Just like that, you’re hooked. Talk to anyone in the green industry and they’ll say there’s something special about creating beautiful outdoor spaces that draws them to these jobs and entices them to stay for the long run. But to Tim Ryan, CLVLT, of Lighthouse Outdoor Lighting, West Chester, Pennsylvania, a career in outdoor lighting is the ultimate prize.
“I like to say that people who are lighting designers get the lighting bug,” he says. “They become very passionate and fall in love with this because what we do is so incredibly transformational to properties. We get to go in, paint everything that we want to see and hide everything that we don’t want to see. We’re creating art every night.”
Ryan’s role at the outdoor lighting franchisor can’t be summed up in a one- or two-word title. It would probably take one to two lines on a business card to capture the multiple roles he plays. Ryan serves as the company’s national director of lighting design, as well as the national director of training. Not to mention, he’s also the company’s photographer and videographer.
Ryan not only has a clear vision for his company but for the entire outdoor lighting industry. His passion for investing in the next generation of men and women beginning on this career path is contagious, even if you only spend a few minutes talking to him. But his journey to where he’s at in his career today began years before Lighthouse.
Like many who work in outdoor lighting, Ryan started out in the landscape and hardscape industry. Since the beginning of his career in the green industry in 1996, he always saw the value of offering outdoor lighting and integrating it into projects. But it’s taken quite a few years of trial and error and self-taught skills to become the outdoor lighting expert he is today.
“Like most landscapers back then, I really didn’t understand what I was doing with lighting. I’d just go buy some lights and throw them out there and try and make it look nice,” says Ryan. It wasn’t until 2006 that he jumped fully into lighting, starting his first outdoor lighting business in Idaho. “When I transitioned from landscape over into lighting, I was confident I knew everything about it,” he admits. “But once I really got over into lighting, I realized I didn’t know anything at all about it. That was a steep learning curve for me.”
In 2015, after several years of running his lighting business, Ryan was faced with a pivotal decision. “I was at a point in my career where I either had to grow my company much larger, or I had to look at the state of the industry and see if there was a way I could help make a lasting difference.”
He opted to sell his business to Lighthouse and went to work for the corporate headquarters where he helped the franchise restructure. Since this time of reorganization, the company’s vision has been to create another generation of lighting designers who care deeply about lighting design and are interested in preserving the art.
“My goal is to have Lighthouse be synonymous with quality lighting design,” says Ryan. “I got involved with Lighthouse for the opportunity to take what I have in my head and share it with 200 to 300 other guys so that they can pass it on to the next generation.”
The company’s vision has caught on, as it continues to grow rapidly. It currently has a mix of 23 corporate and independently owned franchises. Much of the company’s success is due to how it fully trains and supports new franchise operators in all things outdoor lighting. This helps eliminate years of trial and error and the expense of figuring out how to be successful at operating an outdoor lighting business.
Taking on training
While Ryan still works on some of the company’s specialty projects that require his design expertise, a big part of his job these days is spent training new franchisees and their employees that join Lighthouse. “When somebody comes into our organization, most of them are coming from different backgrounds. They might be coming from a landscape or hardscape background or from a completely unrelated industry,” Ryan explains. “Being a trainer is really about trying to understand where they’re coming from, what they have knowledge of, and then working from there.”
As he personally experienced, learning outdoor lighting on your own involves a lot of trial and error. “There’s a very large learning curve to try and get to the point where you are very competent and can set yourself apart from others.”
Ryan and the Lighthouse team try and eliminate five-plus years of a learning curve by teaching new members the essentials they would otherwise have to learn in the field like proper design principles, how to load and balance transformers and balancing light.
While the company’s initial training program is one week, it provides ongoing technical support and assistance. “If somebody has a design question or if they take a picture of a project and ask ‘How do I light this?’ it’s part of my job to help them come up with a solution about the right equipment and the right techniques to be able to illuminate those difficult jobs,” Ryan says.
Aside from teaching technical know-how, Ryan’s bigger mission is to get new team members to fall in love with the art of outdoor lighting design like he has. He also enjoys seeing clients’ reactions. “The effect that we create on properties happens overnight. It’s literally instantaneous. When you’re on a property with a client and turn the lights on for the first time, to watch their jaw hit the ground when they see it is amazing. You get on a big emotional high.”
Located on a lake in Indianapolis, this beautiful stucco Mediterranean style home sat in pitch black darkness, aside from a few carriage lights. It was challenging from a design standpoint but even more so by trying to get cable and power into all the places it needed to go in the three-story home. The finished project was absolutely beautiful and remains one of Tim Ryan’s favorite outdoor lighting projects he’s designed.
A picture’s worth a thousand words
Thirteen years ago, when Ryan started his own lighting business, he had to choose between either setting up time-consuming, labor-intensive live demonstrations or building a portfolio of high-quality photos of his work. Ryan jokes that he wanted the easier option, so he went out and bought a camera. A self-taught kind of guy, he’s still sharpening his photography skills and today produces incredible images for
Ryan says he believes in the power of good photography to attract new lighting customers, more so than other segments of the green industry. “If you’re talking about a new patio or a type of a brick, or you’re going to plant a tree or shrub in a certain spot, people can envision that much more easily,” he says. “But I found when I started getting into lighting that it was very difficult for prospective customers to understand the nuances of the light, the shadows and the effects that I was trying to propose to them.”
