Out of his shell and into the light: how Inlighten’s Eddy Song found his placeHailey Eisen - December 17, 2019
Talk to Eddy (Qi) Song and you’ll see an entrepreneur who’s outgoing and confident. A visionary with big plans for his brand and goals to help others as well.
But he didn’t start out that way.
Song is the creative force behind Inlighten, a premium fiber optic clothing line known in the music festival scene for its light-up hoodies, vests and bomber jackets. And when he moved from China to Canada at 22 years old, he hardly spoke English at all.
When Song moved here to pursue post-graduate education, he was instantly overcome by feelings of culture shock and the challenges posed by a language barrier. After completing a one-year post-graduate certificate in meeting and event planning at Centennial College, he enrolled in a Master’s degree in Education at Brock University.
“It was a huge challenge for me integrating into Canadian society in my 20s,” he says. “The people, the culture, the day-to-day life was very different here. I had to force myself out of my shell, to make friends and fit in.”
Joining in conversations that he hardly understood made things especially challenging. “I didn’t get 80 per cent of the cultural references and 100 per cent of the slang, so I’d have to take notes and google it afterwards,” he recalls.
He went out to his first party on New Year’s Eve. “I knew if I wanted to fully understand the people and culture here in Canada I would have to spend more time socializing. So, I kept trying.”
Finding his place – and his people
After that, Song frequented all sorts of events, from karaoke, Asian nights, small bars and night clubs, to live bands, country music clubs, and house parties. He finally met what he calls his “crew” who took him to The Guvernment in Toronto, his first music festival in London, Ontario, and eventually to international festivals like the Electric Daisy Carnival in Las Vegas.
That’s how he found his place in the electronic music scene. “The energy was very good, the people were welcoming, and I began to make a lot of friends and come into my own,” he says.
“There I wasn’t just known for being an international student, but for who I really was.”
“The people, the culture, the day-to-day life was very different here. I had to force myself out of my shell.”
– Eddy Song, Founder of Inlighten
But, the partying lifestyle began to take its toll physically and mentally and Song experienced a bout of depression as he struggled to find his place.
He had enrolled in a Master’s degree, in part, because it was expected of him. Coming from a family of educators and academics, he understood the value of schooling, but also felt the pressure associated with that. With his mom being the Dean of a university for English education in China and his dad a professor of electrical engineering, he had chosen education as his focus because that’s what he knew best.
“Early on, I realized I didn’t have the knowledge or experience in education that my peers had, and so I turned my thesis into a journey of self-learning and looked at my own experiences as an international student as a way to educate others in similar situations,” he says.
Upon graduation, Song decided he wanted to help others, but wasn’t exactly sure how to do so. He had an affinity for business and entrepreneurship and also for fashion. He had technical expertise acquired from his rigorous high school education in China and from learning alongside his father. He was a social person by nature but often felt isolated and alone in Canada.
“I didn’t have the knowledge or experience in education that my peers had, and so I turned my thesis into a journey of self-learning.”
– Eddy Song
In his first job, which lasted less than a year, Song worked for an international bespoke brand where he established and maintained business relationships with the Bay Street set. But, he recalls, “I was eventually fired because I wasn’t able to close sales on the phone. I didn’t know enough about the product or believe it would benefit people enough to really get behind it.”
From there he started his first entrepreneurial venture, WearMyOwn, providing integrated fashion apparel services including manufacturing, marketing and business development consulting to help fashion designers take their labels from “sketches to stores.”
Gear that lights up the room
The idea for Inlighten came from Song’s personal love of standing out. “I had light-up shoes in 2013 before they were popular, I wore light-up earrings to festivals and was always getting requests from people to source them the gear I was wearing,” he recalls.
While in China for work, Song came across fiber optic material that was being used for curtains and home décor. Though it’s not the same quality of material he’s working with today, he saw in it the potential for something very different.
With his understanding of electronics and technology, he also knew that power sources could be made small enough to make wearable technology in clothing feasible. “The fabric inspired me to develop my first piece,” he says.
