The Solar Executive MBA launched in 2012 and there’s still nothing quite like it. I sat down with instructors Chris Lord and Keith Cronin to talk about the origins of the course and why it’s still such a unique course.

Here’s the transcript from our conversation, which you can watch above.

Brian Hayden (me): I’m here with Keith Cronin and Chris Lord. They are the creators and instructors for the Solar MBA. We’re coming up on 10 years since we launched the Solar MBA. When we put it out there in the world, at the time it was hugely innovative. The surprising thing to me is that today I’m not really aware of anything like it still.

So I just want to check in. We’re coming up on 10 years since we launched it. Chris and Keith, three questions for you:

  1. What did you have in mind when you created it?
  2. How has it evolved over the past 10 years?
  3. What’s going to keep it relevant, looking into the future for the next 10 years?

Chris Lord: When Keith first pitched me on this class, I was like, I don’t know. And his point was, there’s a lot of mystery in solar. You know, people kind of know the general parameters; we put on panels on a building and then deliver electricity to a customer or for a utility and there’s a lot of mystery though, about why we do some things one way and not another way. And there’s an awful lot of detail work involved. And so he wanted to do a course that I think lifted that mystery and opened the veil so that people coming new into the industry would have a chance to get a head start, a running start as it were.

And I think what resonated best for me when, we introduced the weekly calls. We introduced calls on Fridays, and all the students in the class would participate. And it became clear to me that, you know, people were intoxicated at learning the answers to secrets and questions that, you know, people didn’t want to share because it was part of their, You know, their business. They wanted to protect.

So that was why we got started with it. And I feel like that has worked. And it’s still relevant today. If anything, there’s more complexity, particularly with storage. And, I feel like there’s a good role for the Solar MBA there – teaching people how things are really done and why they’re done that way and how to do them better.

Keith Cronin: There is a lot of mystery around the industry. There always has been. There’s a lot of what we have – to paraphrase – the secret sauce. And I think, you know, talking to Chris for a very long time, you know, having both of us being curious and always constantly learning and saying, oh, how can we take what we’ve learned and pass that on to other people?

And if we even rewind before the class, you know, after I sold my company, people said, how do you do that? And I started teaching online probably in 2008. And that was in the last world financial crisis for folks that remember, and they couldn’t afford to hire me or to fly Chris around the world. So this idea of, I think what we would characterize as online training today, which is a pretty normal, I think, was an expansion of that.

Talking to Chris about how can we help with everything and bookend the business, you know, how to market, how to do structured finance, how to respond to an RFP, how to do modeling, you know, how to run your business, and understanding whatever it is in the marketplace you create value for, you know, how can you expand what you know? And, if you’re entering into a new marketplace, you already come prepared. And I think for a lot of people, as we look back, that was really important to them.

So, and we can see that today still, you know, that people are still contacting me six years later. Hey, Keith, that class was really great. They send me a message on LinkedIn or an email saying, you know, I didn’t really realize how important that information was back then and how I’m applying it even today.

Chris: I’ll say it also has evolved quite a bit. We have perfected and expanded the models that we share with people in the class so that they could see the real detailed behind it. the class innovation, just having that class call, that was a huge innovation. but, I think we’ve also tried to pick up and catch on, you know, the latest trends.

You know, the equipment that we’re using to record the classes, it’s gotten a lot better too, so we are quicker to show examples and illustrate some of our points. And so the material has only, I think, it’s only gotten more complete and fuller as the time has passed. And the fact that HeatSpring allows students access to the course for an extended period after the class, I think it’s enormous. I’ve, I’ve gotten notes from students in the past, saying, you know, Hey, I went back to check this and I was astonished at how much it covered and I’ve got one more question. And so we’re always happy to oblige in those cases.

Brian: Your course has had this just incredible impact, but the numbers aren’t huge in terms of like alumni. It’s maybe like 500 – and I’m just thinking about the impact that a small number of people can have on an industry as it grows. And so I just wondered, you know, who are the people that seem to do the most interesting things after the course and maybe what are some examples without naming names necessarily of cool things they’ve done?

Keith: Oh, that’s a big list. We’ve seen people from wall street to main street, right? We’ve seen people that are private equity. We’ve seen government agencies, literally from NASA.

We’ve seen a little water division. We’ve seen farmers, we’ve seen electrical contractors. We’ve seen other attorneys, we’ve seen house of worship. So I think we’re going to continue to see the foundation of structured finance of business 101 and looking at people to take that and morph it. You know, we’ve got a bunch of startups that Chris and I, like I said, we’ll keep a little quiet about them that I’ve taken the, the foundation and framework and have applied it to the businesses.

