By Eric Peterson / CompanyWeek | Apr 08, 2023
Conte was designing LED headlights for the automotive aftermarket when a friend's Facebook post about bicycling at night set him on the path to starting Outbound Lighting.
"Pretty much every single bike light is essentially a flashlight that's strapped to the handlebars," says Conte, who sought to bring car-caliber headlights to bicyclists. "I thought I could make a better one, so I made a prototype, had my friend try it out, and he loved it."
To start the company in 2017, Conte launched a Kickstarter campaign and raised $30,000 to cover the cost of tooling. His design was informed by his experience in the automotive industry. "When you're driving a car, we're not driving with proper headlights that have a beam pattern that focuses on the middle of the road but spreads light out to the sides, so you can see with your peripheral vision," says Conte. "You're not just throwing a ton of light up into the sky. It's very focused and directed."
Utilizing LucidShape automotive lighting design software, Conte brings the same highly engineered approach to bicycle lights. "We build the optic, then we build the light around that," he says. "Our lights are designed as true headlights for a bike."
Outbound's helmet lights are priced at $135, and the top-selling Trail Evo is $245. "We're kind of in the middle of the range for pricing," says Conte. "When I developed these lights, I didn't want to be the crazy high end, because I know how hard it is to sell that."
The company manufactures all of its products in-house at a 7,000-square-foot space in Skokie that it moved into in early 2022. "I designed the lights to be manufactured incredibly easily. We can build 300 lights a day with one person," says Conte.
Manufacturing is increasingly automated. "We have a couple robots now. We've got a big gantry dispensing machine that does all of our thermal greasing to help with the heat transfer," says Conte. "We've got an automated box-folding machine, we've got an automated soldering machine, a battery-welding machine. We've spent a lot of capital investing into how we can continually build faster and faster."
Outbound sources printed circuit boards from DS Electronics in Arizona and is moving production of parts from overseas to domestic suppliers like Michigan-based Quest Industries and Celanese in Kentucky.
"We spend a lot on the PCBs and batteries, good quality components, so it's dead reliable and it doesn't break," says Conte. "Some legacy parts are still overseas, but any new parts we're developing will be made stateside. It's just worth it."
Conte leaves the cycling to his business partner, Tom Place. "He's a guy who's obsessed with mountain biking," says Conte. "He's now the face of the company, essentially. I'm the man behind the curtain, running the business side of things."
The company ranked no. 672 on the 2022 Inc. 5000 with three-year growth of 934 percent as it made 10,000 Evo lights over the course of the year. "Pretty much every year since we started, we've grown 100 percent," says Conte, who now works with his wife, Lauren.
He says it all goes back to a quality-first philosophy: "If you make a great product, everything else is pretty easy."
Challenges: "Last year was definitely supply chain, particularly on the electrical side," says Conte. "It's still a challenge now. We're still getting price-gouged on a few components."
Cash flow is another big challenge. "We're not selling to wholesalers, so we don't have huge purchase orders that we can borrow against," says Conte. "We make almost 80 percent of revenue from August to the middle of December. Once it starts getting dark by 8 p.m., that's when we start to see our sales really take off."
Opportunities: With direct-to-consumer representing 95 percent of Outbound's sales in 2022, Conte aims to boost the brand's retail presence. "That's where we're putting a lot of our effort this year," he says. "We lose a bit on the margin, but we make it up by being able to reach another section of the market that we otherwise couldn't through direct online sales."
Continued product development is another opportunity, Conte adds. "We're coming out with revised versions of our legacy lights and we're coming out with new products."
Needs: "A little bit more automation," says Conte. "We're considering buying a cobot arm with vision, so we can essentially double our output with one person. A lot of our products are being developed with automation in mind."