Location, Location, Location
In real estate they say the three main indicators for a desirable property are “location, location, location.” This held true for altE, and Sascha also found that location can make for a good story.
In May I sat down with Sascha Deri, founding CEO of altE, to learn more about the company’s formative years. This is the final part of that interview.
In our first three years, we moved to five different offices, growing the whole time. Where most companies start in a garage, Nick, Jason, and I started working in our homes and we eventually moved up (down?) to a garage. I won’t mention each site here, just some of the highlights.
Our very first brick-and-mortar office was in a turn-of-the-century office building on Main Street in Worcester, Massachusetts. This was in 2002. The office fit two people comfortably; myself and LuAnn Mattson, our future customer service manager. In just a few months there were four of us packed into that same space, answering customer calls, adding to the website, and even helping the occasional walk-in customer. We were ready for a larger space. We probably should have stayed put for a bit longer…
The Quest for HVAC
Our next office was in a garage in an old lumber mill, also in Worcester. A wing of this ancient building had all these garage door bays, and one of them had been converted – barely – into an office space. Now we had room to grow, but the team pretty quickly started voicing their concern with the new accommodations. There was no heating, no cooling, but the landlord promised he would provide both. Ultimately he provided neither.
Through the summer we figured out how to stuff some small A/C units into the awkwardly shaped windows this garage area had. But what did us in was the lack of heating…by September we would had mornings where it was so cold that you couldn’t move your fingers to type. It was then I finally recognized we had to get to an actual office.
Our third office was also an old mill building, brick, this time on Water Street in Worcester. Soon we moved to another floor in that building because we had grown.
We started shipping some of our own solar panels from that building, but it was tricky. The building had a loading dock, but the doorway to our office was too narrow for pallets to fit through. To bring shipments in we had to unload each pallet one panel at a time, then reload the pallet on the other side of the door. As customers placed orders, we’d repackage the panels to ship them out a few at a time. We used to have contests to see which salesperson could package up the panels for shipping the fastest.
We moved to – yes, another 1800’s-era building – in Hudson Massachusetts in about 2006. We had our first showroom there, but we still weren’t advertising it. At this point we largely used third-party warehouses, and a third-party logistics company in New Hampshire, to ship out our products.
After a few years at Hudson decided to bring our warehouse inside. We just couldn’t provide the level of service we wanted with third-party warehouses. That proved to be one of the best and worst decisions we ever made.
How’s that working for you?
It turns out running your own warehouse is really hard. We definitely reinvented the wheel a little bit. We had to make all the mistakes. One of the mistakes was we put the warehouse on the third floor, right below our office on the fourth. All our product had to come up these freight elevators. If the freight elevators stopped working, our product couldn’t be shipped or brought in.
We shared this building with other companies, so we all had limited access to the loading dock. Sometimes things got heated between our warehouse people and others’. Then once you got the pallets upstairs – keep in mind these things weigh up to a ton with a full load. The rickety wooden floor would bow under their weight in some places. We brought engineers in on it, but there were still plenty of places on that floor that everyone knew not to go with a loaded pallet. Nothing ever fell through the floor, but we had moments where the pallet jack wheel would pop through.
There was a learning curve for fulfillment as well. We would mis-ship. We would get surges of shipments and we wouldn’t be able to catch up. We’d get behind and make customers unhappy. We made so many mistakes with our warehouse, in part because our sales became so successful, but we burned a lot of relationships with customers because we were making goof-ups left and right.
Because we kept growing, we moved once again to Boxborough. This time we got a much bigger warehouse, with a concrete floor, on the same level as the ground. Even now we are stretching at the edges – during our peak season we have a hard time fitting all of our product in there. But it’s much easier overall.
Our warehouse staff is much more skilled, much more experienced. We have much better controls in place to reduce error rate. We send out 99.8% of our shipments on time. 99.8% of the time we don’t make mistakes on what we ship out.
The “new” site has three meeting rooms. We have a dedicated video room, to support Amy’s work on our YouTube channel. Right now we’re setting up a lab for our new Deep Technical Support service, for customers who purchase Schneider Electric solar products through altE. The lab will let our Technical Support Specialist create full mock-ups of customers’ systems to replicate and solve complex technical issues. Ultimately it will expand to testing new products as well.
A lot more customers swing by these days – mostly professional installers and Do-It-Yourselfers – to pick up their orders. We have a much nicer showroom here, so customers waiting to pick up products they can see more of the products we carry, maybe some of what they might want to do for their own system. We’re still not really brick-and-mortar. We set things up so people visit our website, and call us, and maybe come by if they’ve made an appointment to talk with a technical sales rep.
All in all, scaling up has been a pretty crazy experience. Changing locations has let altE grow, not just in terms of employees, but in terms of what we do.
This is the end of my interview with Sascha. In two weeks, we’ll break from the retrospective to visit Lebanon, Ohio and their new solar farm in Armco Park.