April Zhong | Crain's San Francisco

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

April Zhong

Background:  

Based in Los Altos, Calif., SilRay Inc. is a full-service solar provider that develops commercial- and utility-scale projects from the financing phase through the construction and maintenance stages. In 2011, the U.S. Department of Commerce named it “Minority Retail Energy Firm of the Year.”

The Mistake: 

I started SilRay in early 2007 at a time when the solar industry started booming. Every day I saw a lot of good opportunities come my way and wanted to grab all of them. My gut feeling was to do them all and I had a hard time giving up opportunities. I wanted to make a difference in the solar industry.

I was so passionate and I worked really hard. I was busy every day. I was trying to do every aspect of the business, working to get customers to build solar systems for their homes and for their business, regardless of whether they were small, medium or large businesses.

Also, I was fascinated by the concept of encouraging people to use solar gadgets in their daily lives. So I started a solar store business. The solar store was both a physical retailer and a web site. We opened up the store in the Town and Country Village shopping mall in Palo Alto across from Stanford University. I was so passionate about using solar energy that I thought maybe we could target the consumer market as well. [The store] sold solar phone chargers, solar lanterns and solar toys. 

I was running the store and running the SilRay business at the same time. I was going back and forth, and back and forth between the two businesses. I did that for a year, the first year for SilRay.

Then one day, I woke up and realized that nothing was getting done — and nothing was getting done right. My employees had lost their motivation and were not sure what direction the company was going. I was frustrated myself. I saw this wasn’t working.

To make an extraordinary business, you have to focus on one product or service.

The Lesson:

It was an "aha" moment. I realized I needed to focus. I needed to focus on one thing I was good at, where my expertise is, and do it right. That can make a difference in solar, not trying to do everything. That’s the lesson I learned.

I put SilRay’s focus on serving small- to medium-sized businesses. I worked on educating those companies on the benefits of going solar in terms of cost. This helped to create a great culture at SilRay, and I realized this made me feel different and feel good every day. Seeing our clients saving money, I was so happy that I realized that this is what I should do. The business enjoyed massive growth every year after that, and at the end of last year, SilRay was recognized as one of the 50 fastest-growing companies. The team was also more productive and had more focus on its goals.

To make an extraordinary business, you have to focus on one product or service. This is what makes a business differentiated from the competition. SilRay has focused on serving small- and medium-sized companies, helping them to save money and go green. Big companies, like Apple and Tesla, have realized the benefits of going solar and want their customers to follow in their footsteps. They know it makes sense to be green throughout their entire supply chain. However, many small- to medium-sized business do not know the benefits of going solar.

When it comes to focus, I tell young entrepreneurs not to make the same mistake I did. I hate to see them going through the same mistakes and being spread too thin.

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