Clayton Alexander is the CEO of both Radiance Lightworks and Journée Lighting. At 36, Alexander holds over 30 patents internationally and is the inventor of General Electric’s future light bulb, the GE Infusion™. As the Principal Designer of Radiance Lightworks, Alexander lights large-scale productions for such companies as Universal Studios, Mattel, and 20th Century Fox to name a few. Radiance Lightworks offers lighting design services, while Journée Lighting designs and manufactures LED lighting technology. Alexander shares with us the triumphs of his American Dream and the long, hard road he took in getting there. His universal advice for the young professional includes starting points and the importance of marketing yourself.
Delivering a fluid perspective all while encouraging passion, Alexander aims his verse to help break the mold.
En.joy: Clay, set the tone for the interview upfront please.
Clayton Alexander: I want to get this message out. It’s true, there is such a thing as the American Dream. You can be raised poor and become a self-made multi-millionaire in the U.S. today, I can attest to it. It’s a long hard road, and you have to be willing to take on the challenges that come your way every day in the beginning phases. But once you break through that and beat the odds, you can do it.
En.joy: Give us a snapshot of your background.
Clay: I was fortunate enough to start out my career at Universal Studios Theme Park. I interned there my senior year at CalArts [California Institute of the Arts], and I was able to work my way up the ranks. Eventually I became the in-house Lighting Designer for the Entertainment Department; eventually from there I decided to take a cliff dive and start my own company, offering lighting design services to the entertainment industry. It was scary; this idea of not having a full time comfortable job and going out there trying to sell your services without any real guarantee of success. I knew that to reach my goals I had to do it, I had to break free. I knew I had to become an entrepreneur, and so I did it, and Universal Studios was my first client. From there it was about networking. It was about meeting other people, people who left Universal and would go work for other event firms. I would stay in touch with them and then they would bring us in to do jobs. It was about this idea of networking. The entertainment industry in particular is all about networking. No one is going to look you up in the yellow pages; it’s not going to happen! Work your way into a network. That’s how my first company started.
- Radiance Lightworks, Grinchmas, Universal Studios
En.joy: How did you find investing for Radiance Lightworks?
Clay: The way I see it, starting a service-based business requires very little capital. I went out there day one, hustling for jobs. I had very flexible expenses, and I was able to operate out of my house. This all just meant that I could start the company with basically zero capital. There were times when I would be scraping for quarters under the couch cushions so I could take another customer to lunch. It was constant financial craziness in the beginning.
- Radiance Lightworks, Emmy’s Awards
En.joy: How was Journée different from Radiance Lightworks?
Clay: When you build a manufacturing based business, you need money for marketing, sales force, tooling for products, and money for research and development. It took us four years of R&D before we sold our product to General Electric. Fortunately, when I started Journée Lighting, my manufacturing based business; I had been operating Radiance Lightworks for 6 years. I was at the point where I was able to self-fund Journée, my new start up business, due to the financial success of Radiance Lightworks, my service based business. That’s how I was able to pull it off starting from zero dollars of capital and on up from there with no venture capitalists.
En.joy: Tell us about Journée Lighting and your deal with General Electric.
Clay: This is definitely what I am most proud of; the pinnacle of my career. Basically, we started Journée Lighting in 2005 based on a need that I saw in the market through my other company Radiance. We found that the lighting industry was in desperate need of LED track-lighting that was energy efficient and didn’t radiate a lot of heat into the environment. I knew that LED technology was emerging and I decided one morning to meet that need. So, with that thought, Journée Lighting was born.
We were taking an emerging technology and developing it into something that could be a consumer friendly product; that’s what we pulled off. We developed the industry’s first field-replaceable LED Light Module, which we eventually sold to GE. GE quickly renamed it the Infusion™ and it is being sold into the commercial sector first, so it will go into retail stores, museums and commercial buildings installed in track light fixtures, recessed cans, and other fixtures like that. It is currently poised to become the world’s next light bulb, which is really exciting to me. We now have the GE brand behind it, which you can’t beat.
