Driving Disruption: Shant Madjarian of Juniper On The Innovative Approaches They Are Taking To Disrupt Their Industries

An Interview With Cynthia Corsetti

Direct-to-consumer sales model. There are no restrictions and conditions for sale. Distributors and trade participants are offered a discount to compensate them for the service they provide their clients, but anyone can purchase our product directly from Juniper.

In an age where industries evolve at lightning speed, there exists a special breed of C-suite executives who are not just navigating the changes, but driving them. These are the pioneers who think outside the box, championing novel strategies that shatter the status quo and set new industry standards. Their approach fosters innovation, spurs growth, and leads to disruptive change that redefines their sectors. In this interview series, we are talking to disruptive C-suite executives to share their experiences, insights, and the secrets behind the innovative approaches they are taking to disrupt their industries. As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Shant Madjarian.

Shant Madjarian launched Juniper in 2011, following a 13-year career in banking and finance. Entrepreneurial by nature and motivated by a growing movement towards experience design and local manufacturing, Madjarian set out to develop a collection of contemporary lighting that would together perform and inspire. Juniper designs, develops, and manufactures its collection of innovative architectural lighting and accessories from its new factory in Southington, CT, where the studio collaborates with designers, architects, suppliers, and buyers from across the globe.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive into our discussion about disruption, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

I grew up in a family of immigrants. We didn’t talk much about careers, but education was considered important. My parents owned and operated a contract lighting manufacturing business. They crafted classic-style decorative light fixtures, mainly working with brass, which they hand-finished at their factory in Montreal. I worked at the factory during summers and holidays, but it was never my intention to work in the business. I pursued an education in economics and finance, and after receiving a graduate degree in econometrics at McGill University, I worked in research, quantitative finance, and eventually, investment banking in New York City, which I loved.

When I chose to leave finance and start a career in product design, it wasn’t because of a revelation or lack of meaning in my career (as is often cited by people making a drastic life change), but rather, it was driven by a desire to build something towards positive change and to have a more direct hand in making that happen. I was not sure what that would be, but I was certain I had to give it a try.

My choice of product design and manufacturing is not independent of my experience growing up in a lighting family, but I quickly learned that it was beside the point. I discovered two things very quickly. One is that running a business, especially a startup, requires a set of skills that are not taught in any formal educational program, and that those skills learned on the job have to be mastered quickly before running out of capital. And two, following only your passion might ruin your business. However counterintuitive that may sound, you end up spending much more time running the business than you do enjoying the craft. If you can’t separate personal interests from business interests, then you will find yourself throwing in the towel before you make it too far.

Juniper exists today because of perseverance. What I learned throughout the journey is that poor tactical and strategic decisions are inevitable early on and are part of the cost of doing business. You have to learn to give things up in order to keep the business going long-term. The best decision I made was to let go of what wasn’t working and focus only on what was. That seems obvious, except, for me, it was about letting go of the things I cherished most in the product line.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

First and foremost is perseverance. Nothing ever goes as you expect, so you have to be willing to live (at least temporarily) with an outcome vastly different than the one you predicted. I remember having projected seven million in sales in the first three years of business, based on a sophisticated revenue buildup model I devised soon after launching. Three years in, sales were essentially non-existent due to product development delays, and the coffers were all but dry. There is never a shortage of reasons to call it quits. It is not a question of right or wrong, it is a question of what it takes to see it through regardless of the outcome. That is just how risk works.

Self-awareness is another important trait and a very hard one to adopt. Knowing your weaknesses and deciding which ones you are going to work on improving versus which weaknesses you are going to deliberately bypass is part of adapting to change. Ultimately, the business is a reflection of your beliefs, but also a reflection of your strengths and weaknesses as a leader.

Adaptability is probably the most important trait and not unrelated to perseverance and self-awareness. Thanks to innovation, the world is changing technologically and socially at a faster rate than it ever has. As an example, we had to scrap and restart the development of one of our new product lines because the core technology changed in the time it took us to make meaningful progress. Accepting and embracing change is a necessary condition in any successful business.

In the context of a business, what exactly is “Disruption”?

Disruption is doing something differently that you believe should entirely alter the way things are made, operated, perceived, and used by all stakeholders within an industry. Disruption is often used in place of progress or technological innovation. I see disruption as unseating conventional wisdom and replacing it with something simpler, fairer, and universally accepted as better by those it is meant to serve.

How do you perceive the role of ‘disruption’ within your industry, and how have you personally embraced it? Is it a necessity, a strategy, or something else entirely in your view?

Our business falls within the “architectural lighting industry”, but that alone is conventional wisdom. Technological and social advancements challenge the definition of architectural lighting and the way it is made and sold. By way of example, stocks were once traded exclusively through brokers who charged heavy commissions. Even as the need for brokers diminished, commissions persisted until financial technology made it possible for people to trade on their own and to choose low-cost, well-diversified, exchange-traded funds.

The lighting industry currently operates in much the same way it has for decades. Manufacturers’ lighting products are specified by an architect or designer. A purchasing client can only get pricing by putting the project out to bid. Lighting distributors bid on the project after getting pricing from the manufacturer’s rep agent who often submits one cryptic estimate loaded with commissions and overage fees not visible to the client. By the time everyone gets their cut, the client ends up paying often twice what they would have if they dealt directly with the manufacturer. This results in much higher costs for construction and forces builders to opt for lower-cost, often less sustainable, and lower-quality options. These practices have earned the industry the reputation coyly referred to as the “lighting mafia.”

