Benjamin Colbert of City Renewables: “Innovative ”

Innovative — you must always be innovative in your approach. Technology moves at a rapid pace, and the companies that can innovate with new emerging technologies will have the edge. When we shifted to social media ads and website funnels, we placed ourselves way above the competition. Consistency — you climb the tallest mountains in the world by taking […]

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Innovative — you must always be innovative in your approach. Technology moves at a rapid pace, and the companies that can innovate with new emerging technologies will have the edge. When we shifted to social media ads and website funnels, we placed ourselves way above the competition.

Consistency — you climb the tallest mountains in the world by taking one step at a time. Slow and steady wins the race. Every day I wake up and write down my goals for the day. I try to focus on the day instead of years.

Patience and perseverance are absolutely key. You are going to hit major roadblocks when starting a company, but you need to expect this. You also must know that building a kingdom does not happen overnight.

Being a founder, entrepreneur, or business owner can have many exciting and thrilling moments. But it is also punctuated with periods of doubt, slump, and anxiety. So how does one successfully and healthily ride the highs and lows of Entrepreneurship? In this series, called “How To Successfully Ride The Emotional Highs & Lows Of Being An Entrepreneur” we are talking to successful entrepreneurs who can share stories from their experience. I had the pleasure of interviewing Benjamin Colbert.

Benjamin Colbert is the founder of City Renewables, a solar panel installation start-up company based in Washington, D.C. With more than nine years of experience in clean technology, program implementation, and management consulting, he is passionate about educating customers on how to take full advantage of the Federal Investment Tax Credit (ITC) and Solar Renewable Energy Credits (SRECs). An alum of University of Oklahoma and American University, Benjamin now lives in Washington, D.C. with his wife and rescue dog.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

Growing up on a reservation in Oklahoma as early as I can remember, I used to visit my dad’s clients who were negatively impacted by the Oil & Gas industry. Specifically, I remember one of his clients who was terrified to learn that methane gas was seeping into their house through their water faucets. I remember lighting a match under their kitchen faucet and flames almost singing my eyebrows. Unfortunately, a local natural gas company was fracking just a stone’s throw away from their backyard and water well, which was the cause of the methane gas. It was hard to wrap my head around these people unknowingly living in this dangerous situation that was out of their control and caused by fracking. Long story short, my dad lost this case, but it was experience after experience like this that drove me to ultimately work in clean energy policy in Washington, D.C.

What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?

Unfortunately, the Aha Moment is tragic for me. My little brother and I dreamed about running our own companies as little boys on the playground. At age 5 (Clinton was 2), we both operated our local lemonade stand, at age 10 (Clifton was 7) we operated the best beef jerky business on the playground at lunch break, and age 14 (Clifton was 11) we won every award under the sun for selling the most Boy Scout popcorn in recorded history. At age 28 (Clifton was 25, psychologically preparing to start an MBA program in just a couple of weeks), Clifton lost a battle to opiates. Just a few days before starting his MBA program, he tragically died in his sleep after consuming a fatal dose of Fentanyl. I realized life was too short and knew that there was no better time to chase my dreams, so I left Tesla and launched City Renewables publicly just a few weeks later.

In your opinion, were you a natural born entrepreneur or did you develop that aptitude later on? Can you explain what you mean?

Definitely a combination of both, but I think true entrepreneurs are born. There is an instinctual aspect to being an entrepreneur. I believe I was destined to be an entrepreneur at a very young age. I had a successful brick and mortar (aka table and sign in front of my house) lemonade stand in my neighborhood that quickly evolved to brick and mortar plus delivery service to thirsty golfers in dire need of sweet lemonade. Just a few years later, I operated an even more successful beef jerky operation on the playground in middle school, then graduated to a lawn mowing company. Let’s put it this way, I always enjoyed having some extra coin in my pocket, but it was always the process and the excitement of making a transaction and seeing people enjoy my products the most. I was and never have been motivated by money. However, the “real world” is much different than childhood. The “real world” slaps you in the face hard and the slaps keep getting fiercer as the years go on- these slaps start to break you down and create doubt and psychological warfare in your mind, or at least it’s like that for me. This is where I think it is critical to learn how to stay mentally and emotionally ready for any curveballs. In addition, education is absolutely key. You always have to be learning to keep up with the technology and stay above the curve. Only having the instinctual aspect of being an entrepreneur only takes you so far, at which point your drive, goals and vision kick into overdrive.