If you think about the fact that Thomas Edison invented the light bulb in the late 1800s  and commercialized it through his newly formed company General Electric, and now over a hundred years later, GE is coming to market with a new form of light bulb with a new socket and way to emit light, it’s really exciting stuff. So I’m really proud of that.
En.joy: To what key do you attribute your success?
Clay: The key to my success is hiring good people. It has taken me years to weed out all the wrong people and get the right people in the leadership roles within my two businesses that I can trust with clients. At that point you become a bird’s eye view manager, and you deal with client relations. You golf with clients and take them to lunch. Yeah, you work on the big bids but you are not necessarily doing the day-to-day execution, you can’t. So one of the things I’ve had to learn over the last twelve years of my career is how to step back, yet stay connected. You have to stay really connected, if you are too disconnected your company is going to fail. You have to stay connected in a way that you trust in others with the day-to-day and you follow up with them if it’s an important task. So, stay connected with the bird’s eye view. If you don’t stay out there in the bird’s eye view area you won’t be able to look at the bigger picture and ask yourself where you will be in 6 months. Am I going to be able to pay all of my expenses and salaries in 6 months? You have to stay way out to see that.
En.joy: So where does a young graduate start?
Clay: First of all you need to find something that you are passionate about. You have to find a career path that you are excited about. This might take years, often you will see students start off in one major and discover it’s ‘not so much’ for them and then switch. It’s okay to do that, but you have to find something you know that for the rest of your life you are going to be passionate about. Then, do that.
Your passion will drive the success, and then you’ll be rewarded financially. We have multiple homes, expensive cars and fancy things… But that’s not what I think about when I wake up in the morning. When I wake up I think about how excited I am to design the lights for a new show or a new product design that we are working on, or an invention idea, etc… That’s what drives me; I have a rewarding lifestyle as a byproduct.
En.joy: What becomes important for students when choosing a college?
Clay: When you are young you choose a college based on gut, or it having an attractive campus. The best way to choose a college is to choose the one that has a strong Alumni network within your industry. I went to Cal Arts because it’s a creative school; it’s a right-brain arts conservatory and the way they taught lighting design was very creative. They asked you how it made you feel emotionally when you used red light versus blue light on a stage, things like that. I was totally into that. What I didn’t realize at the time was that I chose the college that paid off in the end. The Alumni network in Los Angeles of Cal Arts graduates is huge in the entertainment industry.
To this day, I can’t stress enough, to research the school that you are going to. Make sure that the Alumni network is strong in the industry you want to go to. The Student Affairs folks will give you the data.
En.joy: What is the first step?
Clay: You have to get an internship your senior year in college, at least once. Not only are you going to gain outside professional experience, but you’re going to gain contacts. If you do a good job for the folks you are working for they are going to want to hire you or recommend you to a friend, once you graduate from college. I think getting an internship in your senior year is invaluable.
En.joy: What is one thing you learned from a mentor?
Clay: My mentor said “market yourself.”
At the time I was confused. My mentor said, the same way Apple will market a product, you must market yourself. This was the most amazing concept that anyone ever taught me. They don’t teach you that in school, right? What he meant by it was to think of yourself as a marketable item. Your resume has to look good, dress nice, and present yourself as a clear speaker. This includes when you walk into a room and introduce yourself. It is also how you present your portfolio in an interview. If you have a great portfolio with some great stuff that you can talk about it, but the pictures are of poor quality or it’s laid out kind of funky, that’s a poor job of marketing yourself. If you go into that same interview and you have everything looking really nice, including great high quality photos of your work, you did a good job of marketing yourself. That’s really important.
En.joy: How do you market your business?
