While Bryan Birsic probably doesn’t self-identify as a “genius-billionaire-philanthropist-superhero,” elements of his story mirror that of Marvel’s business magnate Tony Stark.
Leveraging their tech expertise and respective skillsets, Stark and Birsic both changed their careers to respond to important needs they saw in the world around them. For Stark, this means using tech and physics to stop villains, and for Birsic, this means using tech and finance to combat climate change while making returns for his investors. Birsic began his current business after a realization that his previous work wasn’t “addressing the big challenges that humanity faces.” Birsic’s archenemy? Barriers to solar deployment in the C&I lending space. Birsic’s work is resonating with people, and his company recently raised $112MM towards this effort.
In this interview, Birsic discusses finding purpose in solar finance, cracking the C&I market, and the wrong approach for solar startups to take.
Finding Purpose in Solar Finance
Richard Matsui: You first established your career at Bain, then spent 5 years as a VC with Village Ventures. How did you get into solar?
Bryan Birsic: It started when my cofounders Dave, Sam, and I hit a point in our careers where we no longer felt comfortable pursuing tech start-ups that weren’t addressing the big challenges that humanity faces. We wanted to move past only having nights and weekends to pursue our real passions and fulfill what we defined as our purpose. I think this is a common framework for millennials: Looking for jobs that utilize their skillsets and provide good compensation, yes, but also looking to find purpose in their work that extends beyond the requisite financial incentive.
I joke about this, but it’s true: Dave, Sam, and I were basically having a bitch session about how difficult it is to motivate yourself and others to work at the kinds of start-ups where we previously worked. That conversation prompted the questions: What do we care about? What would feel better to work on? And really importantly, are we the right people to do those things?
We convened in Boulder to figure out how we might manifest those ideas into a company. Dave, our CTO who worked at the DOE’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, came in with this religious fervor about what was happening in the energy space, particularly with distributed solar. He won the day. We saw that there was an under-penetration of software entrepreneurs in solar, and particularly that financing seemed to be an acute problem. On the C&I side, we saw a really big opportunity to grow the solar space with improved financing. All three of us were coming from very different roles—how software applies to finance, advertising, and marketing tech—but those winnowing forces brought us to start something in commercial solar finance.
Founding a Solar Startup
Richard Matsui: You’re a fellow ex-management consultant. Did your management consulting work influence what you bring to the Founder and CEO role today? More broadly, what would you say are the pros and cons of your job as Founder and CEO?
Bryan Birsic: My favorite CEOs are passionate about things like how to structure a company, how to create feedback loops, how to experiment, and how to deliberately create strong cultures and operating principles. The skill of being able to learn quickly, implement that knowledge, and repeat is a virtuous cycle that carried over from the management consulting role to the Founder and CEO role. This is also one of the biggest pros of my current job.
Richard Matsui: That’s interesting. The biggest lesson I learned from my stint in management consulting is that there are very few truly novel problems in the world. The vast majority of problems that any company faces has already been solved before by someone, somewhere. As a consultant, your job is to find that person, learn the answer, tailor the answer to the unique circumstance, and then execute. So it’s a very similar framework to your “virtuous cycle”.
Bryan Birsic: Exactly. And on the con side, it can be very lonely work. You don’t often have the opportunity to share fears or vulnerabilities, at least not in a “I’m having a terrible day” way. You certainly talk about challenging things with your team, but there has to be some “presentation layer” on top of your day-to-day feelings, and that dynamic obviously applies to your investors as well. Even with someone like a spouse, who has some financial connection to what you’re doing, it’s hard to be a 100% vulnerable and honest. That is compounded by the fact that there aren’t a lot of people who can empathize with some of the pressures, demands, and fears incumbent with being a CEO. One thing that I do that I recommend that every CEO do is find a group of CEOs who are all interested in being authentic. Without that resource, the CEO dynamic can be difficult to handle.
Richard Matsui: How does your experience as a VC change that way that you’ve built this business?
Bryan Birsic: Time in VC provided two advantages: The first and obvious one is fundraising, and the second is the focus on the scalability of our software. Non-software teams tend to suffer from diseconomies of scale when they get to a certain size. Our team build and brand positioning as a software-first company stems from my understanding of what my VC audience is looking for. To be really specific, we actively work against the idea that we’re a solar company, because that industry is painted with a slow-to-develop, hard-to-scale brush.