So. You know, I think that the, the course curriculum is wide enough. Like Chris has said for storage, it, just getting into the mapping and it’s the numbers. And then looking at public policy changes, then be able to leverage the information in the class

Chris: It astonished me that it was as many as 500 because you know, one of the hallmarks is the classes tend to be relatively small. But, among the students, there have been, some people have gone on to do some astonishing things. regardless of what your responsibility is in whatever company you’re in, you will find something that will help you in what you’re doing today. But you’ll also understand the big picture, which will accelerate your ability to integrate well with the company and move up quickly.

And so, I think, particularly for the students who do the homework and do their best to stay up, They have all done very well by the course. and it’s funny too, cause you know, we’ll go to conferences and bump into people. particularly now that we’re doing them on the calls on zoom, where we are able to recognize students, but we’ve had students reach out as well on LinkedIn, are you at this conference?

And it’s just great to meet up. And in fact, often times the students call me up with a specific issue or a child. I say, you know, oh, you’re looking for a kind of person who does this go go call so-and-so. He was a fellow student, but a year ahead or, or a few months behind. so it is an interesting network and, and keeping up.

Staying in touch with students just because it’s, it’s part of the reward and doing the classes, hearing how they’re doing and, and also to be able to help them if they have a question and issue or, or looking for a new job and want a contact at a company. And, and we’re, you know, on LinkedIn, so where people can see who we like with.

Brian: I was going through the surveys for the course over the last 10 years. And it was really fun to read those. I recommend going in and doing that. If you haven’t recently, people love your class and, they have a lot of really positive things to say. I wonder, you know, what’s the thing that students liked best about the class.

And then the flip side of that, is there anything you’ve gotten constructive criticism about in the past that you’re looking forward to kind of addressing or making better about the course?

Keith: People come to the class for different things. So it might be coming from our technical backgrounds, some come from a finance background. They want to look over the fence and see what those other people are doing.

So by Chris and I being in the class, we can give them insights that they didn’t really have visibility to. like Chris said, this is like a little Citadel in our industry and people generally don’t share. And as for, you know, what’s improving, if something is not clear, whether it be something in the syllabus that they had an expectation about, or maybe the financial modeling or a contract or a doctor. I’ll go in there. And Chris, when there will we’ll talk, it’s okay. We need to improve this because it might be clear to us cause we’re so close to it.

So we always welcome feedback from other students. You know, especially if they’re saying, saying to us something very blatant and we might need to just refresh that, Hey, you know, they just started in the business a year ago and they just don’t have visibility to that.

Chris and I are always improving stuff. Whether it be the videos, whether it be the format from doing audio calls, to doing video calls and getting engaged with. I think the best way that we can give, people better insights, the future is getting them to give us feedback. And sometimes I think students are a little shy to give feedback because maybe they feel like they don’t want to hurt our feelings, but we’re kind of welcoming that.

And well, I heard that expression is there are no dumb questions and there really aren’t and it’s always important to get that feedback and people need to feel confident that this is a really great question. A lot of people have that question in their mind.

Chris: I agree with all of that. I will say though, that, you know, the students – both the students who get the most out of the class, the students we engage with the most are the ones who attend the class calls, which are just one hour, each week. And that can be really fun and free, willing, engaging discussions. Usually if somebody, if somebody makes one goal, whether it’s the first or second one, they’re in for the rest of that class.

But we’ve also heard from some students that some of the homework assignments, you know, they were challenging, but it taught them how to put, to use what we covered in the videos. and so doing the homework also helps.

I will say that we’ve gotten some criticism, particularly in the early classes, on the modeling side, which is most of the, which I do most of those classes and, or most of those videos and, and did the homework for, and, it was probably justly deserved because I had taught myself Excel. I’m a lawyer by training and I taught myself Excel.

So I assumed everybody kinda knew Excel and I had been slow to the game, but we have made it much more accessible. Now the modeling, because we have some intro videos on special shortcuts and techniques that are useful for solar modeling, and we also have other items in there, like on the specific formulas that, you know, you’re going to need, you know, to calculate, for example, the maker’s depreciation.

So we give you the specific formulas, but as we always point out in the class, you’d get the models and you can use them. and the key thing is to learn how to read and understand the model. So we’ve tried to focus a bit more on that as well.

Brian: You know, one of the things, that I think has made it possible for you to run this class for 10 years and, and potentially for another 10 years is the fact that you’re in the game.

I mean, it’s not like you’re just academics. You guys are, you do this work. So I wonder: what’s something related to solar, whether it’s this class or something else, that you’re excited about for 2022?

Chris: I’ll jump in here because Keith is going to surprise you. This is just something I’ve come to realize in the last month or so.

