Dennis Finnegan is the owner and founder of Luminescence, a full service event production firm that has its roots in, you guessed it, lighting. I first met Dennis back in 2011 when he was exhibiting an exciting new product at BizBash – battery powered, programmable uplights. Having come from the event tech world, I was pretty psyched at the thought of not having to deal with those damn cables! I was so excited about Dennis, that I recommended him to Liz King for her next event. Aaaand, the rest is history.
Well, Luminescence provides much more than portable uplights. If you attended this year’s techsytalk LIVE, then you remember the shimmering holographic smoke “wall” that framed the event entrance. It made quite a dramatic statement. In fact, Dennis and his technical team provide a full suite of event services including trussing and staging, audio, video, furniture & décor, lasers, and other special effects.
Dennis and I sat down to talk about the development of his business and explore some of the qualities that make him and his company unique.
Deborah – About those lights – have you patented them?
Dennis – No, we’re the dealer, not the developer. The story behind that is a very magical kind of thing, one of those things that’s just supposed to happen. I was talking to a gentleman who knew me from the industry, and he just leaned in and said, “This deal just fell through, you need to meet this guy…” So I took a chance and I flew to London, and I met with him and stayed in town for a few days just about an hour west of London, and I took this uplighter and I tried to break it. I knew what I wanted, I knew what I needed tech-wise, I knew what I needed durability-wise, but more than anything I knew what I needed it to look like when we ran the lights, because I play with the lights. I joke around, I say we DJ with the lights.
I take what we do for events from my background from doing theater shows and from doing touring shows, so we translate that to the event space. I can’t have a chase running over fade time, and have one light come down fast, one light come down in steps. Everything in the room needs to work to response when we push a button. Instantly. And these were the only fixtures at the time that had that technology figured out. That, plus the fact that they were water resistant, indoor-outdoor, the battery life was phenomenal… When we first got delivery on them, I could do two jobs out of one charge. The way that they recycled was very intelligent. The guy over-engineered this stuff and he just didn’t have a channel for it yet, so I set up the first importing channel for these fixtures.
Deborah – Are there other people doing them now?
Dennis – Yeah, there’s other distributors now that picked it up in the south region. I think there’s one out west as well… My original fleet is still in service along with all the new fixtures. That’s five years later of hard touring!
Deborah – How many do you have now?
Dennis – We have about a hundred. And there’s various series. I think we have three of the old series, and then one of the new series. The old ones were called .20’s, and the new ones are called Colorpoints, from a company called Core in Europe. The new ones are great, because the cost has been reduced to half, the driver output is increased, their smaller, same footprint but the tech on the drivers have been cleaned up a little bit, the battery life has been almost doubled… When the uplighter product came around, there was a lot of stuff going on… and you know when you just feel like you’re stuck in a rut and you need another branch to swing to? I was there. I was totally there. It was about 2010, we’d been open for a couple of years… I made the difficult decision to trim the fat, get rid of the customers that [didn’t] work, get rid of the people that we [didn’t] vibe with… And it was hard. [There was] a good period of time where we lost revenue because of this, but it opened up a hole that made other things possible… It was a necessary move. We wouldn’t have made it if I didn’t do that.
Deborah – The reason I ask is, many people have talked about that topic from different angles. Not only making decisions about severing working relationships with clients but employees that don’t work. Those are serious issues for entrepreneurs contending with building our businesses.
Dennis – We’ve had people come through that didn’t even make it through the first job… hey, this is not for you. It’s the hardest job there is, where you have to wear so many hats. Especially on the tech side because of the physical demands and the tech demands, logistical demands, making sure of timetables… when everyone else fails at it, we thrive… Technicians and production people in general thrive on chaos, on controlled chaos and organization. We’re kind of misfits in life – we’re geeks, we’re all a little strange, but for some reason this industry makes us function correctly.
Deborah – It’s the right fit.
Dennis – What was important to me is that I wanted to do what I do, just a little bit differently, in the ways that I see as the correct ways. I’ve been a manager of people for other companies, but you don’t have the freedom to make those choices. I needed to start my own enterprise to do that.
Deborah – What makes your company unique?
Dennis – Tech is tech. Gear is gear. A lot of production companies love to tell you about their inventory, and I could take you into my warehouse and show you all my racks of gear and how great it is – I have the newest gear. It’s our people. Our people make us special. I think that I have really great people around me. I try to do that in my personal life, and I try to do that in my professional life. I’m very selective of the people I let into my sphere of energy. It’s a combined effort, and I like everybody that I work with. Like I said, we’re all strange cats in our own realm, but we’re a small family. You’ll see. Even though it’s a hard day, we’re still laughing.
Deborah – Everytime I see you, you always have good people.
