Not everyone can create a successful business. Noah Lichtenstein did it just for fun. Noah is a venture capitalist by day and entrepreneur by night. He has managed to create a playful, revenue driving, side hustle; really funky glasses that project shapes when pointed toward light. We had a chance to sit down with him and learn how he has turned his side hustle into a profitable business.
Stay Curious: This is an audio interview, but we transcribed it below. When turning sound to words, we do what we can to make it readable and authentic. Sometimes the two mediums may not always line up, but we figured you’d rather it make sense without all the “ums” and “likes” – Enjoy.
Boye Fajinmi: We’re recording. Hey guys, I have Noah here from HI-LITES, a really innovative company. Let’s begin.
Noah Lichtenstein: Alright.
Boye: Noah, how do we pronounce your last name?
Noah: Alright, it’s Lichtenstein.
Boye: Lichtenstein. Okay. And where’s that from?
Noah: I think it’s German, but an eastern European mutt.
Boye: And where are you from?
Noah: Originally from Oregon.
Boye: Oregon. Nice. What brought you down here to LA?
Noah: Well, I started up on a farm in Oregon, and made my way down to college in the Bay Area. Spent about 15 years there in the tech scene and was looking for a change of pace, so I made my way further down south to LA. Who knows, maybe it’ll be San Diego and then Mexico next. Keep moving down south.
Boye: Nice. So, you made your way down south, and now you’ve got this really cool thing that you’re doing called HI-LITES, but it’s not your original thing, right?
Noah: I’ve been in the tech world for a long time, so I’ve been really passionate about building and investing in tech startups. That’s my background and what I do on a day to day basis, but HI-LITES was a fun idea and a fun project that we came up with and launched about a year ago.
Boye: This is literally your side hustle.
Noah: It is my side hustle. Yes. It’s my creative outlet.
Boye: First of all, what is HI-LITES?
Noah: HI-LITES are special effects glasses that can turn any light, whether it’s a stage light or city light, into a custom shape. So, you can think of it really as very lightweight augmented reality, but without any of the wires, circuits or the cost.
Boye: I think I’ve seen some screenshots and I’ve tried them on. It kind of feels like you’re doing drugs.
Noah: Well, you know, some people…no comment on that. Some people seem to enjoy it.
Boye: Not that I know what drugs feel like or anything like that.
Noah: Some people certainly seem to think it enhances the experience, I would say at a Burning Man… But, no, really, from young kids all the way through to adults, it’s just one of those things that brings joy and happiness to people. It’s so simple that I kind of scratch my head sometimes about how much goes into building deeply technical products. This is just incredibly simple, and it’s really fun seeing people happy and sharing that enjoyment together.
Boye: What gave you the idea to do this?
Noah: I was at a Christmas party about a year and a half ago, and I saw this little kaleidoscope toy, and I started thinking, wouldn’t that be really cool if you could turn that into glasses? You know, with all of the new lights and led displays at concerts, and with the emergence of AR and VR, I started looking into it. We actually didn’t invent this technology. We found that there was a patent for this technology that had been patented by some researchers back east almost 20 years ago. And what we decided to do was say, ‘Hey, the time is now to create something around this cool technology in this new reemergence of AR, VR, Retro is cool again, lights and visual effects at shows. So, why don’t we build a really cool brand around this old technology?’ And so, we secured the patent and went into production.
“Rather than just going out and meeting your friends at a bar and grabbing a drink, you can also come hang out and do cryotherapy along with other things that are health and wellness related”
Boye: That’s awesome. And how’s business?
Noah: Business is good. We’re a young company and this is a new experience for me. My background’s always been software. So, you go out and raise some venture capital money, you build, build, build, build, build, and eventually you launch this product to the world, and you can iterate quickly because it’s software. For me, it has been a fun challenge because we’re building a physical product – everything from supply chain to dealing with import, export, customs, direct to consumer, mixed with B2B. It’s really been a fun challenge to take my learnings from the tech world and apply it to building a consumer brand. But I guess more directly to your question, how we’re doing. I’m really excited because we finally, after a year of development, were able to launch at Coachella and had a big bang there, and now it’s just kind of off to the races.
Boye: That’s sick. I saw some photos. Some cool people were wearing those glasses.
Noah: Yeah. No endorsement officially from them, but we were very lucky that one of our activations was at Neon Carnival out at Coachella, and we did that activation with Bolthouse Productions, Neon Carnival and Wynn Nightlife. It turns out one of the paparazzi pictures that got released to the public, totally unbeknownst to us, was of Leo DiCaprio wearing them for about four hours. The next day we wake up with a little bit of a hangover from Neon Carnival and our inboxes are flooded because all of a sudden everyone’s like, what are these glasses Leo’s wearing? And it’s in Esquire, Cosmo, Time…
Boye: That is so funny, especially since he’s always so incognito at all of those festivals.
Noah: Yeah, the photo that was released was basically him wearing a hoodie and, you know, super incognito with these glasses. Everyone’s like, why is he wearing 3D glasses? No, they’re not 3D glasses.
Boye: That’s great. It sounds like business is going well. I recently read an article, I think it was in Recode, about all these new companies who aren’t raising venture capital and are doing really well and selling for a lot of money, which is like blowing everyone’s minds away. But in essence that’s true business. I guess, coming from someone like you whose main job is venture and now you’re doing this fun, cool project that’s making money. What are your thoughts? Are you going to raise a round of financing? Where do you see this all going?
Noah: I think that’s a great point you bring up and I saw that same article in Recode actually through your newsletter. So, shout out to you guys on that one, but you know, in the venture world, it’s amazing to me how many people go out and think this is the only way to build a business. I’ve always been a big fan of people who go out and actually build a business without having to raise venture capital. You don’t raise venture capital because you have an idea, you raise it to accelerate the growth of a company and not all companies should be venture. It’s very simple. If you own 100 percent of your company and you giveaway 20, 25% in exchange for money, all of a sudden you own 75 percent of that. So, your company has to be that much bigger now in order for it to have the same amount of value to you as if you just own the whole thing. For me, this was a really fun experience because I was fortunate to self fund it, but it wasn’t something that was very capital intensive. We were able to test the market, get some initial orders without having to go really deep out of pocket and as a result, myself and my partner Mike own the entire company.
“You don’t raise venture capital because you have an idea, you raise to accelerate growth of a company.”
Noah: If we get to the point where we just can’t keep up with demand and we have big plans to go into retail and into more direct to consumer, certainly we’d evaluate taking on money. But really, there’s something special about somebody who goes out and does business that’s profitable. You know, one of those companies that was highlighted, Tuft & Needle, is a mattress company. And I remember actually meeting them early on when they were considering venture capital. They actually sent me a mattress.
Boye: Wait, so how’s the mattress?
Noah: It was good. It was good. I didn’t have room for it, so I gave it to my business partner and I think she still uses it in their guest bedroom. The quality was great, but more props to them because they went out and built a real business and they show that you don’t have to raise venture. You don’t have to measure your success by how much money you raised.
Boye: Yeah, one of my favorite companies to use and just to learn about is Mailchimp because they’ve created a $500 million dollar plus business in ARR and are completely bootstrapped.
Noah: It’s a fantastic product too. I use it as well and I think there’s no better story than when somebody builds a product that is funded by its sales.
Boye: Yeah, it’s perfect. But this isn’t about Mailchimp, it’s about you guys. So, what’s next for you? What’s year one, year two, three, as you go along?
Noah: One of my biggest learnings is that with hardware, the development takes so long. You have to design the product, then you have to go to the different suppliers that we use, and then there’s the shipping import, export. There’s a lot of pieces that go into dealing with physical products. And so the first year I feel like was our year of learnings and development, and now we have a product line that we’re really happy with. Now, it’s all about how we get it in front of people and out into the market. So, it’s really going out and doing deals with big brands and marketing and experiential agencies. That’s been a really good experience where we’ve been fortunate to partner with some really great brands so far. We did an activation at South by Southwest with Warner Brothers for Ready Player One.
Boye: Oh, I was there!
Noah: Yeah, and iHeart radio. We did a bunch of activations at Coachella, and then we did EDC with Smirnoff. Our initial bread and butter is large volume orders. This is something that a brand can do to help activate their brand and create these sort of joyous, fun experiences because when somebody puts these on, it’s this magical moment of joy and then you immediately see them tap their friend on the shoulder and say, “hey, did you see this?” and the next thing you know, you’re holding up your phone. You’re taking videos and photos on Instagram or Snapchat through the lenses and then your friends see it and your stories and say, “how’d you do that?” And you can associate all this joy with your brand. We think the promotional market is a really great opportunity and we’ll continue to push that and a lot of exciting stuff coming up there. But, what I’m most excited about is some of the launches we’re going to be doing soon into direct to consumer.
Noah: And for me this is another set of new learnings where we’ve seen how powerful brands can be built, entirely online and especially on Instagram. We’re in the process of launching that direct to consumer brand and getting this fulfillment and supply chain line for that. We’re launching new kinds of fun colors, new shapes and effects. We didn’t cover this, but not only are we turning the lights into special effects, some of those examples are things like hearts or smiley faces or snowman, or you can do a Star of David for a Bar Mitzvah or Bat Mitzvah. You can also create custom shapes so you can literally turn every light you see, whether it’s a street light or a stage light into a custom shape or logo or brand or anything. That’s pretty fun.
Boye: Can you boil down a little bit more about the science and technology behind that? Without ruining your trade secrets.
Noah: There’s really no trade secrets. It’s patented and I feel pretty good about that being locked in. But the best way it was described to me by the mad scientist that we partner with, is that if you imagine a stream of water in front of you and you put your hand in it, the water bends around your hand. Light travels in a straight line from its source. When you’re looking at a stage light, that light beam is traveling in a straight line from the source to your eyeball. And so imagine putting your hand in the water and then in that light. You’re bending the light. It’s essentially the same thing but we are bending the light into a shape.
Noah: By the way, that could be totally wrong. But we’re going to go with that one.
Boye: I was recently watching a show about how science is indistinguishable from magic. In the sense of, if we were to show someone a hundred years ago some of the things that are here now, they would think everyone’s a witch. To hear your description of that and then to see it, and it basically feels like a toy. Like I said, I’ve tried them on and they’re really fun and cool. It just boggles my mind at how people create really innovative things.
Noah: Yeah, and a lot of these things are done by accident. I was reading a story recently about some researchers at Berkeley who had accidentally created glasses that help people who are colorblind see colors they never knew existed before. It was entirely by accident. This wasn’t done by accident, but I do think that it’s pretty amazing. A lot of times, great innovation just feels like magic. For us, it’s always enjoyable when we’re putting our heads down, we’re grinding, we’re doing all this unglamorous work, packing bags and printing out collateral, but when you go to a show or you just see somebody put these on for the first time and seeing their face in that moment of joy, I think there’s no better thing then when a product can deliver joy.
“I think there’s no better thing then when a product can deliver joy.”
Boye: For sure. And with this sort of e-commerce play that you’re about to do, bringing it to the masses, what platforms are you going to use? Are you going to lean on Instagram and sell through there? Or Amazon? What’s the strategy beyond brand partnerships to get into everyone’s hands?
Noah: Yeah, I see a couple of different channel strategies. Actually, I’d love to turn the question around and ask you, being that this is something you’re an expert in. Really, I’m just trying to meet with people who are smarter than me and who’ve done this before with so many great brands out there, and learn what the best practices are. But, certainly, Instagram we will use as a channel and we have fortunately a number of great, I hate the word influencer, but people with followings and trusted brands that really like what we’re doing and have offered to post and maybe do some collaborations. Because we can custom brand, we can use really any frame we want. So, we’re going to explore a couple partnerships with existing glass manufacturers, some collabs with different artists, musicians and things like that. And then, in terms of direct to consumer, certainly Instagram, and we’ll have a traditional e-commerce on our website, do some SEO, SEM, and then lastly, we are exploring going into traditional retail.
