This Business Focuses on Its Customers and the Planet

Two entrepreneurs take a customer-centric approach to helping the planet while making a profit.
(Photo: Courtesy aspectLED; illustration: Jessica De Jesus)
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Oct 20, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Bekah Wright is a Los Angeles–based journalist who specializes in travel, entertainment, and lifestyle.

As a new technology emerges, so do businesses that can use and improve that technology in limitless ways. Steve and Beth Nielsen saw such an opportunity to innovate new LED technology while they were evaluating lighting fixtures for their energy-efficient home.

LED fixtures were becoming more commonplace, but the Nielsens ran into numerous challenges finding ones they liked while building their home. “We could find LED fixtures or aesthetically pleasing regular fixtures but not both in one package,” Steve says. Moreover, they discovered architects weren’t designing homes to accommodate the height and depth requirements of LED fixtures.

That’s when the proverbial lightbulb went off, and the Nielsens asked themselves, “Why not start building LED lighting from an architectural perspective?” Thus, in 1998, the couple began using personal funds to launch aspectLED.

Almost immediately, the Nielsens ran into a challenge, and their experience in the tech industry didn’t translate well into traditional manufacturing. “When you’re working online or with software, there are a lot of ready-made systems out there for empowering your business,” Steve says. “This wasn’t the case in the manufacturing world.”

Beth with flexible light strip. (Photo: Courtesy aspectLED)

To navigate this universe, the duo toured hundreds of manufacturing facilities and hired forward-thinking manufacturing managers who had the expertise the Nielsens hadn’t developed yet. To address core assets such as warehouse operations, scheduling, and inventory management, aspectLED drew on their high-tech skills by building a business platform from the ground up. The lesson for any entrepreneur: Just because you may not have the most experience in an industry doesn’t mean you can’t be successful; if anything, an outsider’s perspective can lead to fresh thinking and innovative approaches.

Getting to know the manufacturing process was only half the picture. To be successful, the Nielsens had to fully understand the challenges their customers had with LED fixtures and how aspectLED could help. The business owners traveled the country meeting with architects, designers, electricians, municipalities, and corporate customers to ask what they’d like to see on the LED lighting market. “A lot of entrepreneurs have this vision of what the best product is, but when they don’t hear the same answer from the customer, they ignore the feedback,” Beth says. “This is often what impacts the success or failure of a business.”

The Nielsens incorporated this valuable feedback in launching aspectLED’s first product line of easy-to-install fixtures that were both beautiful and built to last. Their immersion in innovative manufacturing processes and customer insights paid off. Spurring customer interest through marketing, direct sales, and web outreach, aspectLED scored a barrage of corporate clients, including Marriott, Hilton, Mandarin Oriental, Disney Parks, McDonald’s, Dairy Queen, Wendy’s, and Starbucks.

Ultra-Thin Recessed LED Light. (Photo: Courtesy aspectLED)

With an onslaught of orders came shipping and operational needs. The Nielsens turned to UPS, teaming up with its logistics experts to solve problems ranging from shipping insurance on LED fixtures to international delivery and transporting relatively small, or Less-Than-Truckload (LTL), freight. The tech-savvy Nielsens were impressed by UPS’s digital and online tools. Its API and online/developer tools not only streamlined aspectLED’s warehouse and fulfillment operations but also enabled the company to integrate real-time shipping-cost calculations for customers and provide tracking visibility. With some of aspectLED’s most important customers overseas, UPS’s international experts helped the Nielsens to streamline their global shipping and customs processes.

Keeping a finger on the pulse of customers’ needs has kept aspectLED products in demand. Though the high-tech world may emphasize a “Build it and they will come” approach, the Nielsens know hearing customers’ opinions firsthand and catering to their needs is invaluable to a successful business.