The story of Namaste Solar has been written by many individuals over the past 14 years, and while we can’t cover every chapter of this history, we can offer pieces of the Namaste Story from the perspective of a group of individuals. Part two covers the early years at our company, roughly from 2005 to 2008. Read more of our story with parts one, three, four, and five.
Intimate, connected, creative, hopeful, hard work. That was the mood during the very early years at Namaste Solar. It was a time when pent-up demand for solar kept the phones ringing off the hook, yet solar modules were so scarce that you had to buy what you could when you could without any discussion of price. And it was a time when a group of individuals came together in co-ownership to build a solar company, risking careers and investments on idealistic ideas of what a company could be.
A Blank Slate
The early years at Namaste Solar were a blank slate full of opportunities, even if it was a rocky road at first. The small group of initial co-owners were creating the company from scratch with no rules, no structure, and barely a plan. But they were doing it together. Every major decision was made as a group, and every new employee was interviewed by the entire company at the time. There was no company car, so everyone shared their own personal vehicles to run company errands. And everyone was scraping together what they could to invest in the company. As Jason Sharpe (employee #14, Co-Owner, and CEO) said, “We were struggling, but we were a united struggle.”
“We were this tiny group of people coming together doing whatever scrappy thing needed to be done,” remembers Teri Lema (employee #12, Co-Owner, and HR Generalist). “We were super involved in policy, and jurisdictions were just learning how to issue permits for solar at the time. We were trying to figure out how codes applied as well as educating inspectors on what they were looking at with our systems.”
And there was so much demand for solar on Colorado’s Front Range that Namaste Solar could barely keep up with requests. “The customers were at the heart of the excitement about going solar,” said Teri. “It was this cool community of people that really wanted this technology. And wanted to do it with us.”
The Young Solar Industry
The early years were challenging because both the company and the solar industry itself were so new. At the time, there were no laws about who could install solar panel systems, so people were jumping into the industry with little experience and no licensure. Modules were so scarce when they were available Namaste Solar said yes to purchasing them without even knowing pricing. “We had to buy what we could when we could,” said Teri. And when the shipments of solar modules came in there was a good chance many of them would be broken.
“The trucking companies didn’t know how to take care of the panels, and we ended up fighting a lot of freight claims,” said Surendra Thapa (employee #4, Co-Owner, and Warehouse Manager). The pallets of panels would come triple stacked, tipped over, and broken in almost every shipment, which meant the fledgling Namaste Solar had to photograph the damage so the shipping company would cover the broken units.
The Rule of All Rules
Amidst the whirlwind of the burgeoning solar industry, Namaste Solar was also learning how to navigate the unique challenges of their small co-ownership. The company started without a single rule or policy and instead ran on a simple idea of peer review. “The rule of all rules was to ask somebody else if it’s a good idea and if they agree, then you can do it,” said Jason.
But then a co-owner drove a company vehicle on a family trip to California, even after that decision was shot down by peer review. Thus the first official policy at Namaste Solar was a vehicle policy about who could use the company cars and when. From there the co-ownership continued to develop rules as needed but also as outlined by legal requirements for a growing company.
The next big test of the co-ownership and free-spirited structure came in 2008 when Wes Kennedy, one of the co-founders of Namaste Solar, left the company. “There were no rules on our investments. There was no shareholder agreement,” said Jason. “I think the veil of ‘we’ll all always be here forever’ was pierced when Wes left, and that really changed things. So if we’re not all going to be here, we probably need more rules.”
Changes in the co-ownership, the growth of the company, and a move into a new building all necessitated more rules and policies for Namaste Solar. A lot of work and change were concentrated into this first few years as the company defined itself. As Teri said, “From June of 2006 to September of 2008, that felt like five years, and in hindsight it’s because we were working a few years’ worth in one year.”
The first few years were Namaste Solar were a fun, exciting time with an extremely connected group of people, but there were certainly struggles, controversies within the co-ownership, and uncertainty. “At that time, I worry that maybe I need to find other work or maybe I won’t be working long-term with Namaste Solar,” said Surendra.
But Namaste Solar has managed to navigate many years of the "solar coaster" to remain in business where many other solar companies have failed. Much of this success is credited to the employee-ownership model, and that model was built by the initial group of dedicated co-owners that banded together.
“There was a lot of self-sacrifice for the good of the group,” said Jason, remembering the early years where everyone was hired as a co-owner with the same title and same salary. “We succeeded or failed together. All of us are important. We’re all playing critical roles.”