Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hello, my name is Yi Li, and I founded Renogy. Renogy is a renewable energy company that specializes in providing DIY solar solutions for everyday life—whether that is to power an off-grid vehicle or an at-home backup power supply.
We carry a range of products from compact panels to attach to your backpack while hiking to large-scale systems to outfit your cabin. Our specialty lies off-grid kits. For solar beginners, the learning curve can seem steep, but we're here to educate and provide them with easy-to-use solutions. To make the process less daunting for new users, we carefully curate kits with the necessary components for a functional system. By taking the guesswork out of solar, it helps alleviate extra stress from the decision-making process so that consumers only need to worry about correctly sizing their system.
Our products are especially popular with customers ages 40-60 who are either looking to outfit their vehicles with sustainable power for weekend boondocking trips or their RVs for retirement traveling. However, due to rising trends in sustainability, minimalism, and cross-country travel, we've become increasingly popular in those ages 20-40.
Renogy started in my apartment during my third year as a Ph.D. student—now, just weeks away from our 10th anniversary, it's an international company that makes $60 million a year.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I first came to the U.S. after my acceptance into Louisiana State University’s Ph.D. program for Physics.
While I was excited at the prospect of my new life here, it was also a very overwhelming experience. I had little command of the English language, and I was alone in a foreign country. No family, no friends, no support system, and no money—I still remember thinking that a five-dollar burger was too expensive.
I didn't have much with me. There were, however, two things I had in abundance that helped me persevere: my love of science, and my ambition to make a positive impact on society.
Be mentally prepared to make a lot of mistakes. Mistakes are bound to happen, but you cannot let that intimidate you. In the early stages of my business, I had accepted a bad check and lost $260,000.
During my studies, I participated in a research project related to alternative energy and superconductivity. Through this opportunity, I discovered solar and all its possibilities. Solar power had the potential to change the world, and I wanted to make a difference—I could see my passion for taking a more concrete form.
Many people still didn't have reliable power, even with technological advances. The detrimental effects of non-sustainable power sources on the environment had yet to be fully addressed. Solar felt like an untapped solution to both problems. Yet, when I spoke about solar, many people were intimidated despite their interest. Solar had not marketed as an accessible utility. It became clear to me that the challenge, then, was to educate and make solar easy to understand for the average consumer. It needed to be an obvious solution for those looking to fulfill their energy needs. Thus, came Renogy—a shorthand for Renewable Innovative Energy—a small operation out of my apartment during my third year at LSU.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
My first product didn't require the same kind of modeling and prototyping as some of Renogy's later flagship products. Solar panels, while not widely popular at the time, already had an industry-size and standard method for production. The solar panel making process is meticulous and lengthy, but I'll try to give an overall summary of the process.
First, the factory inspects each solar cell and separates them based on quality. Bad cells need to be set aside as they can greatly lower a panel's product efficiency. Good solar cells get stacked up, lined, and soldered. The line of cells then gets placed on top of EVA-covered tempered glass, and a piece of tin is layered on top to connect the cells.
After cell placement, the workers apply a layer of EVA and then a back sheet to seal the panel. The sealed layers are placed on a projector that shines a light through all of the cells so that the workers can do an eye test—inspecting the cell alignment to ensure that everything is connected and straight. After the eye test, the panels must be EL-tested.
EL-testing is one of the most crucial steps in the solar panel making process. An EL-tester records a photograph of the cells, which the workers analyze to look for any potential defects such as bad solder points and micro-cracks.
Tested panels get put on a conveyor unit that will ultimately laminate all of these layers together and form the complete panel pre-frame. The lamination machine undergoes two functions during the lamination process: removing air and adding pressure. After exiting the machine, workers place the panels on beds where they remove excess material. The panels are left to cool on a rack before an aluminum frame is added.
Once the frame is locked on, another worker adds the junction box—manually placing it on top of the connections and soldering the terminals. After the panels have dried, a flash test is done to attain the panels' I-V curves. During a flash test, the panel is connected to a computer while it experiences a UV flash. The computer records the information, which includes details such as power, volts, amps, fill factor, etc.
I believe that coming from a different perspective has allowed me to be more open to the possibilities around me. Conventional principles may be necessary to know, but do not tie yourself down to those standards.
The panel receives a quality stamp after passing inspection and is prepped for final wipe down.
Describe the process of launching the business.
Renogy started in my apartment, but I was lucky enough to receive mentorship and assistance through LSU's incubator for entrepreneurship. Without their help, I would have been a lot more lost. The incubator provided me with a lot of marketing resources and taught me how to access and understand the market. It was through the program that I was able to network and partner with various companies, such as Lamar Advertising, who used our solar panels to power their LED-billboards. I am still very grateful for all their help in launching Renogy.
To support the business, I used my school scholarship along with other personal finances. With the company being just myself in the beginning, my main monetary concern had been with the production of the products through a collaboration with a factory overseas. It was a rocky beginning with a lot of mistakes in terms of purchasing, fulfillment, finances, etc. However, once I found a scalable business model that would work for Renogy, things became a lot smoother.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
When Renogy first launched, it was slow to start. Solar was not marketed as consumer-friendly. It wasn't a product that someone would easily stumble upon when browsing. Accessing the market had been Renogy's first challenge. The answer had been eBay. It was one of the most popular sales channels around with a large user base and making an account was easy. For a company with little-to-no name recognition and a difficult-to-market product, it had been a great way to advertise our brand and move product. Since then, we've continued selling on eBay and other e-commerce sites to widen our pool of potential customers. For a new business, promoting your products on platforms such as Amazon can help market your name and product to a wide audience. But, there are downsides to this too. Most portals take a percentage fee and have promotional or pricing limitations that may interfere with your online store.
