TAMPA — The Tesla Model 3 rolled to a stop on a quiet residential street out near the airport, and Liam Kunkel stepped out into a misting November rain.
He wore white Alexander McQueen sneakers, tucked a Sharpie in the band of his Mets cap and took a quick hit off a purple vape pen. His eyes scanned the modest homes for telltale details as he walked.
“The way that car is parked says they’re not the primary decision-maker.”
“See their lawn? They’re probably an analytical buyer.”
“That roof looks rough.”
He consulted his Sun Seeker app to determine how the sun would hit a home, a silver cross dangling out of his Spartan Solar shirt.
“I’ve never been too religious,” he said, “but I believe everyone has a path.”
At a house landscaped with tall, purple cordylines, Liam knocked and a white terrier began losing its mind in the window. Liam stepped back six feet and angled his body, to appear less threatening.
“Can I help you?” said the woman who answered, her tone anything but helpful. She folded her arms.
“Hi, I’m Liam, we’re just out here talking to people about solar, I’m sure you’ve noticed a lot of solar panels going up ...”
“Is there anything you can just leave me?”
“Potentially, it just depends,” he said. “Roughly what are you guys paying monthly for power? Hundreds?”
“Potentially? Potentially?” said the woman. “You come here and want information from me, but there’s nothing you can give me to show the homeowner?”
Of course his pitch was going poorly. Who in 2022 wants a stranger knocking on their front door? And who, in the age of Amazon, would try to make a living this way?
Far from a lost art, door-to-door salesmanship persists, despite omnipresent retail options, internet convenience and it being a grinding way to make a living. Its ranks may be thinner than the mid-century heyday of the Fuller Brush man and encyclopedia hawkers, but thick-skinned strivers like Liam are still out there, talking up deals, reaping rewards.
The federal government estimates around 104,000 Americans work as door-to-door sales reps or street vendors. The Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater metro area now has the highest concentration of door-to-door sales reps in the nation — a major leap after not cracking the top 10 in 2020.
Pest control, home security and Florida’s burgeoning solar industry all rely on door knocks.
Seventeen months ago, Liam dropped out of college to move from New York to Florida to become a door-to-door salesman. He knew a guy down here selling rooftop solar energy systems. His Instagram posts made the money look great.
Nobody thought it was a good idea. Liam’s parents thought it was terrible.
But Liam, 22, remembered being advised to abandon his dreams before. A coach once told him he’d absolutely never play college basketball. After that he practiced free throws late into the night and, later, played for Long Island University.
He stepped off his flight to Orlando last year with $80 in his account and moved into an apartment with seven other door-to-door reps.
The pressure was incredible.
“I lost a ton of weight,” he said, “and not in a good way.”
He made a sale — “served a family” as they call it in the biz — on days one, two, four and five. They didn’t all come so easily, but he studied videos of the world’s best door-to-door reps in action and learned to be “a chameleon,” matching each potential customer’s energy.
He knocked on thousands of doors. People would greet him with the finger, with an f-bomb, with their buck-naked body. One grumpy man held a shotgun. Liam complimented the weapon, sold him a system and then drank one of the guy’s Busch Lights with him to celebrate.
He was asking people to make a major purchase, he knew, but he learned to believe in what he saw as helping families break free of utility companies — not through convincing them, but by “having conversations.”
The money was fantastic. Reps make around $1,000 to $4,000 on a deal. He bought the Tesla, got matching chains for him and his brothers and great Knicks seats for his parents. It was the kind of stuff they didn’t have when Liam was growing up, even after the family upgraded from a tiny Queens apartment to a house on Long Island.
“We moved there and all of a sudden my new friends had money,” he said. “People all around us had money, but we still didn’t. I was like, what is a country club?” That stayed with him. Now he’s looking to invest in real estate. He’s investing in his own app to help door-to-door reps, and another for restaurant menus.
At Spartan Solar, he progressed from appointment-setter to closer to the top rep in his office to running the fledgling Tampa office. Most days, he still hits the streets to sell.
On a typical day, Liam wakes in his Westshore apartment beneath an artwork titled “Farewell to Anger,” beside a bookshelf holding “No Excuses!” “Pitch Anything” and “Secrets of Closing the Sale,” within view of a dry-erase board reading “first house by June 2023,” “20 Etherium, 1 Bitcoin, 30 Solana,” and “capital, invest, repeat.”
