Ep1: The First Ten Years in Business

Tony Sampson, Naked Solar

Tony Sampson, founder and Managing Director of Newquay-based Naked Solar, has recently celebrated his first 10 years in business.

One of the first people to join the Outset programme in 2009, he now runs a hugely successful company, employs 28 people and has won a host of awards including Best Solar Panel Installer in the UK.

Tony chats to our host Rich Gunton about still feeling like a start-up, employing the right people and why team building by a pool in Portugal is better than building a raft.

Listen online using the player below or search ‘Outset Podcast’ in your favourite podcast app.

Find out more about Naked Solar at https://nakedsolar.co.uk

We hope you enjoy this episode. Get in touch for more information on how we can support your business start-up journey.

Read the full transcript here

Introduction (00:01):

Welcome to the Outset Podcast, the business startup podcast from Outset Cornwall; support and inspiration to start, run and grow your business. Here’s your host Rich Gunton.

Rich Gunton (00:15):

Tony Sampson joins us on the Outset Cornwall podcast. Hello, Tony.

Tony Sampson (00:20):

Hello, Rich. How are you doing?

Rich Gunton (00:23):

You’ve been around for, for almost as long as we have.What’s it all about – how did you start off then?

Tony Sampson (00:30):

Yeah, I was unemployed for a little bit back in 2009 and, at the time, my plan was to start a solar company and as a stepping stone towards that I started out as a electrician doing some domestic work and I was trying to set myself up with that. And Outset was there and I believe I was on one of the first courses they did. There was just so much useful information that really gave me knowledge skills and the confidence to really get started.

Tony Sampson (01:03):

Once I’d been on that course, I’ve got the electric stone and then got all the qualifications I needed to be able to do solar installs. Um, and then that was when I moved over to doing the solar as well.

Rich Gunton (01:16):

So as you say that you started off thinking of being an electrician and that was your sort of business business sort of idea, was it?

Tony Sampson (01:25):

I trained as an electrician because the end game was to become a solar installer and I needed certain qualifications, certain electrical qualifications in order to do well at the time, was the only solar installers course in the country. And then, because work was hard to find as an electrician in the middle of a recession when the building industry sort of come to a standstill, I set myself up as a domestic electrician, which is where outset came along, just at the right time, really fortunate timing/ They gave me a lot of help and pointers and guidance in terms of getting that set up and how to get business in and how to organize yourself.

Rich Gunton (02:08):

You’ve obviously already had the idea of wanting to do the solar installation there. Where did that idea come from then? Is that something that you’d been sitting on for awhile?

Tony Sampson (02:17):

I did nine years in the air force and when I came out, I worked for myselfm, I had a guest house in town for a couple of years. I ended up getting a job with the Royal Mail; a manager’s job. I wanted to get back to working for myself and I had a bit of time at Royal Mail to think about what I might want to do. I don’t remember exactly how the idea came about, but I remember thinking about it and thinking this is something that I thought would be a growth industry. It was certainly something I felt like I could get behind. I was never going to be happy doing something that just made money and paid the bills. I always wanted to do something that I was passionate about. Coincidentally, an old RAF of mine who lived in Furtaventura had started doing solar and wind installations out there. So in 2006, we went out there for a holiday and I spent a day working with him. I’d already done a lot of research into it and,the good thing was there was no surprises. I didn’t learn a lot because it was all as I expected. And as I say, just at the time of the recession in 2008, I left Royal Mail and then went for looking for electrical work. And there wasn’t a lot about, hence the need to set up as a domestic electrician, to get more experience and to pay the bills and then carried on to do more qualifications so I could get accredited with solar panels.

Rich Gunton (03:41):

Great, that sounds fantastic. And I think, you know, that said sometimes it’s through, you know, starting up a business is through it’s through choice or through, you know, faced with redundancy perhaps, or, or like you say, coming out of the forces, et cetera. And, and then we’re left with a, in a position whereby goal number one is to survive and make money. But then often small businesses don’t necessarily fulfill that very much if it’s just about making money. And like you say, having a sense of purpose and obviously the environmental angle, in, in your business model makes it quite interesting. So you came along to the Outset courses, then you did the Accelerator Program as well. You started to move away from being an electrician into Cornwall Solar panels. Was that your first name? Is that right?

