Bret Biggart is the Chief Executive Officer of Freedom Solar LLC and oversees almost 1,000 employees. He is most proud of the culture at Freedom Solar, which has been named one of the Best Places to Work in Austin for two years running.
Bret previously served as Director of Business Development for the Austin-based asset management firm WaterStreet Investment Consultants with a concentration in alternative investments and, prior to that, acted as Vice President of Business Development at Saracen Energy Advisors. Before Saracen, his investment background consisted of over four years with two private equity firms.
Bret received an MBA from the Jones School of Business at Rice University and graduated with a BA from the University of Texas at Austin. He is also a member of Young Presidents Organization (YPO).
In this week’s episode, Sonya and Bret talk about navigating expectations, his journey to sobriety, going after big things and becoming CEO of Freedom Solar.
“But I think the beauty of the recovery thing is it’s helped give me a different way to think about my myself and the way I relate to people in this world, and what that means. And there’s things on my side of the street that I’m responsible for my actions, and there’s things that are not, right, there’s things that I can turn over. And whether you’re in recovery or not, every day, we get to deal with that challenge of what’s in my control that I need to focus on or work on. And then what are the things that are flat out beyond my control that worrying about it does absolutely nothing to the outcome. And that’s been a really valuable skill set. Because yes, it’s important in recovery stuff. But by the way, it happens to be a really important characteristic to running a successful life. Being able to see through the things that really matter, versus the things that are just creating stress that I just can’t change the outcome of at all.“– Bret Biggart
- Navigating expectations and gratitude
- Moving at the speed of pain
- Bret’s journey to sobriety
- Tapping into vulnerability
- Going after big things
- Becoming a CEO in the solar industry
- Focusing on customer service
Freedom Solar is a full-service solar company installing solar panels and backup power systems for homeowners and businesses since 2007. Our mission is to provide complete residential and commercial solar power solutions with quality craftsmanship, attention to detail, and excellent customer service that inspires you to recommend us to others.
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Sonya Looney: Bret, welcome to the show.
Bret Biggart: Thank you very much. I’m glad to be here.
Sonya: I first learned about you from Jonathan Levitt from the For The Long Run podcast. So I’ll go ahead and plug that podcast because it’s fantastic. I was so excited to hear your story and to learn about you. And there’s something that you said in that podcast that really stuck with me and I wrote it down. I’ve actually brought it up multiple times since. And you said, “I try to put my gratitude before my expectations.” Can you talk about that?
Bret: Sure. That’s a great reminder for me to take my own to listen to my own messaging every once in a while. Today is one of those days. It’s just all about at the end of the day for me to come back to this idea that I have been given a lot of gifts, and we wake up every day and take those for granted, I certainly do. I was in the hospital this weekend with my mom, and she’s paralyzed on the right side of her body, and she fell down and she broke a bunch of ribs and her neck. And she’s got a lot of physical things going on that are really tough, and she can’t get dressed and make a meal, or go on a run or ride a bike, or all these things that we take for granted. And so it’s just amazing how often I know for me, I can get kind of wrapped up in my own stuff, whatever my own stuff is during the day and I can lose perspective of what gifts I’ve been given, which there are tons of and we’ve all been given gifts, whether we like to recognize them or not. And so this idea of being in a moment of gratitude, or hopefully more than just a moment of gratitude to be like, you know, I’ve got a lot of stuff in the grand scheme of things that really matter, that are really lovely things that I take for granted that I’m maybe not going to take for granted today and be appreciative of, and it makes all those little things that I’m usually wrapped around the axle about seemed much smaller, in keeping that perspective of being grateful, as opposed to wrapped around the axle about the small things, is what that phrase means. And it’s just something I wished it by default, I did that every day. I wish that by default, I could wake up as a super overwhelmed with gratitude every morning, and I could do that. But it has to be something that I consciously think about. It’s amazing sometimes I can wake up in the morning and we joke about this in the program of recovery, that you can be consumed by yourself a lot. I’m consumed by myself and my own nonsense. And I wake up in the morning, sometimes, and I’m already wrapped around the axle about whatever it is I haven’t done or need to do, or my to do list so to speak. And I can get to the shower, and I can kind of maybe decompress for a moment and be like, okay, it’s not that big of a deal. And by the time I get to work, I can be all wound up again. It’s like these cycles that just happen day to day for me of like trying to get why I get wound up. And then I have to like release the pressure a little bit and then wound up and release the pressure. And so when you’re doing this right, you’re not wound up so much. And part of that has to do with gratitude, for sure.
Sonya: I think a lot about expectations, and how expectations whether they’re our own personal expectations of ourselves or expectations from others, and how it creates so much pressure it makes it hard to breathe. And what you just said about being wound up and wrapped around the axle and it’s really hard to decouple yourself from that. And it’s something that doesn’t come naturally to most of us.
