Can a green entrepreneur start and run a renewable energy business and still have time for important things like family? Randall Benson, a renewable energy designer and installer, says he can. He recently sparked a conversation with us about his decision to work less to make time for his daughter while maintaining a strong, growing renewable energy business – we just had to find out more about his work-life balance secrets.
Can you tell me a bit about the day in the life of a renewable energy designer and installer and about your own business?
I am the owner of Off The Grid Renewable Energy Power Systems Inc. based out of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada – one of the most hostile places, politically, for a company such as mine. I used to work in the Tarsands in Fort McMurray, AB. For a while I convinced myself that the money was enough for me to turn a blind eye to everything I saw and everything my employer made me do. It was an environmental disaster and it ran counter to everything my parents and grandparents taught us about our home, environment, and how we need to take care of it all.
It wasn’t long before dissidence grew within me. I knew I had to find an effective way to channel this negativity. I started researching alternatives and decided I wanted to start doing the complete opposite of what I was doing then. A few years down the road and another trade (electrician) later, I started Off The Grid Renewable Energy Power Systems in 2000. Now I design, supply, and install solar and wind power systems throughout Canada.
I’ve found my niche and it’s segued into giving talks and presentations, consulting with governments, and teaching across western Canada for the IBEW International (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers). People are so excited about this technology, they are embracing it fully and completely and with little support from their federal and provincial governments.
A typical day as a renewable energy consultant and installer depends on whether I am with my seven year old daughter that week or not. If I am not with my daughter, then I put in a lot of hours to get the job at hand done. This can involve installing a grid-connected PV system, conducting client meetings, doing site assessments, dealing with paperwork, or flying to Vancouver to teach or Toronto to consult with national branches of the federal government.
If I am with my daughter, than a typical day starts out with making us breakfast before I take her to school. I usually go into the office which is just a block form her school and do what I can should there be any pressing issues to attend. If not than I’m just enjoying the day as much as I can before I pick her up and we go home.
How was your business funded when you first started out?
My clients fund their own projects, so to speak. Because I had invested really no capital when I started I had to come up with a system where I would get my clients to fund their own projects. When a contract is signed between a client and I, they are required to give me a 60% deposit. This covers a majority of my hard costs and gets the ball rolling for that particular project, gets them in the queue and secures the equipment needed for the project. My business is still run the same way. I have never taken out a loan nor do I have a credit card with a high limit for the business.
What inspires you to find a better work-life balance?
My daughter and the fact that I want us to have a good life that is filled with as much fun and activity as possible. Life should not be all about work and how much you earn – it should be about what you do with what you make. Enjoy it.
As a business owner, how do you ensure your income is sufficient for your needs while working less than full time?
As a business owner, with regards to what I do, there really is no way to ensure a steady and sufficient income. I knew this going in and also knew that if I did not provide the absolute best product then there will not be an income at all.
Prior to my divorce and custody battle for my daughter I was contemplating taking my business full time. About 6 months later after achieving my goal of winning a shared parenting agreement (meaning that my daughter spends equal time with me and with her mom) the decision was clear. At the time I was working full time as an electrician 10 – 12 hours a day, I knew that I would not have much of a life and that would not be fair to my daughter. I decided to take my business full time and structure it around my schedule with my daughter.
I knew after I made this decision that I would not be able to take all the possible projects that came across my desk, and that to me was okay – it is a sacrifice I am more than willing to make when it comes to my time with my daughter.
I needed to ensure that my work and end product spoke for itself in the final analysis as I had no budget for marketing whatsoever (to this day I still do not advertise) and knew that everything had to be word of mouth. Since then, I have not been able to slow down due to demand.
Do you have to live in Canada to develop a balance work-life balance?
I don’t think so. I think it is purely a choice one has to make. I live and work in a very oil-centric province with almost no support for renewables but I have made it work for me and my business.
Why do you think so many other green entrepreneurs fail to find a balance between work and life? What advice would you give to people who want to achieve the balance you have?
Sometimes it’s difficult to say no to work – it’s hard not to worry about the work drying up, which can lead to a hectic lifestyle in work and family. The best advice I could give someone is to understand your priorities. Are you able to make a comfortable living for you and your family while spending the same amount of time (or more) with them as you do at work? You must choose what is more important, or better yet, what does your family want? Do they want a giant house with all the frills or do they want a parent at home when it matters. I choose the latter.
Other than your chosen path, what other green jobs can you think of that can be cultivated on only 20 hours per week?
This is a good question. To tell you the truth I really haven’t given it much thought. It do realize that it is probably much easier for a business owner to do this than it is for an employee but then again my employees love my schedule too because they get more time with their families as well.
How are things in the renewable energy market in our current economy? Are people investing in clean energy?
Absolutely! It seems to be catching on like a virus. People seem to really want this and they embrace the technology wholeheartedly. For most, however, it is out of reach mainly because of high costs associated with the technology. But as support and programs via federal, state, provincial, or municipal governments (such as Feed-in-Tariffs) come to fruition, this technology will become mainstream. We are seeing this now in some nations, states, provinces and cities throughout the world.
I think that as long as you hold yourself to a higher standard and provide an impeccable product that the future will be unlimited. Become an expert in what you do and you and your company will never be without work.
What mistakes have you made as a green entrepreneur that you would advise others to avoid?
Just because a technology is new and maybe even manufactured locally does not mean that it will be a good product. Avoid using new products that have limited field testing data. This is a mistake I made about 4 years ago with regard to a certain product that was locally manufactured but turned out to be a dud.