Tony Sampson (04:26):

Yeah, that’s right. Yeah. So we started as Cornwall Solar panels. I’d already built up a client base under Cornwall Electrics. So we also had Cornwall electricians. And then we grew the business. We’d been on, what’s commonly known as the solar coaster in the industry, with feeding tariff deadlines and things like that. You had big rushes followed by big, big dips in business. So it was always difficult to manage and difficult to plan. It’s still, you know, even more saw the potential and realised we’d hemmed ourselves in with the name Cornwall Solar Panels. So in 2007 changed our name to Naked Solar, but that was a kind of, you know, and that was a two year project in itself. And we, we set ourselves a target in 2015 to be the UKs largest rooftop, solar installer by the end of this decade now. So by 2030, we’d need to change our name. We started investing a lot in all our systems and our CRM system in particular. I’ve been growing the business since then. I sort of ironically, once the feed-in tarrif finished that kind of gave us the freedom to focus on the growth element of our plan. Once we’d got our ducks lined up, it’s been the biggest growth that we’ve known. So since COVID started, we we’ve increased our employee count by 50%,

Rich Gunton (05:44):

Going back to your, your first couple of staff members, then, you know, how did that start? Was that always the plan from day one to, to make it much more than just you on your own, but in terms of that growth and that staffing goal?

Tony Sampson (05:58):

I’d always wanted to grow the business. I was, I was never that comfortable on the tools and didn’t think I was the best person to be there. But I’m glad I went through that process so I can understand it better. So, yeah, I remember my first empoyee was an electrician because that meant that I didn’t have to do so much electrics and could focus on the business more and then brought someone else in to help with the admin side in the office and then just started growing it from there. So now we’re up to 27 staff. It was 18 at the beginning of the COVID. There’s about six people in the sales team, we’ve got eight people on the installation team and there’s electricians, and they’ve now become a department. So they’ve got their own managers as well. We’ve got a marketing apprentice. We’ve got two it people now, because we’ve got so much work to do our CRM.

Tony Sampson (06:45):

There’s a few other admin roles and things like that. So that also helped. We’re actually holding back on marketing at the moment because we’re sort of having to run to keep up with the inquiries that just naturally come in. There’s a lot of things that have helped out. I think the COVID thing, you’ve got a lot of people who are home realizing how much money they spent on the holidays and the can out and now, uh, something to do with that money. And they’ve got a bit of time to look into solar. So that’s, that’s made it busy, so many more people using EVs now. So they want to charge their cars with solar. Certainly we’re seeing a much more awareness and, um, a much bigger will to do something about the environmental issues that are going on. It’s becoming quite dire. Um, especially when you like us, you’re close to it and you’re aware of the facts and you’re aware of the major impacts that are happening to the planet. It’s really good to see that really taken off as well. So, uh, yeah, there’s, there’s just a lot of things that fall into place that, um, that mean that, you know, sell is becoming more popular.

Rich Gunton (07:51):

No, absolutely. It’s certainly the thing of the, well, the thing of the now and the future in terms of that momentum and that motivation, I suppose to, well, as you say, become the largest in the country by the end of the decade, where does that motivation come from then? Where is it born?

Tony Sampson (08:09):

No, I think we’ve just wanted to have some sort of direction, something to aim for. Our industry has been tainted and, um, it was much more rife when we first started, there was a lot of mis-selling, your kind of eighties, double glazing style sales, where they, you know, people would sit in your front room until you’d sign something and it just had this early bad reputation. We’ve always taken the approach that we want to be open and honest, hence choosing the word naked. It’s all about being transparent. And we wanted to do everything we could to, um, change that view of the industry. We drew this out a few years ago, it was a bit of a team exercise and it was, you know, to improve faith in our industry, by providing informed choice and quality service, part of turning people back onto solar because of this bad reputation was because we could see that it really is a solution to carbon footprint.

Tony Sampson (08:58):

You know, if you’re not burning oil, then you’ll, you know, apart from cow burps, you are solving the the impact of climate change. You know, we needed something to do. We needed something to aim for. So that was when we set this target, what’s it going to look like effectively once we are delivering the service and making it available to everyone across the UK. And, and sort of putting that in a statement and the target, it’s just given us, the whole team, a direction and something to submit, to get out of bed in the morning for any so, yeah, that’s, uh, that’s really it, you know, we’ve got to come to work, so you might as well make it as good and enjoyable and purposeful as possible. So it will just go all adds up. Really?

