Inventor Insight: Former deputy Don Keller’s flashlight need created new industry

If the power goes out in the middle of the night and you grab for a flashlight, there is a better-than-average chance you will grab one that is made of aluminum. Most of us take for granted that this style of flashlight has always been around, since Maglite brand flashlights have dominated the shelf space for decades. However, the story of this industry is far more complicated than any mythology of a lone inventor toiling away in his workshop. Like most inventions, its story is filled with ingenuity, subversion, devastation and success.

I recently got to sit down with the inventor and legend in this industry, Don Keller, who retired to Bellingham years ago. As with all the inventors I meet, I start by asking him why? “It all started in 1964,” he says, “I was working as an L.A. County Sheriff’s deputy, I worked nights and was tired of breaking cheap flashlights, ending up without any light by the end of my shift.” The first part of Don’s story is like most inventors, he saw a need and worked to fix it, taking years to find the right materials and working through many prototypes to find the right design. He laughs as he describes his first homemade prototypes “it was a galvanized pipe that I fit over the existing flashlights we’d been issued. That didn’t work so well, I broke a lot of bulbs trying to use it, not to mention how heavy it was!”

I sat transfixed for over an hour listening to 40 years of how this industry was created. From his first leap as an inventor into entrepreneurship with Kel-lite in 1968, through the loss of that company in 1972, to the start of Maglite in 1979, Don’s story holds valuable insight for those already in business as well as those considering starting. I asked him more about what lessons he sees in his own story.

“First is persistence.” When you hear Don’s story you know this is true. Despite the devastating loss he had in being voted out as president of his own company and the years of problems with partners in companies he worked for as well as competition, he kept going. Often he wound up starting over entirely, building new businesses, but always learning from the mistakes he made. One of his stories makes for a great example. “My first sales force was cops, I sold it directly to other cops, but after a few years of selling a lot but never making enough money, my partner and I realized we needed to bring in some people with management experience. From that we learned a hard lesson about pricing. Ultimately we had to raise our prices, something that is really hard to do successfully.” When he went to work for Maglite a decade later, he had learned from those earlier experiences and knew that he would set up a sales pipeline of selling direct to distributors. That strategy helped propel Maglite to $10 million in sales by its fourth year.

“Second is mentors, you will need advice and you need to find people you can trust.” He says, “Unfortunately, the inventor doesn’t always see the value and opportunity in working with others.” I smiled at his comment and whole heartedly agreed with him, since it is the reason I do what I do, working through the Innovation Resource Center to help other inventors like myself and sharing stories like his. Don’s firm belief in mentorship is one of the reasons he has been an active SCORE mentor in Bellingham for years.

“And finally, you’ve got to take the time to do the research.” He says, “With the tools and technology that are available today, there is no reason not to get the research done. I had to spend my early years at the library with the Thomas Guide as my bible. ” Fortunately, for inventors today, the Thomas Guide is available online.