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Custom Industry Inroads

The Unique Pathways to Success Among Small-Business Owners in CI

Small companies are almost always personality-driven businesses. It’s not just the extra-personal touch that clients get when interacting with them, but their own colorful approaches and distinctive origins that form an individual brand of doing business. This is especially true in AV, an industry full of people so passionate about their work, who nevertheless often found their way in from very different backgrounds.

Koa Wagner, managing member of Blueprint Audiovisual, is an example of the magnetic pull that the industry exerts. After graduating from college in 2000, he started designing websites for small businesses in the Los Angeles area, often meeting clients through his other job as a bartender. One day, he wandered into Definition Audio Video in Redondo Beach and was awestruck. “I had never seen a store like that; coming from Hawaii I wasn’t exposed to a lot of hi-fi shops,” he said. “And I couldn’t afford anything in there.”

He promptly returned home and looked them up on the internet, and found that their site was quite outdated. So, he returned and offered to build them a website, design a logo, and create marketing materials in exchange for speakers. They agreed.

In the process of getting to know more about the company for its website, he learned about the industry–though it was mostly two-channel audio and home theaters at the time. Then, on a trip to visit his brother in Hawaii, Wagner found the Honolulu market surprisingly lacking the presence of an audio-video resource. It was a good time to make his move.

“I decided that I knew enough to start my own thing,” he said, and launched his own company in 2004. “And I took the route I think that a lot of integrators take: you get a couple of jobs, you sign up with some distribution companies, and you buy stuff from electronics stockrooms. I started in my dad’s garage and then just slowly built the business over the last 14 years.”

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The company’s biggest jump came in 2015 with the demise of Via; Wagner hired about half of the former company’s Kona location’s staff and all of its assets. He now employs 22 people, and has recently spun off a separate business, Blueprint Shading, to address the window covering market. In addition, he owns the Honolulu Bang & Olufsen store, which occupies the front of his company’s showroom space and serves as what he calls a “hood ornament” to draw people in and eventually learn about the company’s full breadth of services.

Unlike the unplanned route into the industry that many custom integrators have taken, Chad Lassig, owner of Audio Video Systems Inc. in Salt Lake City, was born into it. His father owned a company in the commercial sound, communications, and alarm industry. When he was around 13 years old, he began going to work with him and helping on jobs by hanging speakers in schools. When he got into his 20s, his interest in the residential side of AV began to grow, and he went to work for the largest residential AV integrator in the state.

After quickly working his way up the ranks at the integrator, he was eventually running his own specific division of the company. “That’s when I decided I could do it on my own–I believe I was 27 at the time,” he said. “And, I recruited a brother to leave a commercial outfit that he’d been with for a long time, and that was our humble beginning.”

The siblings ran the company by themselves for a while, building their business up until they hit what Lassig identified as a plateau in growth. He then decided to bring in the services of a business consultant (or “coach,” as Lassig called him) to prepare the firm for greater expansion.

“We had organic growth–and that wasn’t slowing down by any means–but we weren’t getting the traction that we knew we could, so by hiring an outside perspective, that really helped,” he said. “And then we formulated a plan and over the course of 12 months, we started executing on that plan, and grew quite substantially after that.”

For Lassig, the biggest impediment to expansion was loosening his control over every aspect of the business. As he put it: “The very thing that makes you successful when you’re small is the very thing that hinders you from getting larger… I had to realize that I was the bottleneck for growth.”

His plan for the company now is to double within its current market, then begin reaching outside of it–a growth plan he believes will be aided by the rapidly expanding connected home market. “Our industry is absolutely in its infancy, that’s why I think we’ll easily double,” he said.

Josh Hoover, owner of Greater Pittsburgh, PA-based Custom Connection Systems, was never an “AV geek or techie” growing up. Undecided about his future after graduating high school, he got a solid job opportunity: he had an in with a manager at the local cable company, who arranged a job interview. They hired him, trained him, and he worked as a technician for five years.

“That’s what kind of launched it,” he said. While working there, he got acquainted with infrastructure, televisions, and the like, and his interest in integration became piqued. “It was kind of nice because it got me very, very comfortable in peoples’ homes, wiring and all of that stuff, and being comfortable with clients,” he said.

He then went on to work for an integration firm, where he honed his craft until the 2009 downturn forced them to lay him off. Determined and confident in his experience, he launched his own company by himself, and got a big opportunity almost right away: a whole-floor retrofit project for a swanky, members-only club in a downtown Pittsburgh highrise. The interview was quite intimidating, Hoover recalled.

“I was there with the IT director for the building, the building supervisor. This was my first month on my own, and I was so nervous,” he said. “But I gave them a quote, and they liked me, and it was my first big job. I would go in at night after all the union guys left, and I wired it myself… That was the first big one, and it was like ‘I can’t believe I did this.’ I didn’t sleep for a month.”

Sleep isn’t much easier these days either, Hoover said. Although it’s no longer just him–at the beginning of this year, he brought on a partner from a firm that closed (and gained their clients)–he puts customer service before just about everything else in his life.

“I can’t sleep at night until every person is 100 percent satisfied,” he said. He will offer clients products at cost if it’s necessary to keep them happy, since he found that this leads to referrals. “Being a business owner in AV is a lot different than being a business owner in any other type of company because the stuff we put in lives and breathes,” he added. “You’re going to be back out there doing something no matter what.”

Unlike the rest of these integrators, Brian Atwell spent the better part of a decade in a completely different career before he ended up co-launching Innovation Home Theaters in Atlanta. He was growing disenchanted with his job as a mortgage broker, and he had a friend who was also tiring of his position on the operational side of an Atlanta integration firm. “I was trying to make a change; he was trying to make a change,” Atwell said.

So, they decided to combine their strengths to launch their own firm in 2005. Like Hoover, he didn’t have the typical enthusiasm for the technical side of the business at first. “I’m not a techy guy at all,” he said. “For me it was a business; I wanted to work for myself.” And it worked out: Atwell manages the sales and back-office operations, and his partner handles the technical aspects of the business, as well as the management of the firm’s staff and customer service calls and scheduling.

The late 2000s recession was a difficult time for Innovation Home Theaters–as it was for everyone in the business–but Atwell weathered the storm and came out the other side with his company intact.

“We were somewhat fortunate in the sense that we were somewhat young and we had not gotten real fat,” he said. “Before the recession it was a really good time to be an integrator. There weren’t as many of them in the market, and what was out there was pretty good business. And a lot of them had gotten fat. And as a result of us being young, we were lean and could run through that recession.”

Though his company’s name suggests a limited scope of work, it actually tackles “anything that falls under the low-voltage umbrella,” Atwell said. With the broad skillset required for this work, Atwell has experienced another common problem in the industry: the lack of a qualified pool of technicians. “That’s what’s really kept us from growing to levels that we need to,” he said. As a solution, he’s taken to finding “guys with good heads on their shoulders” whom they can train to be great employees.

And, like Hoover, his business’ value proposition rests on excellent customer service. “We try to give people a fair price and excellent service,” Atwell said. “We try to come across as a larger company that we really are, and people appreciate the little details.”

In many ways, small businesses are the heartbeat of America, keeping their local communities and economies sanguine with energetic initiative. For AV, they serve the additional role of providing some of the most personal connections between big manufacturers of technology and the people who use it. And by all accounts, this friendly facet of the industry is alive and well.