Was there somebody in your life who inspired or helped you to start your journey with your business? Can you share a story with us?

When growing up in southern Oklahoma in Indian Country, blood is truly thicker than water. I would not be anywhere without my family. As I mentioned earlier, my brother’s death certainly poured gasoline on my fire to keep fighting, but my older brother, older sister, mother, father and wife are all my support systems. Without them, I do not know where I would be. My father and uncles however were my mentors growing up and I always paid attention and learned from them. My father is an attorney and he has four brothers that are all attorneys. Each one of them ran and operated their own private law practices. At a very young age, I learned about the legal system, real estate, advertising, and how to operate a business. I always tagged along with them and soaked up information like a sponge.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

CUSTOMER EXPERIENCE! We pride ourselves on being the most enthusiastic and passionate people in solar. This bleeds over into all aspects of our business whether it’s our marketing, sales presentations, project management, or customer service support. I started City Renewables because I’m truly so passionate about renewable energy and solar panels, educating everyone who will listen about the benefits of switching to solar. Everyone on our team is the same way. Our customers trust us and are enthusiastic about their solar panel installations, always knowing they can ask questions and get involved in the process. This has led us to receive all 5-star reviews.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

I borrowed my primary leadership strategy from Jocko Willink. He says, “There are no bad teams, only bad leaders.” I take full responsibility for fires that arise in the customer experience or any aspect of our business. Any problems that arise are always my problems.

Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?

I wish I would not have followed the advice to get a Master’s degree, to be completely honest. I was constantly hearing that a graduate degree is the new undergrad degree and that you’re no longer competitive without it. But what I’ve learned is that technology is the key to successfully moving forward, and while business school definitely teaches you the fundamental building blocks of a company, new technology cannot be learned in the traditional education system. I’ve learned so much more with hands-on experience, not to mention the valuable connections I make on a regular basis.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them create a work culture in which employees thrive and do not “burn out” or get overwhelmed?

You have to find your passion or what we call in the Tesla family, your “why.” Life is ALWAYS going to slap you in the face. Your why is your backstory and your future vision alike that keep you grounded and focused. It allows you to hyper-focus on the bigger picture and push yourself through any bumps in the road. I also think a culture of open communication is key. I need to know when my team is having any trouble so I can help coach them through difficulties or remedy the problem before it’s too late and they burn out. Establishing two-way communication within any team in any industry can help establish trust, workplace enthusiasm and mutual respect.

What would you advise other business leaders to do in order to build trust, credibility, and Authority in their industry?

Be customer experience-oriented and demonstrate patience and perseverance… and be active on SOCIAL MEDIA! Always make decisions with the customer experience as the number one priority in everything you do. Patience and perseverance go together in my opinion. If you are customer experience-oriented, then I truly believe over time you will naturally grow to be a trusted, credible authority in your industry. If you want to fast-track this, then make sure to document your story that shows the true you through storytelling on social media. People connect with stories and with people they feel they know personally.

Can you help articulate why doing that is essential today?

At a time when people have a million options for anything, being able to offer an outstanding customer service experience will most certainly set you apart. In terms of social media, the average screen time on social media is over 145 minutes per day. That’s almost three full hours and screen time is expected to increase over time moving forward. Companies that are not fully utilizing social media to share their stories and establish trust and brand recognition with consumers will soon be left in the dust.

What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?

Growing too fast and making bad hires. My advice is to focus on YOUR business, not what’s going on around you. It’s easy to get into the comparison trap of seeing other companies growing faster or “better” than yours. Stay in your lane, listen to your gut when you hire new people and take time to learn from your mistakes and growing pains.

