Shooting Stars

A college project, a friend with a problem, and a creative mind helped Jim Clark launch LPA Design and PocketWizard in 1990. Tim Neiley joined him a few years later.

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

lpa_lead_DSC1044cIn 1990, Jim Clark and a couple of his lab partners at UVM’s College of Engineering, incorporated Lab Partners Associates as a vehicle to sell a device called a Lab Partner he’d created as a lab project. The company, which evolved over the years as LPA Design, now focuses almost exclusively on the PocketWizard, a high-precision wireless control system for professional photographers. Tim Neiley, the president, joined the firm in 1999.

“Did you ever see pictures of a basketball game, viewed from what looks like the ceiling down onto the court? The photographer was sitting on the court taking pictures, and on his camera he had a PocketWizard that was remotely triggering lights on the ceiling, and probably triggering six to seven other cameras.” That’s Dave Schmidt speaking.

Schmidt is vice president of sales and marketing for LPA Design, the South Burlington company that makes the high-precision, wireless control system for professional photographers called the PocketWizard.

PocketWizard is “the de facto standard within the professional photography community,” Schmidt continues, and mentions the many high-profile customers who use it. “Sports Illustrated is a very good customer,” he says.

“Our high-end radios operate on 32 different channels, so you can have 32 people side-by-side, each with a separate channel so they can trigger independently. “We go to the Olympics now, and that’s become very challenging because they’re all trying to take pictures at the same second.”

From celebrity experts from Annie Leibovitz or Joe McNally to everyday wedding specialists; from Vanity Fair to the Burlington Free Press to Brad Pettengill, the Business People–Vermont photographer who took the pictures for this article — the PocketWizard makes work easier. Things are going so well the company has just moved into 10,000-square-foot quarters at 21 Gregory Drive.

What makes the story particularly fun is that this is a purely home-grown product — born out of necessity and crafted by an enterprising engineer named Jim Clark, vice president of research and development, one of the company’s founders.

Clark grew up in Charlotte, went to Champlain Valley Union High School, and, he says, was in his sophomore or junior year studying engineering at the University of Vermont when his first opportunity arose.

“I was working on a lab project and needed to come up with a product or project of my own,” says Clark. “I made a device called a Lab Partner — a little plug-in card for a computer that would make it easy for electrical engineers or engineering students to run lab tests. One of my professors was very curious and interested in it as potentially being sellable beyond just a school project.”

Clark thought this might work, and he approached a couple of friends — his lab partners, actually — to help him obtain the materials they would need to create a business selling the device. In 1990, they incorporated as Lab Partner Associates, which was later shortened to LPA Design.

Initially, the company did engineering consulting work developing products such as remote sensors and controls for a variety of industries — for example, bridge stress monitors, impact sensors for running shoes and football helmets, and special-effects camera systems.

Many of the projects came from UVM professors, who took on consulting jobs in the summer but would be pressed for time to finish when school started up. “We got a lot of work passed on to us this way,” Clark says.

Sometime in the year following incorporation, Clark ran into Matthew Bean, a good friend from high school. “Matt was working as a lighting assistant for a professional photographer,” he says. “He started telling me comical stories about the difficulty of some photo shoots they had recently done. They were trying to photograph buildings from across the road, but they needed to have flash and lighting equipment much closer to the building and had trouble with wires and cables running across a busy road.”

Clark created a solution to his friend’s dilemma — a wireless control — and was inspired with the idea of a prototype of a product that would allow wireless control of the cameras and lights at a high level of reliability unavailable at the time. “Eventually, a few years later, we got a little bit of funding to get the idea off the ground,” he says.

Putting together the financing created a real turning point for the company. Until 1993, the money wasn’t available to make it a finished product, says Clark. “I went to Stephen Cohen, the father of a friend of mine, who was an investor in other areas of the community. He spent an evening chatting with me about the ideas — he had a love of photography himself — and made a round of phone calls that evening.

“He spent five to 10 minutes at a pop talking to friends in the business community, and they all wanted to hear more. They all took a chance, and it’s turned out pretty well for them.” Sadly, Clark adds, Stephen Cohen died at the end of September this year.

