This is a Frederick Review interview with Neal Owens, owner of The Sunbox Company. The Sunbox Company is the only US manufacturer of bright light therapy. They are located in Downtown Frederick.
Please introduce yourself and tell me a bit about your business.
Well hey I am Neal Owens and I am the founder and president of the sunbox company. If you have never heard of us before, we are the folks that invented light therapy to help everyone that suffers from winter blues or certain sleep wake disorders. I myself back in the early 80s was affected by the shortness of daylight hours. I was the territory manager for a large petroleum company. Spring and summer I set a sales record, got all my worked turned in on time, made my boss quite happy, and was able to win sales contests. But boy, come Fall and Winter I was a different person. I found myself sleeping more, needing more sleep, feeling tired and run down. Craving carbohydrates, eating a lot more junk food. It was almost like my brain batteries were running low on juice.
I didn’t understand why so I went to my family doctor and complained of feeling tired and run down. My doctor ran me through the normal battery of tests that they look for when someone complains of feeling lethargic and down. Then all of the tests came back normal but I knew something was going on. My boss was chewing me out for not making early morning meetings and I really needed to do something about it.
I happened to be channel surfing and the local folks down at NIH in Bethesda, MD were pioneering studies that were trying to look as to why certain people were affected by the shorter daylight or light deprivation, being stuck in windowless rooms and affected by the gloomy weather. They already knew science had put their finger on that animals are affected by the shorter daylight levels as well as plants and a lot of other things. What happens is that when days get shorter or when we are exposed for long periods of darkness we have lower amounts of serotonin and dopamine in our brains. Now when it is Winter or Fall then that is the signal for animals to migrate or hibernate or for plants to flower or get ready to die in the winter time. So we are affected by the seasonal changes and I think a lot of us can relate, especially with all the gloomy weather we have had in Frederick. It can affect your mood and your productivity.
However, this isn’t anything new, in the second century a famous doctor by the name of Aretaeus said that, “lethargics can be laid in the light and exposed to rays of the sun for the disease of gloom”. So I think a lot of us can certainly relate to that.
Here at the Sunbox Company, I was affected by it,I volunteered for the clinical research, found out that I had this disorder called SAD, seasonal affect disorder. This is the clinical description, it is a type of depression, it is different other regular depression. With regular depression people tend to not sleep or they tend to worry a lot, they tend to lose weight, and they don’t eat a whole lot. They lose their appetite. For us SAD sufferers we want to eat more, eat a lot more junk foods, that second handful of chips, extra bread and pasta that makes us feel good. We tend to want to sleep more, so its symptoms here that people can easily relate to when the change of seasons happen. Here we are in September losing two and a half minutes of daylight per day. I think we can all relate that we are starting to feel that winter is upon us.
When did you start your business?
I started with being a volunteer for the clinical research back in 82’-83’. That’s when I first contacted NIH. They accepted me in to their studies and diagnosed me with the seasonal affective disorder. Now I am mild compared to a lot of folks, meaning I was able to get out of bed and still get to work. There are some people that really have their lives wrecked in the Fall or Winter. Where they can’t get up on time, they can’t get their kids up and off to school, their relationships suffer and those people have full blown SAD. So I’d have to say mine was considered mild. But it affected my earnings, it affected my life, I didn’t enjoy the holidays as I was so tired and run down.
There are 3 factors for SAD. The first one is that its genetic, meaning that this type of depression can run in families. The second is light deprivation for any reason. Whether it be a shortness of daylight hours, windowless offices, gloomy weather. Then the third would be stress, so what that means is that if you’re workload in the Fall and Winter is large and you have a lot more to do, you will find it much harder to deal with because you are so tired and run down. The stress can push someone from feeling blue in to feeling depressed. That is a serious matter, so something that you really need to talk with your doctor about and be proactive with your health.
What was it that make you want to start the business?
Well I had to do something I was going to lose my territory that I was working in at the large petroleum company. In the Spring and Summer I could make 12 to 20 calls a day on my account and in the Fall and Winter I was lucky if I was making 4 or 5 calls a day. So my boss was constantly looking at, “hey why are your sales dipping, why are you not making your early morning meetings, why are you not even turning in your work in on time to get paid?” I had no explanation for it, but clearly it was caused by the shortness of daylight hours.
The folks at NIH had me run through their tests and what they thought was that it was the shortness of daylight hours and the amount of light that people were exposed to. Lo’ and behold there are a large number of us, about 20 million people that are affected by serious SAD. You add on top of that another 10-15 million that get the mild winter blues where they just aren’t themselves. If you find that these symptoms are affecting your life or your job then you need to do something about it.
If you could go back in time when beginning your business, what’s the one piece of advice you’d give yourself?
The best advice I would say is to surround yourself with support. Get yourself an accountant, get yourself business advisors or technology advisors, and all of these things can help. When I started this business, there were no other companies like it in existence so I basically started something from scratch. I had no idea what I was getting into because I couldn’t predict sales, I didn’t know how many times my phone was going to ring, I didn’t know how many hospitals were going to contact me for buying sunboxes, and it was quite a challenge. I was working long crazy hours, days and nights, weekends, just to keep up with the demand. So I kind of wish that I surrounded myself with some more supportive people and folks that could help me. Rather than me do some of the things I did on my own.
