Are You Old Enough to Run a Custom Install Business?

Oct 24

Written by: Todd Anthony Puma
10/24/2012 4:36 PM  RssIcon


Just the other day, one of my employees, Jason, was telling me a story. He and I had been working on a job together a few weeks back, and I had to step out of the house for a moment. According to Jason, our client came in and asked where the “little white guy” was. Jason said he was taken aback, but told him that I was his boss.

Jason said that this isn’t the first time he’s encountered a shocked client upon finding out that a 31 year old (who probably looks more like 25, wearing a T-shirt and jeans) is the owner of The Source Home Theater.

When the client and I had discussed his job over the phone and email, he didn’t question for a second that I had the capabilities and expertise to be the owner of the company, then very confidently put his trust in me for his home theater system. When he saw me in person, however, he couldn’t believe that I was the same person he’d spoken to earlier.

It isn’t just in the AV world either. My wife has the same difficulties. She is 30 years old but she looks to be in her late teens or early 20s. She used to be the general manager of a retail store, and when customers asked to speak to the manager, they were in shock when she would be the one that approached them.

It’s funny how we profile what we expect people to look like without even knowing we are doing it. Even in our industry where appearance is meaningless, customers still have expectations of what they believe you should look like. When people like me—baby faced, younger than expected, and wearing Converse sneakers—show up at their door, they think, “Who’s this guy and what does he know?”

I often feel that I have to overcompensate for my age/appearance by demonstrated my knowledge of the business. I know that I’m younger than a lot of other installers, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t have just as much experience in the field. I love this industry and have had my hand in it, in some way or another, for years even before I started The Source.

But I use this hesitation about my age to my advantage. It helps me strive to better myself and my business sense. When the customer feels uncertain about my age, I make sure I execute a flawless system in their home, so they never think twice about my age affecting my abilities again.

We all work so hard to build our credibility with the client and within the industry. When you have passion for the business, it doesn’t matter if you’re 21 or 41 because you know what you are doing, and it hurts your confidence and your ego when that ability is questioned.

Most of us are in the position we’re in through our passion and hard work. You’ve earned your seat in the installer ranks and deserve every client relationship that you build. Let them be shocked when you walk through the door… not because you don’t look like what they expected, but because you knocked ’em dead with your stellar AV skills.
 

+Todd Anthony Puma is president of The Source Home Theater Installation in New York City. 

 
 
 
 

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10 comment(s) so far...


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Re: Are You Old Enough to Run a Custom Install Business?

I have tweeted about this column but can't get it out of my head.

I really hate to use you as an example- by the very nature of you writing a blog for this magazine you must have some qualifications- but there is no other place for me to vent my frustrations at the EXACT issues you raise. So here we go.

You know what? You DON'T have the same experience as many older business owners in our industry. By the very nature of you calling other owners 'Installers' you prove that. Running a successful and profitable business is very different from installing AV systems.

I am glad for your assumed and implied success- it might help us to better understand your actual success if you posted specifics like: average job size, company revenue, number of employees, years in business and stuff like that. Then we could better understand where you are coming from.

But as I alluded to in my twitter feed, out industry has a serious dearth of qualified business owners with real business experience. It hurts me to say it but the truth hurts.

There is only one way to get business experience and one way to be professional. The bottom line is that if you dress like a punk kid and wear t-shirts, converse sneakers and jeans people will question your ability to do the work. It may be fine to dress like that if you are selling and installing surround sound systems and plasma tv hangs i would argue to the contrary). But if you are selling and installing integrated systems to wealthy individuals, that look and appearance and attitude won't get you far. You want to be perceived as a professional, then dress, act and run your business like one. And to promote otherwise on a public blog in an industry magazine is doing a disservice to the readers and our industry as a whole.

Best of luck.

EJ

By EJ Feulner on   10/25/2012 10:23 AM
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Re: Are You Old Enough to Run a Custom Install Business?