Providing a solution to this challenge, Juniper is one of the only — if not the only — architectural lighting companies in the USA that represents itself. Clients can purchase our products directly from us, and we offer full price transparency, so clients know how much they are paying and what markups dealers have made should they purchase through a lighting distributor.

What lessons have you learned from challenging conventional wisdom, and how have those lessons shaped your leadership style?

People will go to great lengths to protect their livelihood, so you can understand how the threat of disruption is never met with indifference. I have learned that you must align your beliefs with the interests of the end user, and you have to stick with what you believe is right no matter the pushback you get from industry insiders. As a leader with unconventional views, I find myself spending a lot of time communicating and reminding my team about the “why” of what we do. It is important that everyone in the company understands our purpose and who we are working for.

Disruptive ideas often meet resistance. Could you describe a time when you faced significant pushback for a disruptive idea? How did you navigate the opposition, and what advice would you give to others in a similar situation?

There is a lot of disinformation that gets spread about our company. It is an aggressive tactic employed by industry insiders who cannot profit from our product on a project due to our direct sales model. We have had to be more proactive in ensuring customers understand our disruptive business model. The advice I give to people trying to change an industry for the better is to be patient. Things won’t change overnight, but your client base will be more stable and loyal than those of competitors. We were recently published in an article titled “30 products specified over and over and over again.” That is not just a product story but rather showcases how sales are rooted in trust between Juniper and its clients. It may often feel as if you are in an unwinnable fight, but eventually, the interests of consumers will prevail, and you want to be on the right side of the tracks when that happens.

What are your “Five Innovative Approaches We Are Using To Disrupt Our Industry”?

1 . Pricing transparency. All of our prices are published online, which is uncommon in the B2B world. Customers have access to the maximum allowable price (MAP) to protect them from egregious markups from intermediary sellers.

2 . Direct-to-consumer sales model. There are no restrictions and conditions for sale. Distributors and trade participants are offered a discount to compensate them for the service they provide their clients, but anyone can purchase our product directly from Juniper.

3 . Disrupting category identification between architectural and decorative lighting. These identifiers protect opaque sales channels. As hospitality, office, and residential design continue to converge both in terms of technology and aesthetics, these arbitrary categories are no longer relevant. By designing and manufacturing high-tech lighting fixtures using traditional, hand-finished materials such as brass, we are helping break down tradeoffs inherent in the industry.

4 . Breaking standards. Last year Juniper launched a complete reinvention of the traditional track lighting system. Having the benefit of being new to the industry, we broke from the ubiquitous form factor that was inherited from a time before the emergence of low-voltage LED technology, and we designed a system optimized for existing and future technology. Often deemed the last resort in lighting due to its generally unappealing aesthetic, we set out to introduce a product that would be purchased for its aesthetic, not despite it.

5 . Design for the future. While I can’t share too much on this topic, we feel the biggest disruption is in the reimagination of how we implement and live with lighting. Major technological movements over the past 30 years, such as the internet and the smartphone, have democratized how we communicate, interact, consume, and live by creating shared platforms that can be easily integrated and scaled. With the advent of low-voltage DC-powered lighting and peripheral devices, homes will undergo a similar transition, where mini-grids will provide endless modularity on how we illuminate spaces, listen to music, and share experiences.

Looking back at your career, in what ways has being disruptive defined or redefined your path? What surprises have you encountered along the way?

Coming from a finance background, my first instinct was to build and grow a profitable business. Business ethics have always been important to me, but I viewed business as need-driven, not belief-driven. Over the years, purpose has become the most important driver of our business. Growth at any cost is not the business model for us. I feel we have a responsibility as a company to do good on our promise of enacting positive change in the lighting industry.

Beyond professional accomplishments, how has embracing disruption affected you on a personal level?

When the primary goal is to make as much money as you can, you have a lot of options to make that happen. Purpose limits available options for success, and that can be as stressful as it is rewarding.

In your role as a C-suite leader, driving innovation and embracing disruption, what thoughts or concerns keep you awake at night? How do these reflections guide your decisions and leadership?

Self-doubt and solitude are what keep me awake at night. Being a sole business owner can be a lonely job. I am fortunate to be surrounded by an incredible team of passionate trailblazers who offer quality feedback on tactical decisions. However, when you are making controversial strategic decisions that, if wrong, can negatively affect everyone in the business, you can start doubting yourself and that can be destabilizing. I have learned to deal with it. Playing devil’s advocate with myself during my commute, for example, is one way I have learned to be more self-aware and challenge my own ideas. I have also learned to let a “great idea” sit for a few days to see if it still feels great after an incubation period. You would be surprised how many “great ideas” get thrown out this way.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I have always thought if people were randomly put in small groups where they would spend one year working together on a project, the country would be a much better place. There is so much misinformation and misunderstanding between arbitrarily defined groups of people largely hiding behind screens using aliases. Imagine if following senior year of high school, everyone served a year of community service funded by taxes and businesses, where they would be randomly selected to form diverse groups working together on building affordable housing, cleaning up beaches, and helping the elderly. This would help young people reconnect with the physical world, break prejudices, form unlikely friendships and learn new and important physical and social skills.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Website: https://juniperdesign.com/

Instagram: @juniperdesigngroup

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/company/juniper-design-group/

Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

About the Interviewer: Cynthia Corsetti is an esteemed executive coach with over two decades in corporate leadership and 11 years in executive coaching. Author of the upcoming book, “Dark Drivers,” she guides high-performing professionals and Fortune 500 firms to recognize and manage underlying influences affecting their leadership. Beyond individual coaching, Cynthia offers a 6-month executive transition program and partners with organizations to nurture the next wave of leadership excellence.