By Nate Mickelberg
Photos by J. Alan Paul Photography, Paul Flessland & courtesy of the Enright Family
Special thanks to Rylee Wznick
“Be good, Tommy.”
Tom Enright’s dad never missed a chance to remind him, from his earliest days growing up on the South Side of Chicago well into his adult years.
It was a daily reminder to him and his four siblings to not just be good but to do good.
Now, decades later, Enright is putting his father’s sage advice into action with his online light bulb business, hoping to inspire his customers, his employees and his fellow business owners to also “be good.”
Tom Enright, Founder & President – GoodBulb
It was a “say yes to everything” moment for Tom Enright.
Fresh out of college in the late ’90s and starting an elementary school teaching job in six months, the founder of Fargo e-commerce company GoodBulb was waiting tables in his native Chicago when one night, while picking up a customer’s bill from the table, he got more than just a tip.
“Out of nowhere,” Enright recalls, “this guy says to me, ‘I want to offer you a job. I think you’re a salesperson.'”
Surprised by a job interview he didn’t know he was at but intrigued by the opportunity, Enright thought, “Teaching will always be there. Maybe I’ll give this a shot.”
He insisted to himself that it would be temporary—a way to pass the time and satisfy his curiosity for a while—but after spending nine months working for his new boss and bouncing around to a few other sales jobs, he knew he’d found his calling.
As Enright explains it, he didn’t find light bulbs. Light bulbs found him.
After responding to a suspiciously vague classified in a Chicago paper for a “sales position with unlimited income,” he was offered and accepted a job at a commercial lighting products firm that he’d end up spending the next decade of his career with.
“I was an independent contractor working on straight commission, living and working at my parents’ house,” Enright says. “I was selling light bulbs business to business, door to door in the Chicagoland area and I got pretty good at it.”
And for four years, that’s what he did. He sold and he sold and he sold.
And when he wasn’t selling, he was traveling the country teaching other guys at his company how to sell like him.
“It was my only goal,” recalls Enright, who was making a good amount of money moving lighting supplies and lamps. “Sell a ton of light bulbs. And it was easy.”
“He told me I was nuts and that the only way to sell light bulbs was door to door and over the phone.”
When a promotion to a managerial role brought him to company headquarters in Fargo in 2004, Enright wasn’t sure what to expect from his new home.
“Even though my friends and family thought I was crazy,” he says, “I was excited for the new adeventure.”
He quickly fell in love with the city and its people—meeting his eventual wife, Tammy, only two weeks after moving to town.
But while the company thrived and his personal success grew, he says he knew it was all just a matter of time before his industry—and many others like it—would feel the disruptive force of the internet.
He was convinced that if his company didn’t embrace the new technology, their competitors would. So he took an idea to the owner and remembers well the brief conversation they had:
“I went to him and told him what I thought: We need to be selling light bulbs online. He told me I was nuts and that the only way to sell light bulbs was door to door and over the phone.”
Even though e-commerce was in its infancy at the time, Enright knew his boss was wrong.
“Even back then, I was so sure it was going to be huge,” he says.
Maybe it was frustration or maybe it was the restlessness that accompanies a Midwest winter, but something in Enright made up his mind for him right then and there. If his company wasn’t going to join the 21st century, he’d do it himself.
“I didn’t know much about e-commerce,” recalls Enright, who says he learned very quickly that good ideas and good companies are two very different things. “I just knew I had to build an online light bulb store. I didn’t realize how much it would take to truly build an e-com business. Back then, I actually did just think that I could build an online light bulb store and I would start to see results.”
While the allure of big commissions delayed the process a bit, he eventually “just did it” and launched his new startup, Northern Lights USA.
“It took 90 days to take the leap of faith and quit my other job,” says Enright, who, unbeknownst to his bosses, had been building the Northern Lights website at home for months. “I had a nine-month-old baby. I’d work 8-5, come home, spend time with my wife and daughter, and get online until three or four o’clock in the morning manually inputting every single product onto that site. I did that for six months.”
