Lessons Learned by the Rising Stars of Custom Integration

No disrespect to veteran integrators that win CEDIA awards and avail themselves to the trade media, but some of the best custom integration companies in the channel quietly go about their work without much fanfare.
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Industry veteran Eddie Shapiro, owner of SmartTouch USA, in Bethesda, MD, said that managing the process from the moment you meet the client for the first time until final system delivery by far outweighs what kind of speakers, amps, and other gadgets are installed. No disrespect to veteran integrators that win CEDIA awards and avail themselves to the trade media, but some of the best custom integration companies in the channel quietly go about their work without much fanfare. Figuring these companies needed a little extra prodding to share their stories, Residential Systems reached out to a handful of top manufacturers to learn about some of their newer super-star dealers or companies that might have flown under the radar until now.

Our search resulted in a range of personalities, both younger and older. There’s Corey Shutter who, at age 27, is already a 10-year veteran of the channel. And, there’s Eddie Shapiro, who joined the industry 30 years ago at the age of 18, yet still maintains a fresh outlook on how to achieve success in the CI business.

Space does not permit full profiles of these noteworthy company owners, so we’ve decided to focus on key business lessons they’ve learned over the years, how they’re dealing with the constantly shifting technology landscape, and what types of services are driving their business.

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Corey Shutter founded his company, Hot Wired Audio Video Inc. in Denver, NC, seven years ago after having learned “what custom integration homes should not look like.”

At a very young age, Denver, NC’s Corey Shutter was involved in installing nautical sound systems for his parents’ boat-selling business. That led to his award-winning car audio installation work and a post-high school graduation job pulling wire for a local integration company.

“They hired me initially to pull wire and anticipated two years of training before I’d be able to install or build racks,” Shutter recalled. “I impressed them by designing and building racks two weeks after beginning my career.”

Shutter founded his own company, Hot Wired Audio Video Inc., seven years ago after having learned “what custom integration homes should not look like.” Lighting control is now one of his favorite product categories, and he said that his design and troubleshooting abilities, along with “a bit of OCD in organization and neatness in homes,” have helped him build a credible reputation with clients and vendor partners.

Shutter acknowledged the challenges of keeping up with ever-changing technology, especially as more app-based solutions and DIY home control products enter the consumer market. But, he said, integrators must adapt to these changes by becoming more service-driven.

“People are acclimated to technology more than in the past, and now we must help them prioritize and control it to fit their daily lifestyles,” he said. “Big box stores can sell technology, but they cannot offer individualized service and truly build a one-to-one relationship with customers. That relationship helps customers build a dream home, and the integration then becomes a truly customized experience.”

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Nyal Mellor, owner of Acoustic Frontiers in Fairfax, CA, focuses his business on design and calibration services. Here is his showroom theater.

To remain a must-have service for consumers, Shutter believes that the integrated home needs to be viewed by clients as an extension of their day-today living. This includes studying the interaction of an individual with his or her home and developing a system that makes this interaction more efficient and “smart,” he said.

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“What people seek most in life right now is more time and flexibility to engage in leisure activities of their choosing,” Shutter noted. “If you can create extra time by managing the technology that we are accustomed to now, then integration becomes a viable need to people. When technology doesn’t work correctly or is hard to understand or control, it is frustrating.”

The Unsung Veteran

Eddie Shapiro’s team at SmartTouch USA, in Bethesda, MD, caters to high net worth clients with a full array of services. But, he said, the most important part of this business has absolutely nothing to do with AV equipment.

“Managing the process from the moment you meet the client for the first time until final system delivery by far outweighs what kind of speakers, amps, and other gadgets are installed,” he said. “Delivering the best possible client experience rules the day.”

In an increasingly competitive consumer technology market, Shapiro said that his company works hard to add extra value and services that “today’s smartphones and the internet of things can’t bring to the home.”

