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Key Idea: Invent An Industry

David Milly started in the lighting business when there was almost no equipment. As he said, entertainers would just walk in a room and put on a show using available light.  David is proof that you can grow your business by growing your industry.   More...

Key Question:


It worked for David to focus himself on growing his entire industry which some would call, "expanding the pie."

Q:  What do you know and what can you guess David has done to build a business when at the beginning there didn't seem to be much potential.

A: David put one foot in front of the other. He stepped in to the darkness (excuse the pun) and found ways to please customers. When he started he was young and had nothing to lose. It was not at all like starting a gas station or a restaurant. Those were proven businesses with track records. While building his own company, David has been part of inventing an entire industry.

David's story is the story of free markets and capitalism. It is a perfect example of why things get better. He and a few pioneers believed that live entertainment could be made more enjoyable by adding lighting.

David was a founding member of ESTA, the Entertainment Services and Technology Association, the trade association for his industry. He was there when the group wrote the safety regulations and codified best practices. They jumped ahead of government regulators because the business owners cared about the safety of their employees.

Q: What are the risks/rewards of being first?

A: The risk is always you could completely fail. This happens when no critical mass forms. If David was the only person who thought entertainers needed special lighting, there would be no business today. What David saw, others saw and an industry was born. The rewards are tangible and intangible. Being the "old guy" means some business comes your way. You have an enormous reserve of trust built so customers choose you. It' like being IBM. No purchasing agent or technology chief ever gets fired for buying IBM. Then there's the great sense of pride about what you and other pioneers have accomplished. You can step back and look at what you have done to make life better for others.

Q: Do you think most of the other pioneers are still around today?

A: No. David is rare. Not many people have the stamina to do what he has done.

Think about it

Is there an industry that needs inventing now? Do you have the energy to be the pioneer? Could it be an extension of your current business or would you start from scratch?

Clip from: Theatrical Lighting

Huntsville, Alabama: Meet David Milly.  When he was a student at University of Alabama at Huntsville, he earned money booking entertainment and dances for his school. From his first booking, Earl Scruggs Review, a country-bluegrass band (of Deliverance fame), he knew this was what he wanted to do.

To book the lighting package for the show, he engaged Luna Tech, a sole proprietor, and they struck up a friendship. By the time he graduated in 1975 they had a partnership and then they formed a corporation to protect themselves from the liability involved with manufacturing and creating pyrotechnic special effects. David was initially a 25% stockholder in the business, yet by 1981 he negotiated a buyout of just the lighting division to be on his own.  That's a story, but this one just gets better.

At that time there was no trade association for the lighting industry. In 1987 a few of the fellows started one, Theatrical Dealers Association, and David was quick to join and serve on the board. He initiated a Small Business Development Committee. Today this national association is known as ESTA or the Entertainment Services and Technology Association. 

David has also been an active member of the Huntsville Chamber of Commerce and the Better Business Bureau for three decades. In this episode of the show you will meet all kinds of people who love Huntsville, who love Janet and David Milly, and love the stuff of making their community a great place to live.

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Theatrical Lighting Systems

David Milly, CEP / founder

1221 Jordon Lane
P.O. Box 2646
Huntsville, AL 35804

Visit our web site:

Office: 256-533-7025

Business Classification:
Lighting Supplies

Year Founded: 1981

Invent An Industry

HATTIE: (In the Studio) Hi. I'm HATTIE BRYANT, and this is SMALL BUSINESS SCHOOL. Every week, we take you inside a company so you can learn from a business owner who's already done what it is you want to do. Today, we go to Huntsville, Alabama, where the US space program was born, to meet the son of two rocket scientists who was always more interested in show business than the business of science.

DAVID MILLY: Well, 25 years ago (1975), when I kind of got in the business--I mean, entertainers would perform in a building and they'd just turn the houselights on. Then people would have two or three lights and they'd turn the houselights off. So it's kind of evolved from nothing to, you know, sophisticated $1/2 million lighting systems with computer controls and all that. (Excerpt from concert)

HATTIE: (Voiceover) It's September. It's Big Spring Jam in Huntsville, Alabama. Dozens of bands and thousands of fans spend a weekend immersed in rock, jazz, country, blues and gospel music. (Excerpt from concert)

HATTIE: (Voiceover) What has become one of the largest and best music festivals in the Southeast is all in a day's work for David Milly. Based in Huntsville, and with crews all over the country, David's company, Theatrical Lighting Systems, has a slogan: `We light the stars.' Since 1981, it has been creating lighting magic for performers like Tony Bennett, Lee Greenwood and many others. Perhaps David's favorite is Johnny Cash.

DAVID: He started out with just a spotlight and then he added, like, 12 lights. And that's all he ever did, even when he would do a casino-type business or that kind of thing. The stage was just one color. It's the Man in Black.

HATTIE: (Voiceover) With 30 employees, the company is reaching for nearly $5 million in sales. Revenues come from lighting sales and rental, and there's a division dedicated to design and installation of permanent lighting systems that integrate both house and theatrical lighting. One thing is you love to see the innovation of the technology in your field. That keeps you excited.

DAVID: That's exciting. That's exciting. And seeing how other people operate their businesses, to me, is exciting.

HATTIE: OK. At these trade shows, you have some buddies you see once a year...

DAVID: Sure.

HATTIE: ...and you go, `How's it going?' and you share ideas about how...

DAVID: We talk about leasing vs. buying. You know, we talk about information technology systems, which is really a key when you're an asset-management company like we are. (Voiceover) I mean, mostly what we do is we load and unload trucks.


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