The aftermath of September 11th was probably not the best time to start a new business venture, but that's exactly what Rick Hutton, president of Dallas-based InLight Gobos, did and the company is still around, and what's more, it has been profitable every single year. InLight was completely self-funded — no banks or backers, thank you — which, according to Hutton, allows him to take the company in the direction he wants to take it rather than “having someone breathing down our necks pushing us somewhere we don't want to go.”
Despite keeping his employees happy — all three of them — with an open door policy and weekly meetings, Hutton says that it is customer service where InLight excels. “We deal directly with the designer rather than have a network of dealerships and this was the way we wanted to differentiate ourselves,” he says. “And since we only do gobos we don't need a large staff at the moment, but we're looking to hire more people in the future. The real key is to keep those good relationships going with employees and customers.”
Hutton actually began his career while still in high school when he worked as a sound technician with a local audio company that eventually went into lighting. Hutton got pushed into lighting by default, he says, and stayed with it ever since. From there he worked at Little Stage Lighting, Edwin Jones Company, and then with Showlights in 1981 when he went on tour with Van Halen. After Showlights, Hutton went to work for Vari-Lite in 1984 and became Eric Clapton's tour LD until 1991. At about that time he moved into Vari-Lite's research and development group, which later split off and formed the Advanced Technology group in 1995.
Hutton had a side business buying and selling laser and optical-related equipment and in 1999, he left Vari-Lite to pursue that full-time. That all changed when he had the opportunity to work with Swedish gobo manufacturer Beacon AB, a company that owns the US patent on ultra-thin, glass-layer technology for full-color gobos. InLight became the only US seller of Beacon's technology, an agreement that Beacon has with similar companies around the world. “Instead of controlling their technology, Beacon's CEO Micke Tannemyr, set up ‘gobo group members’ who use their technology and buy their material from them,” Hutton explains, adding that Beacon's agreement with InLight prevents another US-based enterprise from starting up, “which they have no need for since we're their second largest consumer of material in the world and we're working on being number one.”
Having a vast knowledge of the industry is certainly one of the reasons why InLight has remained profitable. “What makes us different is we came into this business already knowing what the other guys were doing,” Hutton says, and he should know since he created the laser process Genlyte currently uses to create gobos. “But we wanted to come in and be different from other companies, mainly by dealing directly with customers rather than go through dealers. We find that since we do so much custom work, there's a lot better communication dealing directly with the lighting designer and the graphics person who's generating the art rather than going through two or three sets of mouths and hands to get an order completed.” Hutton also credits Scott Greene, his “production guy,” who also dealt with Vari-Lite's gobo customers and comes to InLight with a long history in the gobo business.
As for the future of the custom gobo business, Hutton sees continuing growth and InLight is planning to work with the OEM market as well as supply gobos to manufacturers for their new products. Hutton also plans to work with the media server manufacturers to supply digital content for their instruments. But Hutton insists it's InLight's attention to its customers that is the reason for its success. “We care,” he says plainly. “We really put our heart and souls into what we do and I think that's recognized by our customers because they keep coming back.”