This interview details TotalGrow, an LED horticultural lights provider based in Holland, MI US. The interview is with Jeff Mastin, Director of Lighting Science and Products of TotalGrow.
What is the origin story of TotalGrow?
Our lighting brand is known as TotalGrow Lights, under the umbrella of Venntis Technologies. The company was established 14 years ago as a sister company to Venntis, specializing in touch-sensing technologies. However, a few years into our journey, we expanded into the lighting industry through a collaboration with an optical physics company. This decision was influenced by the significant overlap between the LED industry and touch-sensing technology, as both involve semiconductors and share similar electronic principles.
Our primary focus was to commercialize and refine a specialized optic that provided control over directionality and spectral output. Back in 2010, these capabilities were not easily achievable with standard LEDs. This breakthrough opened up a whole new range of possibilities, even though there are now many more tools available. One particular field where we found a perfect fit for this technology was horticulture lighting. The unique combination of directionality and spectral control that our optic offered was previously unavailable before the widespread use and effectiveness of red LEDs. As a result, our venture into horticulture lighting gained momentum and evolved into something much bigger than we initially anticipated.
Over the past 10-12 years, our involvement in the horticultural sector has grown organically alongside the overall advancements in LED technology and its components. Initially, our product range was quite narrow, tailored to specific segments of the industry. However, as LED technology became more economically viable, we expanded our offerings and established connections with universities, growers, and other key players in the field. This allowed us to gather extensive knowledge and expertise.
Currently, we cover a wide spectrum of applications in the horticultural space. From small-scale home growers to vertical farms and cannabis markets, we provide a comprehensive range of lighting solutions. Additionally, we have a significant presence in the vegetable market. We constantly adapt to emerging opportunities and leverage our nimble nature as a smaller company to customize our products and meet the specific needs of our clients. This flexibility has enabled us to grow rapidly and maintain a strong foothold in the industry.
What are some of the biggest challenges facing your team in the future?
One of the challenges we face is that the world operates at a slightly slower pace compared to the pre-COVID era, particularly in terms of supply chains and transportation. Although there has been significant improvement over the past two years, we still encounter difficulties in ensuring we have the right products available at the right time. We strive to avoid being burdened with excess inventory that cannot be easily adapted or modified to meet evolving demands.
Ideally, it would be beneficial and cost-effective to focus on a few key products and produce them in large quantities, ensuring we always have an adequate supply of what we need. However, this approach carries the risk of becoming inflexible and unresponsive when new opportunities arise in the market or when innovative components become available. It is a delicate balance between not being overly stocked on specific items, allowing us to allocate resources to other areas, and also maintaining a nimble inventory that can promptly meet customer demands.
Finding this equilibrium is undoubtedly a persistent challenge that has existed in the past and will continue to exist in the future.
A couple of years ago, we embarked on the development of an innovative indoor cannabis grow light, specifically designed for four-by-four spaces. Our aim was to create a superior product that surpassed the existing options in terms of cost-effectiveness, convenience, and power. We were aware that many other companies were also working on similar projects, as the industry was becoming increasingly competitive.
Our primary focus was to avoid engaging in a race-to-the-bottom situation, where market segments were becoming overly commoditized. Instead, we leveraged our extensive experience of over a decade and established strong relationships and partnerships with various control, sensor, benching, and greenhouse supply companies. This network allowed us to collaborate effectively, combining our expertise to offer a comprehensive solution that met all the requirements and addressed any concerns our customers might have. This collaborative approach is a key aspect that sets us apart and defines our unique priorities.
What is unique about TotalGrow compared to competitors?
Ultimately, our primary objective is to deliver exceptional customer service by seamlessly guiding individuals through their requirements and minimizing any difficulties they may encounter. One crucial aspect of achieving this goal involves leveraging utility incentives. While not all regions provide such incentives, a significant number of utilities in the US and even some in Canada offer incentives for adopting energy-efficient solutions.
Our company has been collaborating with these utility providers since the inception of the horticultural lighting metric documentation, which served as the foundation for these incentives. We actively participated in the development of these metrics, thus possessing a distinctive level of expertise and knowledge in this field.
I have collaborated with numerous utility companies to facilitate their program access or locate their programs. It is quite unique that we not only understand what they require in terms of lighting solutions, but also delve into their goals, setups, challenges, and potential overlooked opportunities. We consolidate all this information to determine where utility incentives can come into play, possibly covering the entire project cost. We aim to iron out any issues and ensure that by the time of installation, the process is as cost-effective and straightforward as possible. We also assist in integrating sensors and control systems, effectively connecting the dots for utility companies. Our commitment extends beyond installation, encompassing a start-to-finish customer service process and beyond.
How do you measure the impact of your company so far? (Revenue, Employees, Customer Quantity, Production Volume) etc?
