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Small Business

Small-Business Success Story: A New Career in Solar Power

A former software engineer harnesses the sun to charge devices on the go.

Dean Sala, founder and CEO of Suntactics Thayer Allyson Gowdy

Kiplinger's spoke with Dean Sala, 52, of San Jose, Calif., about rebounding from a layoff by building his own start-up. Here are excerpts from our interview:

You worked in high tech? Yes, for 23 years, 15 of them as a software engineer for Hewlett-Packard. In 2008, HP shut down my whole division, and I was out of a job. I didn’t see myself going back to software, so I returned to school to finish a second degree, in electrical engineering.

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Why Suntactics? Solar power has interested me since I was a kid. When I returned to school, I teamed up with a partner to power a full-size glider with solar energy. We worked on other projects, and in 2009 we formed a general partnership to focus on making a portable yet powerful solar panel to charge a phone. In 2010, my partner said, “I don’t think this is going to work,” and left amicably. Since then, I’ve developed three products that can charge devices with a USB connection. I have provisional patents on my designs, and I’ve sold almost 10,000 units, mostly via our Web site (www.suntactics.com) and Amazon.com. Our chargers range in price from $140 to $240. They’ll charge an iPhone in two hours or less in direct sunlight, as fast as a wall outlet. They’re popular with outdoors enthusiasts, among others.

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You made the panels yourself at first? The cheapest solar-panel laminator I could find cost $50,000 and was full-size. I needed a pint-size one. So I built my first one out of parts from a pizza oven that I bought at Goodwill. I cranked out 2,000 panels in my garage.

Did you get any outside help? To perfect my process, I picked the brains of a scientist and a couple of engineering PhDs. But in my previous career, I never saw the sales and marketing end, and now I was trying to run a business. So I appealed to Score [www.score.org, a nonprofit group that mentors small businesses]. When I told them I couldn’t keep up with orders, that’s all they needed to hear. I have two counselors—one is an expert in manufacturing and the other in marketing. They helped me find a small manufacturer to produce more units under contract.

How did you finance your start-up? I took out a home-equity line of credit on my house and borrowed about $42,000. More recently, I got a line of credit that’s backed by the Small Business Administration.

Do you make a living? In 2013, we did more than $500,000 in sales, and I paid myself about $65,000. That’s a lot less than the $100,000 I made at the peak of my career as a software engineer, but because I’m a sole proprietor I can write off a lot of stuff on my tax return.

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What’s ahead? Our next product will charge laptops. I’m gradually bringing production into my own facility because contracting it out is expensive. We need to get into retail outlets. Our products are sold in Batteries Plus stores, but it’s a struggle to get into sporting-goods and big-box stores.

Is your work rewarding? I’d rather do this than anything else. My customers are my bosses, and I like to make them happy. Plus, I bought a company car: a Chevy Camaro that replaces the ’68 model I sold to go to college and the ’98 pickup I had been driving. It’s my dream car.