If I told you I was passionate about the lighting industry from a young age, it wouldn’t be remotely true. I never planned to have a career in lighting at all.
Up until my mid-twenties, I’d tried many things: tennis coaching, fantasy sports games, and sports marketing, I did some of them quite well, and some not so well, but I can’t say I enjoyed any of them.
But around 2004 I started working for my father’s CCTV company, a market leader in designing and manufacturing video modem systems, such as DuoLinks and DataLinks: used everywhere from the London Underground and border protection systems, to Wimbledon and the Olympic Games.
I was asked to travel out to the manufacturing hub in Taiwan, to assess the build quality of some new products. The same manufacturer had also been developing LED Bulbs for a year or more.
It was the first time I’d seen LED Bulbs and I was intrigued. I was told that soon all bulbs in domestic homes would be LEDs, reducing worldwide energy consumption by 70%, with a product lifespan of up to 10 years. It was one of those raised eyebrow moments — was I really witnessing the birth of a product that would change the world?
They showed me the bulbs. And wow, they were horrible. Huge and ugly, with harsh blue light and a built-in cooling fan that kept breaking. But I was completely sold on the idea that switching to LED Bulbs could slash global energy consumption almost overnight. I called the office to say I wouldn’t be home for a while. I was going to stay and watch LED technology develop first-hand, and learn directly from the pioneers.
I reckoned that if I could learn enough about LED technology, and build contacts and relationships, then by the time the rest of the world caught on I’d be a pretty useful person to know.
I was expecting a lot of interest from the public sector and politicians. Governments had fallen over themselves to subsidise compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) — by around 70% — to get them into homes and businesses quickly, and take the strain off national grids. I was sure that history would repeat itself. And I couldn’t have been more wrong.
I was lucky to have friends in Hong Kong who would put me up, and it was easy to travel around Asia quickly and cheaply.
But it couldn’t last. After burning through most of my money, and without a proper wage, I was about to go home.
I was sitting at the bar in the JW Marriott Hotel in Hong Kong when I started chatting to an American who worked for a large electrical distributor. As luck would have it, he’d been sent over to source LED bulbs, and didn’t have the first clue where to start looking. One hour and one phone call later, I was invited to act as their sourcing agent for LED lighting products.
And that’s how it all began. Before long, I had a number of very happy clients, and was making very good money.
But around 2010, the market suddenly changed. Everyone and their dog was sourcing cheap products via Alibaba, or a quick trip to the Hong Kong lighting show. You could hardly move for western companies looking for deals, and Asian manufacturers hoping to cash in on the demand. I wasn’t concerned at first, as the products being bought and sold were poor quality and mostly assembled from third party kits.
What I hadn’t banked on was how quickly the market became a race to the bottom. Customers who’d been ahead of the curve and happy to buy quality LEDs, were suddenly competing against cheap products offering more lumens — no thought for heat dissipation — and wildly-exaggerated lifespan figures (50,000 hours was typical). They decided to join the race.
I was getting spec sheets with target prices that were less than half the price of the previous orders. I questioned the logic:
‘How do you expect a manufacturer to purchase quality raw materials, invest in R&D, pay decent salaries, ensure working conditions are safe, turn a profit and provide you with a quality product at that price?’
Here’s one response, word for word:
‘Chris, we’ve enjoyed working with you, but times have changed, you need to adapt or we will find someone who can do what we ask. The quantities we’ve purchased and are looking to purchase should be enough for either a major reduction in price from existing suppliers, or you, or someone like you, [can] find us new ones.’
It was the same with most of my clients. If I didn’t adapt and do what they asked, I’d have very little work. I decided to adapt.
This is where my true education started: having to conduct factory inspections, assess product quality and working conditions at manufacturers operating at the lowest price points in the industry. I wasn’t prepared for it. My experience up to this point counted for almost nothing. I was completely out of my depth and had no idea what I was getting into, or what it would do to my mental health.
Pre-arranged factory inspections never give you a real sense of how an operation is run. I learnt about that the hard way.
One manufacturer booked me into a top-end hotel, and sent a car with ‘VIP’ stuck on the side.
I stepped out onto a red carpet to be greeted by the President of the company and the entire factory staff. I was provided with an interpreter, and given a tour of the factory and an incredible lunch. We discussed pricing, and samples were made while I waited. I dispatched the bulbs to the UK for testing. This was going to be easier than I thought.
The test results were positive: some power supply suggestions, a few issues with build quality, but nothing major. Six weeks later the first order was on a boat heading to my customer. The failure rate was around 8% but given the price they could live with it. The second order was double the original.
This time the failure rate was a jaw-dropping 79%. I retrieved some bulbs from the customer, got fresh samples from the manufacturer and sent the lot back to the UK to be thoroughly assessed. The two batches were identical to look at but completely different inside. The ones sent to the customer had a different LED chip, different power supply, lousy build quality and low-grade raw materials.
About a week later I was in yet another hotel explaining my troubles to an electrical engineer from Australia. He laughed and told me I’d fallen for the oldest trick in the book — the ‘switcheroo’. That man taught me more in four hours than I’d learned in the previous two years — all I had to do in return was buy him cocktails all night. I had to cancel my flight the next day due to the worst hangover I’ve had in my life. But it was worth it.
One trick he taught me was to do the factory inspection as arranged, sit tight in my hotel for a couple of days, then go back and try and get in unannounced.
About half the manufacturers had effective security, but the rest of the time getting in was easy. I quickly discovered that most of the products weren’t built in the area I’d toured, but in neighbouring warehouses and factories.
