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Phone: 415-744-6820

Growing a Small Renewable Energy Executive Search Firm into Something Big

Whitham Group Executive Search Success Story

“I worked for an executive search firm as a recruiter from 2008 to late 2010 and the firm executed searches in multiple industries. When new searches in renewable energy, would come in, none of the other recruiters wanted to work on them so I became specialized in the field of renewable energy. I fell in love with the people who dedicated their talents to benefit our environment and decided to open my own search firm specializing solely in the renewable energy space,” Carina Whitham recalls.

North Coast SCORE Chapter Chair Richard Adler worked with Carina in 2010 and 2011 in preparation for the launch of her own executive search firm, Whitham Group Executive Search  in December 2010. . Whitham Group recruits and places executives in the arenas of Solar, Wind, Biofuels, Biomass, Geothermal Energy and all other areas of renewables.

Adler outlined what he wanted from Whitham to gauge where she was in the process. “I came prepared with a list of my competitors, sales projections, P&L forecast, and business plan. Richard gave me an honest evaluation of my expectations and the work I submitted to him. He had me revise my projections and business plan holding me accountable for my work.” Revenues went from zero to over $350,000 in 2012 and Whitham Group is slated to end 2013 with over half a million dollars in sales.

“I understood the odds of a small business, the success and the failure rate and I know reaching out and working with SCORE was the smartest thing I could do to give me a realistic picture of what launching this business would take,” said a grateful Carina. 

Carina knew her strengths, but she also knew she needed a strong hunter just like her. By sheer luck Carina came across a woman named Stacey Karpel, who fit the description perfectly. Karpel came from one of the big five executive search firms and now runs the client side of the business while Carina oversees all recruiting.

In 2011 Carina and Stacey went from one client and parlayed that into two, three then four, and now have over 18 active clients such as SunEdison, Solazyme, CertainTeed, PetersenDean, SunWize, Sunetric, SPG Solar, Suniva, Conergy, Real Goods Solar, and more. Since then, Carina and Stacey have hired seven employees and are relocating all staff to the Bay Area and opening their executive offices early 2014. 

 “It takes great dedication, a strong work ethic, and fortitude to start a business. Just how successful you will be depends on how much you want it. Carina advises other would-be entrepreneurs to think about all aspects of running a business; “Knowing how to lead your employees, market your business, run your books, and invest your revenues is vital. At first you are the CEO, COO, CFO, and Director of Marketing, Sales and Business Development; get ready for that.  What you put into your business is what you will get out of it. Work smart and never give up on your dream and you can do anything you set your mind to. SCORE is such a valuable resource for anyone considering opening a business.

Carina recited a quote from LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman who once said, "You are not a finished product. If you don't keep evolving, you start dying." “I fully agree with that statement” said Carina. “Stacey and I constantly brainstorm, analyzing and sizing up our competition and have successfully found innovative ways to increase our market share. Growth does not occur within your own comfort zone; continuing to learn and grow is vital to your success.”

Carina will be featured in December’s issue of THE SUIT magazine which provides in-depth analyses of successful corporate executives, business owners and professionals. Carina is being interviewed on the future of the labor market and what impact that will have on small business owners. Carina is an example of an entrepreneur who utilized SCORE, did her homework and is reaping the rewards of good old fashioned hard work. 


Clean, Renewable electricity Research Ready to Reshape Energy Market

Cool Earth Solar Success Story

The idea behind Cool Earth Solar is to remove any perceived limits on solar power. This means designing solar technology so that first, it competes economically against all forms of electricity generation and second, that there are no limiting bottlenecks in material or process that prevent the scaling up of solar as much as we want to address our energy needs.

“At Cool Earth Solar, we are reshaping solar technology, literally and philosophically. Our unique concentrated-photovoltaic (CPV) technology is designed to ‘tread lightly’ on the landscape and to deliver solar power at a low cost to the environment and in dollars and cents,” said CEO Rob Lamkin.  Cool Earth Solar's CPV is an inflated solar concentrator made primarily of inexpensive and free materials. This design approach reduces material requirements as well cost and time.

Cool Earth Solar was introduced to the Silicon Valley Small Business Development Center (SBDC) at a seminar hosted at iGate, one of California’s Innovation Hubs (iHub). SBDCs provide a wide array of technical assistance to small businesses and aspiring entrepreneurs.  The SBDCs are made up of a unique collaboration of U.S. Small Business Administration, state and local government, and private sector funding.

The topic of the seminar was Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grants from the federal government.  SBIR is a highly competitive program that encourages small business to explore their technological potential and provides the incentive to profit from its commercialization. By including qualified small businesses in the nation's R&D arena, high-tech innovation is stimulated and the United States gains entrepreneurial spirit as it meets its specific research and development needs.  By reserving a specific percentage of federal R&D funds for small business, SBIR protects the small business and enables it to compete on the same level as larger businesses.

At the event were two SBDC staff members, Charles Eason and Gerry Baranano, who have gone on to work closely with Cool Earth Solar.  Charles helped Cool Earth Solar to organize and edit two of their winning SBIR proposals.  Gerry has played a key role in helping them craft a go-to-market plan.

