For most of us, celebrities travel about in a rarefied air that we barely have the opportunity to breathe. They are something to be viewed on screens big and small and on pages real and digital. But they’re so rarely to be glimpsed in the flesh.
In the custom installation world, celebrity clientele are often viewed as being a Golden Ticket; one that is difficult if not impossible to find, but that can grant those lucky few full Wonka access to amazing exposure and introductions to a world of champagne and caviar clientele where the money flows like sweet wine.
I recently stumbled across Todd Anthony Puma, CEO of The Source Home Theater, on Twitter (@thesourcehti) when I reached out to installers looking to share stories for my Nightmare Installations blog. Todd got in touch with me and contributed one of the nine stories used. Afterward, I clicked through his online portfolio and found that his work has been featured in multiple publications including Home Theater Magazine, Electronic House, and Residential Systems, where he has joined me and Heather Sidorowicz as regular blog contributers. (His first blog post can be read here.)
Todd Anthony Puma, CEO, The Source Home Theater
It quickly became apparent that Todd was something of a veteran with celebrity installations, featuring multiple celeb testimonials and photos on his site.
Curious, I reached out to him and asked if he would let me interview him about this, and shed some light on this fascinating subject, and he graciously agreed.
My questions in bold, followed by Todd's answers.
What percentage of your business is working with celebrity clients?
My business consists of about 60-percent celebrity clients and 40-percent other professionals. Our celebrity client base consists of about 130 people, not counting others from within their circle. We’ve been working with sports teams like the [New York] Giants for years, so as the teams grow and change, new players and rookies are given our information to hook-up their homes in the area.
The (potentially) million-dollar question: How did you land your first celebrity client?
Before I started The Source Home Theater, I was the "go to" installer for a big box store and they would send me out on all of their high profile jobs. I eventually left the company due to an injury, but these clients continued calling me to do work at their homes because they preferred dealing directly with me than working with the larger company. These clients included Giants, Yankees, Mets, and Devils players, as well as members of the music industry. My first month felt like I had been in business for 20 years.
I imagine there are some unique challenges or demands involved with celebrity clientele.
Celebrity clients are generally pretty similar to other high-end customers; they know what they want and they want it done yesterday. Based on my experience, the client is normally a ball to work for; it’s those working for them – a family member, agent, personal assistant, etc. – that are demanding. Because of the client’s busy schedule, after initial meetings with them to decide on the system, they usually delegate most of the follow-up interactions to someone in their circle and these are usually the ones calling the shots of what they want and how they want it done. I really connect with a lot of my clients and have never felt pressured into unattainable demands by them personally. The biggest difference is that celebrities know the worth of their name and how to work a brand to get things done for free. This potentially creates a catch-22 because, on the one hand, having a celebrity’s name attached to your work can definitely build credibility, but on the other, we still need to make a living and can’t give everything away.
One of The Source Home Theater’s most publicized celebrity installs was the “man cave” of former New York Giants wide receiver Amani Toomer.
So, do you find that many of them want something for nothing, or something in exchange for, “You can tell people you did my job?”
No matter how much money or fame a client has, they will always do what they can to get the best deal possible. Although most of our celebrity clients tend to freely offer testimonials simply because they love the end results and the quality of our work, others expect some sort of discount or free product in exchange for allowing us to use their name. We pride ourselves in maintaining the integrity of the brand and the industry so we don’t personally offer anything at a discounted price; if a manufacturer wants to accommodate them, we set them up with the right people to talk to and then it is directly between the manufacturer and the client.
How are they usually about privacy concerns? Are you allowed to mention them?
It really depends on the client. Football players, for example, are extremely cool and always willing to help in any way that they can. But we have other clients – musicians, actors, models – that don’t want their homes listed, shown in any publications or even in a personal portfolio. You have to respect the client’s wishes and maintain that privacy because when they know you can be trusted, they will continue to use you.
Do they seem to be tech-savvy and know what they want or do they just want to have something cool and trust you to come up with a system?
