November 16th, 2009

7 Things I Learned from Losing my Dream Job in Renewable Energy

Business Insights -

Three weeks ago, I was fired. Perhaps, it would be more accurate to say they ‘let me go’ because the decision was not due to my performance. The company was a small, cash strapped start up providing training to the renewable energy industry. The mission was sound and we were providing real value to the industry but we were hit by the recession later then others.

It was a perfect first job; I learned a ton about the renewable energy industry, the inner workings and culture of a start up, and I made a bunch of good friends. I’m really excited now, I have plenty of free time and there are tons of opportunities and things happening in the industry that I can’t wait to get involved in.

My excitement is real and I’m not faking it, I’m not the type of person that always tries to make everything seem great. I wear my emotions on my face and I don’t drink alone everyday wishing I had my job back. With that said, I don’t have a trust fund, or nest egg, I’m not personally wealthy nor is my family. I come from a poor, working class (not middle class) background in Maine so I’m just really good at controlling my expenses and could live off a salary from McDonalds.

Two days after I lost the job I wrote down what I learned and I want to share it with you. As my thesis adviser said ‘Chris, you’re the only person I know who is excited when they lose their job…let’s celebrate’. I thought it would be fun and useful to reflect on what I learned. I know that there are a lot of college students and career changers who are still looking for jobs and people who may have also been laid off that are back in the job market.

I enjoy reading storing about how people deal with tough times, recently the best post I’ve seen is called My Million Dollar Mistake, its a great piece about how Neil Patel has dealt with wrong turns in his life.

My hope is that the insights may be useful for someone else in a similar situation and that others will share their experiences as well because these conversations are useful to have.

Here is what I learned:

# 1 It’s not the end of the world

The first thing I learned quickly was that it’s not the end of the world, like when you failed your first exam or got a detention, or in Neil case lost a million dollars. I 20 years I’m not going to look book on this moment and think it ended my life. My identity and feeling of self worth is not determined by what I do to make a living, and no I’m not a communist. From the people I have talked with in similar situations there tends to be a couple major items that freak people out when they don’t have a job. I’m not belittling these issues, each is serious and can make it seem like its the end of the world. They all require a shift in mindset and maybe behavior to combat them. Here are the things I notice that freak people out and a couple ways I get around them.

  1. I have no income: Cut your expenses. Some will say easier said then done. Okay, I agree sometimes this is true. But, if you look at your budget (you do have a budget by the way?) I bet there is a ton that you can skim and still be alive.
  2. I’m useless: This can be tough. I realize that my work does not define me. Try to see where you can find meaning in other things
  3. There’s nothing I can do! Like my mom always said, only boring people are boring. Open your mind and explore your interests, something will come along.

#2 The qualities of a good leader

The second thing I learned is what good leadership is. During college there is a huge focus on leadership, but few real life examples where you can observe it. The central question is all leadership discussions is: would you follow this person and why? Since I began working this question was consistently in the back of my mind and I was always asking myself this question.

Here’s why I would follow my boss.

  1. He personally cared: When he asked what I did over the weekend and how I was feeling, I could tell it was genuine. This is key and its easy to spot people who ask but don’t really care.
  2. He did what he said he would: When he said he was going to do something he did, the small things count. This established reliability, trusts and respect, all elements critical to leaderships.
  3. He’s transparent: The companies books were open if I wanted to see. He told us when things were going good and bad as soon as he knew and he let everyone know how he was feeling.

The good part is that now I have a good example which will 1) help me to become a better leader and 2) give me the skills to notice good leaders more easily.

If you’re curious about research on the trait of good leaders I’ve found this discussion very useful and insightful

#3 Trial and error is the best decision making tool

The only sure way to know is to try it. Our whole business model was based off of having a clear vision and testing ideas with trail and error to see which ones would work and be profitable. It took me a while to learn this (2 months) because college is very linear and built around planning, planning, and more planning, not action. Building a company is all about  minimizing risk and action. You need to find decisions with the most upside but the least chance of losing any resources.

I noticed there are two things small companies lack to make decisions:

  1. Data (market data, customer data, industry data)
  2. Resources (cash, time, connections)

A focus on action and testing through trail and error resolves both, providing data and determining profitable places to assign resources with the least risk in losing those resources.

Don’t spend too much time planning. Try it once and use that experience to improve. After working for a couple months I noticed I was always answering very basic questions from potential customers about the geothermal and solar PV industries. In order to stream line the sales process, I had an idea to create a short webinar to answer all these questions in a batch, it would take less time on my part and also provide nice sales metrics to track its effectiveness. After a couple weeks of talking my boss just told me to set a date and do it. It wasn’t perfect, we made a couple sales, but it provided data and an example on how we could improve it.

However, if you try something you must also be persistent which is difficult in a small company that has limited resources. This is because 1 trial is a very small sample size and you must have a large enough sample size to have a good estimate of effectiveness.

