Take bigger risks, believe in yourself, and most importantly give more to the people and causes you care about.
Leif Elgethun is the CEO and founder of Retrolux, driving the smart lighting software company’s strategic vision and managing investor relations. Retrolux is transforming the commercial and industrial lighting and smart building industries by providing a software platform that connects smart building product vendors, contractors, energy service companies to building owners through a project-focused sales and deployment sales platform, removing chronic inefficiencies and boosting profit throughout the sales channel.
An engineer by training, Leif has more than 10 years of experience starting and growing five clean energy companies, building deep market knowledge in commercial energy efficient lighting. He is the President and Co-Founder of the Idaho Clean Energy Association, Past-Chair of the Idaho Chapter of the USGBC, and active on several nonprofit boards. He splits his time between Boise and Sun Valley, Idaho.
Where did the idea for Retrolux come from?
Basically, we built a better software tool for our lighting business that other companies in our region discovered and started using too. We thought about building a better tool with the companies that were using the original software, but after conducting market research and customer interviews, we realized the same problems were persistent in our industry and adjacent sectors and found multiple problems we could monetize.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
I don’t have a typical day, but I follow patterns to maximize productivity by prioritizing what I want to accomplish by the end of the day before I start. I put tasks into three buckets: Have to get done, need to get done, and everything else. I work on the have to get done first, then need to get done, and sometimes will get to the rest. One of the hardest things we had to change as our business grows was accepting the fact we couldn’t do everything we wanted to do and that some things we intended to do were going to fall through the cracks. We took control of this problem by intentionally choosing what to not do just as much as what to do.
How do you bring ideas to life?
Ideas have negative value since they require time, effort, and typically capital to turn into reality. I start by asking “why” five times to really understand the root idea underneath the initial idea. I then project forward to see how the idea would impact our current business and customers and how it will impact our future strategies and vision. It’s like playing as many moves forward in chess as you can to see how your idea ends. Next, I find the fatal flaw in the idea. There is always a fatal flaw that you have to identify. Then I determine how the fatal flaw can be minimized or eliminated. Finally, we build a “straw man” or MVP and take it to our customers for feedback. We repeat the loop above based on their feedback until we have something ready for prime time that we can release.
What’s one trend that really excites you?
The trend that excites me the most is the trend towards triple bottom line businesses that co-maximize social, environmental, and financial benefits to shareholders and society.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
I try to reinvent my personal productivity processes every quarter. I literally re-think everything I’m doing to see how I can squeeze more productivity out of my day. It’s the closest I’ve come to cloning myself.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Take bigger risks, believe in yourself, and most importantly give more to the people and causes you care about. I learned that big risks usually take just as much effort as small risks, but with larger upside and lower downside than you think up front. To take bigger risks, you must first believe in yourself. That is one of the main prerequisites to succeeding, and your team and customers can smell belief in you just like dogs can smell fear. Finally, you will always receive more if you start by giving first to the people and causes in your life that you care about. The trick is to give unconditionally and often.
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.
The early Beatles were a boy band and their music was terrible.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
Entrepreneurship is a three step program: 1. Try something and fail. 2. Seek deep understanding for why you failed and what you could have done better. 3. Create a new plan and start over.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
The #1 strategy that is essential to growth is to be customer-obsessed, but that’s Jeff Bezos’ mantra, so I’ll share another. Have a clear and concise strategy and execute on that strategy exclusively until you decide to change your strategy. Your strategy should directly tie to your Vision, Mission, and Values and should include no more than 3-5 primary initiatives you’re executing on. As soon as you need to change your strategy, don’t hesitate, don’t look back, and fully commit to the new strategy. The earlier stage your business is in, the faster and more frequently you will change your direction, but that’s the only difference between a startup and a Fortune 100 company.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
We pitched the Boise Angel Alliance twice and were not funded. The first time we only made it to the screening committee and the second time we made it into due diligence before getting funded the third time. Each time we took their feedback and got back to work improving our business. The main lessons we learned was to listen to feedback and be coachable and to never stop believing in our dream.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
An easy software program that lets a homeowner or business owner looking to lease property to compare total cost of ownership for multiple properties, including direct mortgage/lease payments like rent, taxes, insurance, indirect costs like utilities, transportation, parking, quality of life soft costs like quality of life, proximity to family, and social impact costs like CO2 emissions from utilities and transportation, indoor air quality, tenant equality. Bonus points if this can be included in the MLS or brokerage sites.
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
I took my partner, Heidi out for a night on the town in San Francisco after a particularly hectic business trip. We value family and personal time at Retrolux and encourage everyone on our team to focus on their families first.
What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive? How do you use it?
Unroll.me and Slack each bought me 30 minutes per day in time. Unroll.me vastly reduced subscription and spam emails I have to sift through, and Slack decluttered my inbox by shifting business chatter out of email.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
Rise Up by Russ Stoddard is a great primer for building a sustainable business. We’ve recently become Goodwell-certified as a testament to how we treat our employees and look forward to becoming B-Corp Certified in 2018 to demonstrate our commitment to triple bottom line principles.
What is your favorite quote?
“The definition of genius is taking the complex and making it simple.” – Albert Einstein. We’ve found that making everything as simple as it can, but no less provides a better work environment, a better product, and a better customer experience. It can be harder at first, but taking a simple is better approach yields long term dividends.
- It’s critically important to develop repeatable patterns to increase your productivity. Prioritize your to do list and work on the highest priority tasks first.
- Take time to develop a winning strategy and focus on executing on that strategy. Making changes to your strategy is important and will be more frequent the earlier stage your business.
- It takes hard work and typically capital to convert ideas into reality. Innovation is a process that has typical stages: Idea, Customer Discovery, Success Probability Analysis, Minimum Viable Product Design, Customer Feedback, and Product Release
- Take time to build a culture that rewards family and personal health.
- Read ‘Rise Up‘ by Russell Stoddard to learn the benefits of a Socially Responsible Business and how to take steps to build one.
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