How a Lighting Entrepreneur Had His ‘Light Bulb’ Moment

April 22, 2018, 10:00 PM UTC
Cole Zucker, CEO of Green Creative.
Photograph by Brad Wenner For Fortune
After getting fired from his job in New York, Cole Zucker booked a one-way ticket to Shanghai, in search of adventure in a country where he knew no one and spoke no Chinese. After three years, he became fluent in the language, found a business partner, and returned to the U.S. to start Green Creative, a commercial LED lighting company. Living out of his car in San Francisco, Zucker then went door-to-door selling the new technology out of a display suitcase. Last year, Green Creative was acquired by Harbour Group, and its cofounder is still selling its products to end users like Walmart, Papa John’s, J. Crew, and other retailers.

I had a middle-class Jewish upbringing and thought I wanted to be a doctor, but I quickly realized that wasn’t me. My grandfather was in the towel business and loved talking about China and the World Trade Organization. In 2003 I decided to do a semester abroad in Beijing, which made me realize there were a lot of places to explore in the world.

After graduating from Franklin & Marshall College, I took a job with Prudential Securities in New York as a fixed-income investment management trainee. I was the worst management trainee in the history of the program and got fired after the first year. I had about $3,000 in my bank account, so I bought a one-way ticket to Shanghai, packed two duffel bags of clothes, and booked an eight-week stay in a hostel that cost $500.

I applied to accounting firms and finance offices for a month, then, through my parents’ friends, got a call from Gary Gao, the owner of Everbright Engineering, which had factories that sold sustainable building materials to multinational companies.

He thought it would be prestigious to have a non-Chinese employee who spoke English, so he hired me to expand sales inside China. I was 22 years old and started on 5,000 renminbi a month, which was about $8,000 a year.

I didn’t speak any Chinese, so I’d memorize the Chinese dictionary on my subway commute to work. On the weekends I’d talk to everyone I could and teach them English while they conversed with me in Chinese.

After a successful three years learning how business was conducted in China, I was ready to go home and start my own company.

It was 2009, and I’d read an article that said in the next 10 years, LED lighting would grow from 2% of the U.S. market to 80%. That was my light bulb moment. I said, I’m going to take LED and bring it to the U.S.

While in China I met Guillaume Vidal, a Frenchman who also worked in lighting. We hung out for a while, then didn’t see each other for about six months. One night I came home and accidentally sat down on the TV remote. Guillaume was on the TV, talking on a food channel, so I got back in touch with him, and we started planning a business.

I wanted to move back to the U.S. He wanted to stay in China. I wanted to do sales, and he wanted to do R&D. Both of us spoke Chinese fluently, so we found a supplier and got a factory to give us a chance. I started to pitch friends and family, but no one was willing to invest.

I’d saved enough to put $100,000 into the company, and I moved to San Francisco to open up the U.S. market.

We ordered about $60,000 of inventory, and I found a public storage space where you paid only $1 for the first month. For the first six months I’d register under one friend’s name, change it to another name, and move from one expiring storage locker to the next, paying only $1 a month for the space.

I was getting rejected on sales calls so often, I decided to create the demand myself. Guillaume had a suitcase of display LED light bulbs made, and I walked into businesses, telling people these bulbs could make their store look better and save them a ton of money.

Office towers have a lot of lights, and the engineers get in at 4 a.m., so I would show up outside a parking garage at 4:30 a.m. to approach the engineers while they were having coffee and ask to show my light bulbs. I’d screw the bulbs into the display sockets and plug the suitcase into an outlet for the demonstration.

By the end of the first year I had made $300,000 selling door-to-door. Lighting distributors who had rejected us earlier started hearing about me and said if I stopped selling directly to their customers, they’d take our products. That’s when I knew we had broken through.

The second year, Guillaume figured out how to build an innovative range of LED lights that distributors loved. Sales went to $2 million in the Bay Area. My grandfather got me an old Mazda 3, and to save money, I’d hang clothes in the back seat, sleep in the car overnight, and go to a gym to shave and shower before starting to sell each day.

Sales continued to grow; we secured a $1.25 million loan and $250,000 from an angel investor.

In 2013 we started hiring salespeople around the country and became known as a tiny but innovative brand of LED light bulbs.

We now have about 5% of the LED commercial light bulb market. Our customers are wholesalers who sell to end users like Papa John’s, Foot Locker, Walmart, J. Crew, and other big retailers. We’re known for making smaller light bulbs that create the most amount of light for high-end retail stores.

About a year and a half ago we shifted the focus to lighting fixtures, which was about 26% of our business last year. We sold our business to Harbour Group a few months ago and merged operations with ILP (Industrial Lighting Products), which manufactures lighting fixtures. We’re projecting sales of $150 million this year.

In the beginning, we didn’t even know how to do a balance sheet. We were stupid, but we were willing to take a risk. It’s paid off.

Streamlining Development

Cole Zucker, cofounder, Green Creative

The product life cycle of older light bulbs can last 10 years. But LED technology is changing so quickly, the shelf life is about a year.When large lighting companies build out a product line, they have an international customer line, an R&D department, and certification people. It takes 18 to 24 months for new products to come out.

We built a speedboat and develop products in six to eight months. We hire people to do R&D, certification, and marketing, and all three teams work together so they all send material to Energy Star while we’re in development. When the product is ready, it goes directly to market.

Subscribe to Well Adjusted, our newsletter full of simple strategies to work smarter and live better, from the Fortune Well team. Sign up today.