Two points, look at how many CEOs/Owners of startups are under 30. Look at one of the richest men in America, he is under 30. Point is, age is not the number one factor. Even the most seasoned of business men make mistakes so making them early and learning from them is a great thing. Customer service is customer service as is professionalism, these are not necessarily traits that improve with age. One other point on attire and presentation - this depends a lot on your market and your clientele. Some clients in NYC, Boston Seattle or California may appreciate a young tech whiz kid who dresses the part. Just because you're not selling in a suit doesn't mean you can't appeal to a suit. It could actually help with differentiation!

All that being said, I completely agree with EJ. There are not enough true business owners and professionals in our industry and too many "owners" fly by night and shoot from the hip. There's plenty of room for improvement.

By Active Participant on   10/25/2012 11:08 AM
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Re: Are You Old Enough to Run a Custom Install Business?

@EJ while I understand your frustration in seeing 'young punks' in the industry, I can assure you Todd is the utmost professional and he runs a successful and profitable business. After almost 20 years in corporate America (in strategic consulting, retail marketing and A/V distribution) and with an an MBA from a top 10 BusinessWeek ranked institution, I like to believe i can speak intelligently about the business side of A/V. I have decided to do what I love and have started my own integration business. Fortunately i have met and continue to work with Todd through the Home Theater Rebuild and can attest to his business skills. He interacts with all of his clients, employees, vendors and other integrators professionally and knowledgeably. And he has the balance sheet and income statement to show he knows how to run a business.

His 'uniform' may be a bit on the casual side, but that is true across corporate America. Many companies have gone to a casual or business dress code. I have worked in several companies where jeans a polo were perfectly acceptable and the CEO of a $1 billion company still listened to me and took my advice - because I knew what I was talking about. As my mother always said - never judge a book by its cover. Todd projecting a young, tech-savvy, energetic and responsive image, much asset Zuckerberg tries to do with his 'dress code'. I do have to say that when a team shows up from the Source, all dressed in the same jeans, matching converse, and identical t-shirts, it projects a very put-together image.

I realize how vehemently I'm defending Todd, but that is because I know him personally and professionally and have seen him interact with his clients and with my clients - in fact he has helped save some sales for me because I came off as too buttoned up and stuffy and when he talked to my clients he was more genuine. I've seen him not only close deals worth north of $100,000 with wall street executives, but build such a trusting relationship with them that they have him come in and do the commercial work in their office as well.

Many clients, in my experience, want some who looks like they live and breathe A/V, but in a put together way.

By Mark Feinberg on   10/25/2012 11:24 AM
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Re: Are You Old Enough to Run a Custom Install Business?

I KNEW that any responses would include Zuckerberg as the defense for looking like a slob. Give me a freakin break. Mark Zuckerberg can dress, act, look and talk like a slob all the way to the bank. There are no Zuckerbergs in the AV industry. Sorry guys, there aren't. And since we're not doing anything disruptive, there won't be.

To 'Active Participant': you're two paragraphs are polar opposites- you can't have it both ways. I appreciate you supporting my position in the second paragraph, but I obviously don't agree with your first paragraph. A 'whiz kid' can dress professionally and appropriately and not wear jeans, t-shirt and sneakers.

To Mark Feinberg: unfortunately a total dope, high school drop out, wire monkey didn't write the column, Todd Puma did. My comments were not directed at Todd Puma directly, but rather at the rampant unprofessionalism of a HUGE number of 'installers' that happen to be young, dress poorly, are not college educated (for the most part) and lack business acumen or experience. This group of 'owners' is collectively bringing down the perceived professionalism of our industry. I am sure that Todd Puma is as you described and not at all as I describe. I am also sure that the architects I partner with would not have second meetings with anyone dressed as described in this thread. It would reflect badly on them to have their appointed AV Professional sitting at the table with their clients were he to be wearing a t shirt and jeans. Again, sorry but the truth hurts. I assure you he would be the ONLY person at the table dressed as such.