Rich Gunton (09:42):

I think so. Yeah. No, absolutely. It’s certainly this thing we call life and most of us have to work or want to work and we spend a lot of time at work. So you may as well enjoy it. Like you say, obviously you can’t do it on your own, hence, you know, investing and developing and motivating and growing a team. What would be your single words of wisdom then in terms of your personal journey in that staff management, building a team and growing and developing, I ask that because personal experience, as well as a number of people, I’m sure listening to this will think, well, I just can’t find the right people with the right attitude. So to kind of buy into, to my vision. So how do you sort of approach that? And how has that developed?

Tony Sampson (10:24):

I mean, we used to do full team day to team assessments, so we’d have eight people in, they do a bunch of exercises in the morning and some interviews in the afternoon and you’d whittle it down like that. Didn’t always bring the right results, the approach we use now, which again, it’s, you know, these things always being refined, so it might change. But at the moment, first of all, when we recruit recruiting, we don’t put deadlines. If we haven’t had the right people, apply, then we won’t employ the wrong people. So we sit and wait until we, we have candidates we’re absolutely happy to employ. Sometimes it’s the other way round. Sometimes you are made aware of someone that you’d really like to employ, but you don’t have a vacancy for them, but it’s worth getting them while you can.

Tony Sampson (11:10):

You know, we go through the same process where you will have people apply this in the CVs, but from there one tip I’ve been given is, is as many points of contact. So you drop them an email back, giving them a phone call find a reason to do that, send a text message to them and see how they respond to that. And you just kind of separate these things out into, a much more, I suppose, one way I look at it, what would you call it? Casual way of recruitment. And then it’s more of a meeting up having a coffee with them and talking about their experiences and seeing how you get on. You’ve got to work with these people, so you do need to pick people that are going to fit in and get on with the rest of the team.

Tony Sampson (11:51):

Some of the roles require certain experiences and certain knowledge. But it’s been much more about getting the right people who are willing to learn. The other thing I would say is it’s a really tough, tough decision and can be very hard, but do you need to get good at letting people go if they’re really not fitting in and, making that decision earlier, rather than later. I’ve definitely made the mistake of keeping some people on too long. And it was probably unfair for both us and them. So that’s, that’s the toughest part of recruitment, I guess we never really find out what someone’s like until they start working for you.

Rich Gunton (12:29):

Absolutely. It’s a really, really interesting insight as well. I used to live in New Zealand and I used to have a recruitment agency. So although I had a small team working with me it was very much an industry where people would move around. But when you’re working with the client and especially we used to work in travel and tourism. So with some of the travel agencies, which were owner independent sort of run, and they might only have a team of say five or 10 people and recruiting into their family, if you like, it was so emotional and so many different layers of it. And I do think it’s really interesting from the other side of the desk, if you like, is that, you know, there’ll be people that have had careers before and then they’ve come out of those, those jobs or those careers, but being on the other side of it, where you, where you’re trying to gel it all together and ensuring that the team overall are happy, I let you say, you know, you do, you’re doing them and yourself a disservice if you hold onto them for, for too long. And that’s a really interesting, and probably not such a great lesson. Um, but, uh, but I think part of growth and part of any kind of, you know, business self-help book, I suppose, that they always talk about, talk about those sorts of things,. Thinking about growth and thinking about the journey that you’ve been on, you know, personally, and as well as professionally, what’s been some of the highs and the lows, you know, there are any, any particular points over the last decade or so that, that really sort of stand out for you?

Tony Sampson (13:53):

Yeh, in terms of lows, I mean the solar industry really went through a really tough time. Back in 2013, there were local installers, national installers, wholesalers, and manufacturers all going bust almost on a weekly basis. And we found it really tough. Wondering how are you going to get the bills paid? And I had to phone up several wholesalers. There was, there was six, and I could name them for you even now to phone up and say, look, you know, we’re struggling. This is my payment plan. Is that okay? Working through things like that and, you know, really worrying that everything you’ve worked for is going to fall apart. But at the same time, I look back at that and think, thank God it happened. I learned some really valuable lessons from it. And then sort of, I suppose, bouncing back from that, we’ve won numerous awards. We’ve won National Installer. First time we won that was 2016. So it was quite nicely timeed rebound from 2013, getting that sort of recognition. But the funny thing I’ve found about businesses, you know, you kind of think, okay, I’m going to set up my business and I’m going to do this. And you feel like there’s going to be a point when you feel like you’ve done it. And yet we celebrated our 10th year in business last year, but I still feel like we’re a startup. I still feel like we’re learning. So from that point of view, I think the high is coming from that because they continue, you’ll continually move into the next step. You always got something to look forward to, you know, at the moment we’re thinking now I need new premises and that’ll be the next big thing. And when you get there, you will normally already thinking about, well, now we’ve got new premises, but we’re going to be open up some more branches around the country.

