In every career field and every position there are steps to take. In business you’ll often hear the story about climbing the corporate ladder. An employee started their career working in the mail room or answering phones at the receptionist’s desk and eventually worked their way up into a solid position near the top of the company. Stories like this happen all the time in the business world. Being an entrepreneur never excludes you from these steps. You might start out at the top of the ladder as far as position goes but there are still steps to take in order to achieve your ultimate goal. Getting there takes time. Sometimes you’ll go from A to Z in no time flat. For most entrepreneurs the road to Z takes time to navigate and steps along the way can be rocky to maneuver. But no matter which steps you take, most entrepreneurs enjoy the climb.
Patrick Harders, owner of Enlightened Lighting, LLC and Co-Owner of Sterling Lighting, took a slow and steady pace when it came time to open the doors of his businesses. “I was living in Charlotte, NC, I’m originally from Chicago, but I was living in Charlotte and working at a marketing position. I had gone through two years of college and ran out of funds so I started a career in sales and did well. In 1997 I decided to go back to school. I left my job and entered into college full-time. I had about 58 credits to try and get through. I went through them very quickly and started working for a lighting company doing nighttime designs. I would do classes during the day and nighttime designs in the evening. That really began my lighting career. I did that for a couple of years before I graduated and in 2001 I purchased an outdoor lighting franchise from the same company I was working for. Once I bought it, I moved up to Northern Virginia and that was all in 2001. I did that for 10 years, worked on my franchise. The franchise went through some upheaval and once I fulfilled my agreement I chose to leave the franchise, started Enlightened Lighting and shortly after that I started Sterling Lighting with Damien Sanchez. We had started doing LED lighting installations and found that there were a lot of problems out there and we needed to research how to fix these problems just to fulfil my own installations. It took us down a path of bringing in some engineers and creating our own fixtures. From there Sterling (Lighting) was born and we started distributing those fixtures across America. We have two separate companies. One is the local design and installation company and the other is a national manufacturing company that distributes the products directly to the lighting contractors.”
With two businesses running at once, Harders depends on skills he has learned through his career both as an entrepreneur and during his time in sales. “I think sales skills, what I learned early on, is just how to talk to people and relate to people. I did a recent article in the Post and they laughed at me because I told them I was in sales and never thought I was a good salesman. The idea behind it was that I just try and be a friendly guy. I think people buy from others they like. Learning these communication skills of talking and relating to people is important. Putting yourself in their shoes and thinking about how I would want someone to approach me was essential in my lighting career. Then I graduated with my finance degree which gave me some more training. Having a vision for what I want to see, how I would like the company to grow, I learned a lot of that through my different experiences. I think everything kind of worked together to bring me up to this point.
There’s a common saying these days that with the power of technology there is ‘a business for everything’. Harders juggles two businesses which are centered on the lighting industry from designing to manufacturing. “Enlightened Lighting is a full service landscape lighting company. We’ve done a couple thousand homes throughout the DMV area. We do a full, custom design for each of our customers. The Sterling Company is about designing cutting edge landscape lighting fixtures that are bullet proof and indestructible. We design them as reliable and as energy efficient as possible.”
Balancing two businesses can give someone a great deal of insight into how an upcoming entrepreneur can achieve their goals of getting a business off the ground. Harders has some words of wisdom for entrepreneurs knocking on the industry door. “Find a great accountant early on that will help guide you through making sure your business is setup correctly and that your numbers are accurate. Find a good attorney because you’re going to have questions when filling out forms. You’re going to want to have someone you trust with a similar vision. Have a good website design or marketing person. Have someone you can talk to as well because unfortunately a lot of the time you get so busy that you can’t be an expert in everything. Bringing on outside help for those aspects makes a big difference. Even in advertising we did all the gorilla marketing. Then we got busy and we became too busy to continue marketing. Setting up those systems is important. Finally…just hire the right people. Find people slow and train them well.”
Being an entrepreneur means stepping into the unknown for a lot of people. It’s a learning process which might get somewhat easier but never stays the same. Having a great location to build upon can give you the boost you need to throw more power behind your project. The DMV area is particularly suited to embrace entrepreneurs and business owners at every turn. “There’s a lot of energy. I have friends who have started businesses in more rural areas and what I’ve liked about it here is that there are a lot of other entrepreneurs in the area. There are a lot of people I can talk to and ask advice from. So many of my customers have had successful businesses so it’s great to get to sit down and talk to them about what they did and how they grew their businesses. There are so many business opportunities and so many entrepreneurs in the area that there’s a lot of energy that I get from talking to people who are starting business and running businesses. It’s exciting to me.”