Michael Deo: Shining a light on relationships

His secret to a rewarding career in the outdoor lighting industry centers on education and people.

We’ve all known people who have gotten to a certain point in their lives and had the urge to make a change. For some, it’s buying the car they’ve always dreamed of, or traveling to a new destination or simply picking up a new hobby. Others find a way to reinvent themselves by making a big change and opening themselves up to brand-new experiences. Michael Deo is one in the second group, discovering his dream job in the outdoor lighting industry 15 years ago. After spending the first half of his career in the wood pallet manufacturing and recycling business, he decided that his second act was going to be much more creative.

Deo went back to school to study landscape design and set out to do landscape design/build work. He was about four to five projects into his new career when he learned about landscape lighting.

“The light bulb went off in my head and I said, ‘Hey, this is really creative.’ I loved the results. I loved the effects. And from a business perspective, there’s not nearly as much competition in lighting than there is in design/build,” says Deo.

He changed his company’s name to NatureScape Lighting.

Based in Millington, New Jersey, he owns and operates the business, primarily doing lighting designs for high-end residential projects, alongside his handful of employees.

Client relationships

The real draw to this industry for Deo is the personal connection he’s built with clients over the years.

“What we do for our clients is appreciated like nothing else I’ve ever experienced in my prior professions. That relationship that I developed with so many of my clients is just so satisfying,” he says. “The moment that I get to turn those lights on and watch the expression on the client’s face when they see it come to light, there’s nothing like the satisfaction of the unveiling.”

His approach to business is, “To spoil our clients in any and every way possible.” This isn’t always possible in the world of construction, but they try their best. Part of this is achieved by client care.

“We don’t just do a lighting installation and never return. We include three years of continuing care, where we’ll visit the client’s property twice a year for three years. And that’s included with installation. They don’t pay a dime for that,” Deo explains.

After they’ve delivered the design and installation, they go to work on the relationship. They show up to make sure that their system is working perfectly and communicate when they’ve been there and what they’ve done.

His most successful projects are the ones he’s been a part of from the early stages, when he’s able to work with the client on an accurate budget for lighting.

“The earlier the lighting designer is involved, the better the final outcome,” says Deo. “Set the client up for lighting early on, introduce them to it, plan for it, and you’ll have a much better lighting design because it was accounted for early on in the process.”

In the long run, Deo says the best clients will be the ones who are willing to pay for and see the value in a lighting design at the beginning of the project.

“It doesn’t need to be a lot of money, but if the client’s willing to write a check up front for a couple hundred dollars because they value your input as a lighting designer, you’ve begun a relationship that, as a designer or a contractor or design/build contractor, you already elevated your standing and increased the respect and therefore the potential cooperation with that client,” he explains.

Importance of education

To be successful in this industry, Deo says you need to educate yourself as a professional. While many contractors can do lighting, fewer do it well.

“One of my favorite sayings is, ‘One light under every tree is not a landscape lighting design,’” Deo says. “There’s so much more that goes into it, and you can be so creative. The way to do that is by educating yourself and pushing the boundaries and really trying to do things a little bit differently than the next guy.”

The desire to learn more about the art form is what drove him to get involved with the Association of Outdoor Lighting Professionals, based in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

His first experience with AOLP was becoming certified as a Certified Low Voltage Lighting Technician. This eventually led to participating on committees, becoming a board member and serving in his position today as the president of the board of directors.

Deo says the association’s primary driving force is education. Between certification opportunities, webinars, its annual conference, the networking and overall camaraderie, he says the value that’s offered by being a part of AOLP is tremendous.

The Timber Frame Pool House

Michael Deo
(Photo: Jeff Goldberg / Esto)

The Timber Frame Pool House is a project Michael Deo, president and owner of NatureScape Lighting, was involved with from the very beginning of construction. He designed extensive lighting throughout the 5-acre property, including the landscape lighting that surrounds the pool and pool house, as well as the interior lighting of the pool house. Every fixture in the pool house is outdoor rated since it’s all exposed to the elements. This project required Deo to learn more about interior lighting so that the effects and the drama of the lighting truly flow from the interior to the exterior spaces.

