People start companies for all sorts of reasons, but for Peter Hildebrandt, one reason is that “business is fun.”
Hildebrandt calls himself a serial entrepreneur because he has started a wide variety of companies: A highly localized weather forecasting firm that wind surfers in Portland, Oregon, loved. A software startup that Steelcase purchased. A gourmet brownie company (well, that was mostly his wife). A company that makes music stand lights for orchestras throughout the country.
Hildebrandt learned about business through experience and curiosity after earning a degree in electrical engineering. He spent about a dozen years running R&D for the technology division of Steelcase after it bought his startup, and now he runs his own consulting firm, Covetability, that helps big-name companies figure out what new products will be successful.
For the past four years, Hildebrandt has also shared his knowledge about business with local entrepreneurs through his volunteer roles as branch manager and mentor at the Gwinnett County branch of SCORE, an organization that helps people start or improve their small business. “I got involved with SCORE because I was interested in giving back,” he said.
The Gwinnett SCORE offices are the busiest in Georgia, with about 15 mentors who help clients with business planning, marketing, financials and other skills. Some clients want a few mentoring sessions and others want mentoring for months, or longer. “Our job as mentors is to educate people,” rather than passing judgment on a business idea, Hildebrandt said. “Our job is to make sure people go into it with their eyes wide open.”
Along with mentoring, SCORE hosts workshops on starting and running a business.
Our job as mentors is to educate people.
Why is Gwinnett a hotbed of entrepreneurship? Hildebrandt credits the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce’s programs for new businesses. Demographics contribute, too. “This county has a lot of people who have been successful working for organizations like NCR who decide to open their own businesses,” he said.
It’s a misconception that all startups are run by millennials, he added. Many SCORE clients are in their 50s.
The idea for a business can strike at any time. Hildebrandt came up with the idea for Aria Lights through his hobby, music. (He plays string bass for the Johns Creek Symphony and the Georgia Philharmonic.) He saw a violinist get burned by a hot incandescent lightbulb on a music stand and decided to create a solution.
Hildebrandt’s lighting system uses LEDs, runs cooler, and provides more light than traditional stand lights. “In our first few years, we got orders from every major orchestra in the United States,” he said. Since then, he has introduced rechargeable, battery-powered models.
Aria Lights is a one-man band. Hildebrandt has the parts made in China and assembles the lights himself. He handles everything from technical updates to advertising. “I designed it to be a business that wouldn’t get too big. It’s really been a great ride. It doesn’t take that much time, so I can still volunteer for SCORE and do my consulting practice,” he said. It’s all business, and it’s all fun.