Bret: No, it’s funny, I was talking to a friend of mine on the phone, and he is a great guy, and he was the CEO of a company and they just let him go. And he was calling me and he was pretty upset about the whole thing as anyone would be. And part of his conversation with me was like, well what are people gonna think and blah, blah, blah. And I reminded him that buddy, the expectations that you set are like in your head in the reality no one really cares. Everybody wants you to be… the fact that you’re healthy and you’re okay and your life is good, people lose jobs and tough stuff happens all the time. But like, people don’t really care. Those are expectations you have in your own head, it’s going to be okay. But yeah, the expectations we have internally can be… I like to say a lot of times, sometimes they can be a bit unrealistic. I know you do this, but it’s like I have to be an exceptional dad and an exceptional CEO and exceptional athlete and exceptional this and that. It’s like, whoa, how about just pick one or two today? Yeah. And so it’s one of these things I have to think about consciously. That’s for sure.
Sonya: Yeah, something else that I think about when I hear that exceptional, and this is something I always have to ask myself is, how am I trying to feel? Because if I’m trying to achieve something, or be exceptional at something, it’s like, well, why am I doing that? What am I trying to feel inside? By being exceptional by getting there? And a lot of times, when I get there I still don’t feel that way. So what can I do today so that I can feel, I don’t want to say exceptional, but feel the way that I want to feel by achieving the thing?
Bret: Totally, totally. I mean, you get this as an athlete all the time, I’m sure. But it’s like you spent all this time maybe trying to train for this event, and then you do the event, and you cross the finish line, and I feel pretty good for 24 hours, and then it doesn’t take but another day, and I’m like, okay, what is the next thing? Like, wait a minute, is there a part here where I can just feel okay about my accomplishments, and I feel some level of gratitude that it’s enough. It’s a weird thing. I think about this idea of solving for happiness a bunch more now that I’m 47. And what is happiness mean? That’s what I’m trying to solve for is, how can I just be happy or content or grateful today, those things lead to happiness for me, and trying to do the things during the day that will solve for that. And if I do that today, and then I can maybe do it again tomorrow. And I can string some days together, I could feel like a happy guy. And that’s kind of what I’m solving for these days more than anything else.
Sonya: So with recovery, I don’t want to minimize at all people’s experience and how incredibly difficult that is. And I really love what I’ve learned from people who have gone through recovery, because I think that there is a lot of lessons that everyone can learn from that especially when you talk about self focus and taking things one day at a time. So holding that, can you tell us about your recovery story?
Bret: I’ll start by saying I didn’t get it on the first try. I think like a lot of folks, it took a little while for me to get to a point when I was ready to try something different. We call that in the recovery world moving at the speed of pain. Usually there has to be a sufficient, an absurdly high level, of pain to be willing to make a big change. So I’ll maybe explain a little bit about what happened versus qualifying myself as an alcoholic or drug addict, because that’s pretty easy to do, which I qualified as both those. And so I was 35 at the time that I got sober and I’ve been sober since that point. So I’m 47 today. And for me, my story about that was I knew that I had this monster issue. I knew something had to be done about it. I had tried to solve it on my own, and was unable to do that multiple times. And I tried to solve it with the help of others, but I wasn’t 100% committed to it. And so I finally got to a point where one day I went to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, I had been using prescription drugs, which I was addicted to at that time. And I walked into that meeting and the topic of the meeting was willingness and action. And you had to have both those things in order to get sober. You had to be willing to make a change, but you also had to have this thing of action where you were you were going to do something about it. There were specific steps that needed to be taken. And I had been willing for a long time the action part I was maybe a little paralysis by analysis. I just couldn’t get to the action part efficiently. Whether I didn’t know what to do, or what if I would do it or just, it was just overwhelming. All those things were probably true. And so this topic of willingness and action was the meeting. And I sat on this meeting and there was a guy in the meeting who told my story basically that he had quit drinking but was still struggling with drug use, and was pretending to be sober, but he wasn’t and he finally got 100% honest and in doing that he was able to get cleaned up and was sitting there sober and told the story. And so I left that meeting and I texted myself about willingness and action that you had to have both those in order to be sober and I texted myself about this guy, Nick, that I met who basically told my story. And I thought to myself, if he could do it, then I know I could do it. And so I drove home and I walked through the front door, and my wife at the time was like, you seem like you’re a little spun up on drugs. Did you take more than you’re supposed to take to take today? Or what’s the deal? And I looked at her and lied. And in that process, she immediately went out to my truck, opened the center console, and my truck found more pills in there that I had gotten because it was… it’s that part of the addiction, you’re like, for me, I had all these doctors and all of these lies and all the things that kind of come with hardcore addiction where being dishonest with somebody was just not out of the ordinary. And so I was dishonest with her and said, no, she walked out to my truck, came back in threw the bottle of pills at me and said, I’m done. And we’d had an I’m done conversation a lot, but there was a tone in her voice, which maybe was, I could tell was very serious. And it was also the first birthday of my daughter, Louise. And so that was my