Updated: May 18, 2020
I had the privilege of interviewing April Zhong, the founder and CEO of Silray, a Silicon Valley-based commercial solar solution provider. Silray has been named the top 25 of the fastest-growing private company in the Silicon Valley, the top 50 of the largest minority-owned business several years in a row and April has been named one of the top 100 most influential women business owners. Silray has provided solar solutions to many companies and contributes to more than 10,000 tons of carbon offset. Here, April shares her story and her thoughts on the important factors that contributed to her success.
To listen to the full podcast click the link: Full Silray interview
How long have you been in business?
I started Silray in early 2007, so more than 12 years ago.
Why did you decide to get into this business?
I graduated from graduate school on the east coast and I was working for a software company. That software company has a business in the energy space. I started to get interested in and learned a lot about the energy-saving and energy efficiency industry. I felt like, “Wow! This is the industry that I can really make a big difference. I mean, to help a business save energy, which in turn helps the global climate. I realized this is where my passion is! I wanted to stay as long as I could in the energy business.
Then that company spun off a solar company and they approached me to be in charge of supply chain management, procurement, and marketing. This was in 2004, and solar was still a pioneering concept to most of the people. You rarely saw any house powered by solar at that time. But I knew that solar was vital in the effort to save energy and the environment.
I was with that company for a couple of years and by the end of 2006, I realized how great a need there was for solar experts: companies that have the know-how to design, build and maintain solar systems. I felt like there was a big gap and I decided to jump ship and start my own business.
Now there are many solar companies. How do you see yourself different from them?
90% of the companies that have solar offerings are focusing on residential solar installations. These are much smaller solar systems that are easy to design, to build and to install, so the entrance hurdle is much lower. I'm focusing on the commercial space because that market is underserved. There are not many companies that know how to design and install a commercial solar system.
When do you feel contributed most to your current success?
Like many entrepreneurs, I made a lot of mistakes. What’s important, though, is that I learned from them and became even stronger and smarter. I think persistence and confidence are important. Believe in yourself and believe in what you are doing. And the most important driver is passion. I'm passionate about solar; I'm passionate about making a difference; I’m passionate about saving the environment. I want to do my part and I know it's a very small part, but I still want to do my part in saving the environment.
What was your vision when you started Silray?
I want to cover all of the commercial buildings in California with solar! That will offset so many cars on the street, and it will be equivalent to planting so many acres of trees. Right now, there are only 5-8% of commercial buildings with solar, so there is still lots of work to be done.
Most companies go through the startup phase, growth phase and mature phase, a typical S curve. What was your biggest challenge going through the startup phase?
The biggest challenge is getting people to believe in me. I don't have a track record. I mean, I do have a track record working for a big solar company in the past, but now I'm representing myself and my new company that has no track record. That’s a challenge! A second challenge is financing the operations.
How do you overcome these challenges?
Again, you have to be persistent and be confident. Project your confidence, believe that you are the expert, and be honest with people. Honesty always builds trust, and once people trust you they will do business with you.
What is the biggest challenge you face in your growth phase?
The biggest challenge is to standardize everything and to figure out a thorough business model – a business model that's organic and holistic. I want to build the most efficient solar company that allows one department to feed into another department seamlessly. Our intent is to finish each project with Silray’s high-quality standards and within budget. Just adding headcount is not the right way to grow a business; building the business model is the key to growth.
What would you anticipate as the major challenges as your company is heading into the mature phases?
I would say efficiency will always be the main challenge. I would also anticipate more HR challenges. With, say, double the headcount, you would need a more efficient way to recruit, train and motivate your employees.
What is your finishing game plan for the company?
It could be an IPO or a merger or acquisition. However, I think I’m still 5-8 years from that point. Right now, I need to stay in the mature phase longer to really scale up the operations.
Is there any other thing that you want to tell someone who is trying to make their self-funded company work for them?
In general, just believe in yourself; believe in your passion and follow your passion. I believe that's the only way to be successful. If you love what you do, you can achieve your potential. Everyone has lots of potentials that they never realize they possess. But if you follow your passion, all of the inner beauty will come out.