A social network

Deo’s industry involvement doesn’t stop at AOLP, as he is a member of many other industry organizations. This fulfills not only the education factor he looks for, but it helps him meet and develop relationships with other professionals in the industry.

“The vast majority of our projects come to us by referral from other professionals. So whether it be a landscape designer, landscape architect or other affiliated associated professionals, many in my network have come to me through my association with the Association of Professional Landscape Designers,” he explains.

His involvement with APLD’s New Jersey chapter satisfies his self-proclaimed “plant geek” interests, and it’s helped him tremendously in building a professional network.

One of the most rewarding and unique experiences of his career has been his involvement with the Mansion in May designer show house that’s organized by the Women’s Association of Morristown Medical Center. This fundraising event that takes place every other year brings together interior designers and landscape professionals to beautify a mansion that opens to the public during the month of May to raise funds for different causes at the hospital.

Deo started volunteering with the event in 2006, initially participating as a way to get NatureScape’s name out in the local community. But what he found was the people involved were genuinely interested in doing something good and having fun while doing it.

“To see 25 or 30 interior designers each working on their own space and a dozen landscapers working on the design and building out a beautiful garden, and just this whole spirit of camaraderie was fantastic,” he says.

Over the years of being part of the event, he’s met landscape architects and even added clients who he’s met at the mansion. While it’s been a great public relations event for NatureScape, Deo says it takes years to get your name out there. When participating in these types of opportunities, he suggests viewing them as philanthropic endeavors, rather than marketing opportunities. That way, any positive business outcomes that result are a pleasant surprise.

A detail-driven patio

Michael Deo
(Photo: Michael Deo)

Michael Deo, president and owner of NatureScape Lighting, began working with a client who wanted to replace his wood deck with a stone patio. Because Deo referred the landscape designer and contractor for the job, he was able to have a lot of freedom with the lighting design. The beauty is in the details on this project, as he was able to implement lighting in areas including the patio steps and in the arbor above the outdoor kitchen. Deo says this project was a creative success because he was able to work on the design alongside the other professionals from day one.

The value of connections

Developing a professional network early in your career is invaluable for lighting designers, says Deo. He credits this as the reason he doesn’t need to compete for retail leads, when a contractor needs a lighting designer, and he’s up against several others for the job.

“From the very beginning I decided to direct my marketing effort and dollars toward the professionals as opposed to retail direct-to-consumer type campaigning,” Deo explains. “I can’t stress enough the value of developing a professional network early. Make it a habit. Make it a good habit before you need to break a bad habit.”

If you make a dozen professional connects, and each one of them gives you one project in a year, anything on top of that’s gravy, Deo says. Instead of relying on one architect to give you five projects, he recommends expanding your professional network, so you only need one good project from a handful of connections.

“Landscape architects, landscape designers, general contractors, landscape design/build companies, so few of these other allied professionals have the time to educate themselves on the finer points of lighting,” he says. “Somebody who chooses to pursue outdoor lighting as their niche will be so far advanced and be able to be such a valuable resource to these other professionals that they become indispensable.”

When looking to the future of NatureScape, Deo says his focus is, “more about people. It’s more about the collaborative effort of designing with clients and the collaborative relationship with other allied professionals. It’s bringing on employees who will become junior designers that I can help to grow them into being able to put together a lighting design that will still be identifiable as a NatureScape project.”

This increase in the quality of design is what Deo believes will benefit the industry as people begin to see what the lighting industry, and the green industry in general, does to improve the lives of people and outdoor living spaces.

“It takes an artist to do lighting well, and it takes an incredible amount of caring and attention to detail to make it last,” says Deo. “When lighting is not viewed as a commodity and an unskilled trade, and people in general are more appreciative of the design and the thought process that goes behind a really good lighting project, I think that’s what’s going to move the industry forward.”

This column originally appeared in Irrigation & Green Industry magazine.
Sarah Bunyea is digital content editor of Irrigation & Green Industry.

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