Editor’s Note: Sponsored by Monday Properties and written by ARLnow.com, Startup Monday is a weekly column that profiles Arlington-based startups and their founders. The Ground Floor, Monday’s office space for young companies in Rosslyn, is now open. The Metro-accessible space features a 5,000-square-foot common area that includes a kitchen, lounge area, collaborative meeting spaces, and a stage for formal presentations.
Arlington is one of the healthiest and safest urban municipalities in the country, and one Ballston-based company is trying to help make it healthier and safer.
AthLights, founded by Daniel Staples, sells compact, lightweight LED lights that, paired with a rare earth magnets, give runners, walkers and cyclists a way to warn drivers of their presence when they’re out in the dark.
“This is for somebody who’s maybe on the fence about buying a light and they don’t want a big stupid headlamp,” Staples told ARLnow.com last week. The LED lights flash and alternate red and blue colors, creating a dazzle effect visible from 600 feet. “It’s designed to wake up you at a relatively close range. By not going for that mile-long visibility, we can reduce the package size. If it’s too big, it’s not safe because people don’t want to wear it.”
Athlights sells their product online for $9.99 in sets of two lights, with batteries included. Staples is a mechanical engineer who works for the Department of Defense in Alexandria, and he came up with the idea in 2012 while having a conversation with a friend who ran ultramarathons.
“He was complaining about some of the equipment designed for runners tends to rub and chafe and bother you after long distances,” Staples said. “One of them was lighting; all the lights were big, bulky clip-ons. Took a trip to RadioShack and put together a little prototype in my garage and realized it might work.”
In April 2013, he and cofounder Anthony Del Porto incorporated, designed a marketable prototype and found a manufacturer in China. They set up a website with an option to purchase directly that October, and they were off and running.
The two former Virginia Tech classmates brought in a third partner, who put some of his own money into the company and, after having founded a few companies of his own, some entrepreneurial experience. They went to a running trade show and sold out of all their materials.
In 2014, they increased their sales tenfold over their first year, and Staples said there’s no reason to believe they can’t repeat that in 2015.
“We got that type of initial growth with essentially no outside support. We showed up at a trade show, made a few phone calls,” he said. “Now we’ve got people in two different countries, a distributor, sales teams in Texas and California, so with those guys on our team, I would not be surprised if it sold 10 times more.”
Athlights have partners lined up in the United Kingdom and Australia, and just signed a deal with Summit Distributors, which counts 8,000 independent sporting goods store among its clients. Staples also just signed a deal for a retailer with about 400 stores nationwide, although he can’t disclose the partner yet.
For an engineer with no business experience, the entrepreneur path didn’t come naturally to him, and he didn’t fully know what he was doing when he started, he admits. But, despite a few hiccups last year, he said he’s reaffirmed by everyone he talks to who says Athlights is a great idea, and they wish they had thought of it themselves.
“That’s what keeps us motivated, the few times we get to have one-on-one customer interaction,” he said. Athlights is a frequent vendor at local races. “The feedback is always so positive. That’s the type of feedback that keeps you pushing through the slower months. You know that people are going to love it, they just have to put their eyeballs on it.”
The lights are cheap, durable and light, so Staples says that, unlike a lot of other products in the running market, Athlights’ appeal is more broad. The backs of the lights are smooth, and they’re made with strong magnets, so they don’t fall off and, after a few seconds, you don’t really feel them.
“It’s designed for someone who’s health-conscious, safety-conscious with a little bit of disposable income,” he said. “If you’re running down Wilson or Clarendon Blvd in the wintertime, you cross like 40 intersections a mile. Anytime you interact with traffic is an opportunity to somebody be texting or staring at a girl on the other side of the street and barrel through a left-hand turn. And that’s what these are designed for.”