Ian Sells: StrongVolt

by Courtney Hong

StrongVolt co-founder and CEO Ian Sells, 32, has always wanted to be an entrepreneur. “I just had the motivation to always try new things and to see what I could develop on my own. I’ve been starting businesses since I was a little kid – dog walking services to website design. I would try out any type of business that I thought was profitable. I would just go and give it a shot, never worrying about failing. I always just saw opportunities,” said the Los Angeles native, whose company has developed a proprietary, patent-pending technology for portable solar chargers that it calls the world’s most advanced solar charger.

The idea for the San Diego-based startup began in 2011 during Sells’ trip to China with co-founder Adam Weiler as they searched for new business opportunities. They discovered solar chargers at a giant trade show, saw an opportunity in the industry, and began selling solar chargers for laptops online. Soon, they began to make the chargers smaller to meet their customers’ demand for reliable chargers for smaller devices such as tablets, iPhones, and iPads. “We knew there were problems because smart devices required a constant power source. From that we were able to spend some money and develop our proprietary patented technology.  We hired engineers to help us. We knew what problem we were trying to solve and we found the talent that could help us. The process to develop the technology took about four months.”

The online business began as a part time business for Sells while he was still working in real estate. He had studied finance with an emphasis in real estate at San Diego State University. Before he graduated in 2004, he and two business partners started a real estate investment company to develop single-family homes into college rental properties within walking distance of campus. After four years, they moved on to commercial property in Texas. When Sells moved back to San Diego three years later, he started his own real estate and property management company. When he came upon the solar chargers opportunity in 2011, Sells says “it started to become prevalent that there was an opportunity to take it to the next level.”

In mid 2013, after seeing the potential growth of the business, Sells and Weiler enrolled in a local incubator called San Diego Sport Innovators where they were mentored for six months by CEOs and CFOs of small and medium sized companies. “That pushed us in the right direction to start a company,” said Sells.  

After they developed the SunTrack patent-pending technology, they launched a Kickstarter campaign in February 2014 to put their product out, tell their story, and educate customers. “We were able to reach our goal within 24 hours and ultimately raised over 680 percent of our goals, about $70,000 dollars and we gained 1,000 customers instantly.” Sells attributes the product’s success to its ability to solve the problem of having accessible portable power, particularly while doing outdoor activities and during natural disasters. “By actually creating a product that people need and don’t know about, we were able to accomplish success.” After filing their patent, they hired a patent attorney – who is also an electrical and chemical engineer – to facilitate the company’s process to obtain a patent within a year on the fast track program.

Milestones thus far include StrongVolt’s successful launch and Kickstarter campaign, signing the company’s first nationwide retail distributor and international shipments. “It’s not as easy as it sounds,” said Sells. The most difficult part about starting the company has been the need to change the technology more quickly than the product is being sold. “We’re constantly improving and we’re always coming up with new ideas. We’re always trying to catch up with ourselves. I always say, do it. What’s the worst that could happen? That’s my motto with everything. You have to go through some no’s to get a yes.”

Another challenge that Sells has experienced as a founder and CEO is staying focused, learning to better delegate responsibilities, and finding talent with like-minded goals and lifestyle that will help the company to grow. “What is really going to change our company’s future?” Sells describes his team members as people of high integrity and dedication that like to enjoy life, get out there and do things, do not feel constrained, get the job done, and strive for the best.

The team consists of two full time employees that handle shipping/customer service and graphic design/marketing and a few part time employees. “We like to outsource as much as possible in order to conserve costs and overhead. Hiring specialists at an on-call hourly rate really helps us grow quickly,” said Sells who handles front-end sales, marketing, and product development while Weiler oversees sales, logistics, and customer service.

A typical day for Sells is spent dealing with sales calls and emails, marketing, talking with the media, seeking outside investment from angel investors for the first time, and fueling the company’s growth. Sells spends a lot of time meeting with different people in various industries, getting their help, advice, and networking. “Being connected to the right people makes all the difference in the world.”

In building a global customer base, Sells says providing good customer service and making sure customers are happy has been the key to the company’s success. “We have the best technology, the best team, the best advisors, and a great sales force. The industry is growing rapidly. When we first started, we were one of the only solar charging companies. Now, there are a few. We’re constantly working on our technology and products and making it more efficient.”

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