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Stephen Rouse: How Christmas lights from a Disney set sparked my ‘really big’ business

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The young entrepreneur, who has just become a member of theDesk, says his Really Big Lights company was inspired by the ‘Disney lights’ which adorned his childhood home every winter

When entrepreneur Stephen Rouse didn’t succeed with his first business venture, he went looking for inspiration. And as he sat there on his sofa at his parent’s home in California, USA, contemplating his future, his eyes fixed on his family’s collection of Christmas lights that had been given to his father by a bigwig at animation studio Pixar and may have once been used on a Disney set. These lights were massive and friends had been asking where they could buy them. A light went on in his brain and that’s when his story began…

Rouse, who has just become a member of theDesk co-working and events space in Sai Wan, is now the founder and owner of Really Big Lights, an American company that indeed manufactures ‘really big lights’. He’s moved to Hong Kong to start up the Asian arm of a firm that’s quickly growing. But the idea would never have been sparked had his family not been gifted that oversized set of Disney Christmas lights – which glistened every year at the Rouse house over the festive period – when the entrepreneur was just a small boy. “Who knew those lights would one day brighten my whole future?” he muses.

Really Big Lights launched in 2015 and now it’s going global. Rouse has also just launched Manik Trade Company, ‘a supply chain consultancy for startups all the way from development and production, to big box sales, financing and marketing’. However, the 28-year-old wouldn’t have been even looking for inspiration if his first venture hadn’t failed. He says: “I started this business called Juice Me, trying to sell prepared fruit and vegetables for juicing. It turned out to be more complicated than one person could handle, though, and I was incredibly underfinanced.”

Sadly Rouse abandoned Juice Me and that’s when the new idea ‘lit up’ in his mind. “I was sitting at my parents house with the realisation that Juice Me wouldn’t work,” he says. “While I was sitting there, however, in a matter of five minutes, three people came by my house and they were all asking where they could get these really big lights and that’s when I had my idea.” Rouse says he pondered around the fact that the bulbs were, in his opinion, ‘pretty simple products’. “I didn’t know much about manufacturing,” he says, “but I was sure I could try.”

“I had to learn how to do everything from factory audits to invoicing. I basically learned how to set up a global supply chain. I managed to do it and we sold out 100 percent our first year to The Home Depot.”

Within a month, Rouse says he flew to Taiwan and found a factory there. When he knew his idea had substance, he set up a Kickstarter campaign that raised US$34,628 and began what he calls ‘supersizing Christmas’ with Really Big Lights. With this money, he managed to import 10 containers of the Disney-inspired Christmas lights and sold them to American retail stores. The lights have been in demand in his home country since then. And now they’re in demand in seven other countries as well.

Here’s a surprise: Rouse says his orders aren’t seasonal. He tells us that some retailers request the lights more than a year-and-a-half ahead of time. In January last year, for instance, he had to learn about these ‘advance orders’ the hard way after he got a ‘multi-million dollar crazy order’ from The Home Depot, a home supply retailer. Rouse remembers that he ‘got into every single one of their stores’ – and that’s a lot of stores in the USA. “They have over 2,000 stores,” says Rouse, “and here I am, only a one-man business trying to juggle it all. I had to learn how to do everything from factory audits to invoicing. I basically learned how to set up a global supply chain. I managed to do it and we sold out 100 percent our first year to The Home Depot.”

SEE ALSO: Meet the Investors: How to Fund Your Startup

The funding for The Home Depot order was even harder to raise, says Rouse, but eventually he got his cash from a man, whose name he won’t reveal. The two met at a Las Vegas trade show, where Rouse was able to acquire funds and a ‘great mentor’. He says: “I was able to find money and a good mentor. I think that’s all it takes. He’s become my voice of reason. If something happens, he explains it to me, shows me the possible options and then tells me which one he would take and why.”

It’s with the support of backers like the unnamed man that Rouse decided to expand Really Big Lights into Manik Trade this year. “I have people who have believed in me,” he says, “and I have learned about the global supply chain so much that I now want to make new products and help others with their ideas.” Manik Trade can be described as ‘a startup for startups’. He says the company helps you ‘engineer your ideas into items’ or ‘bring items you’ve created into bix box stores’. Rouse’s startup doesn’t focus on one particular item, though. Though he works with a variety of products, he says: “So far, the majority of my work has been consulting. But I’m trying to expand more. That’s why I’ve come to Hong Kong. As well as my work with Really Big Lights, I also want to build my team to get my Manik work done.”

Over the past few weeks at theDesk, Rouse has already increased his travels to the Mainland to collaborate with his team. And he’s found he loves Hong Kong. In fact, our city enticed him before he even came to Asia. He can’t explain the infatuation even to himself. “I have no idea why,” he says, “but I have always wanted to move here, since when I was back in school. Right after I graduated from college, I rode motorbikes across Vietnam, crossed over to Cambodia and even flew down to Indonesia. I never got to come to this city – but I knew I had to.” Rouse says he’s already got to love ‘Hong Kong’s proximity to the hiking trails’. “I’ve backpacked in over 17 countries across Asia,” he says. “But Hong Kong’s been the most energetic. I can fly away for the weekend and come back ready to work.” Statement of fact: Rouse flies off to Borneo just a few hours after this interview…

Rouse truly does get to enjoy the best of both worlds. He says: “I have the pleasure of free time and the pain of struggle. I may get to travel but there are days when I’m up until 3am confirming orders.” Since that moment when a light went on in his brain, he says he hasn’t stopped working. “I’m willing to do it 24/7,” he says. “I’m passionate about my work. It’s not about anything other than wanting to succeed.”

By Sitara SamtaniStephen Rouse, in brief
Name: Stephen Rouse
Business: Really Big Lights and Manik Trade Company
Position: Owner
Age: 28
From: Sonoma, California, USA
Business Location: Right here, at theDesk!

To find out more about Rouse, check out his website at reallybiglights.com or email him at stephen@maniktrade.com.

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