Clay: I’m really big on marketing. I go in everyday thinking about how we’re going to market our products. Steve Jobs was the same way. I don’t necessarily like the turtlenecks, but I like Steve Jobs [chuckles]. That’s how I like to run my business. Jobs was the CTO, he came up with the new ideas and drove the R&D process. When he developed a product, in the infant stages of the product, he was thinking about how that product was going to be marketed. Meaning, the decisions that you make, such as where the buttons go, how the product looks and how thin it is, are based on how it’s going to look in the photo in the magazine or on TV in the ad. It’s genius. If you can develop a product that’s going to look good in the ad, it’s going to do well. I’m always thinking about how it’s going to look on camera. If we are trying to choose between several prototype design concepts, we design it the same way someone would design a car; we put a lot of time into everything. I will literally not make a decision until we put all of the prototype design options in the photo booth and take photos of each one. Then we will look at each design option photograph on the screen, because that’s how it’s going to look to the customer in the ad campaign. So we’re thinking about how the product is going to look on camera while we are still developing the product.
En.joy: Why did you decide to go out on your own as opposed to starting a Partnership?
Clay: Time and time again I’ve seen two best friends enter into a partnership, and if you have the right personalities that mesh together, just like a marriage, you will be successful. If you butt heads at all, eventually when the going gets tough and the big decisions need to be made, it’s going to be tough. I’ve seen many partnerships have issues. Going into a business with a partner, you have to be sure. The best partnerships I have seen happen when the two individuals specialize and focus on two different areas of the company. So that one is good at the back-end stuff, the finances, raising capital and marketing; and the other individual is into the sales and development side. Those types of partnerships work great because you leave each other alone yet you can make the big picture decisions together. If you have a partnership where two people feel too strongly about the same subject matter, wow… watch out!
Personally, I chose to go out on my own. I don’t see that a lot, but I, because of the way I am wired, would rather go out on my own and make my own decisions. But, to each his own.
I do think the partnership route has huge benefits. When I was in the early stages starting my first company, I was it; I was there at midnight working on marketing, and after that sales. Time and time again, I thought I could really use a partner to ease some of this burden.
En.joy: How has running your businesses changed with time?
Clay: Actually, I started out with the art. I started off strictly with the passion for the creative side; creating great lighting designs [Radiance] or the development of an innovative new product [Journée]. Out of that, I had to learn how to run a business. That was the byproduct of it all. I enjoy the challenges of running a business, but the first 5 years was all about me on the jobsites doing all the designs. I had people working with me, but I was it, it was a startup business and that is how it went until we started growing and gaining clients. Eventually I thought
, I can’t actually be here and there at the same time. So I had to hire somebody I trusted to help carry out the vision. I had to step back a little bit from the daily art.
En.joy: Has there ever been a time when you’ve handed someone a drawing on a bar-napkin and had them run with it?
Clay: Yes, I have actually a couple times. I can think of one time in particular where I sketched out a lighting concept for one of the Halloween mazes at Universal Studios on a napkin. Another time, as related to Journée, I sketched out an LED circuit structure and some thermal interface ideas at a bar with an electrical engineer.
En.joy: As fun as that sounds we know it doesn’t all start with napkin sketches, what can you tell the entry level professional about the industry?
Clay: It’s really tough to break down that door. You have to start low, well somewhere. Get any job you can get within your industry, don’t waste your time bussing tables. Yes you can pay your rent with it, but you can also find something within your industry that will help you pay your bills but the difference is that you will start meeting people within that industry. Here’s the thing, and it’s really important; go in dressed the part, don’t go in with a t-shirt and saggy pants. Dress at the level you want to eventually be at.
En.joy: It’s always easier said than done, right?
Clay: I don’t want to sugar coat life. People need to know that it’s not an easy road. I have started up two other businesses that I don’t talk about. They crashed and burned, but, you have to learn how to fail. It’s pretty important, because, I learned massive lessons by seeing a business fail. To the entrepreneur: you have to know that you will start up something and there is a possibility that it will fail. Don’t let it get you down; go to the next one.
It’s all about gaining experience; you can’t succeed if you don’t fall. But, I don’t know that you have to tell somebody that, because it’s instinctual. When I fell, I just got back up. No matter what a mentor says, if you are wired that way, you are going to get back up and try again.