Guide To Building An Effective Solar Software Stack

8 practical steps to get started according to the experts

It used to be that solar software gave you the competitive advantage. Now it’s become table stakes.  We’re sharing you tips from solar industry experts on how to get started building a software stack that will scale your business and keep you at the forefront of the bright world of solar.

Let's get started

What Is A Stack

The advantage of the software stack is a business can pick and choose specific software tools that excel at what they do and are a perfect fit for the business’ unique processes and operations.

- Scott Nguyen, Co-Founder and CEO of 17TeraWatts

Ideally, any solar business would love to find one single end-to-end software tool that does it all and is perfect for their business.  It turns out that the holy grail doesn’t exist.  In light of this reality, the solar software stack is the solution.  The software stack refers to the set of discrete software tools, where each individual tool is a layer in the stack, that when properly combined serves to empower the solar business.  The key characteristic of the stack is that the individual tools embrace interoperability and are able to communicate and integrate with each other, passing important data from one piece of software to another.

Step 1:  Identify A Focal Point

Building a software stack for a company is like building a house and without a project manager you end up with a house of cards.

- Stan Pipkin, CEO at Lighthouse Solar

The first important step in this process is to identify a person to lead the effort and steer the ship.  Given that everyone in the solar company is juggling 100 things at once, spreading out this responsibility to a committee of people can also dilute its prioritization.  It’s important that this focal point knows the business’s internal operations, is well liked by the staff, and has the support of the top management in the company. However, likely the most important criteria for the selection of this person is that he or she has the most to benefit from a positive outcome.

Step 2:  Develop A Vision

You gotta develop your vision first. What are you trying to accomplish, and what will your business look like a few years from now?

- Ryan Hunter, President at Freedom Solar

A software stack can be built piecemeal, but developing a vision for your stack and your business can streamline the process, getting to an effective stack that works for your business even faster.  It will catch roadblocks and avoid wrong turns.  To do this, identify the areas in your business of greatest need.  Where are the biggest pain points or what processes cause your staff the most headaches.  Also, match these to your business’s near-term and long-term goals.  For example, are you planning to offer additional products or enter new markets?  Once you have this list, prioritize them. Each layer of the stack can be tackled one step at a time if you choose.

Step 3:  Detail Out The Workflows

The concept of Knowledge Fusion At The Point of Decision Making (KFATPODM) is the guiding star for all software systems and information flow structure strategic decision making.

- Mike Hornitschek, VP of Strategic Development at StraightUp Solar

The solar business is based on workflows.  There are workflows for the sales process and workflows for the installation & commissioning process.  Across all these workflows are the people in your company carrying them out.  An effective stack will be able to get the right information to the right people at the right time.  Therefore it’s imperative to detail out the workflows.  A good exercise is to look at the current process and write down all the data fields you need for that process, who finds that information useful, and how they currently obtain them. Then do the same for how you’d like it to be once a better solution is implemented.

Step 4:  Get Company Buy In

For a process or workflow to be effective, the people who use it must embrace it.

- Scott Nguyen, Co-Founder and CEO of 17TeraWatts

A new workflow or process could be designed theoretically and technically perfect, but if the people in your company don’t follow it, it’s doomed for failure.  Many times, new processes that come out of the blue and are forced down from the top can lead to low adoption. Over 40% of CRM implementation failures are attributed to lack of user adoption.  Engage your colleagues or staff early, asking them their opinion on what’s currently working, what’s not, and how it could be better.  Not only will you learn details that you can use to improve your new workflow, but they will be a champion of it once it’s implemented.

Step 5:  Identify & Evaluate Your Software Options

Choose your CRM wisely.  That choice will have major implications for all the other systems in your stack.

- Joe Marhamati, CFO at Ipsun Solar

Based on the priority list and your detailed workflows, identify layers of the stack to tackle and software options within those layers.  Evaluate the different options against the 4 design principles of an effective software stack: interoperability, specificity, process-based, and adaptiveness and through the lens of solving your needs or from the benefits it brings your company, not necessarily on the features.  If you’re early in the process of building a stack, it’s most crucial to start with a strong backbone like a CRM or a Project Management software and add other tools in the stack around it. This will act as the main source of truth, passing the right information across the different layers of the stack.

Step 6:  Test & Select

We had given a software company money to buy their product, and then a week later said 'nevermind.' We just realized that it wasn't right-sized for us.

- Greg Mennemeier, Data and Systems Architect at StraightUp Solar

Before making a final selection, test it.  Most companies offer a free trial or free version of their software. Try implementing the workflows you detailed out and test how well the process works and how well data flows to the right places at the right time.  Of utmost importance is to ask all your staff or colleagues who will be using the software to also test it.  If a decision is coming down between software that essentially performs the same function, go with whichever one you find most intuitive or most enjoyable to use.  If you’re frustrated with functionality before you start using it, that should be a red flag.

Step 7:  Reserve Time To Customize

Getting the right data structure in place before you start importing your data will increase the value right off the bat.

- Melanie Bell, Co-Founder at Strategic Piece

It’s tempting to rush a new tool out, but buyer beware!  Your team will be more likely to adopt it when it’s working well and when they can learn it and run with it.  So, take the time to set it up correctly to match it to your company operations & workflows.  An integrated software stack also gives you ability to collect the data and track your KPIs which will ultimately allow you to assess ROI.  Don’t be afraid to ask for external support to ensure that a tool is set up in the best possible way for your unique company’s goals, process, and culture.

Step 8:  Launch, Learn, & Optimize

It’s a common misconception that the software will be plug and play. You have to take into account the huge learning curves and adoption curves that come with this type of software.

- David Wilson, Director Of Sales at SOLO

When you hear the word “automate,” it doesn’t mean that things happen automatically. They do eventually, but there is work involved to set it up.  As software has become more and more powerful, the tools have become increasingly complex, which can make them more challenging to use.  Once launched, schedule 1 day, 3 days, 1 week, and 1 month check-ins with the users of the new software.  You’ll likely have to make adjustments to the configuration or processes as your elegant chalkboard workflow meets the messy turbulence of a solar business.  As your business evolves, have quarterly check-ins to see how the process can be optimized or if you need to integrate an entirely new workflow.

Our Recommended Tools

Here's an example of the core layers of a software stack for a solar business. Additional layers addressing specific needs can be added to the stack. The listed software are our recommended tools that adhere to the 4 solar software stack design principles: interoperability, specificity, process-based, and adaptiveness.

Are you ready to build out a software stack to grow your solar business?

Contact us. We'll be glad to help!