Five years ago this Sunday, many looked on as wind, rain, and floods devastated our country's Gulf Coast. Afterward, many also looked for an opportunity to help.
Among them were Nicholas Connor and Dennis Bertken, who both witnessed the destruction in 2005 and thought we all could do better. They shared a belief that people should be better prepared to handle such disasters. The two quickly joined forces and founded a company called LifeGear, which provides high-quality equipment like backpacks, flashlights, and accessory kits for people in emergencies.
Today the company operates in 80,000 storefronts throughout the U.S. and brings in millions of dollars in revenue each year. As the fifth anniverary of Hurricane Katrina approaches, LifeGear CEO Nicholas Connor and President Dennis Bertken talked to Inc. reporter Evan Klonsky about their distinctive origins and how far they've come since Katrina.
Q: Hurricane Katrina demonstrated just how unprepared people are for disasters. At what point during the course of those events were you two inspired to start the company?
Connor: The true inspiration for the company is the result of the two of us watching the tragedy of Katrina unfold. Watching it on TV, being exposed to suffering and the damage in the area, we asked ourselves, "How can a country like America have citizens that were not able to fare better during this time?"
Bertken: What we found out by doing a little bit of research was that in America we are very quick at hitting the alarm button. But as you can see, following Katrina, we are also very quick at hitting the snooze button. I was in San Diego at the time and like a lot of Americans, I remember watching on TV with total dismay of how this could possibly be happening. The image that resonated with me more than anything was seeing people trapped in their attic; only the people who had flashlights could be seen and rescued.
The only way to reach people was to integrate safety into products that they were going to buy anyway. If there was an emergency, the products people have at their homes and at work could help them in those situations.
Q: How long did it take to come up with the business plan and get the company on its feet?
Bertken: The company launched our first invention, the PSD 6n1, shortly after Katrina. We had this concept that was a crank-powered flashlight with a radio, a phone charger, and an emergency siren that all ran off of quad power.
Connor: We started in Dillard's department store in Little Rock. By the end of October 2005 we had an order for 15,000 units. Within the first six months we were doing over six million in revenue and hadn't hired an employee. We knew that innovation was going to have to be a key factor. We've launched one new product a month every month since 2005.
Q: Even though the company was born from one of our country's most tragic failures, and that's a unique experience, how would you advise other small-business owners to emulate your success?
Connor: A lot of start-up companies try to gain traction based on a good idea or good value. What Dennis and I learned very quickly was that what you deliver has to be almost exclusively market driven. If there's a problem and you see a solution, you have to know what is going to make that product get off the shelves. We did a lot of homework before we went to big retailers like Target, to make sure we fit into their total business.
Bertken: Address a real need in the market place. Stay focused. It's really easy to become distracted, and as an entrepreneur, you can see yourself wandering in many directions. We have always been very committed to LifeGear. We want to make sure that every product has the value that we see integrated into it.
Connor: The last thing I would say is run fast. It seems like every good idea has someone behind you who wants to knock it off. The true value of a brand is in the intellectual property. That can be diluted very quickly if your innovations are knocked off by other products if you don't patent them.
Q: Five years later, would you say Americans are now more educated and prepared to handle emergency and disaster situations?
Bertken: Absolutely. Some of these people may not realize that sitting in their kitchen drawers at home, there are emergency preparedness products.
The success of the company has reached well in excess of 20 million customers in the last 12 months alone. Now we're expanding into Latin America, Canada, Japan, Europe, and Australia. As a result of our products being in the market, people are definitely more prepared.