The two SBIR awards were both for Phase I awards. Phase I is the startup phase. Awards of up to $150,000 for approximately 6 months support exploration of the technical merit or feasibility of an idea or technology. Phase II awards of up to $1 million, for as many as 2 years, expand Phase I results. During this time, the R&D work is performed and the developer evaluates commercialization potential. Phase III is the period during which Phase II innovation moves from the laboratory into the marketplace. No SBIR funds support this phase.

In 2012 Cool Earth Solar was awarded an SBIR Phase I award from the US Department of Energy.  This grant is to show the feasibility of a high concentrating version of their CPV technology using highly innovative optics and multi junction solar cells.  With this funding, Cool Earth Solar has already created a working full-sized prototype that is out in the field and making electricity from sunlight.

The second SBIR grant was awarded in February, 2013 for a medium concentrating system that takes advantage of more commonly available silicon solar cells.  

“A key challenge for innovative technology is the transition from laboratory to marketplace.  Cool Earth Solar has a very important partnership with Sandia National Laboratories that enables the deployment of our CPV technology at Sandia for long term testing and validation.  This is a huge step towards applying our solar technology to the nation’s energy needs at scale,” Lamkin said.

Sandia National Laboratories is a national resource.  Cool Earth Solar is fortunate to be just three miles away.  Cool Earth Solar partnered with Sandia because of their long history of solar expertise.  This is the first agreement for developing and deploying innovative solar technology at this scale and scope at a national laboratory. Cool Earth Solar is the first partner to deploy at Sandia’s Clean Energy Demonstration Field.  

Lamkin believes the key to Cool Earth Solar’s success thus far lies not only in government programs and strong partnerships, but like any other small business in the talented staff of 20 employees, “To deliver good technology to the market, you need to start with the right team.  Do you have the right people?  How can we best utilize each persons talents to fulfill the right role in the team?”


BYOB (Bring Your Own Bread)

Olive This Olive That Success Story

How much difference does the quality of olive oil make to the flavor of your food?  A lot, according to Olive This Olive That co-owners and founders Janell Pekkain and Mary Kucel.  In the summer of 2012, Pekkain opened an olive oil tasting bar in San Francisco to give people an opportunity to taste a wide variety of extra virgin olive oils and discover the difference in taste for themselves.

“Our business gets people really excited and knowledgeable about extra virgin olive oils, balsamic vinegars, pairings, and uses.” Pekkain explained.  She finds the looks on people’s faces as they experience the tasting for the first time almost as rewarding as the sales that result.

Olive This Olive That is a boutique retailer with three part time employees that sells extra virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar, hand-crafted pasta, and other fresh, food products. Pekkain prides herself on the customer service provided in her shop as well as the quality foodstuffs.

Pekkain’s background wasn’t in retail or food preparation, so starting a retail food business has provided her a seemingly never ending series of learning opportunities, from the importance of comfortable shoes to the challenges of managing staff and communicating with a partner.

Luckily, Pekkain wasn’t alone; she had the help of SCORE counselors and workshop teachers to guide her.  Recommended by a friend, Pekkain began attending workshops ranging in topic from financial to marketing, and her partner, Kucel, took the six-week starting a business series. Mary also consulted with a business counselor who provided free one-on-one guidance. “Writing a business plan with the SCORE templates was challenging but fantastic. It's clear and logical. The financial reports are also very helpful. Although we ended up not needing a business plan for loan purposes, the process was very useful,” said Pekkain.

In addition, Pekkain availed herself of some of SCORE’s online learning tools, such as a social media webinar.

Pekkain also took advantage of another SBA sponsored resource, Small Business Development Centers (SBDC).  She attended a payroll workshop and consulted with food specialist, Anni Manuzzi.

Building up a customer base is a challenge for any new business, regardless of industry.  Pekkain and Mary came up with fun and creative ways to boost sales and word of mouth.  Olive This Olive That hosts a regular BYOB (Bring Your Own Bread) event.  The tongue-in-cheek event name came from Pekkain’s policy that “We don't usually offer bread when tasting during the week because we feel that bread distracts and detracts from noticing the nuances of the oils.” At the event, Pekkain prepares food featuring products and recipes and partner with other local businesses to create a theme for the night.  In just over a year, the event has already built up a faithful following.  The space also hosts book club meetings, private tastings, chef events, and industry events. 

Still in the early phases of growth, Pekkain is optimistic about the future of her business.  She hopes that a forthcoming website will help spread the word inside and outside of San Francisco.  She’d love to see Olive This Olive That become a turnkey business with multiple locations.

Olive This Olive That is proud to be a 100% woman-owned general partnership. Like any good team, both members bring different skills to the partnership. Pekkain sums up the relationship nicely, “My partner is a true entrepreneur: she doesn't take no for an answer and relentlessly finds a way to make things work. If our business and relationship was a bicycle, I'm the front wheel driving sales, marketing, training, product and she's the back wheel, protecting quality and managing finances. You need both wheels to make the bike move forward.”

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