A LONG TIME AGO, ON A COLD DARK STREET
I was never really a runner. Over the years since college I had run off and on, when I would get inspired to lose some weight and get in shape, but it never lasted long. That changed in late 2010 when I decided it was finally time to set a big fitness goal, and I started training for my first half marathon.
I knew it wasn’t going to be easy. My wife and I had a 6 month old at the time as well as our 2 other kids that always kept us busy. On top of that I had a full time sales job with travel, emails and endless meetings, so the only time I could train was really early in the morning, long before the sun came up.
That first morning of my training I was excited! I jumped out of bed, got on my running clothes and shot out the door. Then I realized just how dark it is outside at 5am. I was not prepared, I had nothing—no light, reflectors, or safety vest. I was in my neighborhood, and starting out there were a few street lights, so I could just barely see where I was stepping, but a few blocks later there was no light and it quickly became dangerous. I kept picturing in my mind an uneven sidewalk, angled up to trip me, landing me face first on the concrete. It slowed me to a walk and luckily I made it back without incident.
I wasn’t going through that again, so I stopped at my local running store to explore lighting options. I was disappointed to find only headlamps on the shelf. I never liked headlamps; for some reason I just didn’t want something strapped to my head. Oh well, I need to see, so I gave it a try. The next morning I had the headlamp in place and I knew it was going to be a great run. However, less than a mile in my head started hurting—was it strapped too tight? I loosened the strap a bit, but then it started flopping around on my head, which was even more annoying. Also, something I never would have thought about happened. It was winter in Oregon and very cold. When I exhaled, the steam from my breath would come between the light and my line of sight, essentially blinding me for a second. That was more unnerving than not having a light at all.
I NEED HAND LIGHTS
Next run: the alarm goes off way too early--this routine was going to be much harder than I thought. Not sure what happened to my enthusiasm from the beginning of the week, but I reluctantly head out the door, new headlamp in tow. I refused to actually put it on my head though. Instead I wrapped the strap around my hand and something great happened—I could see the ground much better than I did with it on my head.
I got back home and knew what I needed: lights that I could wear on my hands, just grab them and go. The one headlamp worked fairly well, but since it was a spot beam, the light was going crazy with the swing of my arm. I thought if I had one in each hand it may counteract the movement of the other light. By the way, I know I am ignoring just carrying a good ol’ fashion flashlight. I thought of that, but flashlights are almost entirely a spot beam, similar to the headlamp. Plus there is no way I wanted to hold onto a flashlight mile after mile.
So the first thing I did was go online and try to find lights to buy that I could wear on my hands. I was surprised to find, well, I didn’t find anything. There wasn’t such a product. So instead, I just bought a second, inexpensive utility headlamp, and was ready for my next pre-dawn run.
MY FIRST KNUCKLE LIGHTS
With a headlamp strapped to each hand I realized I had what I was looking for. Okay, the whole thing wasn’t ideal. The straps were too big and, although I wrapped them a bunch of times around my hands, they worked themselves loose several times during the run. And even though two was better than just one, the spot beams still danced around a lot on the ground. Still, it was the best option I could come up with and I wore those lights on my hands the next few few weeks of training.
I went about preparing for the half marathon all through the winter, and every time I went out in the dark with the lights on my hands I kept thinking about it. I started wondering if other people hated headlamps as much as me, and were using them just because there was no other easily available option. I would see others out running, some carrying a flashlight, a few with a headlamp, but a lot with nothing at all, just like me on my first run. If I could get 2 lights that easily strap to your hands, so you can just grab them and go on the way out the door, that also clearly light your path—no crazy bouncing lights, it seems like something other runners might want.
IT’S SO EASY TO LAUNCH A WEBSITE
The more early morning runs I did, the more excited I got about the idea, until I finally took action and hired a designer I found online to come up with some drawings of what the product could look like. We settled on a design and he created a final CAD drawing, which is basically an illustration, but it looks like an actual finished product. So I went online and bought the website KnuckleLights.com and FistLights.com. Yes, I almost named the company Fist Lights. In retrospect I am pretty sure I made the right decision.
I launched a simple website with the CAD drawing to see to see if anyone would actually buy this crazy thing. I know, I know: is selling a product that doesn’t actually exist a “nice” thing to do? The buyer doesn’t know it is not truly available yet. Long story short: it’s fine. No really, it is the best way to truly gauge the interest in a product. You can send questionnaires or ask friends and family if your idea is a good one, but guess what? They will all tell you its great! The true test is when someone you don’t know and never met actually opens their wallet and buys the product. So it wasn’t real, but then something amazing happened. I started getting orders! I’m still not even sure how people were finding the website.
DISCLAIMER! If it makes you feel better, I took good care of the people that purchased the Knuckle Lights during this test phase. I gave them a full refund but also shipped them a set of Knuckle Lights when they eventually became available, along with a cool t-shirt and water bottle to thank them for their understanding.
BUT IT’S SO HARD TO MAKE A PRODUCT
So I had proof that I was not the only one looking for this solution for running in the dark. With the orders coming in though, it hit me: I actually have to figure out how to manufacture this.
The Internet is a wonderful thing. Sitting in front of the TV, laptop open watching reruns of Friends with my wife, I was able to research LED light manufacturers from all over the world to see if any of them had something close to what I was trying to make. No they did not, but no problem; I will simply send some of them a message asking if they can manufacture my new invention and they will be falling over themselves to work with me. That first night I emailed 10 manufacturers. Let the bidding begin! Not a single answer. A week later I had expanded the search immensely and finally did get a response from one. They were a new startup company too, looking to produce LED products and hoping to succeed.
I realized that most factories are not anxious to work with guys like me that simply have an idea for a product. Even though I was willing to pay the mold fees and costs of production, there was no guarantee it would lead to anything beyond that. So factories can spend a lot of time working really hard to help bring a product to market and never get a second order. It was tough, but I got very lucky and ended up connecting with a very responsive and reliable factory that was able to grow and survive along with us over the coming years. Although….
EVERY NEW PRODUCT WILL HAVE PROBLEMS
After eight months of going back and forth finalizing the product, providing packaging design, and sending more money than I was comfortable with, the factory shipped out the first actual sets of Knuckle Lights. I could now relaunch the website and start selling for real this time. It was going to be great! When the boxes arrived I anxiously opened one up and immediately was in shock: the packaging had fallen apart during shipment! Turns out the factory didn’t use strong enough glue to keep the shell attached to the cardboard. The vibration while shipping caused the shell to detach from the cardboard. I spent many hours over the next few weeks with a glue gun in my hand making the packaging presentable so I could send to customers. We got this fixed for the next order, but what I had always heard is that virtually every new product will have some problems discovered after launching that will need to be overcome, and this was proving true…
Another issue that arose a short time later was from a small batch the factory produced using a component that was not rated for using in below freezing temperatures. This was especially difficult because we didn’t know the problem existed until we started hearing from some customers that had an issue with one of their lights in cold temperatures. Fortunately it was only a small percentage of the units that had the problem, but we still had to recall the sets from that batch and replace them. The long term effects of that limited problem was immense. That was five year ago and the question still lingers from some people that see a post online somewhere that mentions a problem with using Knuckle Lights in freezing weather, and that’s simply not the case. All versions of our lights work great below freezing and the factory has done an incredible job since then to make sure Knuckle Lights are the highest quality.
KNUCKLE LIGHTS’ FUTURE DETERMINED BY A NIGHT OF TEXAS HOLD’EM
After the first few years and a couple of stumbles, things were really going well. Sales were growing quickly as more and more people started to learn about this new option for night running and word got around about how well they actually worked. I knew it was time we introduced a rechargeable version of Knuckle Lights and I was convinced having the units simply placed on a charging dock between uses would make it the best, easiest option yet—no USB cord to fumble with to plug in and they would always be fully charged, ready to go.
I wanted a completely different look than the original, so that the new version would be easily distinguishable. I started looking for a product designer but had a tough time finding the right person this time. I spent almost a year looking and it just wasn’t happening. Then one Friday night I was my neighbor’s house for our monthly poker night. There were a few new guys that I hadn’t met before, one of which I ended up in the showdown at the end of the night. After an exciting all-in call, and mostly to distract him, I asked about his work. He said “I’m a product designer, specializing in the sporting goods industry.” Wait, what was that? You gotta be kidding me. I told him about Knuckle Lights and that I had been looking for a product designer for a long time to help create a new version. We met a few days later for coffee and he agreed to take on the project. His design turned out perfect and he even determined all of the components that should be used for the product, making it much easier for my factory than the first version.
One of the best features he came up with was the magnets to connect the units together. I had wanted the units to attach together somehow and we struggled through multiple meetings trying to come up with something until the magnet idea hit him. Turns out he lives two houses away from me. And by the way, I won that all-in call, but it was purely luck, he had me beat until the river card. He couldn’t have been very happy with me, so I was lucky he agreed to develop the new version.
Okay, I’ve gone on way too long. I have learned so much by starting Knuckle Lights, have definitely made mistakes but also a few good decisions. Some of the things I am most proud of:
Knuckle Lights have been featured in well over 100 media outlets, some of the biggest include The Wall Street Journal, Runners World, Shape, Self, and Women’s Health.
Knuckle Lights was a finalist for the Best New Product award at The Running Event (the big industry trade show) a few years ago along with a couple of other companies that are now established running brands (OOFUS probably being the most well-known).
We have grown organically, and with no outside sales help, Knuckle Lights are now offered in over 350 running specialty stores across the U.S. as well as a few national sporting goods stores.
Personally, since training for that first half marathon that inspired me to make Knuckle Lights, I finally do consider myself a runner. I typically run 4 times per week, have completed the Portland Marathon twice, and multiple half marathons. My favorite event is the Las Vegas Rock n Roll half marathon, which I have done four times (it starts at night incidentally), and just recently I participated in the Hood to Coast relay for the first time, a very unique, challenging experience. My kids are older now of course, my oldest currently runs on the cross country and track team at his high school.
But the most rewarding part of starting this business has been hearing from people that actually use Knuckle Lights, and the positive impact it has had in keeping them safe while running or walking in the dark. It has been great to see the business grow, but it is even more exciting to know that our products have a positive impact, helping people to be safe.
How about you? I would love to hear your story. Or if you have questions or I can offer any advice from what I have learned, I would be happy to do so. Feel free to reach out by email: firstname.lastname@example.org
OWN THE NIGHT