Word of mouth is powerful, it’s how a lot of people hear about us. To encourage customers to share their systems, we've been utilizing a couple of different programs in conjunction: a referral program, an affiliate program, and social media partnerships. The referral and affiliate programs work like any other, allowing participants to refer friends to receive a commission. Both of these are newer systems we've implemented within the last year but have seen a monthly average of at least $36,000 in revenue.
Besides that, we also do collaborations with select social media users that fit our target market. Solar has been steadily getting popular, and you can see a lot of content on Instagram and YouTube of people outfitting vehicles, homesteads, and greenhouses with solar panels. Off-grid living and wanderlust are trends that are exceedingly popular at the moment, and we partner with vetted users who are building their vehicles and homes. These product collaborations ensure that the influencer's audience will see photos and build-out videos with our products and have easy access to product links that will lead them to our site. Sometimes, these KOLs also provide their audience with instructions and guides on how to achieve the same results, encouraging them to purchase our products. However, the effectiveness of these kinds of partnerships can be difficult to gauge. Not all returns mean a sale, and that's important to remember. Sometimes your only return is getting your name out there—and that's important too.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
The company has continued doing well over the years. We're currently making $60 million a year, and based on previous years, I see that number continuing to rise. Renogy has grown considerably in terms of return and recognition. I still remember when we ranked #444 in Inc. 5000's fastest-growing private companies, it was a great achievement.
Renogy's overall reach has grown exponentially. In the beginning, we sold mainly B2B and through small sale platforms. Three years after its inception, I was able to move our headquarters to California and open our online portal for direct B2C sales, renogy.com. Since then, we've now expanded our sales avenues to include e-commerce platforms such as Amazon, Walmart, and Home Depot. You can also find select products at retail stores around the country, such as Best Buy and Fred Meyers. While a large number of our sales come from Amazon, the bulk of our sales come from our website, which makes me happy. We are constantly trying to improve our site to make it a one-stop-shop for consumers. We've also been working to improve our overseas markets—specifically on developing our European and Australian efforts.
Over the years, we've continued to add more categories and product types to the Renogy's product catalog to meet customer needs. Recently, our focus has been on developing smart communication hubs for our systems. We've produced Bluetooth and Data Modules to connect to the communication port of a majority of our newer products—this allows users to remotely monitor their solar system and make parameter adjustments through the corresponding App. Developing products like this smart hub is a part of our efforts to make solar more user-friendly. I hope that by 2025, Renogy will have impacted 20 million people with fun and affordable renewable energy products.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
When you start a business, develop a purpose or passion for what you are trying to achieve. You cannot just do this for money. You have to do this for the love of what you are doing. Otherwise, you may find yourself giving up when confronted by challenges and setbacks. I say that from experience. There were many times where I struggled in the face of obstacles, but it was my firm belief in what I was doing that allowed me to continue forward.
I don’t come from a traditional business background—which is not very helpful when starting a business; it contributes to a lot of growing pains. But I believe that coming from a different perspective has allowed me to be more open to the possibilities around me. Conventional principles may be necessary to know, but do not tie yourself down to those standards. Or else you risk the creativity to push your company forward. After all, growth and innovation cannot be contained in a box.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
Google Analytics is the most consistent tool our team uses. It's free, can conveniently integrate with almost everything, and provides great data collection. We use it daily to check conversions and make customizable user reports. Besides Google Analytics, the other two platforms we use most heavily are BigCommerce and Freshdesk.
BigCommerce is an e-commerce platform that we've been using for about five years. The original platform we had before was not as robust, offering very little in terms of built-in analytics and customer insights. The switch to BigCommerce gave us a better overview of our store's performance and offered us more variety in terms of promotional campaigns.
We've been using Freshdesk as our ticketing system for years, but have recently relocated our Forums and Knowledge Center on it. Previously, we had all of that information spread out through different platforms, but once we realized that FreshDesk had a lot of functions we could be utilizing, it made sense to integrate everything on there.
Most of the other tools and services we've used over the years have changed at least once. As we continue to grow, I encourage my team to look for new software and platforms that may be more beneficial. I don't want our growth to stagnate by using tools that may not be as optimized for our needs.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
Rather than any particular book or podcast, I find that my most influential resource has been consulting others. I value communication and openness. It is through conversation that I can hear other perspectives and broaden my viewpoints.
Business, like many other disciplines, has numerous facets and does not adhere to the idea that one-size-fits-all. It is through the wise advice of several experts that I evaluate and adjust how I interact with my company and my duties. I am a learner at heart, and I want to progress with my company as it continues to grow and innovate.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
My main advice is: be mentally prepared to make a lot of mistakes. All endeavors have their difficulties. Mistakes are bound to happen, but you cannot let that intimidate you.
When I first started Renogy, I didn’t have any experience or knowledge on how to run a business. Coming from a background in Physics, there were a lot of business factors I had never considered, and as a result, I faced a lot of challenges. I still remember a moment that made me want to drop everything, back in the early stages of my business. I had accepted a bad check and lost $260,000. It had been utterly devastating. I began to question what I was doing, yet these very challenges pushed me forward. Rather than dwell on these mistakes and the feelings they invoked, it was more productive to collect that energy and direct it towards my business. One of my biggest takeaways is that you cannot let self-doubt get in the way of pursuing something great.
My passion for what I was trying to accomplish was my driving force whenever I came across these roadblocks. Ultimately, it came down to the simple fact that if I wanted to achieve my goals, I would need to find my own solutions and workarounds. To prevent future issues born from my lack of business acumen and knowledge, I educated myself through books, online classes, and mentors. I could not allow my shortcomings to serve as excuses or obstacles. Those early days made me truly believe that passion will propel you forward amid adversity, but even now I believe it is never too late to learn from your mistakes.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
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