Danny WadhwaniCOO and CFO of ThinkLite BSBA’09
Danny Wadhwani is COO and CFO of a lighting firm that has worked with companies from AT&T to local tennis centers. He’s 29.
In 2009, Danny Wadhwani (BSBA’09) and his brother had $6,000 and an idea for making industrial lighting more eco- and budget-friendly. Today, their lighting efficiency company, ThinkLite, is an Inc. magazine “30 Under 30” and readers’ choice winner; in 2013, the firm was number 46 in the Inc. 500, a ranking of America’s fastest-growing private companies. Since its founding, Wadhwani says, ThinkLite has achieved triple-digit growth each year—the brothers have consigned a lot of energy-sucking bulbs to history.
ThinkLite’s big idea—making it easy and affordable for large companies to convert to energy-efficient LED lighting—has attracted a long list of impressive clients, including the Prudential Center Parking Garage in Boston, the largest indoor parking facility in New England. Until recently, says Wadhwani, ThinkLite’s COO and CFO, it took about 7,500 32-watt fluorescent lamps to light the cavernous space, which houses up to 3,660 cars. Now, the garage is illuminated with ThinkLite’s 8-watt LED retrofit kits, drastically reducing wattage consumption and increasing lighting lifespan from 14,000 hours to 65,000 hours. While homeowners interested in energy savings simply need to buy and install new lightbulbs, LED conversion for commercial clients typically requires replacing the fixtures themselves—a costly, wasteful, and time-consuming process. The ThinkLite solution makes it possible to simply install LED bulbs in existing fixtures, reducing the return on investment from roughly seven years to two—and eliminating landfill waste created by tossing the old fixtures.
Wadhwani says the lights ThinkLite installs aren’t just greener, they’re brighter. “This is our key advantage,” says Wadhwani. ThinkLite’s products use a proprietary and tiny computer chip that reportedly helps give the company’s bulbs some of the highest lumens per watt—the amount of light produced for every bit of electricity consumed—in the industry. According to Wadhwani, ThinkLite’s bulbs push out 131 lumens per watt compared to an industry average of around 90. “And we’re about to jump to the next level,” he says, “180 lumens per watt.”
For the Prudential Center garage, ThinkLite’s efforts have equaled big cost savings—about $240,000 per year. Other ThinkLite clients include AT&T, Boeing, Kodak, Honeywell, Men’s Warehouse, and Dunkin’ Donuts.
Wadhwani and his brother Dinesh had always dreamed of starting a business together. “We just didn’t know what it would be,” says Wadhwani. When Dinesh first dreamed up a better lighting solution as a Babson College undergraduate, Wadhwani was busy pursuing a career in consulting. Initially, he pitched in with advice and financial support. After leaving BU, he took a job with PwC. “I wanted to get my MBA, follow the corporate American dream—and then, somewhere down the line, I figured we’d start a business of some kind together.” A family crisis changed everything.
Indian by origin, the brothers were born and raised in Ghana, where they worked summers in their father’s plastics manufacturing business. In 2011, Wadhwani’s father lost his trusted plant manager, and the business was faltering. He turned to his oldest son, asking him to come home and help. Immersed in his own fast-paced career, Wadhwani resisted at first. “Then I got a call from my grandfather, who had been visiting in Ghana and seen the situation for himself,” Wadhwani recalls. “He said to me, ‘What is the value of your education if you can’t step in and help your family?’” That call was a turning point for Wadhwani, who arranged his affairs in Boston, took a leave of absence from his PwC job, and flew home. “I didn’t know how long I’d be there or if I’d ever come back.”
A year later, the family business had turned around, and Wadhwani faced another moment of decision: should he return to the career he’d left behind or should he join his brother and help him build ThinkLite? He remembered his grandfather’s phone call, and was able to envision a life beyond corporate America. In 2012, he joined his brother full time. Wadhwani took over operations and finance, while Dinesh focused on product and business development.
For two years, the brothers thought of little else. “They were the hardest years of my life,” says Wadhwani. “We were either working all day in the office and then sleeping there at night, or we were working at home until we fell asleep and then getting right back to it as soon as we woke up. Every minute was stressful—building a product, setting up a supply chain, hiring people—we were trying to create something that didn’t exist.” Eventually, the brothers had the pieces in place: technology development in Munich, component manufacturing in Korea, assembly in China, corporate offices in Boston.
Along the way, Wadhwani found himself drawing directly on his BU education, especially a class with Erik Molander, former executive-in-residence at the Questrom-based Institute for Technology Entrepreneurship & Commercialization. “It’s so easy to get caught up in day-to-day operations,” says Wadhwani. “But Professor Molander taught me the importance of strategic thinking. Considering how to get from point A to point B. Figuring out how to get to the next milestone.”
It was strategic thinking that sparked a course correction in 2013. “We had spread ourselves too thin—we were in 21 countries—and we weren’t making enough or growing fast enough.” And so the brothers stepped back and reassessed. Today, the company is doing business in 14 countries, specializing in the replacement of fluorescent and metal halide lights for large commercial clients. Most of the focus is on the East Coast of the United States, where some states offer energy rebates to help make projects attractive to customers. “Growth has taken off,” says Wadhwani.
What hasn’t changed is the spirit that motivates the founders. “Right from the beginning, we built our company on love, kindness, and respect. We want our employees to feel empowered and successful,” he says, “because one of the reasons we are successful is the quality of people we’ve been blessed to have on our team.
“We feel very humbled and fortunate about where we’ve come from and what we’ve accomplished,” says Wadhwani. The brothers still work hard: 16- and 18-hour days are typical.
But even on the longest days, there’s something they never forget—their childhood dream. Here they are, as they’d always planned, working together, building a business.