Update: After this article was published, TV station @KTVU reported that DC Solar headquarters was raided by the FBI. Mercury News reports the FBI also executed a search warrant on the home of Jeff Carpoff. According to that article, "The agency confirmed that it executed search warrants on the home but did not comment on any other aspect of their investigation." Armando Gomez, the Carpoffs' lawyer, says the actions "appear to relate to an ongoing tax dispute." 

***

Very few successful entrepreneurial journeys follow a straight line. Only in hindsight does the path seem clear. 

Perfect example: Jeff Carpoff, the founder and CEO of DC Solar, the company that designs, manufactures, and leases solar-powered mobile generators, light towers, telecommunications equipment, and electric vehicle charging stations (and gives investors access to renewable energy assets).

An auto mechanic by trade, Carpoff started Roverland USA and built the company into one of the largest independent certified Land Rover and Jaguar repair facilities in the country.

When he sold that business, a previous customer asked if Jeff was "interested in getting involved in the solar panel business."

It turned out he was.

So I talked with Jeff to find out why.

You were extremely successful in the automotive business. That makes the move to solar a serious shift.

I wanted to do something different than automotive, and solar sounded like fun. So even though I didn't have much of a sales background, I jumped in. Over time, we had some success; for example, we sold a megawatt worth of solar panels to Spain.

Then, one day, a neighbor in the Sierra Nevada mountains said he was interested in putting in a solar system. Back then, the panels were really expensive, people were stealing them all the time, and he was concerned about someone stealing his panels since he only lived there on the weekends.

I said, "Maybe we could put a system on a trailer and you could pull it in and out of your barn."

Even as I said it, it sounded kind of stupid, but it gave me an idea.

So, after he left, I went in the house and said to my wife, "I want to build a solar system on a trailer, with generators and batteries, that will replace diesel generators."

But unlike most people (including me) who have an interesting idea, you acted on yours.

I was a mechanic and had decent fabrication skills. I had owned a body shop, was fairly good at building things, knew about welding and paint, so the next day I went to Sacramento and bought a trailer and some steel.

A few weeks later, a previous client called and asked if I could outfit some of his emergency equipment vehicles. He found out what I was doing and said, "Wait. Will it power emergency phone systems, water purification systems?"

I said, "Sure. It can power a 1,500-square-foot house." 

He said, "We have a show coming up, and we'd love to set it up and demonstrate that we can provide remote power."

So that's what we did. And it got an extremely positive response.

You had hit on something people clearly needed -- but turning it into an actual business is another thing altogether.

You're right. I didn't know how I was going to sell it, how I was going to price it. Early on, we were only focused on building a system that worked.

A few weeks later, we were asked if our mobile system could power an event in Pebble Beach. A movie producer saw it, and the following Monday he called and said, "This is just what Hollywood needs."

So we brought a generator to L.A. to show different movie studios, we used it to power a star trailer for Pink for an MTV concert, we did a show-and-tell, and the response was tremendous. We ended up building 10 or 11 more units and providing power for movie sets.

Instead of creating a product and then trying to create demand, you were responding to demand. That's an enviable place to be -- which only happens when you're able to solve a long-standing problem.

Absolutely. Which meant that early on the goal was just to keep up with demand.

In the meantime, we learned about tax credits, renewable credits, and all that helped us create a financial model that enabled us to keep growing. Within a short time, we were doing over $60 million in sales.

For the first few years, we focused on making smart design changes, making our units even more efficient, on testing and proving the value of our systems, on finding different uses for our products, like electric vehicle charging stations and light towers. We're working with the Department of Transportation, with different colleges, powering media boards.

Now we have a great model. We know how to build efficiently.

And we get to create really good jobs.

A key to building brand awareness -- and generating significant growth -- is your participation in Nascar.

I had always wanted to be in Nascar. In 2015, we got involved in the Xfinity Series. Over the course of that first year or so, we learned more about the sport, learned where our products could fit, and then we built partnerships with tracks and teams and other sponsors. 

Our first track relationship was with Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Originally, we had about 20 units at that track. We were just trying to get some brand exposure in exchange for powering their light towers.

Shortly after, Charlotte Motor Speedway called. A vendor for their light towers had pulled out at the last minute and they were in a bad spot. We provided 100 light towers in a couple of weeks. That exposure led to a call from ISM Raceway in Phoenix, which meant another 100 light towers, which gave us a presence at International Speedway Corporation and Speedway Motorsports, which gave us the opportunity to build relationships with a number of tracks.

Now we have over 1,500 units at 16 tracks.

What many people don't realize about sponsoring motor sports is that it's not just a brand awareness play; it also can create access to a variety of B2B opportunities.

We put a portion of our revenue back into track sponsorships. We see it as working together for the greater good of everyone. 

You're right. That doesn't just provide great brand exposure. It allows us to have hospitality at the track. It lets us bring in people from the renewable finance industry, show them a great time, show our product in use. Those relationships have been a great source of revenue for the company.

And we partner with many other Nascar sponsors. Fastenal. NAPA. Geico. Sherwin-Williams. Hendrick Automotive. Those are just some examples. We provide a great product and in the process give companies access to federal tax credits. 

That still doesn't diminish the brand awareness that results from team sponsorships. But awareness isn't always easy to come by.

In those first couple of years, we learned a lot about what works and what doesn't. 

For a sponsor, 90 percent of the TV exposure comes from running in the top 5. If you're running 10th or 20th, you're not getting a lot of TV exposure. When we were in that situation, we paid for in-car cameras to get the exposure we were looking for.

Because you knew you'd get a certain amount of TV time, no matter what.

Now that we have drivers winning stages and winning races, the exposure is definitely there.

You've partnered with Chip Ganassi Racing, one of the top teams in the sport, a team that can attract top drivers, yet last season you took a chance by sponsoring Ross Chastain for three races. And, next year, he'll be the full-time driver of the No. 42 car. (I wrote about that here.)

It was clear Ross was outperforming the capability of the car he was in. That definitely intrigued me. And I had been around him enough to know his work ethic and the kind of person he is.

Even so, we were all a little nervous going into that first race at Darlington. But then he put the car on the pole. And then he led just about every lap of the race until Kevin Harvick ran him into the wall.  

And, of course, he won at Las Vegas and finished second at Richmond.

A lot of people took a chance on me in the past. Business is all about finding great people and trusting them to do what they do best.

You started out just trying to build a portable solar generator, and now DC Solar is a major player in the renewable energy industry. Do you ever look back and think, "How did this happen?"

[He laughs.] Early on, 10 units was a big number. Then we hit 100. When we hit 500, I thought we had a lot of product.

When we hit 5,000, I said, "We're not going to build any more units."

And yet we keep growing. [He laughs.] Now we have around 15,000 generators.

We work long hours, but the rewards are worth it. And I get to do things I never thought I'd get to do. I get to be in the Nascar garage. I've been such a fan for so many years -- to be involved in the sport is spectacular. And so are the relationships. Having people like Rick Hendrick or Chip Ganassi reach out to me -- that makes me feel pretty good. 

But more than anything, we've built a company that provides great jobs and great opportunities for the people who work for us.

That makes me feel really good.

Published on: Dec 20, 2018
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