Dennis – That’s the thing about keeping our size down, too. I’ve got five people on staff and a call list of about 30. A call list is good, but when you bring people in, you’ve got to be selective with that as well. I don’t think that our clients use us because we have the best inventory. I think they use us because we’re easy to get along with and we’re 100% reliable. There’s a lot of checks and balances in the background to make sure the orders are correct, but things do happen. I do what I have to do to make it right. I don’t pass the buck, and we also don’t farm out work to other people. I don’t subcontract crew or gear. 98% of our equipment on any job is in our inventory, controlled by us, so I know that it’s serviced, I know that it’s clean, and that’s why I’m in a comfortable place. We’re big enough to handle medium to large shows, and we do touring work, I travel to Vegas, Miami – we work. But I still have a good amount of control over everything.
Deborah – It’s true, production people are a weird bunch. To be conscientious and reliable and consistent, means that you are different, because everyone in this business is nuts.
What makes you most excited about the work that you do?
Dennis – I still get to be creative… I used to really get a kick out of flying the console and being in the front of the house and being the guy who pushed the buttons and making it all react, and every once in a while I’ll still jump in the seat and push the buttons, but that’s translated now to the bigger picture and making sure that all the assembly is correct… I like going into a raw space and figuring out every move from the moment it comes into the building to the moment it leaves the building and all the moving parts that go in between… The thing that’s so cool about what we do, and it’s almost like a spiritual thing, is that time no longer exists. You’re stuck in linear time, you have a curtain call, and no matter what happens, you must make your curtain call on time. There’s no, “I hurt myself,” there’s none of that. You get in the groove and time stops. And it’s moment by moment, priority by priority, A list to B list to C list to D list, to show and then Go. At the end of the day, you close everything up and you send it off and you go, Wow, we just went through 18 hours, where did it go? It’s like when athletes say, we’re in the moment. Our moment lasts all day.
Deborah – It’s a zone you go into.
Dennis – I think it’s one of the times when you’re being as true to yourself as you could possibly be, because you’re expressing from within and it’s just pouring out of you.
Deborah – The hologram. Every time I walk through that thing it’s like a religious experience.
Dennis – So this is a technology that I found about five years ago, and I knew I couldn’t handle it then. I knew that we weren’t ready for it. But it’s been simmering in the back of my brain, and I knew we needed to figure out a way… We launched at BizBash in October…
We pushed the water screens out first, because it gave me a chance to get over the bumps… It’s a rear projection system using elements, so we played with that first, and once that ran its course, it was time to move onto the fog screen, so now here it is.
Deborah – Any lessons you’ve learned that you’d like to share?
Dennis – One of the reasons why I started my own business is, coming up in production, coming up in touring, it’s a very macho driven industry and a lot of these guys are “Hey you, f-in new guy, get over here.” You know, I never liked it, I came up in it, I dealt with it, and I developed a thick skin about it… but you don’t learn by being beaten down, you don’t learn by being insulted, and the whole thing is, all this positioning, all this posturing, I’ve never understood how you expect someone to thrive by insulting them. So when I started my thing, for better or for worse, we’re going to do it differently…
So my shop is a teaching shop. One of my guys took a hiatus and jumped into a shop in Australia, and he was interviewing with them, a bigger shop, and they asked him, “What do you know?” And I always said to the guys, “You’ve never worked in a big shop. You’re a face in a crowd of faces, you never really get in the hot seat, you never really get any experience, it takes years to get on the console or to learn. Here, you’re gonna learn every job and you’re gonna learn fast.”
When he was telling them all the experience he had, they didn’t believe him. They wanted references from me, said, “Where did you learn all this?” Learned from doing. And if you do something wrong, we correct, we remind and train. We’ll break your hump a little, cuz like I said, we’re a family. But very rarely have I raised my voice in anger to anyone on my team, because I don’t understand the necessity for it, and I think that’s why we get along so well. Even on the difficult days, we pull it through. There are days when we don’t eat. There are days when we don’t sleep. But we get it done, because we’re all in it together and we know that we’re working for the greater good. So I think that was one of the things I learned.
But we definitely review every job, in the truck on the ride home – “OK, we hit traffic, oh, we forgot this one item, OK, we worked around it this way, but let’s put a new process in place,” and everybody has input. We have no choice – we don’t work any other way.
Deborah – OK, so commitment, creativity, integrity – any other lessons?
Dennis – Stay true to yourself. There are times when I take risks with the company taking on a project that may require us to stretch or reach a little bit further, but I’ve seen people make the mistakes of trying to do it all, or trying to do what they don’t do. If we don’t have people on the team who can do a certain part of the production, I tell my clients, “Hey, we can’t work with you like this. Maybe I can recommend someone else.”
Luckily, we’re in a place right now where we have a good broad reach for everything, but I think that staying true to what makes you YOU, and keeping your identity – do what you do and do it well. There’s a market for everybody. We’re in the heart of the world, there’s so much work to go around. Find the clients that make sense for you, do the work that makes sense for you, and be great at it. You’re gonna fail if you try to do everything.