I’m starting to see a small resurgence in solar, thermal, but it’s going to be more in the industrial sector. So we’re talking big systems here, complex big systems here, with some big money involved. And I think California led that way with their PBI. But I’m in the middle of financing, a solar thermal project.

I’ve got a client with two other solar thermal projects that I helped them structure. They’re big and they’re for industrial facilities. And as we move into an economy where we have to decarbonize natural gas has got a target on it. And people talk about renewable natural gas and renewable bio-diesel and renewable diesel.

But the reality is thermal applications, particularly for the middle, not the super high temperature, but not the super low temperature, is just people in that middle range can benefit from a concentrating solar or a thermal, or even just general solar thermal panels. So. I have something I’m hoping to learn a bit more about, and maybe we can add to the course, storage continues to grow though.

Don’t get me wrong. storage is probably the most exciting thing we do right now.

Keith: Real time right now in California is like a lot of net metering pushback. And this happened in Hawaii a decade ago. So this is a recurring theme, right? Where utilities, there’s always this debate about, you know, who’s going to pay for, you know, net metering? So I think into the future, we’re going to see lots of storage options.

I think we’re gonna see different kinds of other chemistries, right? So whether it be salt batteries and stuff. So there’s a lot of exciting stuff coming to the future. Again, back to Chris’s modeling in the class and figuring out your value proposition.

So if you’re coming to take this course, you know, how do you make a business out of this, which is part two. I think what we’ve learned in almost two years of being home for almost everybody, whether they work remotely or not, is that a lot of people are frustrated. And I think a lot of big companies are struggling with wages, middle management, because there’s nobody to manage because it’s not in the office.

So I think moving into the next decade, we’re going to see a lot of entrepreneurs and we’re going to see, I think a lot of business models that, you know, mimic, you know, Hollywood. Meeting people get together, they’d build a project or do a structured finance deal. Then they disband like making a movie.

You might spend six months or a year doing a deal. But I really believe that a lot of people love the most important thing about life sometimes, which is autonomy, right. Which is being in control. And, So I’m really excited about, you know, this storage movement where you’re going to basically like farming. You’re going to make power where you use it, just like a farmer in Iowa.

That’s going to grow a bunch of corn and put it in the silo and use it when they need it. And then I think the other big trend, which Brian you’re probably aware of, and Chris is too, is this, I think this tiny home movement. So I think that people are realizing, and I can tell you living for a year overseas in Southeast Asia, is that people live in small homes.

They don’t have a lot of stuff and they don’t need a lot of things. And I think in America with self storage facilities and lots of stuff, you know, people really learned in the last two years, maybe they don’t need to go to the mall anymore. If I spend time with my family, So I think people’s priorities are being re-evaluated internally within their families and themselves, and people have more experiences.

So maybe it’s not having a 5,000 square foot house. Maybe it’s having a 500 square foot house. And spending time traveling, which I think is other, I think linchpin on the tiny home movement, So we have tools in the class. There’ll be other classes that Chris and I are going to give that are going to focus on different things. As we see the trend line, moving to kind of be a part of that or be ahead of it and then be able to use the tools that we have inside the course to kind of bend them for your application.

Chris Lord: Yeah, the pandemic had an interesting impact on some of the student mix we had, people were taking more time to reflect on their career and figure out where and how to invest. But we also had an, a connection with that. We had a number of refugees. We call them refugees from the oil and gas space, who were looking to get into solar.

One of them I’ll describe as a quasi-nomad. His goal was to not be tied down cause he with oil and gas had been able to move around. Fairly comfortably and easily. And he hoped to do the same with solar, as long as he had good skillsets. And, the other one, a woman who was actually unemployed just before she took the class, jumped into the class with both feet and work hard, and the job offer, I think it was like the second to last week of the class, and she was very excited to share it with our little community of the class and, everybody was totally pumped and it was a very good job. I was deeply impressed, but her skills were excellent too. She, she was a hard worker and clearly had some drive and ambition, but, she leveraged the course basically to get that job, and has been doing quite well.

Brian: Guys the quote that I wrote down is people don’t like to share their secrets. And to me, that gets at the heart of, what you guys do. That’s so unique. so, you know, on behalf of heat, spring, thanks for doing it for the past 10 years. And, we’re glad to be working with you again on it in 2022.

Chris: And thank you, Brian. I think both Keith and I are deeply appreciative of the effort and the work you guys put in to make it all happen. We got the easy part. but we really appreciate your support as well.

Keith: Yeah. Likewise, we, know that it’s an important platform. We’ve seen you grow. We’ve all grown together.

Like a family. Want to see that growth continue because it’s a really important cause.

Brian: All right, let’s go get ’em!

Chris: Thank you. Take care.