Ok fantastic. Thank you for those excellent insights, Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview about How to Successfully Ride The Emotional Highs & Lows Of Being An Entrepreneur. The journey of an entrepreneur is never easy, and is filled with challenges, failures, setbacks, as well as joys, thrills and celebrations. This might be intuitive, but I think it will be very useful to specifically articulate it. Can you describe to our readers why no matter how successful you are as an entrepreneur, you will always have fairly dramatic highs and lows? Particularly, can you help explain why this is different from someone with a “regular job”?

As an entrepreneur, you are never finished. Ever. And you know that when you start your business. Throughout our journeys as entrepreneurs, we likely experience things like imposter syndrome and feeling inadequate or uncertain in our roles. We are often trusted with people’s homes, money, reputations, etc. and it can be hugely stressful. Take a step back, remind yourself of all you’ve accomplished and why you’re here. Enlist trusted friends and former (or current) colleagues to confide in. Another thing is constantly balancing reinvestment vs. risk. What’s smart and what’s risky? It’s a constant battle to know when, how and if to take risks on our businesses. From the start, I imagine most business owners experience social pressure — most often from their closest friends and family! It can instill a sense of fear or inadequacy. Keep your eye on your vision — they’re not going to get there for you. Of course, cash flow is constantly on the brain as an entrepreneur. It’s a rollercoaster, but again, enlist people you respect and will give it to you straight — and trust your gut. On top of this, the line between personal and professional lives is very blurry and often crossed. So many people with “regular jobs” go home and are done for the day (although I know at a time when we all can work from home, this is increasingly becoming more difficult for everyone). Even if you’re not “doing” a task as an entrepreneur, you’re likely thinking about your business, which can be taxing.

Do you feel comfortable sharing a story from your own experience about how you felt unusually high and excited as a result of your business? We would love to hear it.

The pandemic hit was extremely hard. We are on pace to triple our business in 2020 until lockdown happened. During this time, we shifted 100 percent to online marketing and consultations. We made a huge investment in video and social media advertisements. We bought camera gear, new computers, lights, editing software, contracted with video directors, and social media consultants. We sunk all our chips in, and it was a make it or break it time. After producing our first series of video content, we were ready to launch. We were so pumped up, but when we went live on Facebook and Instagram, crickets… we did not convert any deals during that month. I was on the brink of a complete nervous breakdown. It was at this point, I made one last investment- it was truly threat level midnight at this point. The new investment was with a website development company that coached us how to build our website with better conversion rates. After hours and hours working on the new website funnels, we launched yet again, but this time was different. Within minutes after launching the second time, ding, ding, ding, ding, the lead conversions start flowing in. We closed the new leads at about an 80 percent conversion rate. August — December of 2020 turned into the biggest sales months in history. We sold more solar systems during this time period than the last three years combined. Let’s just say the champagne was flowing at Christmas time.

Do you feel comfortable sharing a story from your own experience about how you felt unusually low, and vulnerable as a result of your business? We would love to hear it.

We started 2020 on such a hot streak. We were on pace to triple the amount of solar installations from the previous year. I was literally on cloud nine, then the pandemic hit. Washington, D.C. imposed very strict lockdown rules from March through June. The pressure hit me like a bag of bricks. We were literally in the worst spot imaginable. We traditionally met with homeowners and business owners in person to discuss the project and close the deal. However, we could not do this anymore due to the pandemic. I continued to push and push to bring in business over the phone and Zoom, but people were just trying to survive during this time… most people did not know what the next few months would hold so considering an investment in solar panels was really out of the question. I was positive for the first couple of months, then the pressure really started to wear on me. I went into a pretty deep depression.

During this time, I suffered severely from “Imposter Syndrome.” This time period during the lockdowns was very heavy for me. We continued to push out positive content every day, and I started to really feel like a failure and felt that people were starting to turn on me because we kept pushing positive content about solar energy instead of pushing pandemic-related content. However, as I mentioned in the previous question, this was soon going to change once we approached August of 2020.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “Five Things You Need To Successfully Ride The Emotional Highs & Lows Of Being An Entrepreneur”? Please share a story or an example for each.