At the time of financing, LPA Design consisted of only Clark and two business partners — Steve Padnos and Scott Hamilton — and a couple of part-timers. Once the financing came in they began to move forward. Unfortunately, he says, the product they introduced was “overkill.”

“What we brought out — called the FlashWizard — got us a lot of attention in very selective, narrow areas such as sports, but no real recognition from mainstream photography.”

The product was big and bulky, he says, and people they encountered at trade shows expressed a need for something small enough to fit in their pockets. The PocketWizard was born.

Things began to look up, but as often happens with startups, by 1999 growth had created its own set of problems. “I really like doing the design work, spending time in front of test equipment; solving problems,” says Clark.

“As any business grows, you get to the point where an awful lot of outside interaction — vendors, suppliers, deal-making, deal-breaking — is happening. I didn’t like that side of it much. So for me, it was a fairly easy sell to find someone else to perform the primary business interactions and let me get back to the design work.”

Enter Tim Neiley. A native of Iowa, Neiley studied English at Dartmouth — “the best school I got into,” he says with a laugh. Between his sophomore and junior years, he saw four years’ active duty with the Coast Guard. He graduated from Dartmouth in 1972.

After graduation, he returned to the Midwest and joined Sears Manufacturing Co., a maker of farm implement components. “We had a factory in Iowa and one in South Wales, U.K., where I spent 12 years, and then moved to the leading manufacturer of office furniture, HON Industries.” Along the way, he met and married Ellen O’Brien and they had three children.

Ellen had attended Colby College in Maine, and Neiley had a sister in the Burlington area, so they were familiar with New England, having traveled to Shelburne for Christmas celebrations.

Neiley began traveling between the Midwest and Vermont, seeking an opportunity with a technical company here. “I was going back and forth looking for a fit; I recognized that to find one, you really had to spend time here.”

LPA had just begun to commercialize the PocketWizard photography products, he says. He was interviewed by the chairman, who at the time was Steve Cohen. Neiley was hired and moved his family to Vermont.

“When I joined the company,” he says, “it was a relatively new product category, but over the past decade, we have seen countless competitors emerge. One of the most significant challenges we’ve had has been staying ahead of the pack.”

Neiley speaks with pride of the joy of being part of the growth of LPA. “When I joined we had 11 employees,” he says. “We’re now up to 25. We’ve grown the business tenfold in 10 years and have established distribution of our products around the world.”

Tim established a U.S. distribution partnership with MAC Group, a leading photography equipment distributor based in New York, and led the process of moving into international markets. The move was accelerated when LPA began working with Lorenzo Gasperini, an international sales and marketing consultant, professional photographer, and longtime user of PocketWizard products.

Shortly thereafter, in 2008, LPA hired Schmidt as vice president of sales and marketing to further strengthen its domestic and international exposure.

Schmidt’s background included experience in photography for the Hamptons magazine and United Press International. “My nickel story is that I started way, way back working as a photographer,” says the Latham, N.Y., native, adding quickly, “but also, to make a living, in a ski shop. I took a job with a small snowboard company based in Vermont and spent 17 years developing the sales and distribution for Burton, walking away from photography for a time.”

He left Burton in 2003, worked with a couple of start-up companies, one of which dealt with the venture capitalists at FreshTracks. “Lee Bouyea of FreshTracks called me and said, ‘Have you ever heard about this thing called PocketWizard?’

“I said, ‘Yeah, I bought their competitor last night, because I couldn’t afford the PocketWizard.’ He said, ‘Why don’t you call Tim Neiley and talk to them, because they want to develop their marketing interests.’”

Schmidt’s first project was spearheading development of a new website, www.pocketwizard.com, dedicated to the product. “I can make your head spin with the true capabilities of this project, because we’re just scratching the surface. I’ve only been here two and a half years and I’ve seen the size of the company double in that time in terms of people on staff, along with strong sales growth,” he says.

“We’ve had a really low profile locally,” he continues, “and it all comes full circle when the photographer Business People sends to us has five of our products in his bag — and he’s a local photographer!” •