While traveling around the country as a corporate trainer Ryan also gets to photograph lighting projects at various locations where he’s training new members. He’s recently added videography to his responsibilities. Ryan explains that “static images are great, but we’re moving into an age where communication is done through video. People want to interact with their subjects, with who they’re meeting and the company they’re working with, and that’s done through video.”
The keys to success
Having built a thriving outdoor lighting business himself and spending years helping others do the same has taught Ryan a thing or two about what it takes to be successful in this industry. He says that, just like in any business, having great customer service should be the most important focus. “You always have to treat your customers as your number one priority, especially in the public arena we live in with social media,” says Ryan.
Along with that, you also have to be committed to working late at night, whether it’s walking a customer through a design or putting the last few tweaks on a project. “Sometimes we’re not home until 10 or 11, sometimes one o’clock in the morning because we’re out adjusting things,” he says. “You have to be prepared for that if you’re want to be successful.”
Like Ryan described earlier, having top-notch visuals and a strong portfolio are essential. “If you’re not good at capturing photos, hire a professional photographer. Make sure you’re getting good visuals because customers don’t understand what light can do.”
Ryan sees landscape and lighting companies all the time online who have poor-quality photos on their websites. “When you’re trying to win over a customer, you’re not helping them make the decision to hire you if don’t have good images,” he explains. “If you can show your customer what you can do in a meaningful way through imagery, that will make a huge difference in selling more lighting.”
You also have to be able to market yourself, and part of that is getting in front of the right people. “With outdoor lighting, you’re dealing with a very select customer that’s very high end. So you have to be very directed with your marketing and specifically target this kind of customer.”
The last thing is to be able to differentiate yourself from everyone else in the industry. “You have to be able to distinguish yourself, whether it’s your style of lighting, your photography, your marketing or your message,” explains Ryan. “You have to be unique and memorable, because if you’re not, you’re going to struggle in this business.”
This manmade waterfall located in an Indianapolis housing development park originally had two floodlights intended to light everything, but they weren’t doing the water feature justice. Tim Ryan and his team removed them and placed lighting in the waterfall itself. The project was a fun challenge for the team by making sure the placement of the lights was perfect so onlookers can see the water in action.
Every year there’s an increasing interest from consumers in outdoor lighting as people spend and invest in their outdoor living spaces. Even though outdoor lighting took off in states on the periphery of the country, like California, Arizona, Texas and Florida, where it’s warm year-round, Ryan says, “We’re now seeing that move more into the central states, the Midwest and the East where even though you don’t have 12 months of the year to enjoy outdoors, you can still enjoy it eight to nine months of the year.”
In addition to more people being aware of and desiring outdoor lighting, another positive trend Ryan has seen over the last five years has been the variety of outdoor lighting products available. And while the increase in product variety and technology is great for the industry, Ryan says there are some downsides. Once LEDs started coming on the scene around 2008, so many people, including landscape and irrigation contractors, handymen and electricians, had begun doing outdoor lighting that the quality of actual design has diminished over the years, according to Ryan. This has caused homeowners’ expectations of what good lighting is to drop significantly due to how much poor lighting is out there.
“Because lighting products are accessible to so many people, there’s not enough people taking the time to train themselves, learn proper lighting design and get involved with organizations,” he says.
Ryan recognizes and commends the landscape and irrigation companies that are taking the time to learn about lighting and good design. “We welcome everybody into this industry,” says Ryan. “But the art of what we do needs to be preserved. People that are doing this need to study it, learn it, and help maintain and raise the industry standard.”
One of the best ways to do this he says is to get involved in organizations like the Association of Outdoor Lighting Professionals, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, or the International Landscape Lighting Institute, Norman, Oklahoma. These organizations offer courses, certifications and other resources to help those interested in developing professionally in outdoor lighting. As a member of and volunteer with AOLP, Ryan is encouraged by the growing number of professionals wanting to learn and get involved with them, and he’s hopeful this means the industry will see an increasing emphasis on design in the future.
With many years left in his career, Ryan is eager to spend them teaching and training the next generation of lighting designers. Some of the most fulfilling moments of his career are when he’s with a new designer, spending time with him on the job site. “When I see the light bulb come on over his head and see that he absolutely has gotten the lighting bug, that’s amazing,” he says. “I love seeing him have that passion and knowing that what I’ve been able to give him is going to grow and improve over time as he becomes a good lighting designer.”
While there’s so much Ryan loves about his job, he says the most rewarding thing to him is “to see that the torch has been passed.”
The author is digital content editor of Irrigation & Green Industry and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Are you interested in furthering your knowledge and skills in outdoor lighting? Consider getting involved with a professional organization. The Association of Outdoor Lighting Professionals, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, offers many ways to further your career in outdoor lighting, like becoming certified as a certified low voltage lighting technician or a certified outdoor lighting designer. Visit www.aolponline.org for more information.
Another organization you can become involved with is the International Landscape Lighting Institute, Norman, Oklahoma. The ILLI offers a five-day intensive course in landscape lighting design. Instructed by a dedicated team of experienced professional lighting designers, installers, electricians and pruning experts, attendees are guided through a series of lecture presentations and manufacturers’ demonstrations, while also participating in hands-on field work. Visit www.illionline.org for more information.