What’s your favorite thing about being a business owner?
Well the best part of my job is helping people from all walks of life. Depression and sleep-wake problems affect all of us at some time. These disorders don’t discriminate from any walks of life. Famous movie stars have been my customers, government officials, even musicians that play in some pretty caliber bands. This problem of depression can really wreak havoc on everybody’s life. I would say the most rewarding part is helping others get out the hole of depression and address their sleep-wake problems so that they can be happy and healthy.
What’s the toughest thing you face being a business owner and how do you handle it?
The hardest thing is just not being able to predict how busy I am going to be. My business is driven by a lot of things. By awareness, people find out more and more about this disorder and these problems, we already know that light can affect in positive ways and negative ways. You know that we are now being told to turn our electronics off about 2 hours before bedtime, stay away from blue light in the evening times because this can throw your sleep-wake cycle way off and delay your sleep. These things happen and here you are now becoming sleep deprived and you can’t get up and focus on what you need to do the next day. I think the biggest challenge i’ve had is that just keeping up with the demand and making sure that I stay focused on customer service and helping those folks.
Cause a lot of times your new customers are in the same boat you were in all those years ago where they don’t maybe necessarily know what is affecting them?
That’s exactly right, so with this type of seasonal depression, and even just general depression, you know people wait until they’re really at the almost rock bottom before they do something and the important thing is don’t do that. Share how you’re feeling with your friends, your family, your loved ones and discuss it with your doctors. Tell them that you are just not feeling yourself. Just know that there is help out there, if just by admitting you need some help, it is out there for you. You could literally change your life.
I was able to get three months of lost time back in to my year just by getting some help and use this light therapy 20 minutes a day. So it’s not being real intrusive. I sit there in the morning at the kitchen table or in my favorite recliner chair and flip my sunbox on while I’m sitting there. I’m already do something else at the same time. Eating, reading, watching tv, and for 20 minutes I bathe myself in a little sunshine like I have right next to me here [turns on nearby sunbox], I’ve got one of my sunboxes that I had on this morning. It makes a huge difference.
What’s the number one way you currently bring in new customers?
Well technology has literally changed my business. Where we used to rely on fax machines and the telephone lines, now we’re more internet based and the majority of our business now comes from the internet. We have the website where people can order 24/7, we have dealers all over the nation and even in several other countries. Technology is probably the way that we are reaching more and more people. It’s funny even our older friends, I’m 61 so I can’t say I’m a spring chicken, but you know technology has really changed my life as well as my business. Everybody now can go on to the internet and find more information about these disorders, find more about where you can get a sunbox, and then have that information to share with their doctors. So it is very helpful and I would say technology and the internet has really changed things. Where the phones don’t ring much anymore, we get more emails than phone calls. Most people are communicating electronically versus face to face or picking up the phone.
Being a more personable type of business, has technology made anything more difficult for your business?
Yes there has, because I don’t know what people need to find us. So I took some classes and have some experts to make our website more friendly, created a blog, now use social media such as instagram and facebook to educate people. It is interesting that all ages now are able to use tech. I was talking to a lady the other day, she was saying she was 91 years old and she had just learned how to use a computer in order to find out how to deal with her sleep-wake disorder. Her body clock was not on a 24 hour cycle and her doctor had mentioned using a sunbox to normalize her sleep patterns. She is 91, on the computer trying to learn how to help herself at 91. The technology we have has really changed all of our lives. If I wanted something specific I can go online and order it and have it as early as tomorrow. With people suffering from depression they want to get help fast and feel better now and not even wait until tomorrow. Technology has allowed people to help themselves, learn better, and have more resources.
What sets your business apart from your competitors?
I would say what sets us apart are that our products are safe and effective and are used in clinical studies. You know on the internet here it is the wild west, meaning that you think you’re buying a name brand product or a product that is going to help you and it turns out you buy something and find out that is junk or doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to, or even more dangerous is it is unsafe to use. Our products are safe and effective, we are listed for electrical safety and we meet clinical standards for hospitals and the military. If you’re using something like our products for your health and wellbeing, make sure you use something that is safe.
What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to others thinking about becoming entrepreneur?
Well if you’re gonna step out and be an entrepreneur or have a new idea, as I shared with you, you need to do some research and get some help. There is plenty of free help and advisors at schools and a lot of different programs. Just stay focused on what you want to do and you want to be the best at what you do. So if you’re going to start something put your whole heart into it, try and put all your resources into being the best you possibly can be. The money will come second. If you’re focused on being good at what you do, good customer service, then you’ll make a comfortable living being the best you can.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
For anybody out there that is feeling down, depressed, don’t have normal sleep patterns. Ask yourself is this affecting your life, your wellbeing, your relationships, or your job? If so, get some help, talk with your doctor, talk with your family. You don’t have to needlessly suffer from any of these symptoms. Help is out there and you can get feeling in just a matter of a few days.
For more information about Neal Owens and The Sunbox Company see the information below: