As Vice President and National Lead, Women Entrepreneurs at BDC, Laura Didyk used to spend most of her time traversing the country, interacting with women business owners. She’s keeping those conversations going virtually — and this month it’s with Maude Rondeau, founder and president of Luminaire Authentik, a Quebec-based lighting designer and manufacturer.
After earning her business degree, Maude Rondeau spent 13 years working in fashion — but she had always dreamed of being an entrepreneur. By 2015, she’d had enough of business travel and the lack of an outlet for her creative ideas, and so she quit to pursue an opportunity that aligned with her passions: lighting design.
Working out of her house, Maude created Luminaire Authentik, filling in a gap in the market for mid-priced products featuring creative designs. By understanding and catering to her customers, her business continued to grow over the next five years.
Everything is still designed and manufactured in Quebec, though they’ve transitioned from Maude’s basement into a 53,000-square-foot production and storage facility, and now sell across North America, both to consumers and businesses, through a combination of eCommerce and three exclusive showrooms.
I caught up with Maude to talk about how she was not only able to scale her business quickly, but also successfully pivot during the pandemic to keep her company on the right track.
Laura: I always like to start with the origin story. How did you get the idea for Luminaire Authentik, and get it launched?
Maude: I worked in the fashion industry for 13 years, and I got a lot of experience with sales, marketing, and branding. But I had to travel a lot, and by 33 years old, I was fed up with traveling and doing trade shows. I was also fed up with doing things that had to fit in a box — I had so many ideas, and it was always my dream to have my own project.
At the same time, all that traveling brought me a love for architecture and lighting, and a passion for design. Having that sensibility, plus my business background, I saw an opportunity in the market. Five years ago, we didn’t have really creative, accessible lighting design. It was either very high-end or super cheap, and right in the middle, there was nothing.
I decided to just quit my job and started making lamps in my basement. I eventually met someone who helped me really understand the elements of the construction, and once I had that base, I was able to add in personalization.
Laura: And that personalization is a big part of your business model now, right?
Maude: It’s all about the customer experience. People get emotional about being a part of their own design. Whether that’s architects designing for a specific project, or customers that want to have the experience of creating their own lighting for their homes (with our experts to help of course). And by handling the design, manufacturing, and distribution, we were able to have the right price, as well as this experience with the clients.
Laura: Looking at how your business is doing now, that formula worked really well. Can you tell me a bit about that trajectory of the last five years?
Maude: We started with just 700 square feet in my garage, and two years later we moved into a 3,000 square foot workshop. We could have stayed there, but I wanted to be able to reach out to a new channel of distribution, working with hotels and businesses — which not only required a higher volume of production, but also more room to stock the finished product. One year ago, we moved into our 53,000 square foot facility, and we’re taking 16,000 of it for the workshop. It opened the doors to lots of new possibilities, and there’s room to grow.
“Follow your gut, don’t be scared, and have the right people supporting you.”
Laura: Doing all of that in five years is, from a business perspective, a rapid timeline for growth. How have you managed it successfully, and what lessons have you learned from it?
Maude: That’s a hard question, because even today the growth is something I have to manage. My first piece of advice is to always follow your gut. That’s something that I apply every day. Also, don’t be scared of taking action, because without taking action you’re not able to grow.
Once you start to grow, human resources is always the first challenge for an entrepreneur. It’s not easy to find the right people, at the right time. I have an amazing team, but it was a challenge — some positions seemed impossible to fill. But once you do, that’s the key to reaching your objectives. You’re not able to do anything by yourself. I didn’t do this by myself. I have my team with me, and I would say, it’s the most challenging and the most important thing that has affected the growth of the business.
Laura: Has the pandemic affected your growth plans? You mentioned you were starting to tap into the hotel market, but this sector has been one of the worst hit.
Maude: COVID has definitely put a pause on our growth plans! We had some massive cancellations from hotels. If I look at what the budget was for the year and what the actual situation is, it’s a disaster. You just can’t compare with numbers. It’s not a normal situation we are in.
The B2B sales, like hotels and restaurants, these I see as taking a pause — it will come back eventually, we just don’t know when. So now, it’s a matter of finding new ways to embrace the change, and finding new ways or new channels to keep up with the plan. I quickly realized that the only way to survive this crisis was to be as close as possible to our clients. On the commercial side everything was closed, so the key to our approach has been residential.
All these people at home started to invest in their own space — because they were stuck in it. For us, it was a great opportunity to be much more present than ever in terms of customer service, in terms of accessibility, and in terms of designing and creating new collections to generate excitement. We wanted to be seen as a local, fresh, and driven company.
Laura: And how did you manage that? Can you share some of the specific actions you took to foster your residential business?
Maude: We’ve always had an eCommerce business, but we invested a lot of time and energy making big improvements to the customer experience online.
Just a week after the pandemic, I realized, ‘We’re not able to receive customers, but we can offer them virtual visits inside the store.’ Now we can reach clients all over the country through private virtual meetings with a lighting expert — which is actually better, because we’re able to see their living area and make suggestions. It opened up a business model that I would never have thought of before.
We also created a 3D platform, based on a tool we were originally developing for architects and designers to understand all the mixing and matching they could do with our components. We tweaked it to make it more user-friendly for consumers, and now our clients can be at home, see all the different categories they can play with, change the colors — we have 2,800 possibilities! It’s the same experience they would have in store, building and personalizing, but we’ve recreated it virtually, giving them the tools to design their own lighting as well as access to expert advice.
Having these two mixed together has been a real success. It has helped us to not only survive, but also to outshine other companies that didn’t have these tools or services. It took a lot of energy to adapt and get to market so quickly, but now we’re accessing new customers across Canada and the US.
Laura: And what about your brick-and-mortar business? You still have showrooms in Montreal and Cowansville, plus a new location opening in Toronto this September, at a time when many retailers are scaling back.
Maude: It goes back to not being scared, and being strategic. People are working from home, and a lot of that is going to stay. They aren’t traveling or eating out as much as normal, so they have money to invest in their space. Our future is in residential. Toronto is a big market opportunity, and we need to have a presence on the street to tap into it more. The virtual tools work, they are helping us to get through this, but nothing compares to the full experience — which has improved because of the pandemic.
When our Montreal store reopened it was by appointment only, and even if everything goes back to normal, we’re going to stick with these private VIP meetings. The customer experience is so much better when they have the whole store to themselves, and the undivided attention of an expert. On our end, opening by appointment only means we don’t need as big a space, and it’s easier to keep things sanitary.
Laura: So it sounds like you’ve really nailed what you want the client experience to be, and the pandemic inadvertently showed you a way to do it better.
Maude: Absolutely. I never would have thought that it would actually be more impactful to only have appointments. If we look at the conversion of the sales for the stores, it’s like night and day. It’s so good it’s not comparable. The right time is invested with the right clients, and that is paying off.
Laura: That’s great to hear. Based on your success so far, what advice would you give to other business owners trying to navigate the pandemic?
Maude: Super simple: follow your gut, don’t be scared, and have the right people supporting you. Build your team and just look forward!