It was Nuit Blanche 2016 – Toronto’s annual all-night arts festival – when Song took his prototype fiber optic pullover out for a spin and let the piece speak for itself.
“These pieces are more than clothing. They’re a mood booster, a communications piece, that naturally puts you in a good mood and gives you confidence even when you’re not feeling it.”
– Eddy Song
He was inundated with compliments and requests. People loved what he was wearing and wanted to know how they could get their hands on one. “So many people wanted to know if I was ‘Nuit Blanche’,” he says. “These pieces are more than clothing. They’re a mood booster, a communications piece, that naturally puts you in a good mood and gives you confidence even when you’re not feeling it.”
He met his business partner, Eve Aphayboun, at a co-working space. A multi-disciplinary designer and founder of White Elephant Agency, Eve has been with Inlighten since day one, providing insight and experience that Song lacked at the time. Today, Eve is Inlighten’s Chief Design Officer and an ownership partner.
The first investment of $50,000 came from his parents, who supported his entrepreneurial spirit and, as Song says, offered their love, care and blessings. From there, he went back to China to source materials and develop his first few products. “From that moment, there were a series of events and key people who helped me get my business to where it’s at today,” he says.
“In the beginning, we had a product, but the price point was high, and I wasn’t exactly sure what to do with it,” Song says. “My first client was a friend of mine.”
For a while sales grew that way, through friends and word of mouth. Song even found himself cold-calling his first few customers, something he didn’t have the courage to do when he worked for the bespoke suite company. Slowly things began to ramp up.
“In our first half a year, we hit 22 times return on our ad spend, which was an unheard-of e-commerce metric.“
– Eddy Song
The start-up journey took Song from co-working spaces to Ryerson University’s Fashion Zone (Ryerson FZ) – which he discovered through the founder of Toronto’s Start-up Fashion week. One of Canada’s first fashion-focused accelerator programs, Ryerson FZ provided him with the resources, contacts, investment and business development opportunities he needed to grow.
From there he met Michael Cronin, founder of Acquire Agency, who helped him significantly with digital marketing – a skill he needed in order to run Inlighten as an e-business.
“By this time, we were in a good state,” Song recalls. “This was a totally unheard-of novelty product that was miles away from the other companies producing light-up tutus, neck ties and cheap, tacky products. And in our first half a year, we hit 22 times return on our ad spend, which was an unheard-of e-commerce metric.”
To the dance floor and beyond
Through that success, Song’s greatest challenge was his limited experience and know-how when it came to online business and off-line sales cycles. But as he learned from those he met along the way, his company grew more successful.
With a team of five people, today Inlighten remains fully online except for a handful of tradeshows, events and festivals. With current sales of US$1.5 million, Song hopes to reach US$5 million annually with a focus on partnerships that will grow his brand to the next level.
Through a relationship he’s developed with a Toronto designer, he also hopes to take his clothing line from music festivals to street fashion, tapping into pop culture and selling to the general public. He then hopes to use the technology he’s developed to help others – from increasing the visibility of runners and bikers to helping the visually impaired, improving safety on construction sites, and keeping kids and pets safe with flashing lights.
But Song doesn’t plan to stop there, he’s also in the process of getting a second business off the ground to help Chinese businesses and manufacturers, develop, market, and sell their products internationally.
With the experience he’s gained through Inlighten, he feels he can help these companies strategically launch and grow businesses that are competitive on a global market – something many are lacking today.
Having come a very long way from the shy Chinese student who could barely leave his house, Song is excited to see where the future will take him. He’s found his groove in entrepreneurship and looks forward to further opportunities to help people – through his products as well as his consulting services.
- Name: Inlighten
- Solution: Light-up clothing that makes a statement
- Owners: Eddy (Qi) Song and Eve Aphayboun
- Employees: 4
- Headquarters: Toronto, Ont.
- Founded: 2017
- Initial investment: US$100,000
- Revenue: Over US$1.5 million
- Contact: [email protected]