A relatively new LED tape light company is poised for prime-time exposure in the Spectrum showroom at the June Dallas Market
In an industry not known for keeping secrets, the existence of LED Inspirations may have been kept on the down low for the past two years, but it has been slowly building up momentum. We sat down with company founder Nick Senofsky to learn more about his new product and what makes it stand out in a crowded category.
enLIGHTenment Magazine: Tell me about your background.
Nick Senofsky: I graduated in 1983 with a bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering from Texas A&M. Right after I graduated, I was working for a large computer firm selling multi-million-dollar, large-scale testing equipment for several years. Later on, I started up a successful data company – Apartment Data Services – in Houston, which I later sold to my business partner. Soon I was ready for a new challenge: buying retailer Lighting Unlimited in Houston.
As I learned how to size a chandelier over a dining table, select the proper metal finish to match the room’s décor, and discern the difference in crystal quality, I found that my technical background quickly made our store the destination point for LED lighting.
However, I was not satisfied with the quality of the LED lighting available on the market. My engineering education and experience has served me well as I tackle the challenges involved in designing and manufacturing high-quality LED products. I have a unique ability to take technical information and explain it in a way that non-technical people can understand. This is a skill I have taught to our design and support staff so that as they interact with our customers, we can support them with a technical product in ways that help our clients understand it better instead of making them feel frustrated or unintelligent.
EM: When did you start up LED Inspirations?
NS: August 2010. I stepped down from Lighting Unlimited and began designing and laying out plans to release a new LED tape line.
EM: What did you feel was missing in the industry?
NS: I took over Lighting Unlimited in September 2007, when LED products were just beginning to hit the market. The previous owner had already begun selling some LED products, but at that point not many stores offered [the category] because it was expensive and unfamiliar. Most lighting store owners came at lighting from a design perspective – I think this is still true today – and were uncomfortable with the technical nature of LED products. This is especially true with LED tape light, where the design includes complexities such as run-length limits, matching the proper size driver to the load, and many issues concerning dimming. Because of my technical background, I was intrigued with LED products and wanted to feature them in order to stay current in the lighting industry.
As we approached the summer of 2008, when it was clear that we were in a full-blown Recession, I decided that mastering LED products was going to be the strategy that would get us through it. I wanted Lighting Unlimited to be known as the go-to store for everything LED, green, and energy-efficient. I even built an LED room in the middle of the showroom that featured all the latest LED products.
Through this strategy, we began selling a significant volume of LED products. I noticed there was one LED product that sold 3x more than all the other products: LED tape light. We used it everywhere – in closets, under and over cabinets, toe kicks, inside drawers and china closets, signage, highlighting coves, edge-lighting glass, and for back-lighting onyx. We literally sold miles of LED tape light. And then – it started to get returned.
First we had some issues with the connectors. Then, we were experiencing issues with the adhesive failing and the product coming undone. However, the biggest problem we had involved color consistency. The worst was when we had product come back from several large jobs where, after installing the product, the lack of consistent color across the run caused the purchaser to return it. That made us look bad.
While I was enamored with the idea of LED tape light because of its versatility, I was not happy with the LED tape light I was buying. I was also frustrated with the lack of support from the vendors concerning their LED products. I started looking at other vendors of LED tape light and was not impressed.
It was then that I thought of reinventing the product from the circuit board up. My experiences in the field working with LED tape light taught me its strengths as well as its weaknesses. Furthermore, I knew I could train a support staff that would truly help showroom owners and their sales staff sell LED Tape Light with confidence since I had literally been in their shoes!
EM: That’s a pretty daunting undertaking. Was creating your own product harder than you anticipated?
NS: Believe it or not, designing my own LED tape light was relatively easy! From an electrical engineering standpoint, it is a pretty simple circuit. The biggest challenge, however, was finding a factory that would build it to my exact specification. I spent many weeks talking with factories all over the world. Many of them out-right rejected my design, admitting that they could not build a product with such tight tolerances for color variation. Other factories said they could build it without a problem, in which case I knew to stay away!
The factories I spent the most time evaluating were those that honestly engaged with what I was trying to accomplish. I spent hours talking to engineers and technical directors in factories that would be responsible for making my product if I selected them. Many of them didn’t understand why the quality I was shooting for was even important. The search was grueling, but ultimately I found a factory that understood what I wanted. They appreciated the quality I wanted to achieve and honestly understood what it would take to build it.
EM: What exactly is different about your LED tape light?
