RICHMOND, Calif. — When a lightbulb turned on in Sue Scott's brain, it was in the shape of a stegosaurus.
That was in 1986 when Scott, a sculptor then working at an art gallery in Santa Fe, came up with the idea of creating a dinosaur-shaped lamp called the "Lumasaurus."
Since then, she has parlayed that idea into a $5-million lighting business called Primal Lite Inc., which recently added Budweiser and Walt Disney Co. to a list of licensing agreements that includes Coca-Cola Co.
Primal Lite makes a variety of often whimsical, sometimes kitschy and artsy strings of plastic shapes ranging from Dalmatians and fire hydrants to T-bones and barbecues on Christmas tree-like fixtures.
The company also makes night lights, switch plates and wall sconces. And it creates custom-designed lights through a sister company established in 1990, Primal Lite Design Inc.
Unlike many other entrepreneurs, Scott did not churn the idea around in her brain for years, waiting for perfect timing or divine guidance.
About a week after deciding to make the dinosaur lamps, the 1980 graduate of the San Francisco Art Institute returned to the San Francisco Bay area to turn her idea into a marketable product.
Scott had to abandon the Lumasaurus plan when she ran into some production problems with the lighting fixtures.
But that didn't stop her from coming up with another plan. Because string lights are fairly standard and less difficult to produce, Scott came up with the idea of putting plastic shapes--first the lizard and then the trout--on the bulbs.
"That's just the way I do things," said Scott, 41, who ran her credit cards up to the limit to raise start-up capital. "I just kind of put them [the lights] out there and said that at least if I go under, I'll go under with a smile on my face."
Her "Bunch-a-Lizards" and "Mess-O-Trout" lights, both designs reminiscent of her Arizona roots, were instant hits. The company, which enjoyed $60,000 in sales in its first year, has been profitable since its inception and has been growing ever since.
She said people have hung the "Loads-O-Laundry" lights over their washing machines, had the "Bunch-a-Lizards" crawling out of house plants and put the "Tropical Treasures" seashells in a basket.
Oddly, one of her most controversial designs has been the "Herd-A-Herefords," which she painted in the Holstein dairy cows' black-and-white spots instead of the Hereford brown.
"I still, to this day, get letters from people who say this is not a Hereford," said Scott, who received letters from the president of the national Hereford association.
Scott also had an ongoing postal relationship with an elementary school in Iowa, where she sent a batch of extra lights on a teacher's request. In return, she received letters from 350 schoolchildren who then created their own string lights and kept her apprised of their activities.
Scott has received a number of women's entrepreneurial awards and volunteers for various groups, including the Women's Initiative for Self Employment.
Her lights have been featured in a variety of shows, such as television's "Roseanne."
Her design studio has created custom lights for the Hard Rock Cafe, Snapple Beverage Corp., the Nature Company and Woodbridge Winery.
The Berkeley-based Nature Company has a long history with Primal Lite because it was one of the first stores that agreed to sell the Lumasaurus. Now Primal Lite makes customized lights, such as fireflies, under the Nature Company name.
"If you have an idea and you want it on a string of lights, they're the company you want to go with," said Julie Nunn, a buyer for the Nature Company who handles the lights. "There's really nobody else who does the same thing as well."
Judd Wallenbrock, Woodbridge Winery's former marketing director, said he considered contracting with a promotional company to make the winery's customized wine bottle lights.
"Quality was really why I chose [Primal Lite]," he said. "But I would have gone anywhere in the world to get them."
The new line of Budweiser and Disney lights are scheduled to come out this spring and represent a new direction for the company, especially in the overseas market.
Primal Lite, which hopes one day to have its Disney character lights available in Disney stores, pays royalties for the use of any product name. That makes the licensed-product lights about $5 more expensive a strand.
Ed Valentine, who handles international operations for the company, said sales of licensed Disney products in Japan exceed those in the United States. Valentine estimates that exports--now about 10% of the business--will grow to about 20% by the end of this year.
As for whether he has trouble explaining the product to people in foreign markets, Valentine said that part is easy. "All you really have to do is plug it in."