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Blinkin' Brilliant

How one man's half decorated house led to a holiday business that's now surging.

It was Christmas 2005 when Isaac Kearns literally saw the lights.

He was teetering on the second-story roof of his house in McMinnville, Ore., attempting to drape icicle lights over the eaves and decorate it for the holidays. He got about halfway before he freaked out completely, but not before creating "the biggest disaster I've ever seen."

In total frustration, he called a friend who had started a Christmas Décor franchise a few miles away, and suddenly it seemed like a brilliant business move too. Kearns opened a franchise the next year--one of about 375 Christmas Décor franchises across the U.S. and Canada--in partnership with his brother, Josh, and father, Calvin. And now they decorate homes, offices, fire stations and other businesses for almost 70 clients, with fees starting at $500 and quickly reaching into the thousands. He's even had a brush with fame--when he decorated the home of the stars of Little People, Big World on TLC last year.

Like a lot of franchisees, you're also a landscaper. Why is that?
It's a fantastic complement. We get an influx of cash in September, October and November--the dead months for landscaping. Our landscaping customers are people who want to pay for services they don't want to do themselves, so we start out with good prospects for holiday decorating. But most of all, it helps us keep our skilled irrigation technicians employed. We have four, and we used to have to lay them off for six weeks at a time. That was hard. Now, we've trained them in Christmas lighting and they have plenty of work in the off-season.

You hated stringing lights on your own house. Why do it for a living?
You know, I hate mowing my own lawn too. That first time, I didn't really know what I was doing. Christmas Décor brings you to a training facility in Lubbock, Texas, and runs you through the gantlet. You're sometimes doing lighting 11 or 12 hours a day. Once you understand their system and their model, you can do amazing things.

Like what?
Oh, we can animate lights to the tune of your favorite Christmas songs--speakers, carols, bells, trees flashing various colors, all of that.

What's your best tip for do-it-yourselfers?
Keep everything in perfectly straight lines, and hide your extension cords. You don't want a bright orange cord running over your roof.

Is there a greener way to decorate?
Absolutely. The new LED lights use about 10 percent of the energy of traditional lights and they can cut $100 a month off the electric bill. They're more brilliant and durable too. Here in Oregon I call our Christmas business "underwater holiday lighting," because it rains from November until March. Incandescent lights just don't hold up very well in that kind of condition, so the LEDs are a better option all around.

Any dark spots?
When we got into the business, the technology was changing and we bought a lot more incandescent bulbs than we should have. So, we had to buy a whole lot more inventory all over again. This year, we're expecting to be much more profitable because our inventory is stocked and our word of mouth is growing. This year looks like it's really going to take off.

Gwen Moran is a freelance writer and co-author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Business Plans (Alpha, 2010).

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This article was originally published in the December 2009 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Blinkin' Brilliant.

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