For start-up founder Scott Holland, coming up with a clever idea is as simple as asking, "Why not?"
It's how he took iLighting from fledgling stairwell-lighting kit supplier to $100,000 grand prize winner at the InvestMaryland Challenge in April, and how he plans to expand his small (but mighty) eight-person staff.
What the early-stage North East, Maryland-company lacks in pizazz, it more than makes up for in lighting products for indoor and outdoor stairs, decks, and cabinets. Its easy-plug wiring system is so simple to use, Holland tells customers they're doing it wrong if they think about reaching for wirecutters.
Inc. associate editor Jill Krasny spoke with Holland, a former Army helicopter mechanic and son of an electrical engineer, about iLighting's origins, why he listens to customers, and the importance of putting a Made in the U.S.A. sticker on every product.
Tell us how you got started.
We started eight years ago as Stairlighting Systems. In mid-2008, we invented a kit and received a patent. To have an international patent is very expensive, and a regular patent is expensive as it is. I felt that deterring people from duplicating your ideas in the U.S. would offer just a little extra sense of security, plus it's really nice to invent something and get it patented.
Who came up with the name?
Stairlighting didn't fit the outdoor decking world--it wasn't broad enough. So we started using Decklighting System. At the end of every deck is an empty connector, and it dawned on us one day, "Why don't we add our own line of masonry lights?" That would give us the ability to use one power supply for the deck, the stairs, and the landscape lights. When the phone rang, we don't know if we had an indoor, staircase, or deck customer, so we started doing business as iLighting. It's really a mother company and two sister companies.
What is your vision?
We want iLighting to be America's one-stop lighting shop at any given time in the year. When deck season stops, people start remodeling, so we need a line of products that can move inside with them.
How do you develop those products?
It really comes from our staff and spending a lot of time talking and listening to customers. Seventy-five percent of our product line has evolved through our ability to listen and create what they want, not what we want.
Where do you build and test your creations?
We're actually building a new facility in Baltimore, and as we move in we're putting in robotic equipment to manufacture our own circuit boards. That's what we'll use the InvestMaryland money for. Currently it's all done in China, and the freight and duty costs are expensive. We're really striving to be able to put a sticker on our box that says, 'Made in the U.S.A.'
Why is that sticker important?
I just think it's the right thing for America, and the right thing for my company. When a customer sees labels that say 'Made in Taiwan' or 'Made in China,' they think, "How did they cheapen this up?" When a product says it was made in the U.S.A., I think you have to live up to a higher reputation of quality than what you get from overseas.
Has being in Baltimore helped iLighting get off the ground?
Our state senator told me about the InvestMaryland Challenge, which helped put a value of $3 million to $4 million on our company. [In addition to the InvestMaryland grand prize, iLighting raised $5,000 from the Eastern Shore Economic Development Council.] That experience proved that we are doing something right, and it also helped us focus and define our direction. We also got involved with Tedco, another division of Maryland's economic development, which required us to write a very formidable business plan.
How are you spreading the word?
We rely on guerrilla marketing, because we have a really limited budget. We're commonly featured on the DIY Network's I Want This show, and were recently recognized by Home and Design magazine as the top lighting product for decks. The American Handyman Club also named us one of its highest-voted systems.
Did your background prepare you for what you do now?
I'm an active corporate pilot and fly for a pharmaceutical company. I also have an extensive maintenance background. I spent 30 years as an Army mechanic, although I never was in any combat situation. My father was an electrical engineer who started Project Mercury [the first U.S. human spaceflight program]. It's easy for me to look at something and see why I want it to work, and how it should work.