“Many people die at 25 and aren’t buried until they are 75.”—Benjamin Franklin
How fitting that Steve Kuhl is attracted to this famous quote. Benjamin Franklin has thousands of patents under his name. He’s also the inspiration for Kuhl, a serial entrepreneur with an infectious enthusiasm for life and excitement for business. Kuhl’s personality is vibrant and his passion for innovation is almost childlike, as if he hasn’t lost his ability to see the world for its endless possibilities. It’s a gift that’s served him well. “I’m a kid at heart. I carry that sense of playfulness into every space I have,” he says. “I like to have fun. If you’re not enjoying what you’re doing, you need to move and you need to find your joy.”
Joy in a Wrong Number
“The word ‘courage’ is baked in to the essence of entrepreneurship. You cannot be an entrepreneur and not be courageous,” Kuhl says from behind his desk at Kuhl Design + Build, a large warehouse in the industrial section of Hopkins.
And Kuhl would know about courage. His first business, Kuhl’s Contracting, started in 1986 with a phone call to the wrong number.
“I received a random phone call from a guy who lived on Lake of the Isles,” Kuhl says of his 17-year-old self. “He said, ‘You worked for me four years ago. You washed my cedar roof.’ I didn’t know what a cedar roof was. I had no idea who this guy was.”
While most people would politely tell the gentleman he had the wrong number, Kuhl did not.
“I just saw opportunity. I thought, ‘I’m a capable kid. I know how to use pressure washers.’ And that’s what he wanted. He wanted us to pressure wash his roof. And I said, ‘Just tell me what we charged you four years ago because you’re a repeat customer and I’ll honor that same price because I appreciate your repeat business.’ He said, ‘Well it’s $1,105.’ It equaled in 1986 two times what I would have made in a summer at McDonald’s. I said, ‘OK, we’ll do that but we’re very busy. We’re like a month out.’”
Kuhl used that month to research. There was no internet in those days, so he went to the library and called people across the country to learn how to pressure wash a cedar roof. He practiced on different surfaces and figured out how to do it. The homeowner also referred Kuhl to neighbors.
“By the end of that summer we’d done four or five of these roofs,” he says. “That’s how it happened. It was an accidental phone call. And I still don’t know how exactly he got my number.”
Always Say Yes
That accidental phone call prompted Kuhl to open Kuhl’s Contracting in 1987, a roofing and roof restoration business. Then even that grew to installation. Kuhl’s pattern in life was always saying yes.
“This is the way entrepreneurs think: It’s not a question of whether or not I can do this well. It’s: How do I get there? Who do I need to align with to make it happen?” he says. “I surround myself with people who are far more responsible and smarter than I am with just about everything. And that’s how it works. I’m good at seeing opportunity and chasing it down and figuring out ways to make it happen.”
Roofing led to small remodels which then grew into Kuhl Design + Build in 1999.
“I’ve been building since I was 6. It’s in my DNA. My stepfather was a carpenter. My grandfather was a carpenter, artist and inventor,” he says. “What makes me happiest is to engage in the act of creation, the art of making. It doesn’t matter what it is. I love being creative.”
Kuhl spent 10 years in Kuhl Design + Build designing residential projects with his team that went on to win national and international recognition. The real fun was making his dream home.
“There are six little hidden rooms and tunnels. There’s hidden doors. There’s bookcase openings. There’s a slide from the main level that shoots through a hidden door down through the basement. There’s a ladder up to the rooftop,” he says.
Dreams to Reality
With two successful companies under his belt, he didn’t stop there. Kuhl’s mind kept churning out ideas even at the oddest of times. The Ice Dam Company was born on a hot June night in 2003.
“I had this waking dream. I thought, ‘Why hasn’t somebody developed a company that specializes in ice dam removal and ice dam prevention?’” he says. “The Ice Dam Company just took off. We’ve become the country’s largest ice dam removal and prevention business.”
The Ice Dam Company relies on the roofing team from Kuhl Construction. Winter is the slow season for roofing, so Kuhl takes his professional roofing crews all over the country.
