Alex Smith is on a mission to make solar, simple.And as co-founder of ShopSolarKits.com, Alex and his business partner, Max Bair-Marshall, are determined that by doing so, they will help people live a more independent and sustainable life.
“Most of our customers are looking to get off the grid, live a mobile lifestyle, or need emergency backup for their families,” said Alex.The small but fast-growing company specializes in the sale and support of all things solar, from complete solar kits to power inverters, and has become the #1 source for mini off-grid, portable and emergency backup solar power through education, simplicity and affordability of solar kits.
But to do so, Alex had to first educate himself, because up until a few years ago, he knew very little about solar kits… Or solar energy in general.
Born and raised in Meaford, Alex grew up eager to escape small town life, so after high school he skipped off to study Real Estate (BComm program) at the University of Guelph. While in his first year, he was approached asking if he wanted to make $30,000 over the summer. Intrigued, Alex asked for more information. Without much convincing — but much to his mother’s dismay — he was recruited to spend the summer selling pest control in Texas. Alex said the first couple of days on the doors were hell, but he stuck it out, and within a few weeks his sales were flying.
“I was a natural. Everyone kept saying I had the gift of the gab,” said Alex.
He came back to school with a pocket full of cash and memories to match.The following summer Alex brought Max, who he had met in university, onboard. This time the experience didn’t live up to the hype, so after they returned home Alex and Max put a pin in their sales careers for the time being. However, the seeds were planted for what would soon become a budding business relationship.
After graduation, Alex chased his long-distance girlfriend to Winnipeg and put his skills to use selling security systems. Similar to his summers down south, the idea was to make enough money in a few months to last all year. Alex grinded door-to-door and at the end of the season he cashed his cheque and he and his girlfriend headed south in their converted van. That was where the idea of owning a business first started. Alex had read The 4-Hour Workweek and thought, “How can I make money online so I can do this full time?”
After they ran out of money they returned home, and Alex went back to working as a door-to-door salesman in Saskatoon that summer, but he knew it had to be his last. With his final cheque that fall, he bought a $500 course and began studying drop shipping.
“I didn’t know what I was going to do next, but I had this cushion and I was determined to figure something out,” he said.
Alex spent the winter heading down a “rabbit hole,” as he puts it, learning as much as he could. He picked a niche, bought a Shopify store, and attempted to build a business.
His idea: Target cat lovers.
His website: www.thatspurrfect.com.“I had no idea what I was doing,” Alex laughed.
It took a full year before he made his first dollar, so he kiboshed the cat site and took off to meet Max, who was travelling in Thailand at the time. They decided when they got back they would get the highest hourly paying jobs that were the least mentally draining, and focus all of their energy on building a business together.
After a brief stint selling LED lights, Alex and Max started what they called the “Uber of cleaning companies.” They followed a Reddit post that outlined how to start a business step-by-step, bought the software, found cleaners on Kijiji, ran ads on Google to connect their cleaners with people who needed them, and took a portion of each sale.
“Max and I were the idea guys in university, but our ideas were always really audacious,” admitted Alex.
Around the same time, Alex got a full-time job working for Shopify in an attempt to gain skills that would benefit the business later.
“The thing for me was getting a glimpse into the mindsets of entrepreneurs. The way they approach businesses and the different kinds of things that were possible online,” he said. “The belief was setting in.”
They gave it a full year, gaining traction and even hitting the six-figure mark. But they started questioning whether they wanted to run a cleaning company for the rest of their lives.“We were getting yelled at by people for dumb things,” said Alex. “Selling a cleaning service was not ideal.”
So in 2018 Alex and Max went back to the drawing board and this time, decided to give themselves a few months to figure out what it was they really wanted, and what it would take to build it in a way that was sustainable.
That’s where solar kits came in.
“We wanted something that we could say what we do and be proud of it,” Alex said.
Once they settled on the idea, they started building out a website, went live, and got their first sale in November 2018. It was for a few thousand dollars, which was almost two weeks of revenue from the cleaning business.
“That’s when we knew,” Alex said.
From the start they adopted the mindset that if they were going to sell solar, they needed to be technical, so they committed to learning as much as they could and staying on top of trends. Alex’s motto is: “Keep your learning above your earning.”
The first year they had no hires, and it wasn’t yet a full-time gig for either Max or Alex, but they continued to grind. Then, in December 2019, they had their first massive month and were on track for hitting their 7-figure goal. And then in January, they doubled it. By February, they knew they needed to hire someone.
“We were just experiencing rapid growth, doubling month-over-month,” said Alex. “It just kept happening.”
And the timing was perfect.
“I don’t think we’d be where we are if it weren’t for Covid,” said Alex. “Almost 60-70 percent of our customers are doomsday preppers. It pushed a lot of demand our way.”
Since then, Alex and Max both quit their jobs and Shop Solar Kits has grown to a team of 20+ employees dispersed around the world.
But Alex said “it’s not all roses and butterflies.”
“There were a lot of dark times,” said Alex. “But you get addicted to that, ‘let’s see how big we can make this’ mentality.”
Also in the midst of Covid, Alex regained an affinity for small town life. Collingwood had been on his radar since he was a kid, and when he learned about the Collingwood Foundry, it seemed like a no-brainer.
“I love to be around people who are just getting after it and making it happen,” he said. “In this community specifically, it feels like the beginning of something cool.
Alex has been a full-time member at the Foundry since September 2020 and he and his girlfriend officially moved to Collingwood last spring.Alex is usually one of the first to the Foundry in the morning and is often one of the last to leave, but he said the word that comes to his mind when he thinks of his business is freedom.
“That’s the thing I like most about what I am doing,” said Alex. “I genuinely enjoy what I do. And if it doesn’t work out, I won't look back and think I wasted these years of my life.”