Cracking the C&I Market
Richard Matsui: When I think about Wunder, what strikes me is the difficulty of the problem you are tackling. C&I has been a “next big opportunity” for a long time, despite a lot of smart people working on it. What makes the market so challenging?
Bryan Birsic: I think the reason that there aren’t five Wunders running around is because this work requires a particular knowledge set that doesn’t often come together organically. There are a lot of people who understand this problem space, see the opportunity, and understand that software is required to reduce the fixed and bespoke costs associated with cracking this sub-$2mm, sub-1MW market in commercial solar. However, the folks who have that solar background and see that opportunity tend to be people without technology experience.
Generate, Sol Systems, and Seminole—all firms that I really like and respect—are not software companies, and they all struggle with lending to projects below 1 MW because they have not been able to combine their deep understanding of the problem space with the tools of a software company.
We took a very different approach. I had some knowledge of how software applied to lending, and Dave had experience as an engineer and spent some time at the DOE. We are software people first who only had a few relevant solar experiences. We had to spend two years getting up the curve on some pretty complex topics to gain solar expertise. This approach led us to a different place then a lot of other people who have been in the market for years.
Richard Matsui: There’s a saying that all founders know a secret about the industry they work in, and that secret becomes their company. It sounds like your company’s founding secret was this software-first mentality. What are the big C&I problems that software solves?
Bryan Birsic: While we use software in many ways, we have identified two main problem areas that software can address.
As outsiders coming in trying to figure out this market, the first thing that struck us was just how much paper and legal work is required in order to get a C&I solar deal done. You oftentimes have three- or four- party contracts, lien or UCC1 filings, regulatory dynamics in different states depending on the size of system, and so on. We mapped out and color-coded all the required steps and realized that around 50-60% of the steps were fundamentally contractual, legal, or involved something regulatory. If you’re an project finance provider in a market where your loan might be a million dollars, and you might make 2.5% as your total closing fees on that loan, that means you have $25,000 to spend, including your margin and fixed expenses, in order to be profitable. If you’re engaging a lawyer or putting contracts together, you’re going to eat most of that $25,000 budget immediately on legal costs. We needed to eliminate the legal-cost table stakes.
So the first thing we built is Docsund, intelligent software that—with five clicks—drafts a custom contract package for each of our deals. Once we encode changes, this system requires no legal costs and no human being to create custom contracts. That is the most important thing we’ve done, and it’s necessary to attack this market.
The second big efficiency that we’ve realized is executing deals quickly. We built Koalify, the second leg of our software stack, to qualify our deals. We’re seeing about two billion dollars of buyer demand annually now, with projects that average roughly half a million dollars each. For each project, we need to first gather the data that requires minimal human interaction, and focus on data that is most likely to kill a deal.
Those are our two big cornerstones. Between those two software products, we’ve been able to realize about a 10X efficiency relative to what we see from manual financing players in the C&I market, taking our minimum project size to $200K from the industry-norm of ~$2MM.
Lending Small and Moving Fast
Richard Matsui: On the borrowers’ side, what is the typical project size that you lend against?
Bryan Birsic: Our average is around $500k or $600k in terms of their debt need, which corresponds to a 200-300 KW system.
Richard Matsui: That’s incredibly small. Late last year I asked Jigar what he was bullish on, and he identified small C&I, saying, “For whatever reason, the investors have all said, ‘We only want to do deals that are 750 kW and up,’ which I think is huge mistake.”
Bryan Birsic: That’s 100% right. We see the rest of the market as willing to go down to 750 KW, about $2mm, and we just don’t see folks that are down market of that besides us.
Richard Matsui: What do your borrowers want?
Bryan Birsic: We have two value props. The first one is that we understand the solar asset well enough that we’re not going to ask for additional assets from the borrower. What you often see in the small C&I space is that a developer gets a potential borrower excited, they quote the system, but they don’t have a solar specific financing offer for these smaller systems, so they send them to their local bank or credit union. That underwriting team does not have a group specialized in solar, so they’re looking at just the financial history of the business, and will require collateral, for example by putting a senior lien on borrower property. By contrast, we offer non-recourse debt, so even if our rate is incrementally higher, in almost all cases we’ll win that business because we only have recourse to the solar asset. We can do that because we’re underwriting a wide range of aspects of that solar project’s ongoing value, and are capable of monetizing it effectively if God forbid there’s a default.
