Maker of Lighted Gate Arms Finds Path Toward Bright Future

By Ana Acle-Menendez

Jonathan Brinkman was running his software development company, BlackSky Technologies, when he noticed a recurring problem at his Home Owner Association customer sites: drivers kept hitting the barrier gate arms with their cars.

For Brinkman, the adage of “find a need and fill it” became a real drive for his business. To improve safety at community gates, he formed the manufacturing company to produce LED lighting for barrier arms and swing gates.

The success with LED lights on gate arms led to new safety lighting products, including industrial light kits for commercial garage doors and warehouse loading docks.

“We saw cars and trucks crashing into expensive gates and doors with no apparent solution,” said Brinkman, who has a background as financial analyst, tech educator, IT executive and software engineer.

He recognized there was an opportunity to not only expand the product line but to bring a higher level of safety awareness to industries fraught with work-related accidents and injuries.

However, his business had unmet needs of its own, particularly in the areas of marketing and networking. For help, he turned to the Florida SBDC at FIU, the small business development center at Florida International University’s College of Business, which helps local companies grow by providing no-cost consulting to entrepreneurs and business owners.

He met with a business advisor at the center and soon found himself focusing on more than marketing and networking, such as revisiting his business model. The consultant engaged other fellow experts at the center, helping Brinkman drill down to who his direct customers should be.

“As a manufacturer, I was contemplating sales direct to the end user, who would then install my product,” Brinkman said. “Our analysts helped us refine our sales model to focus on scalability and manageability. We decided to sell our products through national distributors, who would take relatively large purchases, warehouse them locally, and resell them to their regional markets.”

Brinkman said the Florida SBDC at FIU consultants also helped him to find financing. “It’s tricky to get these loans,” he said. “I probably wouldn’t do it again without help from the SBDC people to guide us through the complexities.”

Brinkman said he credits the Florida SBDC at FIU with guiding him to sales that “doubled and then doubled again.”

He is particularly grateful that the center provided him with networking opportunities, something he says he doesn’t particularly enjoy. “As an engineer, I prefer to build, design and make stuff,” he said. He is now hiring salespeople who will pursue additional networking opportunities for his company.

So what advice, if any, would he give to small business owners? “I would tell them to be honest with yourself: know what you do well and know what you need help with,” Brinkman said. The Florida SBDC at FIU consultants, he says, are “true professionals who do research and find answers. These are seasoned folks who are at another level of their career. These are folks who have been around the block, and it’s foolish to waste this resource.”

Brinkman said it is important for business owners to understand they still have to do the work, as he did, but that the consultants will help guide the owners in the right direction.

The future looks bright for the business that improved safety lighting for gate arms, and then developed lighting for high-speed overhead garage doors and warehouse docks. His customers will soon see Internet-based controls and measurements, as well as wireless LED safety technology. “I think 2018 will be a breakout year – several of our new products will hit the market”, Brinkman said. “Our products allow people to upgrade their existing door and gate equipment -- they don’t always have to replace old operators to get better safety.”

Brinkman said he’ll consider himself successful “when my company can run without me, and when cash flow is no longer something that has to be managed.”

Sounds like another need to fill.