Being named Ohio’s “entrepreneur of the year” in April was enough to confirm for Zach Green that quitting his job as an Eli Lilly brand manager to start his own business was the right move. But seeing the announcement of his award in the paper alongside the news that his former employer would layoff 30 percent of its sales force “was the ultimate validation,” he says.
With a high-paying job and a promising future on the team that had launched Cialis, Green faced with a tough decision two years ago.
In his spare time, he’d been inspired by a TV show about photo luminescence technology to mix the compound into a silicone band for his volunteer firefighter’s helmet.
“Most people don’t know what true darkness is,” he explains. For an emergency responder it can be when “someone’s hand is four inches from your nose and you have no idea how many fingers they’re holding up.” A glow-in-the-dark helmet would let his fellow firefighters see him on the job, or find him if he fell through a floor. The first time he wore his enhanced helmet in a fire, he says, “Guys were throwing $20 bills at me. They all wanted one.”
In October 2010, Green started spending weekends driving to fire departments hawking his illuminated helmets. In six months, he says, he made about $5,000 selling from the trunk of his car. Then his fire chief persuaded him to take it to the next level. “You have a product that’s revolutionary,” Green says the chief told him.
While green glow-in-the-dark tape has been used on exit signs and stairwells in some buildings, applying it directly to firefighters’ apparel and tools had not been done before in the U.S., Green says. He and his colleagues saw how it could save lives. “When you look at what kills firefighters, it’s often getting disoriented so you can’t get out of a dark smoky environment,” Green says. Photo luminescence applied to a window, a door, or another firefighter can guide the way out, he says. Taped to an axe, it lets a firefighter recover a misplaced tool to break a window or shine light under a bed to locate a victim.
The technology could also save victims of fires. “People died walking down 110 floors in total darkness during the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Centers,” Green notes. “Just a little bit of light on the stair or railing can make such a difference at helping people get out safer and more efficiently.”
What about flashlights and electronic strobes? Green says what all emergency responders know well: “Anything with batteries or electricity is going to fail when you need it most.”
His Eli Lilly boss tried to talk him out of it, but Green quit his job, refinanced his house, maxed out his credit cards, named his business MN8 (as in “emanate”), and headed to the giant FDIC firefighting trade show in 2011. He did $85,000 in sales in a month.
Since then, Green has developed more than 50 “MN8-Foxfire” safety and egress products using a Japanese patented pigment that he says has been engineered to glow brighter and longer than less expensive versions. His offerings, all made in America, include signage materials, adhesive stickers, magnets, and paint. He has hired a dozen full-time employees, established a board, raised a round of venture financing, leased an 8,000-square-foot warehouse in Cincinnati, and engaged a salesforce of nearly 200 firefighters. Ultimately, he envisions 1,500 sales reps, all from the firefighters’ brotherhood.
He compares the business model, which enables firefighters to earn a side income after investing $125 in a sales kit and demo tools, to an Avon or an Amway “without the multilevel-marketing bull—it’s just direct sales.” So far, his products have reached 55,000 firefighters in 25 countries, generating over $1 million in revenues, he says. He sees the future of the business in industrial safety, lighting large workplaces and sports arenas—Nassau Coliseum in New York is already a customer.
“It’s the perfect storm of an innovative product, a great strategy, and good people working with us,” Green says. And for him, running this business is far more exciting than marketing Cialis.