DFW Entrepreneur Finds Holiday Niche

With the holiday season quickly approaching (although some would argue it’s already here), work will begin to share attention with seasonal planning and family. Activity tends to slow in offices, people start taking vacations, and so on. But a local North Texas entrepreneur has found himself a rather timely opportunity and is taking advantage of the season to start a brand new business.

Tory Smith has worked in a number of verticals, including banking, online dating, and most recently, online travel. One recent Christmas, Smith discovered how valuable “match-making” can be when applied to a seasonal and niche market. Case in point: He was hanging his Christmas lights on his house, and after getting frustrated during his effort, thought how much he’d rather pay someone to hang them than do it himself. As part of being a homeowner, he tended to work with plenty of contractors that come to the house to do the various things that need done or fixed around the house, like roofers, landscapers, pest control, etc.

But what happens with these traditionally warm weather workers when the cool season comes around? Smith discovered through conversations with them that many of them hung Christmas lights. Also noticing that nearly every house in the neighborhood got into the holiday spirit by putting up Christmas lights, Smith identified an opportunity.

Smith happened to be learning web design and online marketing at the time, and set about creating a lead generation site called DFW Lights matching Christmas light installers with homeowners, and taking a cut of the action. The company is now in it’s 6th year, and last season, during the 3 months surrounding Christmas, total revenues surpassed a quarter of a million dollars. And this is during the economically challenged times we call a down economy.

After attempting to clone the commission-based model in other large Texas markets such as Houston and San Antonio, he ran into challenges where some of his subcontractors were less than ethical; he caught contractors not reporting their work, and was not able to police their activity. So instead of giving up on the commission model, he decided to mimic an existing “pay-per-lead” model akin to Service Magic. This year in time for the holidays he launched Christmas Light Leads (CLL), the first online lead generation company 100% dedicated to the holiday lighting industry. Using a combination of over 25 local holiday lighting websites mixed in with SEO, SEM, and social media strategies, he captures information from homeowners and businesses seeking holiday lighting estimates and, based on zip code, routes them directly to the holiday lighting company in the area. Smith say what sets CLL apart from other lead generation services is how it doesn’t blast the leads to an unrealistic number of contractors, but rather, only sends the leads to the number of contractors the customer requests. “We realize many contractors have been burned by so called ‘lead generation services’. We’ve created a fair model where if a homeowners only wants two estimates in the 75225 zip code, then we only distribute that lead to 2 contractors in that area.” Smith continues, “If a company only wants to receive commercial leads, then they would not be sent a residential lead.” Smith doesn’t allow just anybody with a truck and ladder to subscribe to his service, he requires a minimum of 1 year of experience and proof of liability insurance.

As an experienced product manager, Smith already had a background in writing technical requirements, constructing wireframes, and drafting comps. He hired graphic design out of Singapore, data entry from the Philippines and a gifted development team out of Russia. In less than three months, his lean, global team launched the first online lead generation company dedicated to holiday lighting. Smith says, “I get my fix on being quick and nimble – I dream of some cool functionality for a niche, that in some way, makes life easier. I throw together the requirements and in a matter of days it’s built. Internet project broker services like Elance enable this to happen. This was not possible a decade ago.”

Smith is an avid fan of modern day marketing evangelists such as Seth Godin, Guy Kawasaki and Gary Vaynerchuk. After fervently reading Godin’s The Bootstrapper’s Bible, Smith convinced himself he could launch a successful B2B business attracting companies from across the country. Digging into savings and using credit cards, Smith embarked on his first national B2B business. Just a few weeks old, Smith has already garnered support from top holiday lighting franchise Christmas Décor, which has endorsed the CLL program for all 260 of their franchisees.

Smith considers himself a digital marketing entrepreneur and his dream is to build an online lead generation model that is free for all service industries. “Many blue collar contractors and local small businesses are about 10 years behind the times. I want to educate them on effective lead generation and provide a free service to attract quality clients based on good, honest service.” He pitched his idea to the Dallas accelerator program Tech Wildcatters who selected Smith as a finalist. But after careful consideration, knowing his second child was to be born during the middle of the program, Smith withdrew his application at the final hour.

Stay tuned for this latest idea come springtime. I’ve already heard a lot about it and it seems ripe with potential in making the lead generation business more efficient. Smith plans on re-submitting the pitch to the Tech Wildcatters program early next year.

Brad Anderson