When Steve Riggs launched his outdoor lighting business in 1999, he came up with a clever way to slip inside gated communities in order to distribute advertising flyers. “I waited for a mail man or delivery truck to go through the gate and I slid in behind them while the gate was open,” he recalled.
The resourceful Riggs no longer has to resort to maneuvers like this. Nowadays, he’s welcomed with opened arms—and gates—into Central Florida’s swankest residential communities where he lights up gardens, decks, swimming pools, statues, pathways and waterfalls with low voltage, weather-resistant decorative outdoor fixtures. Riggs’ company, Illuminations USA, Inc., based in Orlando, Fla., employs seven people and posts sales of $600,000.
Riggs never set out to light up people’s yards. He wasn’t trained as an electrician—he hires pros to do that—and he didn’t attend design or trade school or spend time as an apprentice. “I learned this business by reading books and picking the brains of lighting pros,” he said.
For years Riggs sold auto accessories and installing seat coverings and tinted windows. But weary of the day-to-day grind he sold the business and figured he’d live off the proceeds. One day an electrician friend asked Riggs to help him install outdoor lighting in a backyard. “I thought we’d bury Malibu lights in the bushes but we spent five days installing an elaborate lighting system,” recalled Riggs. “It was fun. Later, I helped him on another job.”
Then Riggs’ retirement plan collapsed: The people who bought his business defaulted and Riggs got back a business he had no interest in running again. He sold off the inventory and kicked around ideas for a business venture. He settled on outdoor lighting even though his experience was limited to helping a friend light two yards. “I decided to teach myself the business,” he said.
Riggs spent four days at the public library digesting material on designs and fixtures. A notice in a trade journal caught his eye: Nightscaping, a manufacturer of light fixtures, based in Redlands, Calif., offered three-day seminars at which it demonstrated its products—for free. Riggs signed on, and got a crash course on landscape lighting. “I discovered there’s more to putting lights under a tree than putting lights under a tree,” he said.
Riggs learned how to position fixtures for maximum lighting, the correct voltage to use and effects such as spread lighting, grazing, moonlighting—flood beams placed high on trees—for a shadowy look, and so on.
Riggs heard that Kichler, a manufacturer based in Cleveland, Ohio, also held free seminars. “I got invited to attend—at my expense, of course,” said Riggs.
He was impressed with Kichler’s operation. “I liked the way they helped contractors,” he said. “At that point, I saw a future for myself.”
Riggs met Kichler’s representative in Central Florida, Craig Ripple. He took Riggs under his wing. “I tagged along on sales calls,” said Riggs. Ripple introduced Riggs to a valuable sales tool—night-time demonstrations. “You plug in a transformer, place fixtures around, and turn on the lights at night and the customer gets a preview of the effect,” explained Riggs. “It’s a great way to close a sale.”
Riggs cranked up his business. He took $5,000 from savings for start-up expenses—occupational license, liability insurance, a used truck and trailer and fixtures. He worked from home but rented storage space.
He designed a logo and printed business cards. He laid out an advertising flyer. “I had nothing of my own to show so I used photos of Kichler products and wrote a line offering to demonstrate the lighting,” recalled Riggs. He paid $160 for a mailing list and sent flyers to residences around Orlando.
Riggs got three responses, but none panned out. “But it was worth it for the experience I got making sales presentations and demonstrations,” he said.
Finally, Riggs got a nibble from a homeowner in Oviedo, outside Orlando, and closed a sale. “The nighttime demonstration clinched it,” he said.
Riggs said early on he learned this was an up-and-down business. “For 10 days I don’t get a call and then I get four or five in a row,” he said. It’s a competitive business, too. Riggs thinks his personal attention gives him an edge over larger competitors.
Biz owner Riggs eked out first-year sales of $25,000 and dipped into savings to get by. By year two, his business caught on. He did two demonstrations a night and revenues climbed to $100,000 and have steadily risen since then.
The entrepreneur mostly works on homes ranging in value from $250,000 to $500,000, but he lands big jobs, too. For example, he did an $84,000 job at the $10 million home of then-Orlando Magic basketball star Horace Grant. It utilized lights by the swimming pool, water fountain, statues, bushes and palm trees and pathways.
Riggs advertises in the Yellow Pages, on a website and radio and television but mostly benefits from word-of-mouth and referrals.
Like most industries, lighting technology is changing. “We’re using more and more LED lights—no bulbs—which is 75 percent more energy-efficient than standard lights,” said Riggs. “At some point all lighting will be LED.”
Looking ahead, Riggs wants his business to grow—but not too much. “I want it to stay manageable,” he said, “and still be fun.” •