Lightbulb moment pays off

Lightbulb moment pays off

A flash of inspiration saw City consultant Melanie Shaw turn her back on London life and head for the Yorkshire Moors. Five years on, the business that emerged from the move is thriving, as Ken Oxley reports

Lighting

Seek out any research into the causes of stress and you will find there are three life events that are consistently in the top 10 – moving house, having a baby and launching a business. Melanie Shaw did all of them in the space of two weeks.

She went from high-flying business consultant in London’s trendy Notting Hill to living on a former farm manager’s residence in the bleak and beautiful North Yorkshire Moors.

But the ebullient founder of Thirsk-based Brilliant Lighting took the life-changing decision in her stride, even describing it as a “no brainer”.

“Looking back I suppose it was a little scary, but it was a calculated decision,” said Melanie. “My husband Iain and I both had good jobs at Deloitte Consulting. Iain worked as an IT consultant and I advised on business strategy, predominantly working with major pharmaceutical firms.

“But we’d had it in our minds for some time that we wanted to get out of London and start a family.”

However, Melanie, 45, and Iain, 49, had yet to identify the business opportunity that would transform their lives.

Inspiration struck the Cambridge and London Business School graduate when she hired a lighting designer to soften and shape the space in her large, open plan home in Notting Hill.
She recalled: “During the consultation process it occurred to me that this was something I could do. And I realised there was a potential market for it in the North of England.
“Of course everyone said we were mad.

But at the same time they said ‘if anyone can do it, you can’ so we began to do some
serious research.

“It struck me that this idea combined all the elements we were looking for in a business – it was creative, technical and something we could both be involved in.”

What happened next pretty much sealed the deal for the couple. A house on a farm in North Yorkshire owned by Melanie’s parents became available.

Melanie said: “In the end, it was a no-brainer. “We’d done our homework and decided the market was there, so even though I was heavily pregnant we felt the timing was right. We ended up moving house, starting the business and having a baby within two weeks.”

That was almost a decade ago and Brilliant Lighting now has a healthy £600,000 turnover. Next year Melanie expects that to grow to £800,000 and to £1.5m in five years.

Whilst the journey from city slicker to country girl may have taken some friends by surprise, for Melanie it felt like a natural progression.

She said: “It might not be obvious at first, but there are similarities between being a business consultant and a lighting consultant.

“It’s really all about understanding and interpreting the needs of your clients. Often those needs are unspoken because people are not entirely sure how to articulate what it is they’re looking for. The skill comes in being able to distil the essence of what they are trying to tell you. It’s also frequently about looking at problems in a new way, and seeking inspiration in the unexpected.

“As it happens, I had always been interested in lighting. As a business consultant I moved around a lot with my work and lived in different houses.

“Living that lifestyle, you get to understand how lighting can really affect how you feel about a space.

“I always strive to sprinkle some magic on my projects. I want clients to walk into a room and say ‘wow!’ because lighting really can get that reaction when it’s done well.

“The goal is to make every space sing. Lighting should be integrated and three-dimensional. So many homes can feel flat and boring because of the way they are lit.

“With any space, you need to look at the lines and focal points and consider how you create both task lighting, which fulfils a function, and accent lighting to create a certain mood.”
Even though she is largely self-taught, Melanie’s infectious passion for her work shines every bit as brightly as the products she champions. It’s clear that the learning curve she has negotiated has turned her into something of a lighting geek .

But with clients paying around £20,000 for a small project and £100,000-plus for major work, an in-depth knowledge of your specialist area is essential.

Melanie is keen to stress though that it’s very much a team effort. She said: “We are highly unusual in the breadth and depth of expertise we have across the team, and everyone contributes. A scheme not only has to look amazing, it also has to be implemented well: from the ‘design’ part of the team to the project management to the back end administrative support, we all make a difference to the end result.”

It’s little wonder that the future is looking bright, but there have been darker days along the way.

For the first few years the biggest challenge the business faced was keeping up with demand. In addition to the lighting design Brilliant was also a leading ‘smart home technology’ provider,  advising clients on how to utilise advanced automated systems to control functions such as audio, heating and security. In 2008 they also added interior design services to offer clients the integrated package, and carried on growing rapidly.

