While introducing Kwai Kong, Gerry Lax ’74 quipped that “when The Graduate was made, the future was in plastics–today it’s in batteries,” a sentiment with which the inventor of the first bicycle light using super-bright LEDs would certainly agree.
In his Lax Conference keynote speech, Kwai Kong told a full lecture hall of Swarthmore students and alumni that “entrepreneurship is one of the most rewarding ways to live–it’s not about making more money, it’s about living a life that you choose.”
From the beginning, Kwai Kong knew that “an ordinary job just wasn’t for me… I wanted to do great things.” He worked in an office, and he felt that if he stayed, “I was going to be swallowed up… I wasn’t interested in moving closer to the window.”
After two years, he quit and joined a friend to create a start-up business. Although he started his entrepreneurial career with a risky start-up, “you don’t have to mortgage your parents’ house… I also [was an entrepreneur] from within a big company.” He said that while both experiences are different, “both are intellectually challenging.”
Kwai Kong’s friend had recently had a cycling accident at night when his bicycle light had burnt out three hours into a ten-hour trip. The super-bright LED had just been invented and would last for hundreds or thousands of hours. Kwai Kong and his friend made a virtually indestructible light using LEDs, and the end of the year they had sold over a million lights in sixty different countries. Kwai Kong has seen his lights being used by everyone from bike messengers in Japan to buggy-drivers in Amish country. “We’ve saved hundreds of thousands of lives,” he said. “Every time I see a light on a bicycle I smile.”
When somebody asked him how he sold so many lights in such a short time, he explained that it was simply a matter of having a good product. “Before people were fed up with lights because they broke… people always wanted lights but nobody made a good product… with our product the light market exploded.”
From this experience, Kwai Kong learned that “if you want to create something new… you need two very unique qualities. First you have to be a leader, then you have to be an innovator.” He described entrepreneurship as “a very painful path… it takes lots of all-nighters and hard work… you have to be willing to be the square peg that doesn’t fit the norm.” But being a square peg pays off when you hear somebody say, “I wish someone had done this before.”
Today Kwai Kong is the president of the specialty retail division of Easton-Bell Sports. He’s particularly involved with the world’s top two helmet brands, Giro and Bell, and he showed the audience short videos about these two brands. It might not be something you think about often, but before 1954, there was no such thing as the modern helmet, and without helmets, how would we have extreme sports?
“In 2001 we almost went out of business because of some wrong-doing by the CEO,” explained Kwai Kong, “and we had to save the company… saving a company is harder than starting a company.” What kept him going through the difficult turn-around, in which he had to fire over 35% of his employees, were the letters he received from people who use his products.
He read the audience part of a letter from a woman who saw her husband accidentally back a pick-up truck into her bike-riding daughter. The wheel went over the daughter’s head, but thanks to the helmet she was fine. “That letter kept me going,” said Kwai Kong. “Making a contribution to the world is what makes your life and work rewarding.” Apparently the letter was quite the energizer–today the business is more than twice as big as it was in 2001 and makes 10 times as much profit, and many of the laid-off employees were re-hired. When asked about how to lead a successful turnaround after the lecture, he said “it’s about coming back to mission and value… it’s about the sustainability of a long-term mission versus quick profit.”
After talking about his experience, Kwai Kong shifted to giving current Swatties advice about an entrepreneurial career. “Being smart is very easy,” he said. “You’re born being smart… what’s special is that I know you care about the world and more importantly you care about each other.” He continued, “the set of personal qualities you get at Swarthmore are the same set of qualities that make you a successful entrepreneur… you have to find a way to connect with the world and community.” He stressed again that “money is the worst motivation… entrepreneurs are successful because they’re passionate about something they want to do, the catalyst is your passion and your love.”
He also believes that confidence is important, because “people don’t want to take the first step because they don’t have the confidence.” He warned the audience that “sometimes you can lose that confidence… but confidence has nothing to do with your GPA… you are as powerful as the people you respect, you just need to believe this.” To all members of the Swarthmore community, he said, “I’m speaking from the field–the world needs you. The world needs you to create and more importantly to lead.”
During the question-and-answer period, Kwai Kong named Lance Armstrong as the most inspiring athlete he had met in his line of work. “When he got cancer almost all his sponsors dropped him,” said Kwai Kong, “but we stayed with him… he continued to press on regardless of the pain and suffering… it really speaks to perserverance, and that has made us a better company.”
One audience member said “Swarthmore students think advertising is evil,” and Kwai Kong responded “I’m in control of what I want to say out there… we don’t say things that aren’t true, we wait until we have a good product… if you have the best stuff, you should have no problem advertising.”
Another person asked how Giro and Bell keep innovating even though they’re market leaders. “Every time we launch an amazing product the team goes through an amazing crisis,” he responded. “We don’t care abour our competition… immediately after we launch something great we think about beating ourselves.”
Kwai Kong also stressed the global nature of his company. “For me the marketplace is the world… when I go to Europe they don’t think of our people as Americans, they know we genuinely care about them because we build a culture that is not America-centric.” Kwai Kong himself is from Hong Kong, and when asked about how that affected his management style he said that he’s been a square peg everywhere he’s lived. “My entrepreneurial experience started when I left Hong Kong… I didn’t want to go to med school, so I came to America–it’s a great place to run and hide.”