Abram Olmstead  | July 26, 2013

Goal Zero Goes Supernova: Solar Drives Huge Growth

Striding past the rock wall and slide in the main entrance, we are ushered into a conference room flush with black and neon green gadgets. It’s there we meet Joe Atkin, president and CEO of Goal Zero, the Salt Lake City, UT maker of solar powered goods. Everything about him radiates the culture of the company he helms—he carries a backpack, sports a Jackson Hole t-shirt, and just returned from piloting a 40-foot RV to Glacier National Park.

But it wasn’t always like that.

Atkin used to work in private equity and the suits it requires. He joked that he felt fear on days when everyone was wearing a blue button-down shirt but him. And while he enjoyed the work he did in private equity, Atkin took a leap of faith joining founder Robert Workman at Goal Zero, going so far as taking a 50% pay cut to follow someone with no business plan, just a vision. It was, as Atkin describes, a “cause in search of a business.”

The cause-in-search-of-a-business model has worked out well for Goal Zero. In four years, the company’s revenue has skyrocketed, starting with $100,000 in sales the first year to $33 million in 2012. Atkin anticipates $50-60 million in revenue this year and believes it might land Goal Zero on the next Inc. 5000 list.

It almost didn’t happen. Workman had recently retired after selling his stake in the family business that he helped build, Provo Craft. But retirement didn’t suit him—or his wife, who said he was driving her crazy. He ended up visiting the Democratic Republic of Congo and saw a country in need, and Workman decided he could help meet one of those needs: power.

He had no background in energy solutions, but he did have capital to invest, connections in the manufacturing world, and a vision to “democratize power.” When he connected with Atkin, they moved at breakneck speed to create the first Goal Zero prototype, a portable solar power system that not only provides light, but opportunity to the people of the DRC by giving them a product to sell through its sister non-profit, Teaching Individuals and Family Independence through Enterprise (TIFE).

Goal Zero may have started with the Congo, but the company’s social mission expanded when disaster struck Haiti. Atkin said he wanted to help but didn’t know how, so he called the Mormon Church for assistance. Through the church’s connections, the company donated 200 power systems that proved to be so popular—relief workers attest that given the choice between bags of rice and power systems, 100% of victims chose the power systems—that 600 more were purchased, clearing out Goal Zero’s inventory.

The company also stepped up to help Japan, its second-largest market outside the U.S., following the tsunami, but it wasn’t until Hurricane Sandy that Goal Zero really made its mark. In addition to sending nine employees with portable solar power equipment to the East Coast, the social media team designed a “buy one, give one” campaign that resulted in over $500,000 of equipment being donated to victims in New York in New Jersey in just 15 days.

It also resulted in increased sales and brand awareness. Atkin said that the success of Goal Zero’s “buy one, give one” campaign gave customers a way to engage in the company’s social mission, something the company will embrace on a permanent basis next month. In August, Goal Zero will launch its “Share the Sun” program. For every product purchased, customers will receive a “Sun Share” that can be donated to a charitable project of their choice. Atkin says the projects range from powering a village in Ghana to providing support to a group walking across the U.S. to raise money for muscular dystrophy.

The hope for Share the Sun is to replicate what happened after Hurricane Sandy—increased sales and brand awareness—and, as Atkin says, to do the right thing. “You can’t do good, and not get good,” he told us.

The company’s success is due in large part to its thriving outdoor market, which Atkin says makes up 40% of sales. Goal Zero’s products for hiking and camping, like lanterns and flashlights, can be found at REI, Bass Pro Shop, Cabela’s, and even Costco. Another 40-50% of sales comes from the emergency preparedness market, with the remainder in the tech market. It’s that smallest space where Atkin sees the greatest potential. He says he constantly needs to charge his phone and iPad, sometimes three times a day, and that it’s the average mobile user that Goal Zero wants to make its next customer.

Goal Zero is taking a big step into the tech market with its new Street Charge program. In partnership with AT&T, the company has developed 25 solar powered charging stations for mobile devices that will be placed around New York City. The project is in a trial phase until October, and if it goes well, has the opportunity to be as ubiquitous as phone booths in the 1980s.

“Our mission is to empower people,” Atkin says. “What better way to do that than to make a great solution widely available?”