DU Alumni

Startup from Daniels grads now 84th fastest-growing private company in the U.S.


Brian Stern and Webb Lawrence are the founders of LED Supply Co. Courtesy photo

As fraternity brothers and students at the Daniels College of Business, LED Supply Co. founders Brian Stern (BSBA ’07) and Webb Lawrence (BSBA ’07) already knew they would make great business partners one day. All they needed to do was find the right opportunity at the right time.

“We actually bounced a few crazy ideas off each other, until Brian had the idea to do this,” Lawrence says. Stern, whose family ran a seafood importing business, saw the demand for efficient and durable LED lighting in the cold-storage industry. In college, Stern learned he had a way with numbers and financial models, and Webb discovered his gift for salesmanship while successfully selling radio advertising.

“I was hired to sell advertising for a local radio station with a signal that could not be heard in downtown Denver — not an easy sale,” he says. So in 2009, unshaken by the recession, the new graduates decided to take a leap of faith and enter a world they knew almost nothing about: the LED lighting industry.

“Really, it just starts with a vision,” Stern says. “You have an idea for a product, and then you figure out how to do it.”

During the early days of the business, the two spent countless hours at Stern’s kitchen table on late-night conference calls with overseas vendors, took apart nearly a hundred product samples, and learned everything they could about the technical components of LED lights. “Our motto when we started was just to outwork the competition — once we learned that there was competition out there,” Stern says.

During the first two years, the duo realized that competing with multibillion-dollar companies like Philips and GE — and their impressive engineering budgets — was a tough and unlikely path to success. Instead they pivoted and became a distributor, using the knowledge gained from prototyping and component research to sell LED lighting for the same manufacturers with whom they had tried to compete.

While the manufacturers were employing sales reps and agents to sell everything from HID (high-intensity discharge) technology to fluorescents, the DU grads’ startup offered to sell LED lighting exclusively and better than the competition. Their technical expertise and sales acumen gained the duo contracts with Philips, GE and Cooper Lighting right off the bat. Selling multiple competing brands was unheard of in the lighting distribution business, but the company’s laser focus on the product it understood best was the competitive edge it needed to reach new heights.

This year, LED Supply is expected to reach $14 million in revenue. Inc. Magazine ranked it as one of the country’s top 100 fastest-growing private companies in 2015, and Denver Business Journal published a story on its tremendous growth shortly thereafter.

Stern and Lawrence have purchased their first building and will be onboarding their 18th employee in just a few weeks. But the two rarely reflect on the success they have had so far. Instead, they are always looking for the next opportunity. When one of their top salesmen told them his girlfriend was moving to San Diego, they used this as an opportunity to open a West Coast office. A business connection who worked for Xcel Energy in Eau Claire, Wis., helped them open their first Midwest location. LED Supply is on the verge of launching an ecommerce platform to attract businesses across the country, and the company has patented its first product, a wireless mass-notification system that opened up a business segment so promising that it granted a brief return to their engineering roots.

“Our core business is still growing pretty dramatically, and we’re still spending a lot of our time on that,” Stern says. “And then there are opportunities that present themselves, and I think it’s the same for any new company: You have to take those opportunities and act on them.”

What the numbers don’t reveal is that the road to success was rocky. Starting a business during the recession made it impossible to secure a loan during the first four years, and the realization that large manufacturing companies could take them out of business forced Stern and Lawrence to adapt their vision.

Despite what they describe as a naïve start to their endeavors, the two agree on one thing: New graduates who are thinking about starting a business should not be afraid to jump in the deep end.

“You’ll be surprised at how much you learn and how many paths to success there are,” Lawrence says. “Just don’t be afraid to take that leap.”




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