NANTUCKET - Jamey and Debbie Bennett's business was born in a dark room in Manhattan.
Jamey Bennett was pitching Barnes & Noble on a new kind of book light - a design he'd come up with as a teenager in New Jersey. Instead of clipping onto the book's cover and craning over the page, splashing light all over the vicinity (and potentially irritating drowsy spouses), Bennett's book light was a sleek sheet of hard plastic that lay across the page. Light-emitting diodes suffused the plastic with light, illuminating the page beneath it - and only the page.
That 2001 presentation, Bennett says, "had to go well. I knew that it was going to be a tough road if I couldn't get an indication of interest from Barnes & Noble."
When he asked the Barnes & Noble executive to close the shades and turn off the lights, the gambit worked - and before long, other Barnes & Noble executives came in to see the demo of Bennett's "LightWedge" prototype and start talking about packaging and price points.
Now, six years after that first product appeared on store shelves, LightWedge LLC is among the fastest-growing companies in New England. The company landed on Inc. magazine's 500 list in 2006, doubled its revenue to $11.5 million last year, and this year opened an office in Boston and hired a chief financial officer.
So far, the company has kept its headquarters on Nantucket, where the Bennetts, husband-and-wife entrepreneurs, first bought a house in 1997. (Nantucket Nectars, one of the last big island success stories, had moved to the mainland by the time it hit the Inc. 500 list.) But the Bennetts have figured out how to construct a global supply chain, working out of a shingled building next to an Irish pub.
LightWedge isn't Jamey Bennett's first start-up. BookWire, a website that collected book reviews and news about the publishing industry, was acquired by Cahners Publishing Co. Bennett went on to help start LendingTree.com, a site that connects borrowers with lenders, and handle marketing and business development through its initial public offering in 2000. (He says he did OK in the IPO, but wasn't exactly set for life.)
The Bennetts moved to Nantucket full time in 2002, around the time they were launching LightWedge.
Getting the business off the ground - and getting the first version of the $35 LightWedge into stores - entailed working with a product-design firm in North Carolina and a contract manufacturer in China. (These days, some of the company's products are also hecho en Mexico.)
Eventually, they added an employee in Southern California who handles sales and rented warehouse space there to store products. Five employees in Baltimore oversee the supply chain, and five employees on Nantucket handle marketing, customer service, the website, and administrative duties. Two finance people work out of home offices - one on Cape Cod and one in New Jersey, and the new CFO and chief customer officer work in Boston.
"We do a lot of instant messaging," says Debbie Bennett, "and we use Skype videoconferencing sometimes." But she adds that one day each month, the company's dispersed management gets together in person, usually in Boston.
"When you're this geographically spread out, you have to be sure you have good interpersonal relationships with people," says Jamey Bennett. "You don't want to just always be asking them in an e-mail, 'Are you finished with that packaging yet?' "
The corporate culture at LightWedge is open to ideas in two important ways.
Though LightWedge products are available in many independent bookstores, the bulk of its revenue comes from big retailers like Wal-Mart, Staples, and Borders. When the Bennetts meet with these customers, they're not afraid to show packaging or product designs well before they've been finalized to get feedback.
"That buy-in is important," says Debbie Bennett. "We show them colors, or open up a Ziploc bag and dump out a bunch of prototypes, instead of just saying, 'Here's a product. Do you want to order 5,000 or 10,000?' " Debbie Bennett says a Wal-Mart buyer she met with recently was excited to see LightWedge making a product in a color she'd chosen.
"We talk about what the Barnes & Noble customer would like, and how we're going to sell it in the stores," says Bill Miller, a merchandising vice president at the chain. "We work much more closely with them than other vendors, who tend to show you things when they're in production or already done."
LightWedge also solicits product ideas from independent inventors - most of which don't fit. But the inventor of one popular product, the Spike Light - a flexible light that slides in the spine of a book - has earned more than $100,000 in royalties, Jamey Bennett says. "We look carefully at every idea that comes in, and in some cases try to coach the inventor on how to improve or refine their concept," he writes in an e-mail.
Introducing products has been a big factor in the company's growth. LightWedge now sells traditional clip-on book lights starting at $9.99; a smaller version of the original LightWedge, designed for reading menus in dark restaurants or programs at the opera; and $15 magnifying glasses with built-in illumination.
"I woke up to the reality that you can't be a one-product player and expect to see growth," Jamey Bennett says. "You have to grow through line extensions, and getting into other product categories and price points."
The company has also benefited from some glowing reviews on the "Today" show, where one of Jamey Bennett's high school friends happens to work as a producer, and a segment on "Oprah" that ran twice last year. (Debbie Bennett says a sleep expert who was appearing on "Oprah" had simply called the company to ask about their products; she sent along some samples.) "All hell broke loose" after the Oprah shows aired, Jamey Bennett says.
"The market for reading aids and book lights is growing," says Miller, with Barnes & Noble. "And LightWedge has grown to be the largest of the three or four vendors we work with." And Barnes & Noble is still LightWedge's biggest customer.
The Bennetts now define their business, broadly, as "products that help people see." A new line of hipper magnifying glasses is on the way for early 2009. They expect that the company may make a second appearance this month on the Inc. magazine's 500 list, even though Jamey Bennett acknowledges that 2008 is turning out to be a more challenging year than he expected, given the slowing economy and the company's "inward focus" on building up its staff and systems.
But in the past few months, a new challenge has cropped up for the Bennetts: knock-offs of the original LightWedge being sold in the United States. Jamey Bennett suspects some have been made using tools that were once used by a LightWedge manufacturing partner in China.
It's the kind of unexpected headache that every entrepreneur is bound to experience. "I was just talking to our attorneys in Chicago," Jamey Bennett said last week. "We're working with them on a plan to aggressively go after infringers."
Scott Kirsner can be reached at email@example.com.