Despite a ferocious work ethic and ample enthusiasm, Enright says the realities of entrepreneurship quickly caught up with him.
“I didn’t have a customer base I could go after anymore because I had a non-compete, and so it didn’t take long at all before everything started to fall apart,” he remembers. “I was quickly running out of money, and so I went back to what I knew, which was selling lightbulbs door to door.”
With little more than some pluck and a good pair of walking shoes, Enright built up a healthy clientele in Fargo-Moorhead the old-fashioned way—even hand-delivering his customers’ orders across the metro.
It wasn’t long until he’d outgrown the one-man operation, and within just a few short years, he’d hired a small staff, relaunched the company as LightBulbs247, and moved the entire operation online just like he’d always wanted.
With momentum on his side, Enright was ready to take his business to the next level.
Life, of course, had other plans.
“It didn’t take long at all before everything started to fall apart.”
When Enright and his wife welcomed their second child—a son named Chase—he seemed to be a relatively healthy baby. When Chase turned four months old, though, he started showing several strange symptoms.
He was constantly projectile vominting, he would wimper and water would pour from his eyes—even though he wasn’t crying.
When he was old enough to sit up, his head started dropping so hard in one direction that he would completely tip over.
“We kept taking him to different local doctors, who gave us several misdiagnoses,” Enright recalls. “They told us, ‘Oh, it’s just acid reflux. It’s just a tear duct issue. It’s a nodding disorder. It’s nothing.’ But my wife knew something was wrong.”
Then, in the middle of the night one night, Tammy’s suspicions were confirmed.
It wasn’t a nodding disorder. It was a seizure—right there in between his parents in their bed.
For two months, they saw more local doctors, who misdiagnosed the type of seizures and prescribed the wrong medications.
Out of frustration, they sent his symptoms to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and, within a day, got a call back telling them they needed to be there by the end of the weekend to prepare for the week of appointments Chase was due to have.
“We dropped everything and went to Mayo,” Enright says. “And they diagnosed him right away.
Baby Chase Enright at Mayo Clinic.
“There was a team of about six to eight doctors who came into the room, and they told us how grim the diagnosis was. They told us he had West Syndrome and that he was going to have learning disabilities because it was diagnosed so late and because of the amount of brain damage that had been done by the seizures.”
The doctors all but guaranteed Chase would have trouble speaking and learning, and there was even a chance of death if the seizures didn’t stop. The Enrights’ world was upended.
“There was actually a point during this process,” Enright says, “where Chase had zero normal brain activity. There was a point where he didn’t move. He’d just lay on the carpet.”
For months, Enright and his wife traveled back and forth to Rochester with Chase, trying different treatments, drug combos, hoping against hope that something would work. Enright was at one point even looking at apartments in Colorado, hoping cannabis might be the solution.
Enright with his son, Chase at Mayo Clinic.
“It was a lot,” says Enright, who was trying to keep his new venture afloat while his wife juggled her own duties as a business manager. “But you just do it. My wife, my kids, the people who were with me at the time, everybody was counting on me to be successful.”
And then, one day, the seizures stopped.
“The doctors still today don’t understand it,” says Enright, adding that it took Chase two years of subsequent intense therapy to learn to eat, play with toys again and speak. “They don’t know if it was just the right combination of medications or what, but by some miracle, the seizures stopped.”
As the symptoms subsided and Chase slowly started to become a normal, little boy again, Enright could feel himself changing, too.
Enright with his family today—a healthy Chase second from left.
If Chase’s miraculous recovery was a sign for Enright, the next couple years would be a flashing neon billboard.
One spring night in May 2014, just months after seeing Chase for what would be the last time, Enright’s dad was taking out the trash, his heart stopped and he died. The following year, his father-in-law passed away unexpectedly during a hunting trip.
“At both of those funerals, hundreds of people came up to us and told us stories about how our dads impacted and truly made a difference in their lives,” says Enright, recalling how influential this time period was to his understanding of what his business could and should be.
