In 2007, Chris Watts Sr. was a single parent living on food stamps and months behind on his mortgage.
Today, the 53-year-old from Ringgold in northwest Georgia employs eight workers at his auto parts business and forecasts $650,000 in annual sales. Watts, a high school graduate, developed a do-it-yourself kit to clean cloudy headlamps after his auto painting business, built with money borrowed from retirement, went bust six years ago.
Called Headlight Renew Doctor, the kits are sold in 17 countries and many states. Here’s how he says he did it, stumbles and all.
I had done paint and body work since I was 18 years old. I had built a new house and a shop behind my house, which I worked out of. The economy tanked. I had five months with no income. There was a little car lot that called me that said, “Have you ever done anything with these yellow or cloudy headlights?” I said, “Yeah. I’ve done plenty of that.” And I had not the first inkling.
He said, “We used to have a guy that would do these and they would last a long time but that was a couple years ago. And now we got a new guy and whatever he does lasts about 60 days.” I asked, “Well, what did the first guy do?” I took one of their cars back to my shop, and 20 minutes later I had done the process that he told me. It’s evolved since then just a little bit, but not much.
I made $40, and he said, “Now I got 20 cars I need done.” He said, “I’ll probably have 30 or 40 cars every month that I’ll need you to do.” And he said, “Is there any way you can do them on my lot?”
I think I had to be totally broke, totally humbled on food stamps before the light bulb went off.
I took an old tackle box out of my garage. I put this system of renewing headlights in. I had some business cards made up. I went to every car lot from Dalton to Chattanooga to Dayton, (Tenn.). By the end of the week I had made $1,800 renewing clouded headlights. I was charging $40 a car or, at these used car lots, I would say I’d do three cars for $100.
I load up my 12-year-old son Friday night, Saturday night, Sunday night. And I went to every restaurant, every McDonald’s, every Taco Bell, ATM, anywhere you can pull a car up I had stuck my business card on renewing headlights, from probably 11 o’clock at night to 3 o’clock in the morning, so I wouldn’t get caught. By Monday morning I probably had 30 or 40 phone calls.
Watts turned his process into a product.
We spray a UV coating on the outside of the headlight. The first six months it was off-the-shelf stuff that I mixed together. I called a company. I knew the ingredients I wanted. We have the patent pending status on it.
One day a (Chattanooga dealership’s) service manager said, “I would like to buy the product from you. You train my technicians on how to do it.” So I bought a new tackle box and put everything in there to do what I was doing. My son took my phone and he videotaped me doing a headlight and I just talked my way through it. I downloaded it onto a DVD and had an instructional video.
(The service manager) wrote me a check for $799 for one box that would do 60 cars. I took that $800 and with the money I saved over the past month or two made more kits. In the next two weeks I sold $12,000 worth.
I thought if I can hire 10 guys, they can sell 10 or 20 a month. I put an ad in Craig’s List. I rented a hotel conference room (and) for two weeks I trained them. I gave each of those guys two or three of these kits to sell. A week later the stock market crashed. Two or three weeks later not a one of them would answer their phone. I had spent just about every penny I had. Several car dealerships went under. I spent the next five months with no income. I was back on food stamps.
A service manager offered to buy a kit not for $799 but for $500. Watts cut the price for other dealers as well, reducing the amount of product in each kit. He was selling again. Each day he would drive around the Southeast, but he’d rush to be back in time to pick up his son from after-school sports.
I had never been a salesman before. I learned to demo my product. I learned to talk about return on investment, price per unit.
I wanted a black shirt (to wear on sales calls). Somebody gave me a Harley Davidson shirt for Christmas that first year. I had my name embroidered on it. “Headlight Renew Doctor. Chris Watts.” That goofy logo opened up more doors. Just about every service manager had a bike.
Dealerships started asking for single-application kits that they could resell to customers. He founded a company that could do it for him.
I made it a do-it-yourself kit. I had a friend of mine make up a label. I had a friend put together a website. I began calling on companies that had headlight restoration products where I knew mine was better. I began doing proposals. My first was to Valvoline. I put together a Power Point presentation. We did a headlight. It went great. A lady asked me, “What’s your lead time?” I had never heard the term. Here I am with a $5 billion-a-year company. They realized at that moment here’s a guy who is probably putting this thing together in the garage of his house, which I was. I literally lost that contract. Lead time is the expected delivery date once a purchase order is placed. From that point in time, if I was going into something I wasn’t sure of, I would hire somebody who did.
I’ve not had a banker; not had an investor. I have had a couple friends to let me borrow $5 or $600 at a time when I had a purchase order. Truck Stops of America, they gave us half down for our first order. I just bluffed them. I said with initial orders like this — it was $60,000 — we require 50 percent down. With that money we put that order together.
A lot of people will borrow money and think: “I’ll pay it back when I make my money.” I would not do that. I’ve been broke, and I’ll never be broke again.
Each Sunday, the AJC brings you insights from metro Atlanta’s leaders and entrepreneurs.
Business editor Matt Kempner’s “Secrets of Success” shares the vision and realities of entrepreneurs who started their dreams from scratch. The column alternates with business editor Henry Unger’s “5 Questions for the Boss,” which reveals the lessons learned by CEOs of some of the area’s biggest companies and organizations.
Most Truck Stops of America sell Watt’s headlight renewal kit. One of his biggest customers is Repco Auto Parts in Australia. In metro Atlanta, his kits are being rolled out at Ace Hardware stores. Watts usually sells consumer kits for about $14 to retailers, who typically market them for $19.99 to $24.99.
BONUS TIPS FROM WATTS
- To convince a business manager to buy your product, show them a check you’ve recently gotten from a similar business.
- Don’t go into a big business presentation without someone who knows the lingo and expectations.
- Regularly ask customers what they need.
ABOUT THE REPORTER
Business editor Matt Kempner leads a team of Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporters. He was the AJC’s public editor and a long-time reporter at the AJC and other papers, covering business, investigations, government and the environment. He earned a journalism degree and a business minor at the University of Georgia.
“It’s inspiring to talk with people who’ve made the plunge to launch a business. I’m fascinated by how they do it and by the challenges, lessons and serendipity that shape their paths.”