sobriety day that that was the last day that I used. And at that point, I begged her and said, listen, just give me 30 days to kind of get it together. And she said, well, you’re gonna have to call your sponsor now and tell him the truth, which I did. I called my sponsor, he said, okay, we’ll come over tomorrow. And we’ll start doing the steps, you know what needs to happen. So I went over to his house, and we did step work. And then there were only two things that I needed to do. One of them was to exercise a little bit, which I was okay doing. And so I went and ran the town lake here in Austin, and went to meet my sponsor. And then I came home and I took a shower. And I’ve maybe mentioned this story on the podcast and I had this burning bush moment. It’s just my story. I don’t consider myself to be a religious guy, or had definitely hadn’t had a burning bush moment in my life. And I’m taking a shower, and I had this feeling inside like, I’m out of answers, I’m out of all my old ideas, my old big plans and ideas. Just the quiver was empty. I just didn’t have anything else to pull from. And so at that moment, I had this moment of feeling like, well, I guess I should try this. And I heard this voice say, so long as you’re 100% honest, I’ll take care of you. And that was a hugely relieving feeling. I now consider that to be what we call in recovery, a moment of surrender, right? I don’t have any more answers and I’m willing to try something new. And that was a hugely relieving feeling for me, like, I don’t want to do this alone. Okay, well, all I have to do is do this and be honest, and give it 100% and try it. I don’t have anything to lose at this point. And so I did. And for the next two weeks or so I would just go to my sponsors house, I would do step work, go to meetings, do recovery stuff. And I would go to town lake and run, and come and sleep and it took it took about two to three weeks for me to start feeling like a normal person again, like normal range of emotion. And sure enough, it started to come back. I started to feel like a normal person. I can be happy and sad and excited and lazy, or whatever the feeling was, and I could feel those moments. And I saw a light at the end of the tunnel. And sure enough, after 30 days, there I was. I had 30 days that I’d put together of consecutive days of sobriety, and I felt pretty good. I had hope that it was going to be okay for the first time in my life. And if you were to give me a piece of paper and say write down the best outcome you could possibly think of for your life right now and just put it on a piece of paper for me, I would have written something that would have been very confined to what I’d experienced at that time, which was, maybe go get another finance job and blah, blah, blah. And my life today has been a thousand times, I think would be maybe an accurate multiple, of like how much better I could have ever expected it to be in every way shape or form. So everything from how I feel on the inside, to how my relationships are on the outside, to opportunities that have arisen, to experiences that I’ve had, to career aspirations to help things, to sports, that everything has been so much better than I could have ever written down on a piece of paper for you even in what I would describe as the best outcome. That I feel just incredibly grateful that I was willing to get out on a limb and be vulnerable and say, I’m done. And I’m willing to not know what’s on the other side of this door, but I’m going to walk through it. And what I’ve walked through and into has been even its worst days today are better than the best days before. And so I’m hugely grateful for the recovery community, my experience, what that’s meant. My family has been this is a genetic thing. And so I come from a line of people that didn’t have recovery, right, that this killed them. You know, my brother’s out today, he’s a couple years younger than I am. I don’t know what’s going to happen to him. The most likely outcome today is that he ends up in jail or dead. My dad drank himself to death in 2017. And so I’ve seen what happens when you don’t have the experience that I’ve had. And so I think in a way, while those things are really sad, and have been very difficult, they’re also really inspiring, because my kids who were young, they’re 12, and nine, today, they’ve never had to see me drunk or using that they remember. my daughter was one. And so it helps keep things in perspective for me, which is wow, if my kids just don’t have to see that’s a great outcome, no matter what happens. And so anyway, this recovery thing has been, it’s just such a huge part of my life. You’re asking me the question, so I’m happy to talk about it. It’s such a big part of my life that it’s easy for me to talk about a love to talk about it, because I think one of the differences may be between my dad’s generation and my generation is that people are a lot more open about their sobriety. And this stuff touches one in five people. So lots of people out there are impacted by this, whether it’s personally or their family or somebody is going through it. And it’s a really, really tough thing to reconcile. Because it’s a really hardcore disease that that doesn’t reconcile with rationality. So the actions people take just don’t make any sense. And they’re really hard to be around and all the things that come with that sadness, and depression and all the things that you just can’t believe are happening with somebody who’s in addiction. And so today, I think a lot more people are open about that and their struggles and the experiences they’ve had. And so the reason I’m open about it is I just feel like there’s so many people that are impacted in a negative way by this, if I would have been exposed to examples of people who had gotten through this earlier in life, it would have made it more easier for me to do. So my dad never had that there was never I never remember a time where he was like, oh, so and so it was in recovery or to quit drinking. And so, my generation, I feel like there’s a lot more openness to this sobriety thing, which I think is a great thing, just because it impacts a lot of people. And so anytime I can talk about it, in my experience… I was just interviewing a guy before this call and I was describing a little bit about the culture of the company that I have. And I was listening to myself talk where you have a little bit of an out of body experience. I was explaining a lot about the culture of our business today and the culture of our business is pulled out of recovery stuff. Because I think it was maybe best I was in a meeting and Aspen and this guy walks in he says, if alcohol is your problem, you may not be an alcoholic. And so it took a minute for my mind to wrap around that idea. If alcohol is your problem, you may not be an alcoholic and what he meant by that is here I am in long term sobriety I haven’t had a drink in a long time and I don’t have the the urge to have a drink thankfully today. But I still wake up wrapped around the axle like I just explained to you and so if solving the drink or drug problem, if I just took those away and I went to Antarctica or Greenland or wherever it was they didn’t serve drinks, there was no drugs, and I just live there, it would not solve all my problems, right? My problem is inside me. And so what is the problem inside me? And so that’s the beauty of recovery as my sponsor reminds me all the time he why’s me to death? You know, why? Why is this happening? Why do you feel this way? Why? Why don’t we get down to the crux of the problem? And it’s always a bigger problem; it’s always inside me. And it usually has to do with fear, right? It’s usually a fear based problem, like, I’m not gonna live up to my expectation, right? We started this conversation talking about expectations, or I’m not gonna, I’m not going to be a good enough CEO, or I’m not going to be a good enough dad, or I’m not going to prioritize my things the way they should be. So it’s just like all of this stuff. And if you gave somebody which we do in this program, you give somebody a pen, a piece of paper and say, write down all the things you’re scared of, it ends up being a very long list of things, right? Everything from I’m scared of dying to, I’m scared of whatever thing it is out there, right. And so I think, part of the beauty of this recovery thing is, you get to tap into that. And you get to say, okay, in my example, Bret Biggart, you spent a large portion of your life trying to be a tough guy, have a big beard, I do tough guy stuff. I feel like I need to be a tough guy. Well, why? And if you just why it to death the answer to that question is I’m actually scared on the inside actually have a lot of insecurities. Why? Well, they’re in my head, and I put them on myself. And the beauty of this program sometimes, because you can’t do it on your own, you hear that a lot in recovery, you need help, right? Why do I need help? Well, I need help in the beginning, for the obvious reasons. And then today, like why do I still have to have a sponsor today? Because I can’t grade my own paper. I’m unable to look at my life objectively, and my behavior and grade my own paper. And so I need someone to help me understand like, hey, I’ve just treated this person this way. Does this seem like the right way to deal with this? Or am I thinking about this in some messed up way? And oftentimes, the answer is, I’m thinking of this in some messed up way. And so anyway, that’s a long winded way of answering your question. But I think the beauty of the recovery thing is it’s helped give me a different way to think about my myself and the way I relate to people in this world, and what that means. And there’s things on my side of the street that I’m responsible for my actions, and there’s things that are not, right, there’s things that I can turn over. And whether you’re in recovery, or not, every day, we get to deal with that challenge of what’s in my control that I need to focus on, or work on. And then what are the things that are flat out beyond my control that worrying about it does absolutely nothing to the outcome. And that’s been a really valuable skill set. Because yes, it’s important in recovery stuff. But by the way, it happens to be a really important characteristic to running a successful life. Being able to see through the things that really matter, versus the things that are just creating stress that I just can’t change the outcome of at all. And the program kind of helps do that. It helps draw that line, which is hard for me to see sometimes.
Sonya: It sounds like the like the process of recovery is almost a way of being in life. And that continues to be a way of being and that going through recovery is really a lot about taking responsibility for yourself. And then the the process of working towards self actualization by asking why am I doing this? Why am I like this? What do I need? Why am I treating others…? And it’s so hard to be honest with yourself. And it really sounds like, for you, seeing somebody that inspired you, or you saw yourself in them helped you move into that action piece because I’m sure as you alluded to and I’ve heard lots of people talk about is there’s a lot of starting and stopping and, okay, today’s the last day that I’m going to do this, I’m going to wake up tomorrow I’m going to start fresh. I’m never doing this again. That time was the time that it actually stuck.
Bret: It’s easy to stop drinking and using it’s very hard to stay stopped right for a long period of consecutive time. Turns out that’s the hard part. And yeah, I think that’s right. In my experience that I just explained it, the guy that gave me hope that I could do it, I can’t even tell you his last name. He was just a guy in a meeting named Nick, who told the story in which he had the same experience I did, but was able to get sober. Bam, that opens the door for my little pea brain to be like, well, maybe I could do it. And I think that’s the beauty of this program. And by me telling my story, maybe there’s someone out there that’s like, well, if this guy could do it, because there’s nothing extraordinary about me. If I could do it, anybody can do it. And so that’s the beauty of the thing. It is a solution that is available to all of us.
Sonya: And I think more broadly, a lot of times people think, well, I don’t need to tell them, I’m not going to tell my story, or I’m not going to do this thing that I’m passionate about, or whatever it is that gets this person fired up in their life, because it’s not going to make a difference. Or people will say, I find myself in this boat, well, I’m not making enough of a difference. But really, if you could change one person’s life, that’s all that matters. And you might never even know that you change somebody’s life, and you never know the impact that you’re going to have on somebody by being authentic.
