“And then a light went off”

“And then a light went off”

When people ask how Levenger began, I tell them that getting fired from my job helped quite a bit. Not that I was fired for anything bad, really. I just made a...

Dec 17, 2007

By Steve Leveen

When people ask how Levenger began, I tell them that getting fired from my job helped quite a bit.

Not that I was fired for anything bad, really. I just made a bargain with my boss, the president of the software company for which I was supposed to develop new business. In a manner that must have come across as cocky, I told my boss, “Either the project I’m working on gets approved by the board, or I should move on.”

I was rather disappointed with my career at that point. At 33, I had spent a lot of time in higher education and had tried out a few different careers without much success. I saw people above me on the corporate ladder who didn’t seem to have much more on the ball than I did, and I felt stuck on the middle rungs. So I wanted to make some bold moves at this company and move up.
When the board shot down my idea, I was hoping my president would have forgotten my brash bargain. He didn’t.

The president was a nice enough guy with a Harvard MBA. He called me into his office to say it was time for me to go, and said he felt bad about it, since he knew my wife was expecting our first child, but business was business.

I suspect he also perceived—correctly—that I was one of those guys determined to be an entrepreneur, so he might as well get me started with a friendly goodbye, a few months’ severance, and a push overboard. In retrospect, getting tossed out of the salary ship was the cold shock I needed.

Soon after, Lori began her maternity leave from a successful career at IBM, and a couple of high-tech refugees launched their startup lifeboat into the turbulent seas of late 1980s America.

Where did the name Levenger come from? We combined Leveen and Granger. It sounded good enough and was shorter than two names.

When shopping for lighting for our first home (while still employed), we became frustrated with the offerings at stores but intrigued with the new halogen lights. The bright, white light seemed like a new generation of computer chips to us. And just as new microchips allowed computers to do new things, we understood new halogen bulbs would allow lighting fixtures to do new things.

After visiting the wholesale lighting shows, we put together a collection of some of the designs we liked best, and put together a tiny catalog—really just one large sheet folded twice—and advertised it with a one-inch ad in The New Yorker.

Those blessed readers of The New Yorker called to ask, “Do you really know about reading lights? Because it’s very important to us…” Actually, we knew nothing about reading lights. We did know enough, however, to listen to what potential customers wanted, so we visited lighting engineers, bulb manufacturers, and vision experts, and quickly became experts of a sort. At least we had more expertise than the salesperson you might find at your local lighting store. And so, our tiny business began to make sales.

We thought the key market would be for lights next to personal computers, which were then flooding into homes, but the demand was actually for a far older pursuit—reading in bed.

That was the first of many surprises that would come over the next 20 years, not the least of which is that we’re still around, and, with the help of capable staff members and now millions of beloved customers, Levenger is thriving.

So our heartfelt birthday thanks to you, dear customers. It’s been a rewarding adventure we hope continues for many years to come.