Your business was founded in 2006. What is the origin of your business name? What did you do before were you in custom integration? Talk about how you got interested in doing this work – and as you gained experience, what it was that you felt you were able to offer clients that was unique in the field.
Lee Travis: The name stands for “wireless appliance.” Years before I had the company, I felt that in future we’d have so many more wireless devices. And we’re not in the white goods business, but if you take the word “appliances” and drop off the app and put a “wi” there, that’s how you get the name.
I got into the car audio business first. I attend the Consumer Electronics Shows and at my 33rd CES this year, we won the Integrator of the Year Award. I loved car audio, but that industry began to change, and it was becoming a little more homogenized. OEM was developing better systems and cell phones were getting down into the free range – when we used to pay five grand for a cell phone, and the average cell phone bill was $1,500. As the car audio business waned, we started to do some home systems – people would ask us to do theaters, with those big CRT projectors. Eventually, I made a full move over to home and commercial, adding in other things builders wanted us to do, such as the communications and security wiring. They wanted us to cover all of the low-voltage category.
Obot Electric and Obot Energy, appear on your website as corollary businesses for your installation operation. Why did you develop these service offerings? And what are the advantages to being a one-stop shop – providing “end-to-end solutions,” as you say on your web site – for clients, relating to these corollary disciplines?
“Obot” stands for “on budget, on time.” What would happen is, when we’d go to install a home theater for someone, and we’d need power for a projector or for a TV and power for lighting control and shading as well. We would usually sub that work out to electricians, but often, they would prioritize their work over ours. We’d have a Lutron lighting control job set up to do on a Tuesday, and the electrician was supposed to be there and couldn’t show up till Friday. So I wanted to be able to control the whole customer experience, to make sure we could deliver the system [in a timely way] to our clients.
So we started it as a support business for our clients, and it grew to the point where Obot was bidding and doing its own electrical work. And we found, over time, that some work would come into the electrical side of the business before it would come to Wipliance, and sometimes vice versa. So either way, if there wasn’t already someone clients were committed to for electrical work, if we came in and were installing lighting control and the client decided they wanted to add more lighting in more places, the businesses, then, from a marketing standpoint, could cross-pollinate each other.
And it was the same with Obot Energy. With [the rise of] home batteries, solar and wind power, some of our clients want to go to “net zero” to produce all their electricity because they want to be off the grid. It isn’t to do with the ROI; they just want their carbon footprint to be zero. If you want to be the first on the block to have it, it will be expensive, but as the technology gets better and the volume ramps up, the prices comes down.
The custom installation field has changed over the years. Talk about how the business has evolved – and how you’ve successfully kept pace with – and even anticipated and stayed ahead of – all the changes.
It all changes very rapidly. Hence, at CEDIA and CES, and in our ProSource buying group, you have to stay up on what’s next – and not just between now and 2020, but also between now and 2025 and 2030. I don’t know why, as the Baby Boomers continue to age, we wouldn’t have all these medical devices connected with a Wi-Fi network and doing things like monitoring parents aging in place. The health side of it will make for a big opportunity for our industry.
And lighting is changing so much. It’s moved to LED, and tunable white lighting. I’m on the Lighting and Shading Committee for ProSource, and there are opportunities for our members to do the lighting design and the fixture packages even if we’re not the electrician. Most electricians go to a supply house and buy basic cans, put them in, and that is the end of it – there’s no thought about color temperature.
There’s so much cool stuff you can do, and we see lighting as the opportunity today that networking was 10 years ago. And I think on the lighting side, you’ll see that it not only impacts our moods but also our health over time. Window treatments – natural lighting control – are already big. We are doing a lot of the high-rise MDUs in Seattle and we have 1,500 units coming up that will get motorized shading.
It’s about controlling that whole experience for the client – they want to come home and have it really be “home.”
You are a well-respected integrator in the industry with numerous awards. I’d guess that you have made it a priority from your very early days in business to communicate and interact with the architect, builder and interior designer communities since even before it became more of a natural outreach for custom integrators. Were you ahead of the curve in getting along with those disciplines, and can you talk about how you’ve navigated those relationships and learned from them early on?