Tony Sampson (15:32):

And if I go back over the years, when I first set up as electrician, I was running around emptying the car, the weekends, because it had all my tools in during the week, and then the big step was, Oh, I can’t wait till I get my first van. And then you get a van and it’s, it’s that continual cycle of improvements and achievements that has made it really enjoyable. And when I look at it from where I am now, I look at the team we’ve got and that’s really heartwarming seeing them develop and seeing, I don’t have to know everything that’s going on. I certainly don’t. And I couldn’t, there’s no one person that could deal with all that information. But to have complete faith and trust that people are working well together, they’re solving problems on their own.

Tony Sampson (16:14):

That’s, that’s a really really enjoyable part of it for me at the moment. Being able to reward the team as well. So this time, last year, we took everyone for a weekend skiing in Morzine and that turned out to be the best team building that you could possibly do – having a few drinks and having something to eat together and just having that extended amount of time to get to know each other, just bonded the team so much more than building a raft. Yeah. That’s been the nice bits.

Rich Gunton (16:44):

Yeah, Yeah, absolutely. And I think that’s it, isn’t it, you know, going back to what you say there a little bit earlier where business becomes, so much more than you, and of course it has to, it has to do so. And then you, you get that buying in of the team that are working with you that have all bought in, I suppose, to, to the overall vision and the goal and the growth of their personal career alongside with, with your business. I think that’s a fantastic thing and not necessarily an easy thing to get, right. But like you say, you’re growing and developing as you, as you’ve sort of celebrated your 10 years in business. And I also think it’s very interesting when you say about, you still feel like a startup, because I also think it’s interesting when you start to think about, what’s your, why, why do you want to set up a business? And what is it that you want to achieve? I love broadcasting. And I always remember that reading Chris Evans, his book, and, and he talks about, you know, climbing your mountains and all those sorts of things. And when you actually get there and there’s, there’s, there’s another mountain over there to climb, you know, and some people might look at it from a financial point of view is greed or from a growth point of view as ego, whatever. But if you have that sort of mindset where it’s about growth and, you know, for many of us, we think we’re alive now and, and this is only life and when we’re gone, that’s it. So you might as well make the most of it. And it’s a really interesting mindset that you are at the, at the forefront of your business, obviously with a fantastic team of people going on this sort of journey together. I think it sounds fantastic, which it suppose nicely leads me on to kind of light bulb moments. So you talked about 2013 not working out so well. And then the highs that you’ve had with winning awards and those sorts of things, was there ever a time where you sort of thought actually, if we just did it slightly differently, this is what’s going to separate us from our competition. This is what’s going to be our sort of unique selling proposition where there anything like that happening any particular times?

Tony Sampson (18:39):

I think very early on I’d realised that there was more to solar panels and them just being sat on the panels. And I’m talking the first couple of months of trading when I was looking for ways to differentiate and seeing what was going on in the industry, I’d start using this software that would forecast things and would show the difference in performance with different panels and things like that. But it certainly led us down a path of informed choice for customers because we put extra effort into understanding the impact of different equipment, which is unusual in the industry. So most installers will almost kind of dictate what they think is best for a customer. Whereas we help customers understand the differences – that mantra is informed choice. The key to it for us is being comfortable that they know what they’re getting. So, it was, you know, focusing on what we’re good at, which is a mantra I’d heard repeated a lot and probably should have listened to a lot earlier. That that really did transform the business as well, becoming just a solar installer focused on that.