Most residential clients, he contends, understand that they want reliable technology, but they don’t understand how to implement these technologies. He and his team are “Apple fanatics,” which he said has worked well for his company.

“We understand the Apple technology model, and this resonates with our clients,” he said. “Apple iPhones and iPads have helped shape today’s technology, and this means that clients with great homes that want and can afford great technology, are now comfortable with the user interface because they use it every day when they make a call or read or consume content on their iPads or other tablets.”

On the other hand, Shapiro said, many homeowners see technology and its implementation by the CI trade as too complex.

“If we are going to succeed as an industry and have a greater impact, we collectively (CI companies and manufacturers) have to make technology easier for the buying public,” he noted.

A Need to Innovate

Originally from England, Nyal Mellor moved to Northern California in 2008 to chase his dreams of high-end audio, home theaters, mountain biking, and snowboarding. He was educated at Oxford University and holds relevant industry certifications from the Home Acoustics Alliance and Imaging Sciences Foundation. The owner of Acoustic Frontiers, in Fairfax, CA, said that his company’s main client base consists of educated enthusiasts in the “do it yourself” crowd.

“If you are a DIYer, you can buy your equipment anywhere. So how do you appeal to this customer? For us it has been through design and calibration services,” he said. “Many enthusiasts can get quite far by themselves, but the dedication and knowledge required to create true high performance spaces is not something you can pick up as a hobbyist. It requires training (from ISF, CEDIA, HAA), perseverance (to figure out the things that do not have training courses) and some expensive and complex software/ equipment. We’ve found that once we have proven ourselves in the design phase, many customers then contract with us for equipment provision, installation, and calibration.”

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The four business partners that run Design Entertainment in Toledo, OH, have a combined 50 years of experience in the business. Pictured (l-r), Dean Rossman, Tyler Schifferly, Ben Remer, and Jason Hatzidakis credit their success with giving customers what they ask for, like this theater. As the market changes, Mellor’s focus will remain on “the things the consumer cannot normally do themselves” or cannot readily buy off the shelf.

“You can’t go online and buy a high-performance audio/video system; it has to be designed/ engineered, installed and calibrated,” he said. “I believe it will always be that way.”

Before CI, Derek Goldstein worked in the web development world, consulting on his own from 1996-2002, then he took a government-contracting job where he worked with a web development

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team and advised on projects. Always an entrepreneur, he and his current business partner at Casaplex in Kensington, MD, started in the integration business by wiring buildings at night after finishing their fulltime jobs during the day. They were drawn to CI by the “creative aspects” of the business and because they were able to program “real-world systems in the physical environment” instead of a “virtual environment inside a computer or for consumption on the web.”

Driving their current business, Goldstein said, are brands that allow his company to innovate. “Simply selling the next amplifier or processor doesn’t do it for us,” he stated. “We need products that allow us to create our own brand and unique offerings.”

To remain viable in a changing market, Goldstein believes that integrators must remain focused on the customer experience. “Customer experience and relationships are what will drive everything,” he said. “Custom integration is easy to explain, but once the lower cost systems become easier to use and more feature packaged than ‘custom integrated’ systems, only customer relationships will keep them coming back.”

Where the “Do-It-Yourself” Mentality Ends

Ryan Shelton, owner of Twisted Pair Media, in Nashville, TN, was intrigued by technology from an early age. The 28-year-old started his business with his best friend while still in college. A local automation company hired them as contract labor until they were able to make it out on their own. In the past few years, as the iPhone and iPad revolution has taken hold, the challenge, Shelton said, is educating the customer on where the “do-it- yourself” mentality ends and where a custom integrator needs to become involved.

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Ryan Shelton, owner of Twisted Pair Media, in Nashville, TN, was intrigued by technology from an early age. The 28-year-old started his business with his best friend while still in college. “It is sometimes a challenge to explain to a potential customer that just because their iPhone or iPad was a couple hundred dollars, that does not mean that controlling their home from such a device is only a couple hundred dollars,” he said.

