Focus on the Entrepreneur
Building a Brighter Tomorrow
An Appleton couple launches a dynamic new energy business with the help of FVTC’s E-Seed program.
Patrick and Ingrid Nahm are self-described “nerds with a social conscience.” It’s a powerful combination that culminated in the launch of Appleton Solar, a provider of solar energy solutions for homes and businesses.
The Appleton couple decided to leverage their technical expertise to make the world greener. Patrick had 11 years of engineering, project management, and manufacturing experience. Ingrid was a scientist and hospital laboratory technologist who left a seven-year career to become a stay-at-home mom to the couple’s three young sons.
There was just one problem with their plan. “We both had the technical ability to understand solar energy and technology,” Patrick says, “but we didn’t understand the business side—the marketing, taxes, legalities, and all the other things that go into starting and planning a business.”
Noticing an ad for the E-Seed entrepreneurship training program at Fox Valley Technical College’s Venture Center, the Nahms, both 33, decided it was time to scratch their entrepreneurial itch. Patrick enrolled in the course and shared the materials and information with Ingrid. “There were two aspects of the course,” he says. “One was teaching me the nuts and bolts: writing a business plan and financial planning considerations for a business.”
The second aspect may not have come from a textbook, but it was just as important. “The other part was the networking piece,” Patrick says. “During every class a different speaker came in. One night it was a lawyer, another night it was a marketing person, another night it was an accounting person.”
The Nahms agree that the focus on networking skills sets FVTC apart. “You can get an MBA from a university online, but that doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be successful in business,” Ingrid says. “It’s getting to talk to the people who are there in the community, and knowing you can always refer to them when you have questions. It’s all about building relationships.”
Doing the Right Thing
The Nahms launched Appleton Solar in January 2008 to help customers convert the sun’s light into usable electricity by means of a solar electric system. The company offers two services: site assessments for solar electric systems and the design and installation of these systems.
“Business was good the first year, and this year is looking to be even better,” Patrick notes. “On top of the existing rebates through Focus on Energy and local utility companies, people get an additional 30% off the cost of their system from the federal government. We expect that to dramatically improve the residential market in Wisconsin.”
Starting their own business was as much about doing the right thing as it was providing for their family. “We’ve seen what’s happening to our planet and we wanted to do something that was good for the environment, for the future, and for our children,” Patrick says.
The Nahms add that FVTC’s Venture Center was a valued partner in the creation of Appleton Solar. “The college doesn’t measure success by how many students go through the course, but by how successful the students are afterward,” Ingrid says. “The Venture Center and Fox Valley Tech are truly trying to help people start successful businesses.”
Green is Good
Is this the right time for entrepreneurs with environmentally friendly offerings?
Patrick and Ingrid Nahm aren’t the only entrepreneurs making green by going green. The marketplace is welcoming, even demanding, green technology and services in ways that would have been unthinkable even five years ago. “We’ve seen green businesses go from being categorized as the work of tree huggers to being completely mainstream,” notes Amy Pietsch, director of FVTC’s Venture Center.
Indeed, Pietsch expects the words “green” and “mainstream” to be synonymous before long. “Within five years, I don’t think we’ll be designating things as green, organic, or healthy,” she says. “Non-green, non-sustainable, non-environmentally friendly products will be eventually phased out in the marketplace.”
Of course, classifying a business as green doesn’t ensure survival. “Like any opportunity, the keys to success are smart planning and making sure that you’re solving a problem in the marketplace,” Pietsch says.