There are two main aspects that drive our motivation and excitement in our work. Firstly, there is the obvious need for sufficient revenue to sustain and advance ourselves. The number of customers and lights installed also contributes to our enthusiasm. Recently, we conducted a nighttime drone video shoot over Kalamazoo, Michigan, where numerous greenhouse companies are located in a dense area. While this doesn't directly impact our finances, it was a fascinating sight to witness the diverse array of colors and the extensive illumination, knowing that we were responsible for the majority of the lighting in that area. This aspect adds an enjoyable element to our work.
Secondly, we find great motivation in the projects where we have made a significant difference for someone, particularly in situations where it seemed unlikely they would have been able to complete the project without our assistance. These instances hold immense value for us. While there are certain projects where other lighting companies could have done an equally good job, there are cases where the customer may not have been large enough to attract the attention of a bigger company.
Alternatively, we leverage our expertise with utility companies to secure larger incentives than they initially expected, enabling them to undertake more extensive lighting projects or start off in a financially healthier position due to utility incentives. We also customize our lighting solutions to meet the specific requirements of individual growers, accommodating features such as power, length, or spectrum. This personalized approach, even if it doesn't directly impact our revenue, keeps us enthusiastic about our work. It also benefits the company financially by ensuring its sustainability.
Additionally, we are excited about Projects in some parts of Africa where we are the sole contributors with horticultural lighting experience. It is gratifying to witness the positive impact of these initiatives and see these projects come to life.
Overall, both the financial aspects and the opportunity to make a meaningful difference drive our passion for what we do. These factors not only keep us motivated but also contribute to the company's financial well-being and provide a sense of fulfillment.
There is definitely a broad range when it comes to the scale of our projects, rather than focusing on any specific size. I would describe it as quite diverse. We don't limit ourselves to projects ranging from 10,000 to 20,000 or 100,000 to 150,000 dollars. In fact, our projects span from as low as $40 to well over half a million dollars. However, the sweet spot, or at least the most frequent, both financially and in terms of our expertise and relationships, lies in the range of five to $30,000 projects.
These are often associated with our greenhouse customers, an area where we have extensive experience and strong connections. In this range, certain utility incentives can greatly benefit our projects. It's a scale that doesn't typically attract mega companies looking to undercut prices for the sake of a high-profile case study. We acknowledge our limitations and understand that there are certain things we cannot do or compete with, so we focus on playing our role effectively.
Can you provide an estimate of the customer base and projects? How many customers and projects do you typically have?
In a typical year, we usually work with around 100 to 150 customers, which seems like a realistic number for us. Additionally, there are some customers who go through distribution channels or are handled by a third party, so we may not always be aware of them. However, when it comes to the customers we directly engage with, discussing their lighting requirements, providing them with options, and guiding them through the process, we typically complete around 100 projects per year. This estimate gives you a ballpark figure of our annual workload.
What have you learned that you wish you knew when you started the company?
Horticultural LED lighting has become a highly discussed topic in its entirety. Consequently, there is a vast amount of knowledge to be gained from the collective experience in this field. Rather than highlighting specific isolated factors, the true value lies in the amalgamation of all these insights, which ultimately helps solve the puzzle. One particular area of focus that we take quite seriously is PHOTOPERIODIC lighting, which involves stimulating long-day responses in plants. It is fascinating to observe that achieving this effect requires only a minimal amount of light when applied correctly and distributed appropriately.
We were fortunate to delve into this niche relatively early on, although it could have been explored even earlier if we had possessed the same level of understanding about plant responses that we do now. Undoubtedly, comprehending the intricacies of PHOTOPERIODIC lighting responses would have been a delightful and advantageous knowledge to possess from the outset.
There is a specific photoreceptor in plants that responds to a specific combination of red light wavelengths, and the proper balance of 2 particular reds always produce the desired effect. However, there are certain exceptions where alternative methods can also be effective. Historically, incandescent light bulbs were commonly used because they emitted the right balance of light. Compared to incandescent bulbs, even a light source from 10 years ago could have significantly improved outcomes, allowing us to assist people in that specific field more widely and at an earlier stage. Many of the tasks we accomplish today would have been considered impossible a decade ago due to the unavailability of essential components.
The cannabis market has experienced significant turbulence throughout its history. Therefore, predicting its trajectory, dynamics, and potential trends has been quite challenging. Over the past decade, there has been a considerable amount of knowledge gained regarding the plant's characteristics and how it responds to various factors. The uniqueness of cannabis and its ability to adapt to different conditions have made it a fascinating subject for study. Having had the opportunity to accumulate ten years' worth of learning right from the beginning would undoubtedly be an extraordinary experience.
How can people connect with you or learn more about TotalGrow?
We are thrilled to announce the recent launch of our updated website, www.totalgrowlight.com. The new version features an array of captivating pictures and videos compared to what was available just two weeks ago.
If they have any inquiries or would like to discuss your specific requirements, please feel free to contact me at Jeff.firstname.lastname@example.org. We strongly believe in engaging in conversations with our customers to ensure we can provide them with the most suitable approach, rather than leaving them to navigate the complexities of horticultural lighting alone. Guesswork is not our style. Therefore, don't hesitate to get in touch.
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