Despite these challenges, Shelton feel there will always be a niche for high-end specialty integration. “Most of our clients are considered experts in their fields, and they are willing to pay for expertise in other areas,” he said. “We think that there will always be a market for a customer service-oriented businesses that cater to the high-end client (in any area). Most of our projects range from $20,000- $300,000. On projects this large, customers just want to know that they are taken care of and that they can trust us with even the smallest facets of the project.”

In that same vein, Shelton said his company wants to ensure that its customers are not hurt by bleeding-edge technology that is installed before being fully tested.

“We will use our own homes as a test scenario to see if a product or technology is ready for installation in a client’s home,” he said. “Many times we have to wait for a couple of software/ firmware revisions before we would expose our clients to something. We try to be very aware of products or technologies that are lasting solutions versus those that are trends. We never want our customers to feel like they were the test market for something that we wanted to try. We are also quick to tell customers when a solution isn’t ready or isn’t worth the money. They always appreciate our honesty and suggestions. We want to be viewed more in the consultant role rather than as someone trying to push a product on them.”

Steve Richardson, owner of Aura Acoustics, in the New Orleans area, took a circuitous career path to the CI channel, including jobs at Service Merchandise, Best Buy, and in the commercial diving industry. He started his own integration company in late 2010.

Richardson said that his clients will often call and ask him about a product that they are interested in before they buy it. His company will research the product and see if will work for his clients’ needs as a long-term solution.

“I think by the consumers having access to some products that they thought were only the domain of CI increases awareness of what we do and how we can truly help them automate their home,” he said. “Something that we have done since I started in 2010 is inform a client about everything we can do. So if later on they decide that they want to add house audio or lighting control, we have let them know that we are capable of fulfilling their expectations.”

Ryan Miller (age 40) and Shawn Bookter (age 38) are co-owners of RefinedSystems in Spring, TX. They formed the company in March of 2010 after working together for another Houston-area integrator. Miller specializes in operations and technology and Bookter’s focus is on sales and design. Like most integration firms, RefinedSystems sells complete systems, primarily for new construction. Therefore, the evolving market for DIY app-based systems has not year proven to be a threat.

“Most of our clientele are depending on and trusting us to provide a complete, whole-house integrated system,” Bookter said. “Very seldom do I have to address the functionality of Samsung Smart TVs, for example. Focusing on a niche market and offering exclusive, high-end products has helped us basically side-step any product that we consider to be ‘not custom.’ We have been very successful in focusing on a small, specialized product line.”

The four business partners that run Design Entertainment in Toledo, OH, have a combined 50 years of experience in the business. Ben Remer, Tyler Schifferly, Jason Hatzidakis, and Dean Rossman all met while working for other local AV dealers in the area and now believe that they have brought the best of the best together for the ultimate team. Their secret, Remer said, is to just give the customer exactly what they want.

“We have been incredibly successful due to the fact that we don’t have high-pressure sales or try to steer the client into a direction they never wanted to go,” he said. “If you listen, they will tell you exactly what they want and what their budget is. This makes it very easy to please the customer and provide a system they enjoy, thus providing tons of referral business.”

For the customer that thinks they can go it alone, Remer and his co-owners have a favorite motto, “Do what you do best and hire an expert for the rest.” Yes, he said, “you can buy smart devices at the big box stores now, but who wants 20 different apps on their phone to control their smart home?”

“The products we choose to sell and install are chosen because they all work well together,” he said. “We also feel we install better Wi-Fi than you can buy at a big box store. Couple everything together with quality-grade surveillance systems and commercial video distribution systems, and you have the making of an awesome Design Entertainment system. The only negative the technology shift has given us is that we have to constantly explain how and why we are different than the trunk slammers or big box installers who just plug in the new “smart” devices and walk away.

Jeremy Glowacki is editorial director of Residential Systems and Systems Contractor News.

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