I have found that it is not so much that they are tech savvy, but that they heard or saw something that they liked and they want that reproduced in their house. One of the most requested products is Apple, and they want everything in the system to integrate with their iPhones and iPads. Customers are also familiar with URC and have been excited by the URC’s new Total Control system because they know URC works. They also know and request Lutron as the lighting control solution. Recently we have been getting emails requesting Nest thermostats.
Do you find that there is one-upping between celebrities, where the next person wants to out-do what the previous person did? Imagine this would be especially common amongst players on the same team.
Their home is an expression of themselves, so it’s not so much about one upping or trying to outdo each other, but more about wanting to be different. Although my business thrives on referrals, a lot of high profile clients don’t like to share designers and contractors. They want what they have to be unique, and when they find an installer that thinks outside the box, they want to keep you to themselves.
What is the celebrity install that you are most proud of and what did they get that made it so special?
Based on the fact that this job would make or break us as a company, that would have to be our first big celebrity client as The Source HTI. While I can’t release the client’s name, there are some details I can share. This client wanted a custom-built movie room to escape the stresses of life and bring him to a different world where he would be engulfed by whatever he was watching. And that is exactly what we delivered. We hired the entire staff that worked on this room; the designers, the woodworkers, painters and flooring crew. He wanted the decor to resemble the Roman Empire so we hired an artist to paint freehand portraits on the walls leading into the room. We created a crest that we had carved into the carpet and every seat in the room was molded to his body. The speakers were custom built into the ceiling, surrounded by wooden sound proof boxes. We took the screen and customized it into a wooden frame that matched the rest of the room. This job was a defining moment in our career as this was the first Everest that we saw and conquered ourselves.
That’s a heck of a start since you came from a Big Box background! Where’d you get your install chops and confidence to pull that off?
I came from a long line of hard working, Sicilian contractors who taught me every hands-on trade they knew from a very young age. However, a lot of people–teachers, other family members, friends–told me that I would never amount to anything. Honestly, I used their negative words to drive me to success. While at the big box store, I saw lots of business opportunities that I knew I would never be able to implement as an employee. I knew that as the boss of my own company, I could make these changes and develop a stronger, more solid company. Knowledge is power and I stayed up nights researching products and trends, reading customer reviews and industry-associated blogs. I also took whatever money I could and purchased products so I could test out every feature and setting. Then, when I installed the same product in a customer's house, I could calibrate everything to its utmost potential.
Any funny/odd celebrity anecdotes you can share?
Here’s a humiliating – yet successful – attempt at landing a big celebrity job. I was walking in NYC one day and I saw a celebrity walking into the building he lived in. I saw this as a huge opportunity, so I stationed myself on his curb for weeks like a paparazzi, but without the camera. Just as I started to feel discouraged, I saw him again walking with his children. I mustered up my courage, walked up to him, introduced myself and handed him my card. I said, “I’d like to offer you a free TV mounting with wiring and the works. If you like my work, then you can move forward with us.” I happened to catch him at the perfect time as he had just moved in. Of course, he loved my work and we ended up doing his whole apartment, a $22-million residence.
What advice would you share with other installers trying to break into the celebrity install game?
The best advice I can give is to treat them like you would treat anyone else. They’re normal people like you and I, and that’s how they want to be treated. One of the reasons I get along with them so well – and why they continue to use me – is that I don’t walk in and get star struck. I just go in and do what I do best, and they respect me for that. Networking is also key because with celebrities, it is all about being in the right place at the right time. Attend functions like charity events, red carpet events, and film festivals. Landing the celebrity is the hard part, and you never know who you will meet at these events. Once you are in and they see your results, the jobs will just keep rolling in.
Thanks, Todd! Super informative and interesting information! Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go and hang-out in front of a certain Ranch on Lucas Valley Road in Marin County, CA. Something tells me that guy would be into having a good home theater…
John Sciacca is co-owner of Custom Theater and Audio in Myrtle Beach, SC.