“Those guys are the most qualified of anybody to be on a roof and remove ice dams,” he says. “We travel around and address need as it arises. So in the process of that, the sort of random nature of organic growth.”
Heating Up Business
“We started getting asked all over the country by more and more people, ‘Do you install heat cable?’”
Heat cables rest upon roofs to melt snow and ice to prevent ice dams from forming. After purchasing hundreds of thousands of dollars of cable a year, Kuhl decided to make them himself.
In 2016, he spent months researching on Alibaba, the Chinese version of Amazon. He explored how the supply chains work. At the time, the Ice Dam Company was the number one search result on Google, beating out Amazon, Lowes, Home Depot and more. Since he was number one in the world, Kuhl decided to approach some factories about making heat cable.
“I said, ‘I’d like to strike a deal. I want you to be my factory and I’ve got a lot of innovation in mind and I’m looking for a special partner.’ They said, ‘Who are you?’ I said, ‘Do me a favor and just Google ice dams. Google anything related to the industry and tell me what comes up.’ Sure enough, we were number one and a half dozen of these factories got back to me jumping, ‘How do we start doing business with you?’”
That was the beginning of Radiant Solutions Company.
“Right now we don’t know how to handle the growth. It’s a good problem,” he says.
But that was only the beginning of Kuhl’s obsession with innovation in the heat cable industry. His desk is littered with prototypes for installing and attaching heat cable to different kinds of roofs.
“The industry had not been injected with creativity in … a couple of decades. They were just people making and selling the same old stuff. So we came in there and totally tweaked all of the products and made them all better,” he says.
The clips that hold heat cables were steel that had to be hammered into the roof, thereby voiding a roof’s warranty. To get around that, Kuhl made a lightweight clip that attaches to shingles. He calls it the Grip Clip—and it’s his first patent.
Spreading the Wealth
Kuhl loves to help out small businesses. It all goes back to his upbringing.
“I grew up in a very working class neighborhood in Minnetonka. We were on welfare for a little while. I remember getting teased as a kid because I didn’t have new clothes and I just looked disheveled. That experience taught me a lot about what’s important and what’s not and about the value of hard work,” he says.
And if he sees a small business owner who is working hard, he will go out of his way to help them.
“All my trades guys know this about me: my plumbers, my electricians, everybody. They come in, we have coffee, and I say, ‘Let’s talk about your business. Where do you want to be in five years? How do you want to get there? What are you doing now? What do you need to do?’ Basic stuff,” he says. “But stuff that nobody really talks about because you’re busy running a business.”
He’s turning this love of small business development and marrying it to the growth of his heat cable initiative. He’s setting up a studio to create how-to videos on installing heat cable and how to run a heat cable business. The concept is simple: buy his heat cable and he will train you on how to install it, how to sell it to homeowners, how to answer any questions a homeowner will have about the product, and he will also provide free technical support. He calls it the National Contractor Network.
“I believe a lot in reciprocity and the circularity of business. If you’re good to people, good things will happen,” he says. “In the beginning, my perspective was I could work for somebody else and build their dream or I can work for myself and build mine, surround myself with people who have a shared vision.”
He wants to share his heat cable vision with the whole country. With Radiant Solutions and Heat Cable Store, Kuhl has access to massive amounts of data that shows who searched for heat cable and where. He plans on using the first half of 2020 to grow his national network.
Price of Success
But not all his life has been rosy. Kuhl divorced in 2014 three days after moving into his dream home.
“That was the most transformative and painful experience of my life,” he says. “When a forest burns, new things grow, things that wouldn’t have grown without that event. That’s what happened to me.”
Kuhl says he was a workaholic who worked 80- to 100-hour weeks.
“To be candid, that’s what happened to my marriage. I worked too much. I thought that my role was to be this guy who built businesses to make money,” he says.
He now works from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on weekdays.
“I will not sacrifice my time with my children. Ever,” he says of his 5- and 8-year-old. “And I don’t work at home. I was a guy who spent his 20s and 30s developing business. Those years are gone. I have different priorities. Because at the end of the day, that all doesn’t matter. What matters are these little humans with hearts that are going to develop into something that makes the world better. It’s my most important job. Everything else is secondary."