Rich Gunton (19:41):

Yeah, no, absolutely, absolutely. The focus and having that clear kind of goal and sort of sticking to what you’re good at makes makes perfect, perfect sense. And I suppose that probably leads me to sort of, my final question really is people listening to this will either be in business or they’ll be thinking about becoming self-employed and setting up their own business. If you could offer a bit of advice to that person that’s listening right now, and almost, I suppose, visualize it, if you were going to go back and,and talk to yourself, sitting there, in the Royal British Legion at the first Outset course that you were on, aside from focus, what would you, what would you suggest to that person?

Tony Sampson (20:23):

The biggest things I’ve learned over the years is it’s going to sound very, uninspirational so apologies for that. But the first thing I, I never realized the value of, in the earlier days, is to really get to know your numbers. I think I got fed up with hearing the mantra, Oh, if you believe in it, then work and keep working on it and it will come true because there are some crazy business ideas that no matter how much you believe in them, they weren’t ever going to come true because they just didn’t stack up. So understanding your numbers, getting a really good accountant and being realistic about things is unfortunately a little bit uninspiring, but it’s where I’ve seen a lot of businesses fail, I felt like that was where it failed. It was it wasn’t a viable idea in the first place, if that makes sense. So I’m sorry if I’m sat on dreams, but, uh, yeah. Be realistic, I suppose in a nutshell!

Rich Gunton (21:19):

I know, I think that’s, I think that’s absolutely spot on, you know, I mean, as you mentioned before, focus, focus on what you’re good at, you know, we’re always going to be tempted to at the crossroads, so we’ll have a dabble over there and we’ll have a dabble over here sort of thing. Keeping, keeping focused is a really, really good thing to think about and knowing your numbers. I mean, I do think that that’s for the majority of us, I can say this as an accountant is my dearest and nearest, but we’re not, we’re not all accountants. Very few entrepreneurs go into business to actually to make money necessarily as in, as in build wealth and not necessarily a motivated by it by the times, or excited by numbers. And, but yet you very, very quickly learn that that, that it really is the lifeline and, and you know, making sure you’re kind of keeping an eye on those is pretty, pretty crucial.

Tony Sampson (22:12):

I don’t feel like I need to earn massive amounts of money. I suppose, financially out of this business, one thing I’d like is a comfortable retirement where I can forward to travel the world a bit more. And that will do, and yeah, the rewards are definitely, as I said earlier, it’s so rewarding to see the team grow and develop and, and to be able to see people, work their way up through the company and have careers for themselves and, therefore be able to, um, reward themselves and their families. It’s worth beyond any figure they could give you. So, I think at the end of the day, having, you know, when we have achieved our target, that that will be very satisfying to be able to look back. And, and again, you can, you can’t put a price tag on that sort of thing, not in terms of money, that’s where my motivation is.

Rich Gunton (23:09):

Absolutely. And so from, from all of that growth and all of that, you know, inspiration and, and, and development, and looking forward at your goal at the end of 2030, most importantly, what do you do to relax?

Tony Sampson (23:23):

Lockdown has led me to learn in a piano, which has been something I’ve wanted to do for years. And I’ve also got an electronic drum kit, which I still play and try and improve my drumming as well. , and I suppose one thing I do is read a lot of business books. So, there’s a lot to be gained there if you are a budding entrepreneur, I’ve got a lot good tips out of the better books on the market.

Rich Gunton (23:49):

I guess one is the, one of the, one of the wonderful things. This is sort of following other people and reading how other people have grown and developed. And, you know, you’ve got a book there yourself, all of the experiences that you’ve had.

Tony Sampson (24:00):

Yeah. Well, now that I don’t know about that. I don’t know if ‘Listen to your Account’ is a really catchy title.

Rich Gunton (24:09):

It will stand you in good stead, right, Tony, thank you very, very much, indeed. It’s been a pleasure to talk to you and thanks very much indeed for being part of the Outset podcast. And I’m sure people will be listening to this wherever they are, whatever they’re doing, and probably be trying to find your Naked Solar website to drop you an email to ask you for some advice. Yeah, well, no. I mean, thanks to Outset. And they, they really were a big help., gave me a lot of guidence – there’s a good chance we wouldn’t be where we are today or anywhere near where we are today. So thanks. Thanks for the questions.

Ending (24:48):

Thanks for listening to the outset podcast brought to you by the Outset Cornwall program, which is funded by the European Regional Development Fund, HM Government and the Outset Foundation, supporting people to become self-employed and start their own business for more information, visit outset.org/cornwall.