You’re never going to have perfect clarity in decision-making. I don’t think entrepreneurs should rely solely on intuition — there are affordable ways to collect a lot of data leading up to a decision. But at some point, you’re going to have to take the risk. It’s your job as an entrepreneur to balance intuition and data. Plus, you won’t really know about the market until people have to hand over money for your widget. A fascinating example is our pricing data. We collected over 8,500 data points before building our product, and most people said they wouldn’t pay more than 14 dollars for our solution. But we found that sales actually increased as we kept raising the price. That extra margin makes our business much more sustainable and enables more innovation, giving, quality, and supply chain stability with minimal impact to the customer’s wallet. I’ve worked at companies where more data was always needed, and the result was that we never ended up doing anything, not learning anything about the market.
As a part of our series about entrepreneurs who transformed something they did for fun into a full-time career, I had the pleasure of interviewing Greg Yeutter a serial entrepreneur who is the founder and CEO of SimpleBulb Inc. He is obsessed with solving a silent epidemic: poor quality sleep. Greg believes that everyone deserves a good night’s sleep and that it’s within reach with today’s technologies. In 2018, Greg launched Bedtime Bulb, a light bulb that reduces sleep-disturbing blue light. Having impacted thousands, SimpleBulb is developing the next generation of personalized sleep technologies.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?
My first word was “light.” Really! I’ve been obsessed with lighting my whole life (27 years so far). When I was growing up, I built an annual holiday light show in my front yard that got so popular, I was disqualified from winning my city’s contest.
By the time I was in high school, the light show was completely animated in sync to music. I was very much inspired by the shows put on at Disney theme parks, such as IllumiNations at Epcot and World of Color at Disney California Adventure. I thought I wanted to work for Walt Disney Imagineering after college, and I pursued a degree in electrical engineering to learn how lighting control systems work.
During my freshman year at Drexel University, I started working in a lab that was researching the effects of light on health. We were primarily looking at the effects of blue light on wake and sleep.
It is at that lab that I first realized the business potential of healthy lighting. I founded my first company, which was building the world’s first healthy lighting control system. We made lighting shift in color throughout the day to promote wakefulness and sleep by altering the amount of blue light.
That company had a handful of installations, but it turned out to be ahead of its time. We were acquired, and I went off work at a company that was developing commercial lighting systems. I worked there as a product manager for a little over a year, gaining a ton of valuable experience, but I felt I could have more impact by forging my own path.
What was the catalyst from transforming your hobby or something you love into a business? Can you share the story of your “ah-ha” moment with us?
After leaving the commercial lighting company, I had already been working on healthy lighting for close to seven years, with minimal success in the market. But over that time, I had gained lots of valuable knowledge about the relevant science and how to build lighting hardware and software products.
I was still obsessed with the idea that lighting could have a positive impact on sleep, but it seemed nobody had much commercial success in the area. I personally didn’t have many resources, and I needed something that would help get me back on my feet.
My “ah-ha” moment was when I realized the best solution to blue light at night would be simple, practical, and affordable.
In late 2017, I started designing Bedtime Bulb, a low-blue light bulb designed to promote healthy sleep. The idea was that you would use it in the last few hours of the evening, before going to sleep. The main goals were to drastically reduce sleep-disturbing blue light and to eliminate headache-inducing flashing.
It took about 10 months to find the right manufacturers and refine our spec to meet their capabilities. In September 2018, Bedtime Bulb launched on Amazon, and it’s been such a hit that we’ve had trouble keeping it in stock since then.
I recently had another “ah-ha” moment. I learned that a staggering number of people — more than 100 million Americans — get poor quality sleep. But few people understand what will actually help them.
I believe that everyone can get a great night’s sleep with technology that’s already available. But we need to have a better understanding of different people’s sleep needs and which interventions work best for each sleep persona.
I’m working on something that will bring customized sleep solutions to the masses, at an affordable price. Stay tuned.
There are no shortage of good ideas out there, but people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How did you overcome this challenge?
I’ve always been drawn to doing what I love as a career. Why would I spend half of my waking hours on something I don’t love? Depending on the area of interest, I think a lot of aspiring entrepreneurs should first try to be “intrapreneurs,” where they get to develop new products related to their interest within a larger, established company. If you can crack that nut, you’ll likely have a very good salary in addition to the strong resources and marketing platform of the company.
However, I’ve found that a lot of companies are not explicitly interested in creating entrepreneurial roles. You’ll often have to convince someone in the C-suite that you’re worth hiring as an intrepreneur, or you’ll have to start with a position that doesn’t give you much autonomy and move up slowly. And you may run into petty internal politics and terrible managers.
If you have a burning desire to do something, and you’re not getting anywhere with the relevant companies, then it’s time to re-evaluate your risk profile and see if it makes sense to start a venture on your own.
