SM: What is the genesis of the startup?
DK: My heart’s concern is climate change and energy issues. Most of my campaign work for the past decade has been on climate concerns. I believe that in the last decade we have turned the corner from denial to awareness that it is happening. Social movements go in phases. First, they must establish that there is indeed a problem, then they must establish that business as usual is not going to deal with the problem. I think we have literally turned that corner in the last five years. It has become common sense that there is an issue and that business as usual will not solve the problem.
It quickly becomes incumbent on the social movement, and it is hard to make the change, to drive the solutions in a way that makes it easy, manageable, and understandable. You have to avoid disappointment if the problem cannot be avoided in just a couple of years. I do fear this for the US right now with all of the rhetoric around green jobs. The risk of disappointment is real because expectations are so high. It will take a long time to replace incumbent technologies reliant on fossil fuels. We need to model successful businesses that can replace the entrenched businesses.
I happen to be very close to the solar industry because I have been an advocate and champion of it for a long time. Greenpeace in many ways has created markets for it through its policy setting and campaign work. I knew a lot of the players, and I knew the way the industry was developing. I was telling them, “Guys, you are getting it all wrong!” They were all stuck upstream, revolving around a widget and volume.
In the late 1990s KPMG did a report for us on what would make solar cost-effective and gain parity with existing energy sources. The answer from KPMG, aside from policy settings, was a 500 megawatt plant in one line. We campaigned around the world to get someone to build a big factory to bring sand in one end and put modules out on the other. We were demanding BP commit their investments from petroleum to that cause. Those things were happening iteratively around the world.
I did understand that for this to be successful around the world, it was also important that it be cheap on the customer-facing side. As a proposition, half of the cost structure is hardware and the other half is getting that hardware from the factory’s gate to the customer’s roof. I was watching this industry develop into a big business. I was thinking that nobody was focused on the customer relationship, the brand, the sales, shipping and logistics, and all of that stuff.
I have a longstanding friend who was an activist as well as a serial entrepreneur and went to Stanford business school. He used to live in New York, so when I went to the UN I would stay with him. We were chewing over this observation of the industry for many years and talked about different businesses we could launch together.
When I moved back to the States with my wife, we decided to go ahead and start a business and find a business plan in this space. That led me to join forces with another friend from BP Solar. He really had the strong business plan for a downstream solar business leveraging the Internet. The three of us came together and forged the vision of Sungevity.
SM: After all of the brainstorming and editing, what emerged as your ultimate vision?
DK: Sunshine online. We want to deliver the potential of solar power via the Internet. That involves two pieces. There is the customer-facing piece, which allows the customer to be sitting at home to point and click and get their solar power system as easily as possible.
It also leverages the Internet for the backend provisioning of this equipment. It is still a difficult installation on a roof. Doing all of that supply chain management, handling all the rebates and processing the paperwork, connecting it to the grid, and coordinating the general pieces is much easier with the Internet. The business is providing a very streamlined sales and marketing platform to marketing contractors around the world.