How First Light Technologies taps its customers to make a better product

This Victoria-based manufacturer of LED lighting started by looking at customers’ frustrations with existing technology and built from there

 
PROFIT 500: Canada’s Fastest-Growing Companies
Sean Bourquin

An engineer by trade, CEO Sean Bourquin is in constant problem-solving mode—both in product design and leadership. (Troy Moth)

It’s after midnight in Barranquilla, a city on the coast of Colombia. A bucket truck lifts Sean Bourquin six metres above an eight-lane highway to inspect a malfunctioning solar light. Sweating from the heat, Bourquin pokes around, looking for the problem. This is 2009, and he’s just quit a job servicing LED lighting products to launch First Light Technologies, then a two-man consulting outfit. He’s got no medical coverage. No travel insurance. Nothing but his brain, his new business partner, Justin Taverna—a fellow defector from B.C.-based Carmanah Technologies—and his broken Spanish to communicate with locals. “Justin is measuring a grid down on the road, and we’re testing light levels, and cars are going up and down the highway,” Bourquin recalls. “We’re looking at each other like, man, this could go sideways so quickly.”

But it didn’t. They fixed the problem—a contractor had installed the solar panel at the wrong angle to the sun—and, as a result of their efforts, bagged another contract.

This is how Bourquin rolls: always figuring out a better way. It’s what drove him to take the leap and start a business in the first place; after years of repairing lights, he and Taverna (now CEO and vice-president of business development, respectively) felt compelled to build a product that, simply put, required less fixing. “We started our business with a singular focus,” says Bourquin. That pursuit of a better solution has become ingrained in First Light Technologies, and has fuelled its growth; sales increased 341% from 2011 to 2016, earning the firm the No. 190 spot on the 2017 PROFIT 500 ranking of Canada’s Fastest-Growing Companies.

Bourquin and Taverna started the business as a consultancy, travelling widely—Morocco, Trinidad, the Bahamas and that highway in Colombia—to fix solar lighting systems designed by other manufacturers. It gave them priceless intel about the pain points of other producers. When First Light began producing its own solar LED lighting systems a year after its founding, the products were meticulously designed to avoid every glitch the founders saw in the field.

Used in spots like parking lots and roadways, First Light’s products are built around core technology that allows them to learn: whether it’s situated in Seattle or Saudi Arabia, each light can measure the conditions of its location, then optimize its performance.

Plenty of hands-on research has gone into the development of these lights. Last June, for instance, Bourquin and his operations manager carried a ladder more than two kilometres across the Mojave Desert, servicing 250 lights along a trail. But the refinements are also driven by client input. Bourquin and Taverna are known to ask probing questions—to U.S. municipalities, to the Moroccan air force, to the Venezuelan government—to find out what customers really want. They then take that information back to First Light’s bright Victoria production facility (a former furniture factory), where their team of 13 discusses how to translate the feedback into a better product. It’s a constant cycle of learning and application in a quest to make the simplest, most intelligent light possible. And it starts at the top: Every time a flaw raises its head, Bourquin—an engineer by trade—is right there with his intellectual mallet, ready to beat it down and make sure the same problem never surfaces again.

Not only does Bourquin’s nature compel him to ask questions of his customers, he also routinely seeks guidance from others to help him run a better business. “I view business no different than sport,” he says, recalling his days as a competitive soccer player. “You win by becoming better, and that’s where you need coaching. You need insight from people outside the business to help you learn to be better.”

It’s telling that First Light’s first investor was entrepreneur and scientist David Green, who founded Carmanah Technologies in 1996 to produce solar LED lighting for the marine industry and now focuses on investing in tech businesses. Bourquin first met Green as a co-op student at Carmanah in 2000. After two senior engineers left to pursue the dot-com boom, Bourquin stepped up to help build and test a big job for the U.S. Coast Guard. The kid’s work ethic and approach to problem-solving impressed Green. So when Bourquin and Taverna approached their former boss for investment to ramp up First Light’s production, Green—who had since left Carmanah—was happy to help. Green likens Bourquin’s approach, and that of his young team, to the ethos of Yamaha—a company that came to dominate the outboard boat engine market by consistent, incremental improvements. “It’s a tough environment for outboard engines, and it’s the same for a solar light in Palm Desert,” says Green, who now serves a director and adviser at First Light. “You have to stick at it and get all the little details right.”

Bourquin, Taverna and Green share ownership, meeting formally every quarter to discuss the big picture. In addition, Bourquin keeps a standing monthly lunch date with Green, which he treats as an opportunity to learn from his mentor. Bourquin has started to delegate—he now hands off hard-wiring to others, and has brought in senior staff to oversee operations management and product development—in large part due to Green’s guidance. When Carmanah was rocketing through its explosive growth arc in the early 2000s, Green hired a CEO to replace himself. “I had a lot of respect that he was able to put the ego aside and say, ‘Okay, I’m going to bring someone in to work with me and help. I’m going to focus on the things I think I’m good at,’ ” Bourquin says.

Seeking advice from others is something entrepreneurs often struggle with, says Toronto-based business consultant Mark Satov, but it’s essential if a business is to grow sustainably. “CEOs are generally successful people who are very driven, very confident and heavily laden with ego,” he says. That can be a good thing, Satov adds. But when that confidence leads to arrogance—the sense that no one could possibly understand the business or offer useful advice—it can blind to opportunities.

Bourquin defaults the other way. He and Taverna recently joined a support group for tech CEOs specifically to learn from their peer group, and it’s already helping them. For instance, at one meeting, a fellow member suggested First Light adopt a core framework to map its growth strategy for the coming years, which will enable the business to scale even more quickly. “These are not hard problems, they’re just hard for us,” says Bourquin. “We need to find these answers.”

Knowing Bourquin, he won’t stop asking questions and applying what he learns. Then making sure the solution is perfect. And then asking again.

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