“There were kids my dad had coached on sports teams throughout the years, local people in the community—he was a police officer and a K-9 cop—and with my wife’s dad, who was a handyman, it was all these people who told us how much our dads helped them in different ways.
“And so I’m laying in bed one of those nights and thinking: What is my gravestone going to read? ‘He was a good dad, a great husband and he sold a ton of light bulbs’? That’s when I started asking myself: How can a light bulb be more than a lightbulb?”
“I realized pretty quickly that in order to make a difference,” Enright says, “the number one thing we had to do was help others. We had to find a way to help others because we were so blessed.”
So for the second time, Enright decided it was time for a change. This time, though, it had to be more than just a name change and a facelift. It had to be a whole new company.
“I’m on the phone with my branding guy in North Carolina,” Enright says, “and one of the first things he says to me is, ‘Your name, LightBulbs247, it sucks.’ And I was like, ‘I know it sucks.’ And we keep talking and keep talking and all of a sudden he says, ‘How about GoodBulb?’ And before we’d even hung up the phone, I’d bought the domain.”
Why Packaging Is a Priority
Packaging is one of the most important things in retail right now, Enright says.
“It needs to tell the story,” he explains. “When somebody sees a GoodBulb LED, they need to be able to tell three things from the box:
1) That this is a quality bulb
2) That they’re getting a good bulb for a very good price
3) That they’ve made a difference by buying the product”
Enright says he was drawn to the simple strength of the name and its message.
“We had to continue doing what we were good at,” he says, “which was selling quality bulbs at a fair price, but always be asking ourselves, ‘How can we inspire others to be good?’
“I always tell my children to be good—just like my dad did to me—but when was the last time you told one of your friends or someone in Hornbacher’s? Because that’s what GoodBulb is. It’s being good to your neighbors, being good to your coworkers, being good to everyone.”
On paper, the differences between GoodBulb, which Enright officially launched in November 2015, and Enright’s previous ventures are subtle. He and his team of 10 are still selling lamps and lighting products online, but as Enright explains, now they’re doing it with more purpose.
“We’re building a culture for people who want to work for a company that wants to do more than just sell a product,” says Enright, who spent most of 2016 transferring inventory to GoodBulb and launching the website. “That means donating time with local organizations, helping different charities however we can. It’s important that everybody who’s part of our team is donating time and energy.”
And despite being such a young company, GoodBulb’s already putting their money where their mouth is.
Last February, Enright and his team donated thousands of blue light bulbs and raised nearly $8,000 to allow people all over the region to commemorate the life of fallen Fargo police officer Jason Moszer. This past November, they helped raise $2,000 for the North Dakota Veterans Warrior Foundation.
And in December 2016, they sent a check for $5,000 to One Million Lights, a nonprofit that helps distribute solar lights in underdeveloped areas around the world.
Enright and his team presenting a check to One Million Lights
“One of our major causes is to actually use light to make a difference,” Enright says. “There are 1.3 billion people around the world who don’t have electricity, and so they’re forced to rely on kerosene.
“Kerosene is extremely dangerous due to the potential fire hazard, it causes respiratory disease, is inefficient and is responsible for three percent of the world’s CO2 emissions. And the people who are using kerosene lanterns are spending anywhere from 30-60 percent of the small amount of money they do make for fuel for these lanterns.
“People who are using these are living in very remote villages, and so with a solar-powered LED lantern, you’re solving some of those problems. You’re giving them light so that children can read and learn. It makes a difference.”
Enright says his hope is not just for consumers to identify with his company’s “for profit, for cause” mission but his fellow founders as well.
“I was quoted in another article several months ago saying that I had no intention of changing the world and that I simply wanted to make a difference,” he says. “And I realized shortly after that, that I wasn’t thinking big enough.
“We really can change the world by inspiring others through our actions.”
Be good, Tommy. Be good.
4211 12th Ave. N, Fargo