Bret: Totally, it’s this thing of vulnerability, right? If I’m vulnerable about my life, and tell you how I really feel on the inside, or the struggles that I’m really having, I’ll say those out loud, like this and then maybe in a recovery setting, someone else tells me their struggles, right, and is vulnerable with me. And out of that becomes something healing. It’s kind of a magical thing. It’s hard to explain sometimes. But it’s always nice to know there’s other people out there, because so many, so much of the time, we have all this stuff in our head, whether it’s fears or insecurities or expectation setting that’s out of line, or whatever, all this stuff that we have going on in our head. And to be able to talk about it, especially the stuff that feels like the crazy stuff that goes through my head and to put it out there and then someone else be like, oh, yeah, yeah, I had the same crazy thoughts. But here’s what I realized, turns out, that I actually looked at the results, or I looked at the facts, and it turns out to all be in my head. That’s actually not the case. I don’t feel like I’m smart enough. Yeah, well, what does that mean? Like, how do you characterize that? Was? You did this, you did that you have this, like, what are you talking about, but still I can still find myself doing that stuff.
Sonya: Something that I’ve been really interested in is, it’s a psychological term you’ve probably heard of called Post Traumatic Growth. I first heard about it in this book, I think it was in 2012. But now it’s becoming more like of a mainstream conversation. And it’s basically people that have positive psychological changes in their life whenever something traumatic or really challenging happens to them, and the event itself doesn’t create growth, but it’s the processing and the meaning made from that event that happened so that the person can spring forward or spiral upward into a better situation, a better life. And stories of post traumatic growth, it’s just so cool. So for you, you have had an upward spiral. It sounded like part of the upper spiral was going for runs and connecting to the full range of what it means to be human and feeling these emotions again. Can you talk about this post recovery process? Because now you’ve done Baja 100 multiple times, you do Leadville 100, you do all of these amazing challenges. You’re the CEO of a solar business, Freedom Solar. So how do you get from I’m, coming out of this place of starting to understand what it feels like to feel again to I’m going to go after these really big things?
Bret: I think about them somewhat separately. But you’re making me think about the connection. I think a lot about what makes entrepreneurs successful, for example, what is the thing, right? There’s been thousands of books written on trying to get to this answer, and some of them maybe have, but there’s lots of people pontificating over the same, this question, which is what is that thing? What is that characteristic that really sets us apart from from failure, for example. And for me, I think there’s a little bit of this grinder thing inside of me. I would say, if you tell me I’m not going to be able to do something like as a kid, I would always be the guy that was like, oh, yeah, tell me I can do it or not, that’s gonna be that’s like this weird motivation, right? It’s a little twisted. People that don’t have it definitely cannot relate to it, but like telling me I can’t do something and let me show you what I’ll do. And so, I would say that the business or career stuff has been about I would characterize the success that I’ve been able to experience, and there’s been lots of pain along the way, has a lot to do, I characterize it in a word is grind. I don’t mean that in a bad connotation. I mean, when you find out what you think you’re going to do, and you plant the flag on it, and say, I’m going to do this, I’m going to build a solar company, what I mean by the grinder mentality is a maybe I should re-characterize it as kind of a pitbull mentality. It’s like, I’m going to get there and I’m just going to move mountains to make it happen. It’s what it takes, and really focusing on that thing. And for me, that’s what we did in my business experience. And then I would also say like, that is the same mentality that I think comes through in sports stuff, which is like, hey, what is the biggest thing I could do? Could I go do the Ironman, can I do the Leadville 100, or race the Baja 1000, or whatever it is. Those are like those mini experiences, right? For me, were, hey, let’s go put a big flag out there, and I’m gonna go do this. How do I know I can do it, because there’s lots of other people out there that can do it. And so look, I’m gonna go put in a hard work and see if I can go knock this thing down. And in doing that, all the things that as a professional athlete you get to experience in this mini life of training for this thing and then doing it, and you have to be a pitbull, right. You set your alarm every morning, you have to get up, you have to do your workout, you have to do this stuff, you have to have consistency, all these characteristics as you go do endurance athlete goals. And then you go do the event, sometimes it goes your way, sometimes does not go your way, just like in life, right? Sometimes it can be the most painful day in the world. And sometimes it can be the most glorious day you’ve ever had in your life. Sometimes it’s those things combined in the same day, a couple times, right. And so the kind of pitbull approach of like, hey, I’m just gonna go see this thing through to the end, in my case, it’s like, I