He used to feel resentful and a little anxious. He read in “The Happiness Advantage” that he’d never be happy in life until he learned to be happy in the moment and he wouldn’t love others until he loved himself.
He takes a cold shower, works out, eats oatmeal, showers again.
He drives to a nondescript business park and unlocks a nondescript office that smells strongly of new carpet.
Ten sportily dressed, immaculately groomed men arrive, one only 16, the oldest few in their mid-20s. They play cornhole as electronic dance music blares through a Bluetooth speaker.
Liam sips sugar-free Red Bull, kills the lights and leads them in a Wim Hof breathing exercise of deep, rhythmic exhalations.
He stands under a blood-red logo splashed on the wall reading “300,” as in the epic film about hopelessly outnumbered warriors valiantly battling invaders. He talks about “milking the turf,” “re-knocks,” “question-based selling” and the “10 pillars of solar.”
He tells the reps to share what they’re thankful for and set a goal.
The people in this room … Three families served by Thanksgiving … Two quality conversations this week … Pay for my knee surgery … Buy my mom a better house.
The job is not for everyone. People come and go.
“It’s constant rejection,” Liam said. “But if you push through that, you can do anything.”
The people who try it are maybe a little lost, a little restless, big dreamers. Often, it seems, they’ve been through something, like a crushing breakup or the death of someone close.
Colton Johnston, 19, left South Dakota for Tampa two months ago after learning about solar sales online. So far he has served five families. He met Marcos Fuentes-Rodriguez, 16, at the gym and brought him in. Fuentes-Rodriguez, who was in his first week, said he was considering leaving high school for the job. Brennan Farr, 19, said he’d left community college in upstate New York six months ago to come work for Spartan.
“It’s all people like me,” Liam said of his team. “People who don’t come from a lot.”
They grow close, especially when they “blitz,” which is when a bunch of them rent an Airbnb in another city and relentlessly knock on doors for days on end. Most of them live together, study sales techniques together, go out to dinner and replay their interactions on the doorsteps together. Their support for each other, Liam said, goes way beyond work stuff.
“Alright, love you,” Liam said to one of the guys as he left to hit his territory for the day.
A tally of everyone’s sales for the past eight months hung on an office wall. Liam was at the top, with 60.
He knows how fast you can lose your spot. When he played college ball, the university consolidated its campuses, eliminating his Division II team in favor of a single Division I squad. He’d already struggled with injuries. He got offers, but just like that, he never played again.
The agitated woman with the crossed arms was inching back toward her door, seemingly ready to bail.
Liam pointed out a Navy license plate on a car in the driveway.
“My sister is in the Navy,” the woman said.
“OK, well, thank you for your service, and happy Veterans Day,” he said. “Fun fact, I’ve had a relative in every American war, dating back to the Revolution.”
Something softened, ever so slightly.
“Can I ask, why’d you choose TECO?” he said.
“It’s the only option.”
“Right, and given they’re a monopoly they raise the rates and you can’t do anything,” Liam continued. “Air conditioning is a necessity in Florida, right? ... We just want to get you down to a fixed rate, so you’re not basically paying a second car payment for electricity.”
This earned a smile, a nod, and even her name, Alex. Though ultimately Alex gave him another blow-off.
“Just give me your card.”
He convinced her to take his eco-friendly “digital business card,” delivered via text, opening a new line of communication.
Liam knocked on more doors. He got renters, aggressive people, confused people, people who pretended they weren’t home.
“It’s raining, it’s almost Friday night, I don’t know,” he said, back at the wheel of the Tesla, sounding a bit discouraged. “I can’t even get a conversation going.”
Of course not. Nobody thinks they want a salesperson at their door. Liam knows that. Who would make a major purchase this way?
He pulled into a Wawa to use the bathroom and his iPhone buzzed with a text. It was Alex. She wanted him to come back and sit down with her and her mom to talk it through.
Liam smiled. That’s who.
Florida by the numbers
* 130,000 + solar systems installed statewide
* 40,000 + solar systems installed in 2021
* No. 3 nationwide in solar capacity
* 11,200 + residents employed in solar industry
* 400 + companies operating in the state
Sources: Solar Energy Industries Association, Florida Public Service Commission