Related to this: be very careful about noncompete clauses in employment contracts! In my experience, these clauses can be extremely troubling to entrepreneurs. My opinion is that noncompetes should be illegal everywhere, as this type of protectionism is antithetical to innovation and damaging to the economy.
What advice would you give someone who has a hobby or pastime that they absolutely love but is reluctant to do it for a living?
Are you focused on the problem or the solution? I think if you are married to a solution, you will have a harder time doing this long-term, as you personally love your solution, but you might be more personally offended by harsh criticism of your product. Also, your solution might only be optimal for a very small subset of your actual addressable market.
If you’re focused on the problem, you’ll be more likely to accept criticism as valid, to actually listen to people’s needs, and to ultimately take this feedback into account to build better and better solutions. Be obsessed with the problem.
It’s said that the quickest way to take the fun out of doing something is to do it for a living. How do you keep from changing something you love into something you dread? How do you keep it fresh and enjoyable?
While I can’t say that every aspect of my job is super fun, it is super validating to hear that my product is making a difference in people’s lives, multiple times a week.
I also don’t particularly mind doing the tedious stuff the first time as a learning experience, but I will say I’m allergic to repetition. Setting up sales tax is a good example. Registering for licenses in dozens of states and manually filing the returns the first few times really helped me gain a new understanding of my business. But in the future, much of it will be automated or delegated, as I’ve learned most of what I need to know.
Find good mentors and peers to challenge you. These don’t have to be formal mentor relationships and you don’t have to agree with all of their opinions, but an outside perspective will open your mind to new business possibilities and get you out of your small-world mindset. One of the big challenges as an entrepreneur is balancing the big picture with short-term milestones. This is one of the reasons I like living in a big city — I’m surrounded by people who challenge me to be better, and a meeting is a walk or subway ride away.
What is it that you enjoy most about running your own business? What are the downsides of running your own business? Can you share what you did to overcome these drawbacks?
Other than the impact potential, what I most enjoy is the flexibility it affords. If it’s a nice day outside, I can go work in the park or even take some time off and just enjoy it. I travel overseas a few times a year for manufacturing, and I always combine work and pleasure, as most of my good ideas come from travel. For example, last year I spent two weeks exploring Japan after some deal-making in Hong Kong and Shenzhen. The only thing that constrains travel is my budget, not some arbitrary limit on vacation time.
The biggest downside is that it’s a roller coaster. I think people really don’t understand this until they’ve spent at least a few years as an entrepreneur. Just when things are really going well, something happens outside of your control that can set you back for a week, a month, six months. I’ve had two major issues this year, one lasting about the month, and one ongoing for about seven months so far. Never get too comfortable.
The positive thing about the lows is that they always teach you something important. From a long-term perspective, what you learn in the low periods will make you incredibly sharp as a businessperson, and in dealing with people. You become your own devil’s advocate, and you learn to read people carefully.
Over time, I have gotten slightly better at handling the lows emotionally, at knowing that sticking it out will be worth it because that’s when everyone else quits. But I’m a sensitive person, which I think is a major strength as a founder that can also be a weakness, and the lows still really get to me. I would be lying if I said I didn’t get stressed out and feel hopeless at times. Having a supportive significant other helps a lot. Meditate, do yoga, sleep at least 8 hours, eat nutritious food, and go on long walks.
Can you share what was the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I can get distracted pretty easily, and tasks tend to take longer than they should. Since I have no boss, nobody else is holding me accountable for getting things done. I’m getting better at managing deadlines and throughput, but it’s a daily challenge. The resistance is real.
Has there ever been a moment when you thought to yourself “I can’t take it anymore, I’m going to get a “real” job? If so how did you overcome it?
Yeah, whenever something happens that negatively impacts cash flow. But then I remember that I likely wouldn’t be able to nearly the impact I am having at a “real” job, at least in my field. And it’s finally paying off financially, too. Taking a job is not off the table if I really need it, but with my business, I am turning something that I really love into something that helps people, and that brings me joy.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
OK, this isn’t funny in the comedic sense, but it’s laughable in hindsight. When I first produced Bedtime Bulb, I had to make 1,000 units of the product to meet supplier minimums. But I was very unsure if I had gotten the recipe right and if people would even like the product.
So, I started selling the product for 5 dollars, at a loss, on my website, just to gather feedback. The first 50 or so customers mostly loved it. But I was still very unsure about the product’s market readiness.
During a meeting with a mentor, I explained my dilemma. He told me, “You have your product, and people love it, so why don’t you just go out and actually sell it?” That was the kick in the behind I really needed.
I had already been selling books on Amazon, so I set up a product page for Bedtime Bulb, shipped the remaining units to Amazon fulfillment centers, and priced the product so that it would be profitable. The rest is history.
The lesson here is one that is often told in the startup world, but most often ignored. Get your product out there way before you feel ready. You can do all the market research in the world, but having a product to sell will teach you much more about the market. And it will give you a chance at actually building a profitable business.