don’t care so much about the results, I just want to go do this thing and see if I can do it. And in doing that, you get to push yourself. The Leadville 100 is a great experience that I was talking to you right before for me, which was man, that race for me this year, I never gone to such a dark spot mentally. Never gone to such a dark spot. And when I say dark spot, I mean, telling myself, I’m going to quit. Telling myself, I have a weekly all hands call with all of our employees, and they knew that I was doing the race and so I was vocal about what I was trying to go do, partly because that held some level of accountability. But I mean, I went through the whole mental exercise and what I was gonna say on the call to tell people that I couldn’t finish to what I was going to tell my kids at the finish line about how sometimes in life, you just can’t… just all of this insanity went through my head, but all very negatively wrapped in this idea that I’m just not going to be able to do it, I’m just not going to be able to finish. And everything except pull that phone out of the back of my pocket and call the guy that I knew would pick me up on the side of the road, and I would wave the white flag and say, I’m done. And so that I kept thinking of what the guy said who’s the promoter of the race who’s so great, he was like, look, you know, you’ve got to embrace some pain and you’re gonna you got to make it your best friend and you got to just keep pedaling. In that phrase, just keep pedaling, that’s all. That little phrase was the difference between finishing the race and not finishing the race for me. That phrase was the difference between having to have a call with all my employees and saying I couldn’t finish versus why I got to finish this race and get outside my comfort zone and do something really cool. It’s funny the little things that you can latch on to, to hold on to like just just keep pedaling. Like, forget about your watch. Forget about your heart rate. Forget about all this statistics that you like to make adage, just cover it up with your sleeve and just pedal your bike. Your only job today is to finish this race. Whenever that happens, that happens; just pedal. And so that was the experience that I had in that race was just keep pedaling. And I think about that a lot in life, which is like, I’m just gonna keep pedaling. Some days is just it feels like a beating like, I’m just pushing it uphill. But I’m just gonna keep, I’m just gonna keep this pitbull mentality of just pushing the ball forward. And I think that there’s a huge difference between a lot of people aren’t willing to do that. It’s not necessarily that hard, I don’t think. But it does take a little bit of a grinder or a pitbull mentality, which is like, I’m just gonna keep pedaling. And I know it hurts, I’m just going to keep pedaling. Or I’m just gonna keep going with this business idea. Or I’m just gonna stay in the saddle a little bit longer with the change that’s happening in work. Or I’m just gonna stay in this relationship a little longer. You know what I mean? I think that’s that’s been a characteristic that I’ve kind of gained through sobriety that I try to use a bunch of my life.
Sonya: It sounds like Angela Duckworth’s version of grit, which is passion and perseverance for long term goals. And the just keep pedaling mentality, I had a similar experience, and I still think about this, because I’ve had my list of challenges in the last several years from having two pregnancies and pandemics and the whole nine yards that a lot of people have also been through. But my first 100 mile race was the Breck 100, which I still think is the hardest 100 miler out there. And I remember Dave Wiens, who was on my team at that time, who’s won multiple times and beat Lance Armstrong, and I asked Dave, do you have any advice for me? And he said, yeah, one foot in front of the other. So that was my mentality for the race, one foot in front of the other. If it’s walking, if it’s pedaling, I just gotta keep moving forward. And I think the reason why that’s so powerful is because number one, it pulls you out of this whole story of oh, this hurts, or this is hard, or how much longer do I have to go. It just completely simplifies everything into one present moment, basic tasks, just have to move one foot in front of the other, provided that you’re not in a serious medical emergency. And then the second part is that it removes discomfort and expectations from that, because it’s like, one foot in front of the other, okay, it hurts, I’m cramping or I don’t want to do this. I’m embarrassed as to what place I’m in. Oh, it’s cold. There’s just all of these reasons that could come in to make you want to quit. And your experience it’s not rare. You can be winning the race and still have all of those thoughts, including your entire plan as to how you’re going to quit and what you’re going to tell everyone, and maybe I’ll just stab my tire. My CO2 didn’t work! I’ve come up with every excuse in the book to quit. And the simplicity of just keep pedaling and the grit that you have practice, throughout your life with all of these different things that you’ve done is like a muscle, and it’s compounded over time. And it’s so applicable to everywhere and everything that you’ve done, which makes me want to ask you next about Freedom Solar. How are you the CEO? Not how are you the CEO and that you don’t deserve to be the CEO, but how are you the CEO like, how did you become to be CEO of a solar company? Because like you said, this is your life now is 1000 times different from what you expected it to be 10 to 15 years ago.