  • My “Why” is what drives me. I feel a strong drive to make City Renewables succeed to honor my brother who passed away at the inception of the company.
  • Innovative — you must always be innovative in your approach. Technology moves at a rapid pace, and the companies that can innovate with new emerging technologies will have the edge. When we shifted to social media ads and website funnels, we placed ourselves way above the competition.
  • Consistency — you climb the tallest mountains in the world by taking one step at a time. Slow and steady wins the race. Every day I wake up and write down my goals for the day. I try to focus on the day instead of years.
  • Patience and perseverance are absolutely key. You are going to hit major roadblocks when starting a company, but you need to expect this. You also must know that building a kingdom does not happen overnight.
  • Workout routine — I really took my productivity to the next level when I joined my local CrossFit gym. I remember my first time, I could barely breathe at the end of the workout. Now I cannot imagine not working out in the mornings. It gives me a shot of endorphins every day.

We are living during challenging times and resilience is critical during times like these. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?

Resilience to me is enduring — and even seeking — the “no.” People who can know their value and worth, shake off doubters and move on are the most resilient to me. Additionally, anticipating and preparing for major roadblocks is a trait of resilient people. They can see the forest through the trees, anticipate their clients/customers/employees’ needs and seamlessly transition their business to thrive during challenges. Finally, resilient people enjoy the journey and the process. It’s tough to enjoy the journey when you get caught up in negativity, roadblocks, setbacks, etc. But resiliency goes hand in hand with knowing that anything challenging is not only temporary but a teachable moment. Resilient people embrace those moments — something I still learn to do on a consistent basis.

Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Would you mind sharing a story?

My entire life I’ve considered myself to be an underdog. I grew up a “half-blood” Native American in Oklahoma — not part of the real Native American group and not part of the white group growing up. In college, I didn’t fit in with the “city folks” or the small-town folks. There were never too many people that looked like me throughout college. So there was a constant internal struggle in many parts of my life growing up — which I know so many people also struggle with. As a result, I learned to be resilient early in life, focus on my strengths and what I brought to the table, and was the best person and friend I could be. I realize now that these challenges made me resilient and also more relatable to people who face these similar struggles, which I am extremely grateful for.

In your opinion, do you tend to keep a positive attitude during difficult situations? What helps you to do so?

I call myself an eternal optimist — it takes a lot to really get me down, even in difficult situations. However, I do have my moments and when I feel myself starting to slip, I turn to books, inspirational podcasts, working out, and surrounding myself with positive people. My peer group is extremely important to me.

Can you help articulate why a leader’s positive attitude can have a positive impact both on their clients and their team? Please share a story or example if you can.

Attitude is everything. Positive energy is infectious and changes your environment and the world around you. It makes people want to work hard and show up enthusiastically day after day. We work too much to not enjoy our jobs, and my goal is to spread my passion and enthusiasm to everyone I work with — customers and employees.

Ok. Super. We are nearly done. What is your favorite inspirational quote that motivates you to pursue greatness? Can you share a story about how it was relevant to you in your own life?

“The greatest pleasure in life is doing what people say you cannot do.” — Walter Bagehot. I take this quote to heart. I’ve always considered myself an underdog in every phase of my life. Growing up in Oklahoma as a Native American, the odds were always against me. I had teachers telling me it was “crazy” to have aspirations of moving to Washington, D.C. They said that I should really set “realistic” goals. Every time I heard that small town negative talk, a little more gasoline was poured into the fire. This type of talk drives me to smash through the roadblocks and glass ceilings. Now fast forward to 2021, I have defied the odds. I not only live in Washington, D.C., but I’ve also been here for 12 years now with a profitable solar company, happily married, a homeowner, with a bright future on the horizon. My view now in retrospect, I should have even had “crazier” goals.

How can our readers further follow you online?

  • Instagram @cityrenewables
  • Facebook: @cityrenewables
  • Facebook @benjamincolbert

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!

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