Anyone who knows me in person or online knows that this is a crusade I have been on for years. As a collective industry, we want to be taken seriously and treated as professionals- like other people in other industries are. The list of reasons why we are not is much longer than the reasons discussed in this thread, but you have to start somewhere, right?

Lets not get bogged down on the dressing issue. My biggest issue is lack of 'real' business experience. And lack of business training and education. We all know you can start CI company, buy stuff at AVAD if you can fog a mirror, screw up some jobs then disappear or go under- leaving a messy wake behind you. I feel that the days of this scenario are almost gone due to the economy of the past 4 years- there just aren't any mirror foggers left anymore- that is a great thing.

But its not easy to run a successful, profitable, professional business of any type. And its even harder if you don't have any experience doing it. And its even harder to do it in our industry where unfortunately the very nature of our client relations is adversarial because the AV guy can't be trusted.

So as I say and teach at CEDIA and elsewhere- go get business experience, learn how business works and then come back when you're ready to really run a company, not just do a hobby and hope to get paid.

Thank you.

EJ

By EJ Feulner on   10/25/2012 7:37 PM
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Re: Are You Old Enough to Run a Custom Install Business?

LOL punk Kids in the industry LOL.....

Heres the thing, in my neck of the woods theres a lot of "OLD TIMERS" that claim to have years of experience and a lot of them worked for one of the Classic big custom companies that ware here from the 70's. When that company went bankjrupt and closed the doors all those Installers pretty much started their own companies with their "years of experience" They may be older then 30 a lot of these guys and they may have been been "in" the industrry for a long tiem but I gotta tell you most of these so called custom installers dont know what the hell they are doing.

So if your goign to boast about how many years of experience you have te only way to proove it is with the kind of work you do and your customer service. I can say I have 24+ years of experience and have been in bussines for 12 years and sleep very good at night knowing im not blowing smoke.

A lot of so called CI's want to rant and rave about how many yeras they have been doing this but one look at their work and reputaion will tell the whole story. I know a guy in business for 15 years thats never had a repeat customer and complains about this industry all the time. He likes to say hes this and that but honestly hes no more then hobbiest who thinks he has a company. He is in his 40's.

With the way things are today you need to be at the top of your game becauses people are not going to deal with punks and people that are going to B.S there way through a job.

Experience and good work speaks for it self plain and simple. You cant fake really knowing what your doing.

Yes I agree you need to look and act professional to be one of this industries professionals. I see a lot of clowns comming and going at my local rep firms and I wounder what kind of clients they would have, then I relise they have the clients I dont want.....LOL

By Victor Ciccarone on   10/25/2012 10:12 PM
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Re: Are You Old Enough to Run a Custom Install Business?

Do you use Dropbox? Instagram? Tubler? Redit? All founded by kids under 25.

www.businessinsider.com/25-under-25-tech-founders-silicon-valley-2011-10?op=1

My only real point is that age should not be the topic of the discussion. Intelligence, customer service, business skills and maturity should be.

By Active Participant on   10/26/2012 1:11 PM
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Re: Are You Old Enough to Run a Custom Install Business?

Quote:

>>>>

Totally irrelevant for this conversation. As I said above, we are not inventing disruptive technologies or building software giants. Your point literally has nothing to do with our conversation.

We are selling products and services, usually to wealthy individuals for their families. in order to be successful at that, you need to look, act, dress, work and insure your projects are professionally done.

I'm not inventing this concept. There are 50+ good books that teach you how to sell to the wealthy. There is an industry that studies, reports on and advises companies that cater to the wealthy. They all say the same things and support the points I am making.

As i said at the top, it would be helpful for the original author to explain what his market is, and the size of his projects. Selling $10k systems in Iowa (no offense Iowa) is very different than selling $1m systems in NYC.

