Every day is Christmas Day at Shellie Gardner’s Benbrook business.
Gardner began her cottage industry, Christmas Light Source, 11 years ago, and the home-based business continues to grow and shine. As a niche retailer she offers LED light strings, mini-lights, craft lights, 12-volt lights, bulbs and cords, rope lights and various hardware for all holiday decorating.
Gardner helps residential and commercial customers, as well as governmental institutions, sparkle from coast to coast. She’s provided lighting for the Capitol Tree, Macy’s, Neiman Marcus, the National Botanic Garden, Gap, Chicago Transit Authority, the Holy Land Experience, Universal Studios and, closer to home, Rodeo Goat in Fort Worth.
But lights are more than just bulbs and wire, Gardner said, and her business is way more than “Christmas.” Décor lighting is now a year-round need for outdoor parties and events and other Pinterest-type projects indoors.
“In particular, holiday lighting invokes memories of family, friends and tradition,” Gardner said. “We’ve found that Halloween rivals Christmas with decorations. But we’re really targeting outdoor lighting. We’re trying to stay current and relevant. Weddings, proms, homecoming – where else can you find lights in the middle of summer? It’s really a year-round business but we’re the busiest from Sept. 10 to Dec. 10.”
Gardner, like many small retail entrepreneurs, came from a corporate background before deciding to become her own boss. Now 49, she graduated from Texas Tech University with both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering. She says there were only 11 women in the United States that year who earned a master’s in electrical engineering.
“That took away the fear of doing something unknown,” said Gardner.
She started her engineering career working in hardware design, project management and secure communications for Intervoice Inc. in Dallas.
“I look back and laugh sometimes at some of the things I did back then. What chutzspah for such a young woman,” she said.
She then worked in technical sales for Hewlett-Packard Co., covering three states.
“One day Hewlett-Packard gave us a book that said we are all self-employed and so I took them at their word and quit. I did what every engineer wants to do and quit to start my own business.”
Her first enterprise was a coffee kiosk at Valley View Mall in Dallas. It lasted the length of her lease.
“We thought we were really cool, opening a coffee business. It wasn’t for me but I did learn about people, customer service, and to never go in the restaurant business or anything to do with food,” she said.
After quitting the coffee business, Gardner and her husband, David Robinson, an engineer with a background in software, moved to Fort Worth. Gardner became a Realtor, selling homes primarily in the Fairmount National Historic District. She also began managing properties. Robinson eventually left his job in information technology and took over the property management business. Gardner quit the real estate industry when sales sank after the recession.
“I had a lot of success there,” she said. “But I was looking for something else, something more flexible so I could stay at home with our two boys.”
Gardner had her light bulb moment after discovering the demand for décor lighting and the ease and flexibility of online marketing. Wanting to be “the Martha Stewart of Christmas lights,” Gardner launched Christmas Light Source in October 2005.
Within five weeks, she got a call from the office of the architect at the United States Capitol to help convert the Capitol Tree from incandescent bulbs to LED lights. The company continues to be the vendor of choice for the Capitol Tree and has done lighting for the National Cherry Blossom Festival.
“All I wanted to do was make $15,000 in 2005. That was my goal,” she said. “We broke $85,000 in our first three months open because we opened Oct. 15 at the beginning of the season. We’ve increased steadily over the years.”
Gardner estimates she’s sold 2 million lights directly to customers in the last 11 years. Since 2009, the company has generated growth of 21.4 percent. Annual sales for 2015 rang up more than $600,000, and Gardner projects an increase this year and beyond after rolling out a new website and a renewed focus on outdoor lighting.
“We passed our 10-year mark last year, which is a landmark for any business,” she said. “It was a normal process. It took about four years to see a profit and then all of a sudden it took off. We just persevered. To survive in Christmas lights takes longevity. At my level it takes local promotion. Word-of-mouth advertising is very powerful.”
Gardner has built her family-owned online business not only by word of mouth but also by developing a savvy internet marketing strategy. She drives traffic and sales to her website, www.christmas-light-source.com, through educational videos and articles on YouTube; regular postings on Facebook, Pinterest and Instagram; blog posts; and a live spot on One Life Radio Monday-Friday on Dallas AM 1190 iHeart Radio, on the weekends on ESPN 1520 AM along the East Coast, or in syndication across the country in Phoenix, Portland, Oregon, and New York City.
“You can’t discount word of mouth and good customer service. We serve customers what they’re looking for and that’s the key to internet marketing,” Gardner said. “Ultimately, the bedrock of any internet marketing campaign is giving your customers what they’re looking for.”
Gardner also credits the success of Christmas Light Source to her employees, currently seven who work mostly off site. The company’s analyst is in Utah, the graphic designer lives in Missouri, a technical support person is in Canada and the employee who maintains the website lives in Romania.
“I’ve learned to let go, and now we’ve mastered the art of remote employees,” said Gardner. “You can’t do it all. It’s either grow or die. You expand or you contract and you have to make that choice. As the person who starts up a business, you have to start letting other people do what you do. You have to coach them through and you have to expect some mistakes and learn to be OK with that.”
Gardner says that Christmas Light Source is more than a job and that it will never be so big that it would treat customers like anyone but friends.
“I jump out of bed with a big smile on my face each morning because I get to visit with folks about Christmas lights and holiday lights all year long,” she said. “I’m on a mission to make all of life’s celebrations brighter.”