2017 INC. 5000 RANK: 1244
HEADQUARTERS: Harbor City, CA
YEAR FOUNDED: 2008
2016 REVENUE: $38.1 million
After 20 years in the IT world, Farzad Dibachi earned himself a glowing reputation with two successive companies that sold for millions. His second company Niku, which created cloud-based management applications, went public in 2000, before getting acquired by Computer Associates for $350 million in 2005. What followed is something that can only be described as going rogue. In 2007, Dibachi founded a lighting company. While his next move was decidedly analog, the mash-up of tech mindset and old-school market (commercial and industrial LED lighting) has helped catapult his company, Noribachi, to success. The company landed at No. 224 on this year’s Inc. 5000 list, with $22.9 million in revenue last year. And he’s just getting started.
--As told to Kate Rockwood
I spent years in Silicon Valley, testing the limits of personal computers and making IT a very personal thing. When I started Noribachi with my wife, Rhonda, we wanted to get some of the old gang together again. We found that energy efficiency resonates with a lot of people who have done well already--it’s a little more altruistic than just making the next IT product.
We’d been involved in personalizing computers, but how do you go about personalizing power usage? I wanted to find a way for people to save 50 percent without changing their habits at all. Nobody at Noribachi has ever been in the lighting business, but I see that as a strength. We’re all from Silicon Valley. We’re all hackers, constantly hacking.
We began been experimenting with different clean-tech products, including solar. But then one night, I was leaving the office around 9 p.m., and I noticed this 20-foot light pole in the parking lot that was very, very bright. I later found out it was a 1,000-watt light bulb. I was curious about what it looked like inside, so the next day we unbolted the light pole and opened up the light fixture. I was surprised by how little there was in it. What’s out there today--analog light bulbs--are as dumb as can be. They generate 5 percent of their energy into light and 95 percent into heat.
I had to call the landlord and explain what we’d done, but I promised to change it to an LED light bulb and put it back up. We designed an LED that gave him an instant 80 percent power savings, then went to Home Depot to get the two-by-fours and re-bolted it back in place. That’s how Noribachi really got started in the LED business.
Five years later, the industrial space is still less than 5 percent LED. But moving to digital isn’t just about energy savings. The applications are more dynamic, too. We can make ceiling lights that are remote-controlled with 32 million colors. We can integrate sensors into lights in mall parking lots that signal whether or not the snow should be plowed that morning. We just designed an off-the-grid system for a railroad company for remote crossings, with security cameras, phone connections and motion-activated lights.
Growing a company is really all about the people you hire. Noribachi had five employees in 2011 and more than 100 now. Every time we hire someone, the culture shifts, and you hope it does because that means everyone’s contributing. But if you allow culture to develop randomly, bad things will happen.
I don’t want to hire people who are interested in doing exactly what they’re told. I’m looking for an enthusiasm to not abide by the rules. That’s harder to find than you’d think. Most people are conservative. If you had a highway with no speed limit, the majority of drivers would still go about 90 miles per hour. It’s hard to come by someone who wants to go 200 miles per hour, but I strive to find those people. And then for every one person we hire who wants to go that fast, we find nine more who are supportive of those speeds even if it’s not their natural instinct.
Of course, it’s easier to build a culture when there are five of you and you all go to lunch every day. With a larger team, I realized that you can either be a CEO who hides or you can be in the middle of it all. So at Noribachi I walk into all kinds of meetings unannounced. I’m cc’ed on emails that are very much about the minutiae. I work from the manufacturing floor some days. People don’t cower or worry about what I might overhear, because they’re so used to seeing me.
That’s a big deal. If you can make people feel that what they’re doing is relevant and important, then you can hire people who don’t have the correct background. I can hire people with aspirations to make things better--even if that means a bit of chaos--and then my job is to generally make sure we’re all going in the same direction. Most days, it’s like drinking out of a fire hydrant.