Each quarter, we sit down with female leaders in the solar industry to learn more about their paths to success, their careers, and we ask for their advice to our network. This quarter, we sat down with Lynn Jurich, Chief Executive Officer of Sunrun, one of the industry’s leading residential solar companies. Here’s what she had to say.
How did you get into the solar industry?
I was approached by Ed Fenster, a graduate classmate of mine at Stanford. He said solar was looking cost competitive. When he approached me, I was ripe and primed for it. I had been working in China and was floored by the pollution. I grew up in the woods of Washington State, and I believe that outdoors and fresh air should be human rights. I’ve always had a passion for the outdoors.
I had been in China during the boom times when something like one third of the world’s cranes were there. I was astounded by the amount of resources I saw being consumed. I knew it was the biggest social problem of my generation, and one of the biggest economic opportunities. When Ed approached me, I saw solar as the perfect intersection for what I wanted to do with my career; the timing was too good to be true.
I took the plunge into solar without knowing much. I had no background in solar, though not many people had a lot of background back then. My background in undergrad was in finance and math. Ed and I had the luxury of coming into solar from the outside. We weren’t biased by industry experience, yet we didn’t know how challenging it would be.
Ed and I started looking at the industry, did some research, and quickly saw that everyone was focused on building large utility-scale projects. We looked at a few of those, but we thought mass penetration of rooftops was a harder problem to solve. In order to do that, we thought that the consumer market would be the one to target. Consumers pay the most for power, and grid parity will come first on residential rooftops [as we] compete on the cost to produce the power and on the delivery cost.
In order to get consumers to adopt solar, it had to be easy and cheap. We looked to SunEdison for inspiration on the business model then eventually pioneered Solar Service for the residential market in 2007. Looking at other industries we noticed consumers didn’t buy equipment, they bought services. For example, they don’t buy the satellite dish; they buy cable service. Similarly, they are used to a monthly bill for power. So we said let’s not change that – let’s just sell them solar power monthly at prices cheaper than the utility. That was our business model. We started purchasing systems for people where they signed a contract to buy the power over 20 years.
Tell us about your job at Sunrun.
It’s been terrific. I’m now the CEO of the company and also one of its founders. My job has shifted and changed over the years. A big challenge in this role in this industry is that the demand to raise capital is very high; it’s a very capital-intensive industry. Historically, I have had to spend 30-50% of my time raising money and on project finance deals. At the same time, we have a huge operating company; we are acquiring tens of thousands of customers, servicing billions in assets, and marketing to those customers. A big accomplishment of mine has been balancing deal business and an operating company.
The strategy of the business hasn’t changed much since we started. We want to reach as many consumers as possible with as low of a cost structure as possible. We evolved the business over the years to fold in more capabilities to be able to do that. We leverage an ecosystem of channels to have the widest reach and the lowest cost structure. Originally we had a business model focused entirely on channels for sales and construction. Over time, we built leading technology tools to enable those channel partners, created point of sale materials, and developed a brand that helped them sell and gain traction. We recently acquired one of the partners, REC Solar, that has a distribution and racking company. This enables us to provide more services to our channel, it enables procurement and equipment, and allows us to implement best practices from REC’s own construction and direct sales efforts. This is what differentiates us. We have a multi-channel model where we have both a direct and a thriving channel business, which you see across many mature consumer industries from cable TV and apparel to even fast food. We believe it will help us have the biggest reach and lowest cost structure while providing the best customer experience.
There has been some perception that this [acquisition] creates competition, but the reality is that the market is so under penetrated that the overlap is slight. We also have clear rules of engagement so we don’t poach from either business. Frankly, I think the values and new capabilities we acquired will help the channel both by lowering the cost of equipment and enabling best practices to ensure high quality. Those benefits outweigh the 1 or 2 customers you lose. Penetration and lack of awareness are still our biggest issues as an industry.
What aspects of your job interest you the most?
What’s been most interesting over the last year is to watch some of the battles on the regulatory side: net metering battles and responses from utility interests. For a while, we were under the radar, then all of a sudden, our momentum has become visible. We see coordination by incumbents to throttle our growth, but they haven’t been very successful. That’s because we fundamentally offer a better solution, and consumers want it. It’s encouraging to see that win.
Do you have any advice for women starting a career in the solar industry?
It’s awesome to see more women in solar. There’s especially a lot of young women in solar. Women are natural business people. They are decisive, they work hard, and they bring optimism to daily challenges. I enjoy very much working in this industry.
Women should stick around in this industry because it’s the most important problem we need to solve right now. My best piece of advice for women is to have confidence and trust themselves, especially young women. Keep that in mind when you are younger and earlier in your career.
Anything else that we should know?
Our main goal is to reach the most people with the lowest cost structure and give them a positive experience. So much of our success will come from consumer support. That’s why we take our relationship with them seriously and really strive to deliver value to them.
And we are succeeding. Our recent acquisition is not a change in the business plan; it’s merely the next step in the evolution of a rapidly growing business.