Boye: Oh, that’s awesome.
Noah: Yeah. I think these would be great at places like an Urban Outfitters or a Spencer’s gifts. Things like that. It’s really been a learning experience for me, but, let me pause and ask, what do you think? What should we be doing?
Boye: Yeah. I, agree with a lot of what you said. I believe it’s important to be everywhere at once when it comes to consumer products, and I believe the most powerful tool in the future for manufacturers and people with fun products is going to be Instagram. It’s going to double as a magazine, as a TV channel, and as your store front. You can imagine the lifestyle that you can create around your product, the events that people go to just as a means for people to show how to use it. And then being able to just buy it directly from Instagram, I think, is so important. And then I think Amazon, I believe they are about to be the next trillion dollar company.
Noah: It’s amazing what they do.
Boye: It’s amazing.
“A lot of times, great innovation just feels like magic.”
Noah: We actually just got the approvals to go live on Amazon, so, we’re going to go ahead. You can buy them on Amazon now, but we’re exploring the options of us doing fulfillment versus the fulfilled by Amazon. I know a lot of folks listening to this are probably saying, “Oh, this is just the basics,” but for me this has been great because it’s new for me. I love learning new skills, and it helps me make better investments in the future when I understand the inner workings.
Boye: Totally. And I think on the store partnerships front, totally 100 percent, it’s just sales. Or, you just find a guy who’s done it before and have them go and talk to all those guys.
Noah: Well, look, one of the things I love about this is because we own the entire company, we can go out and find people who can help add a lot of value and we can make them owners in the company and share in the profits. So, we’re really out there looking for folks who have a lot of great relationships, whether it’s with the “influencers” who want to promote the product on Instagram or whether it’s event producers or brands. We’re always excited to say, hey, look, let’s share in the wealth and make those intros. I know you made some great intros for us at Coachella, and I appreciate that.
Boye: Hey happy to – anytime. You know, the people reading this, they’re all creative, they’re all driven and when they listen, I like to make sure that they’re gaining tangible value. What’s some advice that you have for entrepreneurs, especially those who are trying to create side hustles to turn into businesses?
Noah: Wow, that’s a great question. Well, first and foremost, it takes a lot more work than you will imagine. It’s funny, when I thought of this initially, I thought it’d be easy. We’ll just get this out there. People already make sunglasses and we’ll just use the same frames and ‘Oh well, all this stuff will be easy.’ There are a million things that I wasn’t even aware of, and I was definitely naive. So, I would say one bit of advice is really map out the business plan. Not necessarily write out a business plan, but map out how you get from the start to fully into market. Think through all those steps, and then go talk to people who’ve done it before. The best resources are the people who have walked that path and made the mistakes. I think that’s one of the reasons why, when I invest in early stage tech startups, often times I hopefully have some street credit because I’ve spent 10 years building companies from the ground up and made pretty much every mistake in the book that you can make. And I’ll make hundreds more, but hopefully I can not make the same mistake twice. So, to boil it all down, I think one practical bit of advice is to really force yourself to do the exercise of how you get from the start to launch and then stress test that, asking people, “what am I not thinking of?” Because, if I had done that initially, I would definitely have saved months and probably thousands of dollars.
Boye: Great advice from Noah Lichtenstein, who is both an investor and company owner with a side hustle. I love it. Do you have anything else to say?
Noah: I just would love to get more feedback from people who are listening and reading this. And if folks are interested in learning more, we’re happy to send you some samples and show you some love. And we’ll hook anybody up who is with Boye and TheFutureParty to get some good discounts.
Boye: Love it. Where can we find you?
Noah: We are at gethilites.com. So, H-I-L-I-T-E-S, and also on Instagram at @hi.lites. So, highlights, but with our funky spelling.
Boye: Love. HI-LITES everyone. Thank you.