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Education has long tried to understand and grapple with the intersection of traditional education models and the need to diversify learning to meet the needs of all students. From blended learning to equity education, schools recognize that teaching and outcomes suffer without engaged students.

Recent teacher shortages and post-pandemic stressors are added to the mix, making progress even more challenging. Reporting from Education Week shows dips in math and reading scores, and federal data indicates 44% of schools reporting teacher vacancies.

Some are now considering collaborative teacher classroom setups to address the challenges of the one teacher, one classroom model. According to the advocates, combining diverse expertise in the classroom may provide greater student engagement, better emotional health, and learning objectives schools seek.

While future efforts may bring promising results, there are lessons to be learned from individuals whose unencouraging past educational experiences propelled them to find alternative paths. After being told by an educator in high school that he was destined to pump gas, Cody Caplinger, Co-Owner of Klick Solar, is now operating a successful $80 million business formed on perseverance and drive to prove the doubters wrong.

His story is one of lawnmowers, pizza, mattress sales, solar learning, and future-proof tactics, but ultimately, it’s a story of grit. This reporter sat down with Caplinger to hear his retelling of a past as amusing as it is educational. Future young entrepreneurs could learn a thing or two from the sheer will and determination of a man who knew when to use his imagination and hard work to achieve results.

Rod Berger: Cody, could you give the 10,000-foot view of the company and how it started. Where are you presently?

Cody Caplinger: Yes, I launched Klick Solar in 2019 with my business partner Chase. It started with just myself, him, and a few other friends. We’ve grown to about 130 salespeople and W2 employees combined.

We started as a sales organization, but we’ve grown to be fully vertical, meaning we do our own installs and develop our crews. We’ve done about $80 million in sales over the last three years and doubled in size every year we’ve been in business. We cover the entire footprint of Colorado and southern Oregon, where I’m from originally.

Decision Making Process

Berger: What brought you to the decision to enter the solar sector?

Caplinger: Before solar, I was in the mattress industry and ran a chain of mattress stores in Colorado. I was very frustrated because you’re at the mercy of whoever walks into the retail store for sales volume. Marketing happens to be a bit of a guessing game. Somebody told me that 50% of your marketing works, but you never know which 50%.

The walk-in component became a pain point, and at the same time, companies started cropping up online, bringing purchasing from retail to online. The model revolutionized the mattress industry, but it brought frustration to the retailers.

Cody Caplinger took educational lessons to fuel his entrepreneurial spirit. Cody Caplinger

I wanted to change businesses and looked for something that would be future-proof. So I honed in on businesses that would not fully transfer over online. I tried to control that ‘door swing’ so I could control the revenue the company could receive.

I’ve always believed solar was the future. I think every home in America will have glass on its roof. I did my research and found out that solar sold well through door-to-door sales. That was the lightbulb moment where I recognized I could control the door swinging if I was knocking on the door and not waiting for the customer to come through my door. It became a matter of pumping out sales reps and hard workers.

Berger: Was there something specific to solar that stood out for you?

Caplinger: I’m passionate about solar and see it as the future, and it’s also the right thing to do in terms of renewable energy. It’s a legacy play for my grandchildren when I get to that point. I want them to say, “Hey, my grandpa played a part in changing the world.” You look at what’s happening in the world and gas prices. We almost got into World War III over oil a couple of years ago. It’s vital to make a change, and solar is part of it.

Growth of an Entrepreneur

Berger: In your experience as a young person and a student, what gave you the confidence to take the entrepreneurial route? I think it’s important for the next generation to understand what fueled you to make the choices you’ve made.

Caplinger: What molded who I am was first being raised by two entrepreneurs. My parents owned businesses and encouraged me to think outside the box at a young age. My oldest brother bought me a lawnmower for my 12th birthday. I’ve always loved business, so it taught me to go door to door and sell mowing for people’s lawns.

In high school, I worked at a pizza place and became frustrated that I wasn’t making as much money as I did mowing lawns. I lived on a ski mountain, and when the paths shut down due to snow, all the truck drivers from interstate five would park their trucks all over the place.

The Walmart parking lots were full of them. So I’d fill up my car with 40 pizzas and knock on the doors of the semi trucks to sell them. The truckers were hungry, and it worked. They would flash their lights and honk. I got on their CB radio and did a little sales pitch at one point. It was great.

Doubt as a Driving Force

Berger: It appears you have an innate drive. Other than your family influence, how do you think that took shape?

Caplinger: Equally important to my development is that many people doubted me in my life. Starting in high school, a school teacher told me I would end up pumping gas at a gas station. In Oregon, you don’t pump your own gas; there are gas station attendants. That statement represented one of the lowest job opportunities. So when people doubt me, it’s such a blessing because it puts a chip on my shoulder and gives me another level of drive.

When I decided on solar, I naturally progressed to working for a solid solar company to learn the ropes. Ironically, I met somebody at a networking group who was very affluent, and they took me out for coffee and said, “Hey, I’d love to open a solar company. Would you be interested in partnering with me?” I told him that was my goal.

After about a month of plugging along, he sits me down again and says, “Hey, listen, you just don’t have enough experience. You haven’t been in the business long enough. So I found somebody else and I’m partnering with him.”

That was the most incredible thing that could have happened to me. It placed such a chip on my shoulder to prove that I could do it and grow much faster. As a side note, that other former partner is now out of business, but I take no pride because I want everyone to succeed.

Berger: You possess such grit and perseverance throughout your journey. When you partnered up again and formed Klick Solar, did you have any money to invest in the company?

Caplinger: My partner Chase had three years of solar experience, and I saved a little money. I put in most of the equity end to start, and It turned into a 60-40 split between myself and Chase. There wasn’t that much money to start, just enough to barely survive and keep the business afloat.

We didn’t pay ourselves at first and put our nose to the grindstone to make it happen. Starting with so little money turned out to be a blessing because we’ve been able to run pretty much debt free since we’ve been in business. You work hard to figure it out when you don’t have any other options.

In a world filled with unicorn investors and large seed money startups, it’s helpful to learn the simpler stories of entrepreneurs that used debt-free modest means to get their businesses off the ground. Caplinger may have missed out on potential early collaboration and investment in his first solar manifestation, yet it proved to be the slight that drove his future success.

As education adapts and changes to alternative forms of learning, perhaps stories like Caplinger’s can act as valuable guides of inspiration. Hearing words of doubt early on can be crushing for certain individuals, but discovering a success story fueled by doubters may offer a glimmer of hope.

Interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.

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