Victor Ciccarone: I agree with your points that age in and of itself should not be the defining argument. Yes, there are many unqualified punk kids trying to run install companies, just as there are unqualified old guys doing the same.

But the breadth of my comments simply can't cover every case of every age group or example. There will always be shit work done in our industry by hack dealers of all ages. I am simply addressing the professionalism of many of the young people starting and running install businesses. Of course as you put it, many come from Tweeter, CC, 6th Ave and many other companies that have gone out of business in the past 5 years. And to be honest, I have seen many of the companies started by these young installers also go out of business.

I applaud anyone willing to take the risk and start or run an install business in our industry. Its freakin' hard to do right, hard to make money, and hard to stay in business. I just wish there was some barrier to entry so that people would be forced to get experience before doing so. That is the crux of my point.

Thank you.

EJ

By EJ Feulner on   10/27/2012 7:11 AM
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Re: Are You Old Enough to Run a Custom Install Business?

Quote:

>>>>

I missed this point in your post. I guess I would take it more seriously if you actually posted your name.

I agree that age in and of itself should not be a defining characteristic. There are many successful young people in the world.

But when you combine age and professionalism together - based purely on my empirical evidence of my experience in this industry - you find that the two are seriously lacking when dealing with younger people in our industry. And that is the crux of the matter to me.

The original article here hit a nerve with me obviously as I still discussing it.

My points would all be the same but I would not be discussing the ago part as much if the original article was about a 45 year old business owner who dressed like a punk kid. But its not. Its about a 'kid' who owns and runs an install company and who in my opinion does not dress appropriately.

In the very article he asks the following:

>>>>

Why not show up looking like a professional business owner that has a good and service you'd like to sell to the potential client opening the door? Old or young, if you dress like a hobo you will be perceived as a hobo.

Finally, the original author writes this in the same paragraph:

>>

Are you freakin' kidding me? This is the crux of the matter. He believes appearances don't matter, dresses like a punk kid and then wonders why he's not taken seriously. I have to laugh about the idiocy of this. I think its pretty obvious why he's not taken seriously. And I wouldn't take him seriously either. I don't care how good his work is or his portfolio of jobs or anything else.

You only have one chance to make a first impression. Why not make it as professional as possible?

By EJ Feulner on   10/27/2012 7:27 AM
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Re: Are You Old Enough to Run a Custom Install Business?

Apologies for my quotes not showing up correctly. Sucks that I can't edit my posts accordingly. Hopefully you know what I was referencing.

By EJ Feulner on   10/29/2012 3:20 PM
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Re: Are You Old Enough to Run a Custom Install Business?

I think there are a lot of valid points here and also a lot of mis-communication.

Here's the crux of what I see from the comments:

1) You should dress to earn the respect and business that you want to have.

2) It can be difficult for a young person in this industry to be taken seriously.

3) Dressing poorly can exacerbate point #2.

This is an industry that requires wearing many different hats and often different wardrobes. For instance, I will dress one way when I'm spending the day in my shop working on paperwork/billing/etc. Another when I'm going to meet a client for a proposal. And a third when I'm going out to do an installation.

As a "hands-on" partner, sometimes you're required to go into the field, and I doubt anyone would expect you to show up at a prewire or attic retro wearing a button down shirt and tie. Jeans and workshirt are certainly "the uniform" for many installers who do hard and often dirty work.

The time to "make an impression" is on the initial meeting, and I imagine (or would expect) that Todd (the author) probably doesn't conduct client meetings in jeans and t-shirt. If this was his first physical encounter with the client, he should have taken the initiative to walk up and introduce himself.

As someone who started in a different industry -- I was a golf professional -- at a young age (22), I can definitely relate to the fact that it can be difficult for a younger person to be accepted and taken seriously. It's up to each of us to earn the respect for ourselves. And -- like it or not -- a large part of that comes from initial impressions taken from our appearance.

John

By John Sciacca on   11/1/2012 5:25 PM

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