Who has inspired or continues to inspire you to be a great leader? Why?
I especially admire Sir James Dyson, the vacuum cleaner guy. He spent years developing thousands of prototypes and living a minimal lifestyle, all while accumulating a fair amount of debt. That persistence paid off. Today, Dyson owns 100% of his multibillion-dollar innovation powerhouse, and he even runs a tuition-free engineering school that is closely integrated with the company.
While James Dyson did take some along the way, he eventually paid everyone off. I’m not implying that this is the best model for all companies, or even what we plan to do. I just want to illustrate that there is more than one way to build an incredibly successful, impactful business. It’s the long-term mindset that’s key.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
Not only is Bedtime Bulb improving sleep for thousands of customers, but we have also implemented a giving model inspired by TOMS. For every bulb purchased, we fund solar electricity for one person in areas that are developing economically.
We estimate that around 1 billion people still rely on unsafe, unhealthy, and expensive kerosene lighting. By installing solar in their villages, they will have access to a stable electricity supply. A stable electricity supply means these people can rely on much healthier LED light sources, devote more time to education, and accelerate their local economies.
I am also using my success with Bedtime Bulb to build a larger company focused on sleep and to spend more time developing content to promote awareness of healthy sleep.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Don’t jump into agreements right away, especially those involving equity and control. Make people prove their worth first. I don’t want to get too specific on this one, but in several instances, in the past, I trusted people whom I shouldn’t have, and things got hairy.
- Never split equity equally. Having two 50% partners is an easy way to create a stalemate and completely stall your business. Not a good situation.
- You’re never going to have perfect clarity in decision-making. I don’t think entrepreneurs should rely solely on intuition — there are affordable ways to collect a lot of data leading up to a decision. But at some point, you’re going to have to take the risk. It’s your job as an entrepreneur to balance intuition and data.
Plus, you won’t really know about the market until people have to hand over money for your widget. A fascinating example is our pricing data. We collected over 8,500 data points before building our product, and most people said they wouldn’t pay more than 14 dollars for our solution. But we found that sales actually increased as we kept raising the price. That extra margin makes our business much more sustainable and enables more innovation, giving, quality, and supply chain stability with minimal impact to the customer’s wallet.
I’ve worked at companies where more data was always needed, and the result was that we never ended up doing anything, not learning anything about the market.
- Don’t forget the “minimum” in minimum viable product (MVP). Your goal with any product launch is to answer a fundamental question — what I call the minimum viable question (MVQ) — about your market as quickly as possible. For example, the MVQ behind Bedtime Bulb was “Will people spend more for a lighting product that can help their sleep?” We built a very high-quality product with a basic feature set (informed by extensive research) that would allow us to answer that question. More features actually make it more difficult to determine the answer to your MVQ, and they drastically slow time to market.
- Become an expert before delegating work. By “expert,” I am using the Tim Ferriss definition of knowing more than 95% of people about a given subject. Whether it’s graphic design, PR, e-commerce logistics, accounting, or any other aspect of your business, read books, take courses, and try things yourself before hiring someone.
The goal is not for you to be great at any of those things. The aim is for you to speak the language so you can delegate more effectively and to recognize how easy or hard something actually is.
Some things, like sales tax and logistics, came surprisingly easy to me. When it comes to graphic design and PR, I generally know what I want because I can speak the language, but I’ll leave it to a professional to implement things for me.
The other advantage of becoming an expert is that you can whip out something in a pinch, in the case of a tight deadline or a contractor falling through. Sometimes it’s quicker and cheaper for me to just do something, as opposed to hiring someone, explaining what I want, and waiting to get work back. As an entrepreneur, you’re often going to have to get your hands dirty, like it or not.
Note that for most legal matters, a good lawyer is pricey but tends to be worth it.
What person wouldn’t want to work doing something they absolutely love. You are an incredible inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Sleep is so important, yet so underappreciated. With 35% of Americans getting poor quality sleep (and similar statistics elsewhere), we need to make healthy sleep a priority. We’re starting to see later school start times, flexible work schedules, and a rejection of unhealthy sleep medications, such as Ambien. But this is only just the beginning.
I’m shifting my social media presence toward helping people sleep better. Even on popular platforms like YouTube and Instagram, there seem to be only a handful of people talking about sleep. I’m doing my part, and I’d love for you to lead by example and promote healthy sleep in your own area of influence.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Hard choices, easy life. Easy choices, hard life.” — Jerzy Gregorek
I would love to be able to take a time machine 30 years into the future to see if all this effort was worth it. Since we don’t have time machines yet, I try to learn from the great innovators of history. Almost by definition, having an impact means going against the status quo, which tends to bring criticism and financial instability in the short term.
I’m qualified to have a cushy job, but the cost is less attention on work that can make a real difference in people’s lives.
And if none of it works out, well, at least it won’t have been boring.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Sir James Dyson.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.
Thank you for this opportunity!