Hello! Who are you, and what business did you start?
Hello, my name is Willie Jiang. For a long time, I have been a digital marketer, especially as an SEO specialist. But in March this year, we launched a two-sided marketplace called SolarFeeds, the “Alibaba for solar” if you will.
Our primary “product” is a platform that aims to connect solar installers and suppliers. On this platform, solar suppliers can display their product catalogs, while solar installers can post about their new projects. After browsing through the available products, installers can invite suppliers to submit a quote. Installers will then have the opportunity to compare the prices offered by several suppliers before making a decision.
What's your backstory, and how did you come up with the idea?
Ever since I was a kid, I was fascinated by solar panels when I saw them on TV. If you wait a moment and think about it, you’d appreciate its beauty as well: it’s a simple piece of silicon that just sits outside under the sun motionlessly yet converting sunlight into electricity. How can you not be amazed by its simplicity?
Early-stage startups should not get into all omnichannel. You can try them out at first, but you can’t focus on all of them. You need to just pick what channel works best for you and stick with it until the channel plateaus.
However, I didn’t think using solar energy would be economically viable at the time, so I didn’t think much about it until 2018.
In 2018, I was watching a video where Ramez Naam presented a statistical report regarding solar energy. In particular, he talked about the current trend of solar energy, the cost, the adoption, and the accumulated capacity. Everything he talked about was just mind-blowing to me. And I looked more into it and I realized that this is one of the most important ways to tackle climate change. That was the moment when I was like, “If I want to use my skills in an impactful industry, this is it!”
So, I decided to keep learning about the industry — I subscribed to podcasts, read the news, and the like — and eventually, I felt even more inspired to get into the solar industry. At the time, I was a digital marketer at a marketing agency, but in March 2019, I decided to buy a blog called SolarMetric. That’s when I got the idea about using my SEO expertise and the high domain authority of solarmetric.com to start making my mark in the solar industry.
Though I already had a solid plan in mind, things changed a bit in July 2019 because I happened to discover that solarfeeds.com was on sale as well. So I bought it immediately for about $6,000, and then I sold solarmetric.com to a friend who also runs a consumer-facing solar website. After I made the switch, I decided to go all-in with the content creation for SolarFeeds.
We chose to focus on creating solar-related content first because, unlike most Silicon Valley startups that prioritize launching a product first, I believe that it’s better to build an audience before launching any product. That way, if a product idea fails, we can always launch a new product.
So, we hired full-time writers to write articles about solar energy, and we were able to attract thousands of unique visitors over time. In fact, we were able to go from a few unique visitors (UVs) to about 35,000 monthly UVs in just the span of 18 months. It wasn’t until March 2021 when we amassed a sizable audience that we finally launched our platform, and that’s how I got to this point.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
So, as I mentioned above, we now had about 35,000 monthly organic UVs — we first achieved this milestone in February 2021, which is roughly 18 months after I bought solarfeeds.com. At that point, I had a better understanding of how solar professionals procure equipment. I went on ThemeForest to look for a template that fits our idea of a marketplace.
And there it was, our minimum viable product (MVP). The feedback was much better than we expected.
Without any advertising, we started to get 2-3 buyers' product inquiries per day. Meanwhile, suppliers are signing up daily as well.
Describe the process of launching the business.
When it comes to launching products, our approach is to launch fast and fail fast. This is the essence of the "lean startup" movement. "Launch fast and fail fast", so that our team can hear feedback from the users in the real world. Then we learn even faster. Equipped with new insights, we quickly killed unpopular features and planned new features. For our current platform, we built it in a month using a template, and we tried very hard not to change a lot of things. The goal was to launch as fast as possible because we needed to see and take note of how the users would react to it. Since we already have a sizable audience base, we can keep getting user feedback until we achieve a product-market fit.
Additionally, I got two new business partners who were willing to contribute financially. So we started to invest in improving the UI and launching more features step by step.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
One thing that was able to help us attract and retain customers was an early focus on SEO.