We learned through mistakes. It’s like anything in life – you quickly realize that when these trades bring you into a job, you’re backing them. So when you go off course with your own agenda, then you probably won’t be working with them again. You realize that when the interior designer brings you in, and they want a 55-inch TV in the room, you’re not trying to pitch an 85-inch TV, or if the architect wants certain aesthetics, or the builder wants to keep to a certain budget. You’re kind of following the beat of their drum; they’re the Pied Piper.
But we do a lot of direct-to-consumer – our business is split about a third customer-direct, a third commercial, and then through the builder, architect and interior designer trades.
And that had served us very well through the last recession. We have grown every year. I think, for the dealers that are 100 percent only doing builder business and working with three to six builders, if that well dries up, their business comes to a screeching halt. When residential is down, commercial could be up, and when the building industry is down, which only represents about five percent of homes, you still have the other 95 percent of the market. You can’t just wait for a recession and then start marketing – you have to have that consumer-direct path built. People with money will have money through recessions, and they look for opportunities – in real estate, or in stocks, or in buying systems from us, and it puts them in a position to negotiate better. Having a diversified model has worked for us, and hopefully will continue to work for us.
What is it about you and your way of doing business at Wipliance that has helped to enrich and inform your abilities as a technology integrator? Do you do educational events for all those other disciplines? And are they aware of how important it is to learn to work early in the process with integrators?
We do lunch-and-learns for them where we bring in a certified speaker on things like lighting and shades. All of them are required to have credits and need to keep their knowledge updated, and they would rather learn something of value rather than something not of value.
As far as working early with us, it’s really all over the board. We [prefer to] design spots for equipment with ventilation for TV and power, and we ask what are we going to do with these TV spots, are we doing motorized artwork, will we recess them in, or just mount a TV on the wall? You have to have a plan. We try to be a good partner and help them. Once we know the projects they have coming up, we can help drive the steps to get them going.
Talk a bit about your physical presentation. Do you have a showroom or a design center?
In Arizona, we have a show home. On our web site, you can see a video on that. And we use that as an events space, and host the lunch-and-learns. We have a mixed-use warehouse space. Some people spend a fortune on showrooms and they’ll never get that money back out of it. And when the drought does come, they’ve spent all their shekels on that.
In Bellevue, we have what most people would call a showroom where you can show all the systems, and we are building a new Control4 Certified Showroom and a lighting showroom there that will open in the second half of this year.
Have relationships with builders, architects and designers gotten easier over the years, especially now that people have been exposed to what technology can do for them in the home, with the advent and ubiquity of voice assistant technology?
It has gotten easier. Most of the trade industry knows that people want to have this. And because the consumer is educated, they’re telling their trades team, we’ll have this stuff. It encourages them to bring us in – whereas back in the day, they didn’t know what they didn’t know. Before, you had to educate them on home automation; now they have seen articles about it and they know builders who are on the front edge or are leaning forward and putting a bit of sizzle in their homes. People now are looking for those things – they want to have a good network, and be able to open the door remotely and see who’s coming.
What is Wipliance’s next big strategy? Are you planning in future to expand your scope of advisory services to the areas of interior design and architecture to become even more of a single-stop shop? And what else would you like to say about the overall growth of the custom integration industry – and where is it heading, do you think?
I don’t see us getting into interior design or architecture – we’re not trying to compete with those trades. We like partnering with them. But we are in everything that touches the technology side – from lighting to shading to all the technologies you’d expect in a home or a business.
There are obviously disruptive products that come out, and some of those can divide into two channels: DIY and installation. We are looking to develop a middle band there – an ‘express’ model, if you will. It would be something like Wolfgang Puck’s express model: where you can’t order everything there that you can at the full restaurant. It would be very streamlined, and it would bridge the gap. There’s a lot of people who would want those DIY-band products but who would want them installed – be it a Ring doorbell or a Nest camera.
Although you don’t want to cannibalize your high-end, full-service business, there could be an opportunity there for a mid-band, ‘do it for me’ level. There are companies in that space, and I think once you’ve done the custom high end, it’s much easier to do it. You’d need a different level of salesperson and technician, as it would need to be at a lower cost.
What else would you like to add about your business?
For us, at the end of the day, we are in the service business for clients, and it’s all based on our team. If you don’t have a great team to execute both on the sales and technical services side, and in admin, you’re not going to be able to make your customers happy, and sustain and grow the company. You’ll end up having a revolving door.
Some of our people have been with us since before Wipliance, and followed me into that new venture. So if you treat people right, they’ll treat customers right.