Starting a business isn’t an easy task—it requires a hefty investment of both time and money. But those investments can pay off when the company eventually turns a profit and even morphs into an industry staple. Take Marty Schaeffel, for example, who turned his $2,000 investment into what is now AVI-SPL, a company that consistently ranks first on SCN’s annual Top 50 list and is closing in on a billion dollars in annual revenue from commercial AV systems installations.
“The lesson I learned is that you have to reinvent yourself every few years. The business has to reinvent itself and the leader has to reinvent itself,” said Schaeffel of AVI-SPL’s growth.
Starting Out Successful
AVIXA’s senior director of market intelligence, Sean Wargo says the first step in starting a small business may be the easiest: “Be clear about what you are good at and what it offers to the market,” he advised.
“Most start-ups have a fair sense for who they are, though the extra step is saying ‘this is what we do well.’ This could be something specific, like projection mapping, or more broad, like sports stadium design. The point is to be loud and clear with this differentiator.”
Heather Sidorowicz, owner of Southtown Audio Video, agrees. “Know your wheelhouse and play within it. Where does your company excel? Go after those projects!”
Wargo also recommends using market research and intelligence firms to determine the market needs. AVIXA research, he says, is just one example of a source for intelligence to get started.
Another way to differentiate yourself, according to Chris Jordan—who started Electro Acoustics 35 years ago out of this garage and now sells over seven million dollars a year in AV systems—is to “find out what the ‘big boys can’t do well, like having the [company] owner come out and install or service a system. Being small means being personal. Capitalize on that.”
Jordan also recommends that you “always do what you say, even if it costs you money.” Customers are looking for reliable partners and they need to be able to trust you if you want a continued, fruitful relationship.
Jay Myers, who founded Interactive Solutions and sold his company to AVI-SPL in late 2018, added that AV professionals shouldn’t start a business for the money. “Do it for the pride of building something out of nothing.” In short, if your heart is in it, your business will have a greater chance of being successful. In terms of practical tips, he added that potential new business owners should take the time to develop a quality business plan—this will help with banks, potential investors, and more.
Once you’ve started your business and it’s growing, how do you stay successful?
One way is reinvention, like Schaeffel previously discussed. Sidorowicz didn’t start her company, but she reinvented it after purchasing the business from her father in 2014. Reinvention was one of her key growth factors, as is keeping her staff happy. “Remember to be human,” she advised. “Everyone wants to be treated well, and everyone in your company needs to be respectful while being knowledgeable.”
Jeremy Caldera, CTS-D, CTS-I, CEO of IAS Technology, also believes in the importance of a positive company culture. “Every small business requires dedicated people that know their leaders care about them and their successes. The climate and culture within the organization will determine if your people thrive or fail. You are nothing without your team.”
In addition to your staff, be mindful of your customer. “The customer should be satisfied that expectations were aligned and agreed upon, that our organization runs rich in integrity and does the right thing to ensure those expectations are met, and that all parties believe that a long-term relationship far exceeds the benefits of a single transaction,” said Mike Fornander, CEO, Neurilink.
What happens when the needs of your customer, staff, market, etc. change? You need to factor change management into your plan to be successful, says Caldera. “In the world of technology, we must always be mindful of what is on the horizon. The days of the traditional integrator are dead. Try new things and do not be afraid to fail."
As a final tip, Wargo recommends diversifying. “The great thing about the pro AV industry is that it’s filled with a diverse set of opportunities. This comes in the form of geographies, vertical markets, solution types, and products. Though some of the traditional core of the industry is still growing—such as serving corporate clients with conference rooms—other less traditional areas are expanding. Ultimately, this is how companies stay resilient against any downward, recessionary pressures.”