Bret: So the short story is a friend of mine had started the business. He started Freedom Solar before. I came to him and we decided to go directly to the customer and kind of change the strategy. And so we we built the business from there, that was 11 years ago. And if you would have asked me 11 years ago, could I be the CEO of this business today in the size that it is, I would have said, absolutely not. And so so and so I never thought about it in terms of where we are today. What I did think about was,I think every entrepreneur is trying to solve a problem. So what’s the problem that we were trying to solve? And for us, it was like, can we offer a service where people easily understand how to go solar? If the answer is yes, can we then go execute for them? Can they be hands off, and we go take care of everything? And so my pea brain can wrap around that idea and still, like wrapped around that idea? pretty heavily because we have to go back to that because the bigger the business gets, you want to make it complicated about all kinds of very cool complicated analytic things, for example, but at the end of the day, if we just do that successfully. For example, in our business and Freedom Solar, then we’ll be successful. And so building the business, my ideas, always trying to get really smart people who are very effective at what they do and put them on a team. And so that’s what we’ve done over time. That’s really been the thing for me today. That’s the junkie vibe that I’m a junkie for today is we’ve got the fabulous group of people that all work together that are very vulnerable. And we work through problems together, just like you would in any kind of team sport thing. Just like you would the Baja 1000 is a team sport thing, where you’ve got a crew and different riders, and everybody has to depend on everybody in order to finish the race. It’s very much like that at Freedom Solar. And the thing that I’ve really become a junkie for is the people aspect of it. I mean when my chief marketing officer came in my office, and we had this conversation a year before about hitting 100,000 leads in a year, and she was visibly shaken up by it. And I talk to her afterwards, I’m like, look, we’ll get through this. We’ll figure it out. And they’ll I don’t know exactly what the answer is, but we’ll work through it together. And you fast forward a year down the road, and she’s sitting in my office in tears, and I’m in tears, and she’s clear the number by, a long shot and done it under budget was like, I didn’t think I could do that, but I did it. And now I’ve gotten so much confidence out of that, that brings me to tears, physical tears. I’m like, that is so cool. Which is not unlike what we just talked about, you finishing these monster races and me trying to just show up and finish these, the more piddling ones that I do, compared to you. And so it’s that same feeling of how do you put a team together to go get outsized results, and work together as a team. And we try to have a culture around this joint, where we show up and work really hard to solve problems. But we also recognize we try not to have burnout, we show up and we run really hard, we try to solve complicated problems together. We try to provide solutions to customers and do that in a teamwork environment. But I’m also really big on not burning out the same way you could in training, right? Like, it’s not effective for me if you want to show up here and blow 80 hours a week and work till nine o’clock at night and blow yourself up, so to speak. So we have this nice thing of people showing up, training real hard or working really hard, and then at five o’clock, or at six o’clock, or whenever you think the time is appropriate, go home to your people, and do whatever you need to do. Get on a bicycle, spend time with your kids, go on a run, go to an AA meeting, go have dinner with… whatever it is that you need to do to release the pressure of life that we’re all under every day, like make a conscious effort to go release the pressure on your life every day. So you come back here the next day, and we’re good to go fight the battle again. And then at the end of day, the same thing, go figure out what you need to do. And if you need to leave early to go because your bottle is particularly shaken up, and you need to go release the pressure go do that. And it’s been a really eye opening experience for me. The value of what the team can do together, if we think about it that way, which is a lot like training, right? Don’t overtrain, you’re just gonna blow yourself up. Think about this more long term, all of those things that you know as a professional athlete applied to life, in running a team and a business. And so yeah, I’d say that’s what I’ve become a junkie for is when I see us be able to have these wins at a time as a team and as a group of people is a really fulfilling thing. And we just kind of keep doing this the same way. It’s the same thing as training. It’s like one at a time, we’re just gonna keep like plowing ahead. And I think about my buddies that started Yeti cooler, Yeti coolers have been really successful at it building that business into a huge monster. And they were those guys are, I would characterize them as really sweet, good guys that are pitbulls. And they also recognize what they were good at not good at and brought in help when they needed help, and had been able to build a really successful business around that. And so we kind of think about it maybe a little bit in the same way that we’re probably willing to go through a little more pain than our competitors, or stay in the saddle a little bit longer. And then we also try to really help each other as a team, which is I keep saying that just because it’s, it’s on my mind today. It’s the thing that the culture and the team that I’ve become a junkie for.
Sonya: Yeah, and I mean, as a CEO, your role is the vision for the company, and also to set the culture for the company and leadership and the tone of how the business is going to be run is set at the top. So you get to embody that and you get to inspire everybody else that comes to work. And there’s over 700 employees now for Freedom Solar, is that right?
Bret: Yeah, I think we’ve got almost 1000. So yeah, we were at 500 in January, and now we’re at almost 1000. So we’ll be at 1000 by the end of the year. So it’s growing really fast. And it’s really hard to manage culture when you’re doubling the business scale. Because I often like to simplify it is the things that I believe is the CEO, and the things that I care about, I want those same priorities to be felt by the person in Tampa, Florida at our office that I’ve never met. How do you do that? How do you connect the dots so that the person in Tampa, Florida in the field today cares about the same things that I care about and believes the same things I believe? Turns out that’s pretty hard. It’s a pretty hard thing to do. But but it can be done. And so we’re spending a lot of time on that these days, which, which is gives me a lot of fulfillment.
Sonya: There’s so many questions, I’d love to ask about the business. But this isn’t a business podcast, so I will put that aside. My husband is the CEO of his business and I’ve learned a lot about business from him. So there’s all these things that I’m interested in. But why did you choose solar? Like you could have done anything? Why did you choose solar?
Bret: Yeah, so I was just looking for solar from my own house, and nobody would call me back. And I go back to the entrepreneurial thing, which is you’re trying to solve a problem that, in my case, I experienced and I figured other people were trying to solve too. Which was here I am as a as a potential customer trying to put solar on my roof or learn about it and nobody can answer my questions, or even pick up the phone. And so I thought, well, surely there’s other people out there that are having the same experience? Well, it turns out that, as luck would have it, there are. So I think about that a lot, because I now talk to a lot of entrepreneurs, and they run ideas by me. What is the problem you’re trying to solve? And is it a big enough problem that you could build a business around that whatever it is? And if you can just simplify it to that and the answer is, yes, this is the problem, and yes, it’s material size, the bigger the problem, and the bigger the solution, the bigger the opportunity.