One of the most common startup failure modes is: investing in too many channels at once and as a result - not investing enough in any one channel. As an example, betting big on both video marketing and virality feels like a really good idea (“Yah, we’ll grow twice as fast!”) But in practice, it rarely works, because each channel requires significant effort.
How are you doing today, and what does the future look like?
We’re doing pretty well, thankfully.
Firstly, we figured out the business model that works for us — we take a commission from a close deal, and if we successfully match a supplier with an installer, we collect the commission from the supplier. This turned out to be the biggest bottleneck that we faced. Because of tariffs, policies, most countries have their own standards. The biggest ramification of this reality is that most suppliers would usually supply around dozens of countries that they are familiar with. As a result, we often can't get enough quotes to bid on a project.
So to build an extensive supplier network, I decided to move to China personally. Talking about dedication?
Secondly, we have several teams that may be small but competent. Our sales team only consists of two people, but they are very experienced in their field, and they’re also experts in the solar industry. We also have a development team who is responsible for the building of the website.
And finally, we have the marketing team that consists of me and an assistant.
The biggest challenge we have now is not having a searchable supplier catalog that is efficient and easy to use for solar installers. So that’s what we will focus on.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Since very early on, we resisted the temptation to try the omnichannel approach. The omnichannel approach is the strategy of doing all the platforms in marketing — social media marketing, video marketing, SEO, email marketing, podcasting, and so forth. This ONLY works for well-funded companies. But for us, we decided to stick to one channel: SEO. This is mainly because we did a self-assessment of the team, and we discovered that we did not have an expert-level of knowledge in terms of other platforms.
So, we primarily focus on SEO, and we go all in — but only after we’ve done our homework, such as making our buyer persona and buyer’s journey, to understand our buyer. And we’ve learned that sticking to just one marketing strategy and really focusing on it actually works for us — our organic traffic grew by 69 times in 18 months.
I guess the moral of the story is that early-stage startups should not get into all omnichannel. You can try them out at first, but you can’t focus on all of them. You need to just pick what channel works best for you and stick with it until the channel plateaus.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
Aside from those, we also use Upwork when we need to hire freelancers for a project. Other apps we use are Zoom and Skype for meetings and, of course, G Suite for documentation, like spreadsheets and slides, etc.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
This is a good question.
Last year, I went out to find books about the founding stories of marketplaces and network effect business. On the top of my head, I’ve read Alibaba: The House That Jack Ma Built by Duncan Clark — and I’ve also read The Everything Store, and this time, it’s about Jeff Bezos and his company Amazon.
I also read books to learn about network effects. Some books I read about this topic include We Are the Nerds (the founding stories of Reddit), That Will Never Work (this one is about the birth of Netflix), and Facebook: The Inside Story (obviously, about Facebook). I also really liked Explosive Growth by Cliff Lerner (it’s his startup story of how he created a dating site and garnered 100 million users and lost $78 Million).
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting?
Honestly, I don’t think I’m in any position to advise since we’re a startup as well, but, I do have advice that might help you in your journey. I call this “immersive learning,” and this means that you throw yourself into any subject with intense focus and attention, and you learn everything about it by any means necessary. You can listen to podcasts related to that subject, watch YouTube videos, and read articles and books as much as you can.
The idea of immersive learning is that you’re using different kinds of media in learning about a subject, so you end up learning faster. And if you keep doing that for a few more months, you’ll be pretty knowledgeable about the subject. Of course, applying all you have learned is a different experience, but if you fail, don’t worry about it too much. You just have to learn again. Basically, it’s almost an endless cycle of learning — you study, apply, study again, and so forth.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
Yes, actually. We need a quality assurance (QA) tester to test new features on our website. We have too many bugs because we don’t have a good QA. So, we are looking for a skilled QA tester right now.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
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