# 4 You’re not in control

This is hard for most people in the United States to deal with because it’s central to the American Dream, a myth that is centered around individualism and being in control of your destiny, and something we have been taught from a very young age. The problem is that these myths are typically supported with anecdotes and no data. I learned that this myth is very dangerous for a small business. During good times, companies attribute the success to their own actions. However, when things go badly it often confuses companies because their actions have not changed so they wonder how the result has. The reason for this is that their actions had little to do with either their successes or their failures.

I admit that it’s useful for people and companies to feel in control. Many experiments have suggested that people who feel they have control of their environment are more productive and happier. However, our economy and society is largely influenced by randomness and believing that you are in control can blind you to what’s happening.

I would argue you have the power to react to situations but rarely to create them.

#5 The power of eduction

At HeatSpring,  I learned the power of education. Our whole business model was based on education and training because in a new, rapidly growing industry the information gap is so large the prospect of a large payoff is so likely people are willing to pay hefty amounts for training.

However, I have realized that this approach can be used in all industries. The reason is that in most, if not all industries, and both B2B and B2C business models, the consumer or purchasers of a product or service are not an expert about that particular product or service. Take yourself for example, you probably have a car, television, and house, but I can almost garantee that you are not an expert in any of these

This is a great opportunity for all organizations to increase their sales and impact by educating consumers and setting the buying criteria. Through education you provide useful information and establish respect and trust and customers will ask you for your opinions.

Here is the best article I have found on ‘educated based marketing’ that describes the difference between classic selling and educational based marketing. Education- Based Selling

# 6 Ask for help

I try to only trash on countries cultures when necessary. American culture has a huge problem with individualism. Hyper-individualism in the U.S.A forces most people to think they must do everything. This is the WORST attitude to have in a small company for two reasons. 1) You can’t 2) Group cohesion is the key to reducing stress and increasing productivity for everyone.

I would argue that no one has ever really done anything by themselves, there is always a supporting staff and people to help them along the way. Small companies are no different.

# 7 Friend are more important then money

I’ll be honest, I’d still like to have a job, but its also fun not having one and having time to explore my next steps. Either way, I’m glad that I’ve made from good friends.

Many people say that a network is all an entrepreneur has. I agree with this statement but dislike it in the sense that it focuses on the utilitarian value of friendships and doesn’t seem to recorngize that good friendships in themselves are valuable.

My Conclusion

Whenever I make a transition in my life I find it useful to reflect on what I’ve learned. It helps build upon my experiences and realize the benefits.

Clean technology will be no different from the oil, high tech, or internet boom. Most will fail but the industry will grow.

I always measure success by if I learn something or not.

So what? How does this help you?

My advice is to take what you have learned and move on, always building upon past successes and mistakes.

Think of everyone situation as a win-win. If you’re always judging the success of a situation by if you learn something or not you will always succeed. From my experience, this is where you DO have control.

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Chris Williams

About Chris Williams

Chris Williams is the editor of Green Light Distrikt and Chief Marketing Officer at HeatSpring . He has experience in business development, prototyping and new venture research with a focus on geothermal heat pumps, solar thermal and solar photovoltaic technologies. Chris is an IGSHPA accredited geothermal installer and NABCEP certified solar installer. Chris is focused on solving customer facing issues in the creation and adoption of clean energy technologies and products. Chris has installed over 300kW of solar and tens of geothermal systems. He's invented the PV Pal , developed many trainings at HeatSpring, publishes the NABCEP Study Guide , the Hitchhikers Guide to Cleantech and has done due diligence research for Urgent VC . Feel free to connect with him @topherwiliams , on Linkedin , or through email about new ventures, collaborating, writing, research or whatever is on your mind.

  • Jesse Tolz

    My friend, you are an unusual outlier in terms of predominant mentality in this country. And you have clearly stated that.

    # 4 You’re not in control:

    So yes, I am in agreement with not being able to “create” situations or results, but in reacting to circumstance, you can most definitely guide that which is within your control.

    What I believe is that there is a pool of actionables I have no influence over, and I am aware of and keep tabs on those because they affect the rest. Then there is an array of cause/effect interactions that I am most capable of modifying and guiding, and those are what I concentrate my time to make the most out of their potential.

    I should make a ven diagram… with A(what I can not control) and B(what I can control), and the overlap shows how what I can control minimally affects what I can not.

  • Jamie Kent

    Great stuff man. I especially agree with/relate to #4 and #6. Life seems to be about a balance of control and chaos and how to make sense of it all (organized chaos?). And as someone utilizing the economic downturn as a perfect time to pursue my passion for music, I can personally attest to the power of simply “asking for help”. People can see passion in your eyes, and I really do think they want to be part of and help you realize that dream. Keep up the good stuff man, and give me a call when you’re back from Maine!


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  • Anonymous

    This is really nice and innovative article to read. Today’s time unemployment ratio is near about 9% and 11 million people in the US are jobless. I think they all need to read this article for better change.

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