’re at now — tracking for 350 million dollars in revenue this year. I’m just as hungry to keep climbing as I was when I first started, and our team is too.
4. You can’t always be the good guy in business. There’s always going to be a need to keep people in line in your business, and sometimes that means having frank discussions with people about performance. I never wanted to be that guy, but it’s important to have a voice like that who can hold people accountable when it’s needed.
5. Hire and build with smarter people in different subjects needed to grow. One of those was adding a CFO who was able to take our financials to the next level and keep a tighter rein on expenses and operations. We now have an accounting team of 7.5 people that is executing at an extremely high level, and they’ve done great work through better automated processes and tools. Also, even in building my True Underdog podcast, we’ve hired a team that can take my burgeoning show to another level.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
The great thing about POWERHOME SOLAR is that our motto is Building A Movement, or BAM for short. We do that one solar panel, one customer and one employee at a time. We are building a movement of clean, green energy, and that not only helps customers potentially save money but also does a great thing for the planet. It’s easy for our employees to understand and get behind our mission because of the amount of good we can do for customers. I am very blessed to have a chance to lead this company.
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