Pegasus Lighting: Bringing light to Africa with an online campaign

    By Barbara Quick | Small Business

    Thomas E. Farin, Ph.D.—founder of the booming e-commerce website, Pegasus Lighting—had no business background at all when he made the shift, in 1987, from being a physics teacher and school administrator to becoming a purveyor of that mystical physical property he knew so intimately from the scientific point of view: light.

    “I had no mentor,” he told Yahoo. “I only had a very strong will to succeed, a strong work ethic, and—I will be the first to say this!—a lot of very good luck. If every successful person is honest, I think he or she will say that all three of these things must come together in order to succeed.”

    A 2nd Top 500 Retailer in North America, and one of the top 100 fastest-growing privately held companies in the Pittsburgh area, Pegasus Lighting is launching its 15-year celebration. Joining forces with Unite-to-Light, they are working to bring individual solar-powered LED lights to communities in Africa that are off the grid—where, normally, people who want to read or study after dark have no alternative to hazardous and unhealthy lights that burn liquid fuels such as kerosene.

    “Our employees are super thrilled about our involvement,” says Chris Johnson, Farin’s son-in-law, who joined the company as Director of Marketing and Technology in 2007, and became President and CEO this year. “Everyone here is excited about our partnership with Unite-to-Light and giving back to our worldwide community. It’s a great way for all of us to celebrate our 15-year milestone together.”

    Providing a low-cost and fuel-free way for children to read after dark matches the company founder’s two passions perfectly: lighting and education.

    Farin says that he found his work as a teacher and school administrator to be extremely rewarding, on both an intellectual and emotional level. But in 1987, he decided to follow a dream he’d been toying with for a long time. “Upon leaving my last position of Director of Admissions and Assistant Headmaster of Sewickley Academy,” he told Yahoo, “I started a franchise-like business selling energy-efficient lighting products—face-to-face, one customer at a time.”

    This was a very tough sell in that era of energy price fluctuations, says Farin. Rather than thinking about future energy savings, his potential customers balked at the high up-front costs of the energy-efficient lighting products he had on offer.

    In 1993, the business morphed into a manufacturer’s rep agency, called Pegasus Associates, representing a variety of lighting products. “This was also a difficult business, because I was a one-person company without big-name lighting companies to represent, or the myriad of important contacts that the larger rep agencies had developed over many years.”

    After “struggling mightily,” trying to make the business profitable, Farin says he was saved by two technologies that were just becoming known then to the general public: email and the Internet.

    “When I first learned about email,” an exultant Farin told us, “I was convinced it was created especially for me!”

    Farin loves that email “allows the writer to choose just the right words, to carefully organize his thoughts, and to write sometimes very short but very important messages—without looking up the correct phone number, without dialing that number, without inadvertently getting a wrong number, without having to leave a voice message and then call back again later—in short, without wasting any time at all. And when I first read about the Internet, I thought, ‘This concept is very, very powerful and I want to harness it somehow for my business.’”

    The first website Farin created for Pegasus, in 1999, was very simple and rudimentary. “At that time,” says the company’s founder, “there was only myself and the graphic designer who helped with the creation of the site. We didn’t have a shopping cart system of any kind. The ‘system’ we used required a website customer to print a PDF document with an image and a short description of the desired product—and then fill in all of the important information, including credit card information, and then fax it to us.”

    As low-tech as the system was, it worked. “People actually went through the trouble of doing all that to order lighting products from us.”

    Farin put his expertise in education to good use in his new life as an online entrepreneur. “I read as much as I could about new lighting products, and how to make an e-commerce website succeed.” He worked 60- and 70-hour weeks, and hired a few people to help the company grow. He put a special emphasis—and still does—on educating his customers about choosing the right lights for their needs, and using them efficiently.

    Pegasus Lighting now has twelve “very competent, very loyal, and very obsessive-compulsive employees who sweat the details,” says CEO Chris Johnson, who predicts that customers are going to react very positively to the company’s Unite-to-Light campaign. Pegasus is offering the two Unite-to-Light products—a simple solar-powered light and a solar-powered light with a USB connection. Customers can purchase these lights for donation, or participate in a “buy one, give one” purchase on the Pegasus website. “We’re making it easy for them to join us in helping to bring low-cost light to our project in Ghana,” a beaming Farin told us.

    Pegasus has a history of charitable giving. They’ve provided lighting products in the past, free of charge, toHabitat for Humanity. For their Unite-to-Light campaign, their goal is to have their customers donate 100 lights, in addition to the 50 lights-plus-USB-chargers that Pegasus is donating (a $1,500 donation value). For every 15 customers who donate or “buy one, give one,” Pegasus will donate an additional light (up to $1,000 in donation value).

    It’s a win-win-win situation for the company, their customers and a community of grateful readers halfway around the world. “I’m hopeful that not only will our customers join us in our campaign,” says Johnson, “but that this will become an opportunity for others to hear about Pegasus Lighting for the first time. Our campaign includes outreach beyond just our existing customer base. Maybe people will visit our website for the first time to join us in providing low-cost light to a community without electricity—and then come back later for their own lighting needs. But the main thing,” says Johnson, “is that providing a low-cost and fuel-free way for children to read after dark is a big deal for us.”

    Farin is well placed to appreciate the advantages offered by his e-commerce platform. “There would be no Pegasus Lighting without the Internet,” he told Yahoo. “Thanks to the Internet’s incredible power, Pegasus has been able to serve thousands and thousands of customers in all 50 states and at least 35 foreign countries—and become a very successful company. When I drive through any community, I often wonder how a small storefront, with no franchise support, can succeed with such a small customer base.  Somehow many of them do succeed, but that continues to be a mystery to me.”

    The campaign will last throughout the month of May. Pegasus will publicize results through their blog, social media channels and a press release. “Helping out when we can is a part of our normal business operations,” says Johnson. “But this is the first time that we are asking our customers to join us in our efforts, and publicizing our involvement across a month-long campaign.”

    I can’t speak for other companies,” adds Farin, who was honored as one of the Top 50 Entrepreneurs for 2010 in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area, “but I think, for us, giving back to our world community, when we can, is good for our corporate ‘soul.’”


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