A Stolen Idea:The Story of Icicle Lights

Icicle lightsIn the early 90’s Juanita Donica and Dianne Syme owned a struggling gift shop full of unusual  items they personally adored and thought, as a result, their customers would too.   But business was very slow and their products did not seem to sell.

Worried their gift shop would not make it through the holiday season they decided to devised a string of showy Christmas lights, in hopes of featuring their products and making them more attractive to potential customers who came in the shop. Using some staples and nails to drape and hang an arrangement of multiple cords of lights Ms. Donica and Mrs. Syme created dripping shape of icicles around their shelves, windows and doorways.

As people entered their gift shop, much to their surprise, their patrons still did not want to buy the lovely gifts inside on their tables and shelves, but instead those “icicle” lights that they had set up for display. Frustrated and determined to “make their original idea work” these ladies spent the next two years watching neighbors mimic their makeshift icicle design, as their gift shop sales continued to decrease. Finally, Ms. Donica and Mrs. Syme decided to do something with these lights they had by accident designed and try and turn it into a business. So they hired a welder to make a device they called a Quick-Strip to make it easy to hand the cords of  lights in icicle shapes.

Recognizing their lack of experience as entrepreneurs, the women hired an attorney to secure a patent and trademarks. Mrs. Syme’s husband, a graphics designer, made a special blue cover for the package. In 1996, they displayed their creation, which they named Light Cicles, at a February Christmas trade show in New Orleans.

Retailers overwhelmed them with orders. “We had planned on selling a few truckloads, but these people wanted huge containers,” says Mrs. Syme, who was virtually speechless when buyers asked about warehousing facilities. At the time, the women were planning to run their new lighing business out of the back of their gift shop. By scrambling, they were able to supply a few catalogs in time for Christmas that year and get a factory in China to make the product. Their sales, limited tremendously by capacity, nevertheless reached a respectable $5 million– an enormous accomplishment for two women who’s entrepeneurial accomplishments were the sum total of a gift shop they opened together that was barely scraping by.

But at the Christmas Trade Show in New Orleans in 1996, competitive trouble lingered in the air. At night people stole the boxes designed by Mrs. Syme’s husband. And during the day, suspicious looking individuals visited the booth during the show and snapped up pictures of their Light Cicles.

Low and behold, the next year, at a Christmas goods trade show, the holidays didn’t stay so happy for Ms. Donica and Mrs. Syme. As it turned out, the patent they obtained wasn’t enough to prevent large competitors from copying and raking in most of the profits from their invention. Rivals stole their secrets; one even copied their special packaging. “We were absolutely shocked that Christmas was such a cut-throat business,” says Mrs. Syme, 35, the daughter of 51-year-old Ms. Donica.

At the 1997 Christmas convention, a rival named H.S. Craft Manufacturing Co., based in Taiwan, mimicked Light Cicles both in idea and packaging by superimposing an “S” onto the product name and calling their’s Light Sicles. This time, Mrs. Syme took pictures and called a lawyer.

The  women did win a court battle ordering the H.S. Craft Company to recall its lights and pay the women profits from 1999 icicle lights sales, according to a judge’s ruling in U.S. District Court, Southern District of Indiana. But by then, so many other versions of icicle lights were on the market the women couldn’t afford to go after them. “If we had the money, I would have taken every single one of them to court,” Ms. Donica says.

Ms. Donica and Mrs. Syme’s had a patent only for the Quick-Strip, the device used to hang the lights and not for the design of the lights themselves. To their dismay, they learned that significantly larger and more financially able companies, not only had stolen their idea for Christmas lights, but they had developed different and improved devices to hang the lights, circumventing the patent and ability to capitalize on their original invention.

And it wasn’t just the product idea that competitors stole, they copied Light Cicles packaging design too! In an industry that mostly sold holiday lights in red and green cardboard boxes, Light Cicles’ blue package stood out.

So it wasn’t a happy story for this clever and creative mother and daughter team–or was it?

Certainly they never imagined the successful business they could build from the lighting they made to decorate their store. Nor could they have predicted the market demand that their creativity produced. They did their best to protect their business, but in the end they lost control over their own design.

Does this make what Ms. Donica and Mrs. Syme dreamed up not worthy of their efforts? Or instead should it be seen as a brave attempt to allow their creativity to take them where they were meant to go even thought their entrepreneurial venture didn’t exactly have a story book ending?

Risk is a part of life, so if you are going to risk, use logic to determine if it’s worth it and if it is- risk big.  While Ms. Donica and Mrs. Syme did not financially capitalize to the fullest extent on a product that at its high point generated sales of $480 million, they did catapult themselves into a market where they continue to invent and create products quite successfully to this day—and they have protected their interests much more successfully than with Light Cicles.

Furthermore while their original design did not make Ms. Donica and Mrs. Syme as much money as those who copied their idea, they did earn a significant amount, and they now stand out as recognized market leaders for their creativity. Their latest creation, Frosties, had initial advance orders that totaled over $5 million. However Ms. Donica and Mrs. Syme didn’t unveil their latest product at a Christmas trade show this time; instead they pre-sold their inventory directly to their customers who are retailers.

  • Jen Neitling

    I think that it was a great idea, but not very original.. My father had been making the icicle-style lights since the mid-80s at our Portland, Oregon home. He would tie the light-lines with zip-ties. There are several stories on the internet about the stolen idea, but they are often a ways apart location wise. Great idea, were all just kickin ourselves for not patenting it sooner.

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