Next, our partners would tell you that speed and transparency are the two things they value most in Wunder. Installers and developers generally understand that financing sometimes doesn’t come through, so generally what they like is that we’ll tell them within a couple of days if a project is not going to be approved so that they can stop working on it and reorganize their sales efforts. We’ll also let them know why they were rejected, which can often be a black box with other lenders. Then on the speed side, we’ll promise them an executable document within five business days. That is an order of magnitude faster than some of the folks they’re used to dealing with.
Richard Matsui: From our experience developing the Solar Revenue Put, we have gained some insight into what small scale project developers value most. It turns out that certainty and speed are very important factors because the developer is likely working on multiple projects at a time. Upfront cash is also critical to borrowers in the C&I segment, because they need this capital to develop more projects and run their business.
Bryan Birsic: Absolutely. To your point, we did not realize how important speed would be in that smaller C&I segment. These guys are often trying to fill 10 or 15 projects through their quarter, and financing has really been slowing them down. And to your point about cash, I can say explicitly that with your Solar Revenue Put, which I like, we change our loan-to-value rate that we offer on a solar project.
The Wrong Approach for Solar Startups to Take
Richard Matsui: What does Wunder become in five years? Is it a building improvement lender like a GreenSky for C&I? Or does it become something else?
Bryan Birsic: I love that analogy, given GreenSky’s recent valuation. I think we’ve addressed about half of the solution to date. If you look at GreenSky or Dealertrack, they’ve succeeded in overcoming the primary challenge in technology-enabled lending, borrower acquisition costs. They’re not only a great financing option for their partners, but they also bring their partners borrower demand for free, they pull financing into the sales funnel, they help their partners target customers based on the likelihood to get financing, and help onboard new customers through the relatively complex financing process. Mosaic’s also done some really interesting work along these lines in residential solar.
We need to make sure that we’re not only your financing partner, we are also your partner in cracking small commercial solar through the sales funnel. That’s the next big thing for us operationally. The other big shoe to drop is going to be storage. We believe that distributed PV plus storage is going to be a big market and so between those two challenges, we’ll stay pretty busy for the next five years.
Richard Matsui: What else is broken or inefficient in solar? Put another way, had you not started Wunder and were looking at the landscape today, what would you want to tackle?
Bryan Birsic: I think pure customer acquisition is really interesting. We see a lot of folks that are trying to generate leads and then kick them over the transom. Part of the reason that we didn’t start there is because if I send you a lead for a $500k system that you can’t get financing for, solar developers probably won’t even want the lead. We had to start with financing before folks would be interested in solving that customer acquisition problem. The really hard thing is getting a business efficiently through the landlord tenant dynamic. How do you solve that? We see a big opportunity there.
There’s a real misunderstanding of how to apply software to solve the industry’s problem of soft costs. By the way, I think your team at kWh Analytics is doing it right. There’s a broad and mistaken belief from many solar startups that are thinking like traditional software companies: We’re going to sell software licenses to installers. That simply does not solve what customers are looking for. Installers and developers are not people who want to be on their computer all day. If you’re building them software, you have to consider where they are, not where you think the market should be. If I were to go to the bank and say, “Hey, I’m going to sell you software for small C&I,” they would respond, “We don’t do small C&I.” Software is necessary to bring down soft costs, though I think the big opportunity is in software-enabled services. Don’t show up with the software—use your own software to deliver the value to customers. And that will probably be a better business model and an easier sale, too. I’m highly skeptical of folks that are selling software under a SaaS model, as opposed to using software inside of their businesses to be incredibly efficient or building a differentiated data asset like your team. I think most folks are taking the wrong approach there.
Richard Matsui: That’s an often unsaid but brutal truth about our industry. Even though we offer different products, I think that our teams are practicing a similar mentality. If a solar startup thinks of itself as pure-play software, an honest assessment of the total addressable market will usually be small. And small can be great, because small means lean, which can mean profitable. Folsom Labs is a standout example of this. But if a startup is seeking venture-type results, software-only is a challenging path. Those founders need to answer the big picture question: What is the real pain point here? What is our industry fundamentally doing wrong? Software can play a role in that answer, but software alone is often not the full answer.