I saw incredibly unsafe working environments, zero health and safety, people working very long hours in incredibly hot environments, toxic substances dumped in drains and sometimes rivers, unacceptable living conditions for migrant workers, and bosses who didn’t treat their employees as human beings.
I photographed factories, part numbers, time sheets, and branded boxes for well known global brands.
It began to sink in that I was part of the problem. I was helping to facilitate these appalling working environments. I’m sure most of the big brands whose boxes I saw had never visited the factory. They didn’t want to know. Ignorance was their ‘get out of jail card’, but I didn’t have that excuse.
Since then I’ve been ‘arrested’ in China on numerous occasions, had my phone smashed or confiscated, and been physically ejected over the border into Hong Kong. That is the reality of cheap prices.
During one factory inspection, I got lost and ended up in the dormitories. In a dark room with no window, I saw a young mother breastfeeding her child. Water was dripping through the ceiling and the single light had exposed electrical wires. I emptied my pockets, gave her everything I had, and sent my clients an email to say I couldn’t work with them anymore, effective immediately.
I wrote to the brands whose boxes I’d seen, telling them what was going on. Most ignored me, some sent threatening letters from lawyers, and just one company asked me to go and see them as soon as I got back. They were horrified by what I told them, and instantly stopped working with that manufacturer. They still buy LED bulbs from me to this day.
In time I built up a network of high-quality manufacturers, and decided to take their products directly to UK consumers. In 2009, Energysavingled was born.
It was a great success, but I was now faced with the exact same issues as my early customers: new retailers popping up literally overnight with cheap prices, ridiculous product lifespans, and deceptive permanent discounts to lure in the unwary.
But I also met a lighting designer who was keen to purchase LED bulbs for hospitality projects — as long as they had a better quality of light, wouldn’t fail, would dim properly and didn’t have the ugly ceramic heat sink that was a feature of early LED bulbs. And that’s when Energysavingled was re-branded as Well-lit.
Well-lit was created to supply the finest LED filament lamps to the professional market at prices that made them incredible value for money. Bujar Shkodra and I set up the company from my kitchen table, with my father’s double garage as a stock room.
We didn’t pay much attention to sales funnels, branding, or PR, and couldn’t afford any of that anyway. We resolved to put every penny into the products, the people making them, and the service we were giving our customers.
If we made a product the hospitality industry truly valued, it wouldn’t need much selling. We could grow organically, by word of mouth, and put our profits back into R&D and manufacturing. We would spend very little on marketing, and nothing at all on fancy offices. Those things just weren’t a priority.
Being approachable, transparent and — most importantly — trusted would set our brand apart, and we’d do it through relentless honesty.
As company founders, we didn’t want to hide in the background pretending to be important. We wanted to be approachable by anyone, because if you aren’t speaking to your customers on a daily basis, you can’t adapt and keep moving forward. If you stand still, someone takes your market. No one I know implements this philosophy more thoroughly than Bujar, who still spends most of his time on the phone to customers.
One of the problems we identified early on was that mass production and automated machinery could churn out a lot of bulbs pretty quickly, but too often the filaments weren’t aligned properly, the glass was scratched or dented, caps weren’t put on straight, and they had quite a high failure rate.
The workforce had no respect for the products: and when that happens, it’s impossible to deliver quality and excellence.
So Bujar and I ‘kidnapped’ Tim, and flew him out to Asia to meet our preferred manufacturer and develop a new way of making LED Bulbs. We also set about designing a power supply, and testing dimmer performance with all major dimmer manufacturers.
Our most far-reaching decision was that every single well-lit bulb would be made entirely by hand. No automation or machines. It’s impossible to exaggerate how much difference this makes.
Luckily our Asian manufacturer understood the potential, and covered the cost of set-up and training the staff. Without his commitment, well-lit wouldn’t exist, and we are eternally grateful to him.
I’ve got used to being laughed at about this. But when people can’t see past the costs, they can’t appreciate the benefits:
- Employees are trained to become skilled workers with transferable skill sets, earning higher pay. They take pride in every item, and staff turnover is very low
- Build quality is second to none, with by far the lowest failure rate in the industry
- It’s easier to keep aesthetics consistent, from the alignment of the filaments and the caps, to the flawless glass
- Quality control is rigorous and automatic, because everyone checks the work of the person before them
- Errors or mistakes are easily found and the product recycled at source — dramatically reducing wastage
We also put ethics and sustainability at the heart of things from day one. Post hoc policies like offsetting can be helpful when companies need to make a change, but they’re a tacit admission that you’re knowingly causing a significant problem, and need to make up for it.
So we started as we meant to go on.
Our factory would be located away from traditional manufacturing hubs like Shenzhen, so workers didn’t have to migrate and live away from their families to find work. They’d get above average pay and a free lunch every day (a lunch so good workers from neighbouring factories still try their luck), and safe, clean, fair working conditions were guaranteed.
One of our proudest moments came when we were nominated for ‘Ethical Product of the Decade’ in the Observer Ethical Awards. We still have no idea who put our name forward, but with thousands of great companies in contention, reaching the final shortlist was confirmation that our way of doing things is valued.
To this day, well-lit is entirely privately-funded. When competitors raise millions in venture capital, we know we can’t beat them on scale or brand awareness. But by maintaining our laser-like focus on products, people, and service we can provide a far more valuable and sustainable service to customers who share our values.
Well-lit makes the most advanced and ethically-made LED filaments lamps on the planet.
If that ever changes, we’ll be sure to let you know.