However, the business took a hit a few years back that left the couple facing a sink-or-swim situation. It was, in Melanie’s words, a “steep learning experience.”

She explained: “At first the economic downturn did not seem to affect us and the business just kept growing.

“Our turnover actually topped £1m for a couple of years leading to 2011, but then the recession finally caught up with us, and three projects together worth £500,000 were all halted in the space of a month as clients just ran out of money.

“That was a difficult time and it forced us to fundamentally look at what we do and how we do it. Since then we have restructured, moving out of smart home technology
and interior design to concentrate solely on lighting.

“On the face it, it might look like we have a shrinking turnover, but it’s actually a more focused, profitable one.

“We have survived the recession and come out of it in much better shape, unlike many of our competitors who went bust.”

In addition to restructuring, the company increased its marketing spend and is now actively planning for long-term growth.

Melanie said: “We currently have four members of staff but we’re looking to recruit another two at the moment.

“I can count on one hand the number of companies doing something similar to us, predominantly in London.

“I believe things are really beginning to pick up and that there is huge potential in the market.

“At the top end, people have always had the means to invest in beautiful homes, but they haven’t always had the confidence to do so. Thankfully, we’re seeing signs that that confidence is coming back.”
Melanie’s keen eye for detail has enabled the company to identify a niche market in specialist lighting for works of art.

It all came about when she visited a stately home owned by one of her clients who wanted advice on how to light some of the building’s formal rooms where many large 17th and 18th century paintings were on display.

Melanie said: “There was nothing on the market that was suitable. The type of ‘track’ lights used in museums and galleries would not have been appropriate for the setting.

“The traditional style picture lights on the market were not man enough for the job: you got a bright spot at the top of the canvas with the rest of the picture inadequately lit.

“The solution was to look at the problem the other way: to get the light source absolutely right, and to then make it look like a traditional fitting.”

Melanie teamed up with one of her expert LED suppliers to develop an innovative lighting system that illuminates the entire canvas.  Sophisticated controls enable each picture light to be individually fine-tuned, to take into account the nature and size of the picture.
Melanie said: “We use LEDs with excellent colour rendering, and with very clever optics to throw light evenly across the canvas. Specific filters are added to achieve the best colour of light, and to remove any damaging UV light.

“It looks like a traditional picture light, but it is much more efficient and effective. The end result is that the whole picture comes alive.

“When we first tried the system out on some historic three-metre high paintings the
client saw details that had never been revealed before!”

The company has always sought out the most innovative and best manufacturers
and designers.

Melanie said: “We spend a lot of time looking for interesting craftsmen, or women, to work with – people who can design stunning pieces that really add something to a property. It’s all part of our desire to provide a bespoke service.

“We also try to buy British wherever possible, and as a guestimate I’d say 80% of the fittings we use are made in the UK.

She added: “My advice to anyone with a business idea is to do your research properly and ask yourself, can I provide customers with a different or better service than is already available?

“If the answer is yes, and you have a financial cushion, then don’t be afraid. Of course it helps if you have something to fall back on.

“If it had not worked out for us we could have always gone back to our former careers.”
There is no danger of that happening now, however. Despite occasional feelings of nostalgia for her old life, the bright lights of the capital can’t compare with the satisfaction of bringing light into the lives of her clients.

Meanwhile, for son Alex, now almost 10, country life is all he has ever known and it’s important to Melanie and Iain that his upbringing is as stable as possible.

That means balancing their busy work schedules with family commitments, which isn’t always easy.

Melanie added:  “We do work tremendously hard, but family time is important to us. Alex is very sporty. He plays tennis and golf and he has just got into the Yorkshire cricket
training squad.

“We spend a lot of time encouraging him in his sporting activities. He also sings in an excellent choir so we go to watch him perform at every opportunity. We also get a lot of support from grandparents and friends, which is hugely appreciated.

“We have a fabulous house in the Moors where we grow our own veg, and we can borrow the neighbour’s dog to go for walks and play in the river at weekends.

“We have friends in London and it’s always nice to visit, but life in the country suits us. We’re thankful to be out of the rat race.”