NS: When I invented the Inspire LED tape line, my goal was to build a Ferrari product and sell it at the same price as the other Corvettes. I believe my Inspire LED tape light is superior to any other out there at a competitive price. Why? We are the only LED tape line that uses that top-of-the-line 3M adhesive on the back. The adhesive we use is the same adhesive used to stick trim pieces on the exterior of cars!
We are the only LED tape line that I know of that uses a polyurethane coating. Some LED tape light is not coated at all, which means the circuit board is exposed. As a retailer and user of LED tape light, I have never liked this idea. What other electronic device do you have in your home that has an exposed circuit board? None. Of the LED tape lines that are coated, most all of them use epoxy which gets hard, cracks easily, and turns yellow. Our polyurethane coating does not get hard, will not crack, and does not turn yellow. Other LED tape lines must have their connector oriented properly or their product will not light. Our connector is reversible – you simply cannot get it wrong! This is important because it makes it easy for electricians who are only familiar with 120VAC fixtures with two black wires (think of a wall sconce) that can be connected to 120VAC either way.
However, the main difference is our color consistency. We have the tightest tolerances for color consistency in the industry. All of our tape light is +/- 100K. This was the real problem that was plaguing me when I sold my competitors’ products at my lighting store. I knew that if I was going to have a product that was head and shoulders above my competitors, I would need to tackle this issue head on and conquer it.
EM: So now that you have the product made to your specs, how have you gotten the word out?
NS: I am very fortunate to have some of the finest manufacturer’s reps in the industry representing my product. They are masters in their field and have tight relationships with showroom owners in their territories. I can’t state enough how important this is! These reps are trusted by showroom owners who take their advice on which products to buy. I’ve also found that quality product will sell by word of mouth. When you manufacture an excellent product and have superb technical support and customer service, customers tell people about you. We are currently enhancing our Web site so that retailers can see application pictures, FAQs, product specifications, and even instructional videos.
EM: What kind of feedback have you heard?
NS: There are two things I hear repeatedly. First, retailers love having a product that they can sell with confidence. My best customers are those that have been using a competitive product and have experienced, first-hand, the problems associated with a lack of color consistency. They all have a horror story about a job that went south. The details are different, but the punch line is always the same: the color of the LED tape light shifted across the run and their customer was upset.
Recently I was in a showroom where the employees told me they were lighting up 13 steps with LED tape light. They finished 10 steps, and then opened a new package of LED tape light to finish. They turned on the lights and the last three steps didn’t match. I interrupted their story at this point with, “Let me guess. You then ripped out the LED tape light on the last three steps, opened another package of LED tape light, and that didn’t match either.” Their response was, “How did you know?”
Secondly, my customers love being able to pick up the phone and get live technical support – immediately. We have design staff dedicated to helping customers with layouts for their projects. They can send us an AutoCad file with their customers’ construction plans, a napkin sketch, or smoke signals – we’ll answer it all! We have a dedicated email address (Designs@LEDInspirations.com) where customers send us layouts. It goes into a queue where the next designer up tackles it. Our goal is to turn layouts around within one business day, but often it is done the same day. We also aren’t afraid to tackle the difficult questions that no one else is answering, such as “Will this integrate with my 1980 Lutron Grafik Eye” or “How do I control your RGB color-changing LED tape light from our DMX light control board in our church?”
When I first invented the Inspire LED tape light line, I thought it would sell because it was a superior product at a fair price. Now think that is only 40 percent of the reason showrooms buy it. I believe that more than 50 percent do business with my company because they know they can get the full support they need to sell a technical product.
EM: Where do you go from here?
NS: Currently we have several new products on the drawing board, but before we release those there are still many facets of our current product line to fill out. One of the benefits of being a company with a single product line is our laser focus on improving it. We are already looking at the next generation of super-bright LEDs that are brighter and even more efficient. Our catalog is not two inches thick; it’s only seven pages. I tell people we are a single note violin player, but it’s a Stradivarius!
To become a distributor for LED Inspirations you must have a brick-and-mortar showroom. We solidly stand behind our retailers and are careful about whom we open up. We do have a stocking distributor program with a buy-in under $1,000. We do not want to load up showrooms with stock. When I ran Lighting Unlimited, I knew that I needed enough stock to supply the customer who wanted to light up a small kitchen or bookcase. If I didn’t have it in stock, we would lose that customer. Therefore, our philosophy is “Stock for the small jobs, order for the large jobs.” For under $1,000, a showroom can become a distributor and have enough parts and pieces to be stocked for the small jobs. Because our warehouse is in Houston and the product is small, it ships quickly, and enables our distributors to not have to carry a lot of stock. We work hard to keep everything in stock so that our customers don’t have to deal with backorders.
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