Sonya: And in terms of scaling the business, because whenever you started, I believe it was you, and his name is Adrian, right, your partner? And it was in his house, you guys were super startup getting going? How do you how do you scale that? And while keeping your head screwed on?
Bret: Yeah, we scaled it from just a couple of us when we started in his garage, basically, selling it, to today 1000 people. And it’s these incremental wins, I would say, you know, you grow the business, you realize there’s a service to be met. Tere’s people that want to know about solar, right? Okay, how are we going to do that? We’re going to focus on quality. Okay, how are you going to do that? We’re gonna provide great customer service and great products. Okay, how you gonna do that? Well, this is the plan, right? This is how we’re gonna do it. So you get that kind of dialed in, we gained some regional traction, and we open the next office, then we open the next office, and then we were the biggest in the state of Texas, and then we moved to Colorado, and we’ve been able to kind of grow the business geographically to get some scale to it. But the same principle is still the folks in Tampa are solving the same problem we’re solving today in Austin, which is how do we go educate customers on solar and if they want to do it, do we provide a great experience just that simple. And so often in times, I think in life, you want to overcomplicate things, it happens all the time around here. We overcomplicate whatever the solution to some problem. But if you just boil it down to in our cases, a service business providing great customer service, okay, if everybody provides great customer service, guess what? The customer will tell other people and we will no longer have to spend so much money on marketing to get customers because it will happen. So it’s becomes this back to basics or keep it simple idea of just back to the problem, just great customer service. We’re going to help people go solar. And if f we do that effectively, then we can grow the business and add a lot of volume, which is what we’ve been lucky enough to do.
Sonya: Yeah, just keep pedaling,
Bret: Just keep pedaling, just keep pedaling. I love that. I’m not gonna forget that.
Sonya: The solar thing to is such a no brainer. I think I told you offline, I actually worked for a solar startup in Boulder and was an engineer. And that was my first job after I finished my master’s degree, and I got to see the startup environment in solar and this was in 2007. And it’s so cool that people can just put some panels on the roof, and they’re free. They don’t have to pay for their power anymore, especially and maybe, in some cases, only if you live in a climate where you have roofs that can, take in the sun and that are south and east facing or have room for like a ground mount, but I’m just amazed that that’s available to us, and that we all want to do the right thing, and that it’s so easy to do now. That customer service piece, with anything that anybody is doing, especially with how the internet is right now, number one, people want a good product or service, but number two people want customer service and if there isn’t good customer service, it’s not going to be good for that company. And if there is good customer service, wow, there is so much opportunity for that company.
Bret: Yeah, the economics of solar have gotten to the point where it’s become kind of a no brainer for most people. And my 12 year old daughter is smart enough to say, I can say, hey, do you would you rather power your life from the sun that is infinite. And if it’s not, we have a bigger problem to pulling fossil fuels out of the ground. And anybody can kind of can get to the right answer there. And so the question is, well, how do I do it? And does it make sense? And the answer to that question is both it’s easy, and it does make sense. And I think that it’s still the early innings for solar today. And in reality, it’s still 4 million, 5 million homes are now solar powered. And there’s probably 100 million that are potentially good for solar. So a 5% penetration rate. So it’s still very low. I characterize it a lot like the the telecom industry. I remember as a teenager walking around my house, and my mom had the phone in the kitchen with a super long cord. And I’m only, right, so that’s as far as you can go. And then cell phones are introduced, my dad has this huge cell phone that you know, has a battery that dies all the time, and you can only take super important calls on it, and then the phone gets a little bit smaller. Then you fast forward and most of us have like a little Nokia phone, and they make things so small and tiny, then you have a phone. And now we all have iPhones and I’m sitting at my desk, there is no landline phone in this room, there is no landline phone at my house. And we all have this wireless device, which connects us to everything. And the solar industry, or the the energy industry, is going in that direction, where we all are getting our power a certain way. And that is going to change. And there will be a world here in the very not too distant future where there are batteries in the back of my house, the sun powers those batteries, we pull the power for the home from the batteries. There’s a cost effective solution and is a de centralized model. Which I think we’ll look back in 20 years, you’d like to remember when there were these lines all over the roads and we like to put up with that. And we acted like they weren’t there.
Sonya: We cut down mountains. Transmission lines.
Bret: I think there is going to be a world… my daughter and my son will live in a world where they laugh about that. And so it’s a pretty exciting thing when you think about it really disruptive technology, which is what I think this is.
Sonya: I could talk to you all day. So thanks so much for coming on the show and sharing so vulnerably your story and also what it means to just keep pedaling and what it means to be have a pitbull mentality and be gritty in your life, but also the importance of relationship and team building and seeing something through.
Bret: You summarize very, very well my mixed up thoughts. I really enjoyed being on and I’m not going to forget that just keep pedaling. Thank you.
Sonya: Where can people find you? And where can people find freedom solar?
Bret: Sure, you can find us online at Freedomsolarpower.com. I’m on LinkedIn and all that kind of stuff and Instagram so people can reach out to me and I’m available. Please do.
Sonya: Awesome. Well, thanks so much.