Home Automation Podcast Episode #107: An Industry Q&A With Mike Giffin
In this weeks home automation show of Automation Unplugged, Industry veteran, Mike Giffin VP at Help Lightning shares his experience in the CE space and the benefits of a remote servicing solution for smart home integrators.
This week's home automation podcast features our host Ron Callis interviewing Mike Giffin. Recorded live on Tuesday, April 7th, 2020 at 12:30 p.m. EST.
About Mike Giffin
With nearly 45 years in the CE space, Mike Giffin is an industry veteran with experience in wireless and high-fidelity audio. Before joining Help Lightning, Mike founded Wren Sound Systems, a pioneering premium brand in wireless audio after his 22-year tenure with Harman International.
As Vice President at Help Lightning, Mike develops the custom integration and consumer electronics channel to provide integrators and service technicians hands-on servicing sessions through virtual and merged reality.
- The increased demand for virtual servicing during the COVID-19 pandemic
- How integrators can benefit from a solution like Help Lightning as more consumers begin to depend on technology
- Mike's perspective on ways integrators can make it through these uncertain times
Ron: Hello, everybody Ron Callis here to bring you another episode of Automation Unplugged. This is Episode 107 brought to you by my day job over at One Firefly. I hope today finds you well today is Tuesday, April 7th. I've lost count of how many days since we're in quarantine. I think it's been weeks and but all is well here. My family is still happy and healthy. My son, Max, is successfully doing his remote education so he still has to meet with his teachers and do his homework. Although, the family dog is really loving it, Charlotte. Max gets to take all of his intermissions and go out and throw the ball with Charlotte so she's absolutely loving this quarantine from home.
As you probably have been able to tell, we are producing quite a few Automation Unplugged here. The past couple of weeks, we tried to bring you really relevant guests and topics that we feel would likely benefit all of you. We've ramped up our production of content. Let's go ahead and jump right into it.I'm here to bring you, Mike Giffin. He's V.P. over at Help Lightning and we're going to get into what Help Lightning is. I just discovered these guys about a month ago and I was super impressed, wanted to bring him on right away. Mike, how are you, sir?
Mike: I'm fine. Ron, how are you?
Ron: I am good. Thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule. I know you're particularly busy right now, you said March was the busiest month in company history. Thanks for doing that to speak with me.
Mike: Yeah, March was extraordinary. It is unfortunate the cause but the COVID-19 pandemic has forced people who are doing field service and taking care of customer problems and so forth to find a way to do those things without actually physically appearing. My focus with Help Lightning is on developing the customer integration and consumer electronics channel, which is related to my background. I've spent all my life in in in consumer electronics. And so with the CI people, there's kind of a double opportunity or let me put it another way, there's a set of situations that are happening, on the one hand, this sort of shelter in place thing that we've all been asked to practice and I think that is the socially responsible thing to do is putting a bigger strain on installed systems for entertainment, communication, security, etc. in people's houses because every member of the household is there 24/7 pretty much.
That's not what people are used to and what that means is that there is a heavy load on the system. There's also an opportunity for people to try things they've never tried on the system, which is an opportunity to encounter some errors and some mistakes and to sort of maybe screw things up a little bit. I would say that while everybody sheltering in place and it's difficult for the CI dealers to all be where they belong and to respond in a normal way to people who have problems, the problems are greater than usual.
Ron: I would say right now, I mean, integrators in many cases are entirely in a situation where even if they want to go out to their job sites like in California or now New York, there's a shelter in place. The job site of the construction site is sheltered or in the case of a finished job site, Mrs. Smith probably doesn't want the technician to come in and service them.
Mike, I want to get into what Help Lightning is, what is your technology. Before I do that, I would love for my audience to meet you. Where did you come from? You've been in consumer electronics for many years. What did your background look like before you ultimately landed at Help Lightning?
Mike: Well, it looked like a life in consumer electronics - primarily in the audio business. When I first got out of college, I decided I was going to go to graduate school. Since my major was English and it was in the humanities, when you went to graduate school in humanities you had to learn foreign languages. You had pass competency tests in at least two of them. I decided to take a year off before going to grad school and during that year I decided what I wanted to do was to focus on. I already had a lot of Latin, so I decided I would try to acquire French and get competency in that before I went on. I was looking for a job that would enable me to do those things, which means not a day job because I wanted to sit in on classes in the mornings.
I wound up going to a company that sold me a stereo system and they hired me. That turned into a five-year diversion, I put off graduate school for a long time and wound up managing an audio business that got to be fairly successful. And video was just coming into audio at the time but my first love, and my remaining love, has always been audio. After a couple of years of grad school, I discovered that degrees in English literature don't pay that well and I wound up back in the audio business.
I got hired by a company that eventually was acquired by Harman International and I worked for Harman for twenty-two years, mostly in senior management positions. I had a great ride there. I went from being a Territory Sales Manager to a Northeast Regional Sales Manager to a V.P. of Sales. I left at one point for a two-year hiatus, they hired me back. I ran Infinity car audio, probably the most fun I ever had in the audio business was running Infinity car audio because it was a relatively small business but it had a big brand name. When I entered the car audio, it was about, I would say 15% of their total business. They were a big home audio company. When I left home audio was about 15% of their business and we were a big car audio company.
Ron: Oh, that's amazing.
Mike: We had the number one market share in North America.
"When I was a kid, I remember saving up and buying the speakers for my car, the woofers, and the gear and whatnot. Infinity was a big name."
Ron: I remember Infinity audio. I mean, when I was a kid I remember saving up and buying the speakers for my car, the woofers, and the gear and whatnot. Infinity was a big name.
Mike: Do you remember the green cones? The Kappa? It's an amazing lesson in how the simplest things can be big marketing moves. I was responsible for that and it was based on just going to stores and seeing nothing but black ovals and circles. It's so drab and boring. What calls anybody's attention to any of these things? This was back in the day when you would have one channel of the demo room would have grills on and the other would have grills off. That green just popped. It looked like a metallic comb.
Ron: Yeah, I remember it stood out.
Mike: I wound up from there becoming SVP of all of car audio for Harman. I took over JBL, I took over Harman Kardon. I became President of the Mobile Division, then President of the Mobile Portable and Companion Products Division, which included audio for computers, iPod docking stuff, et cetera. We made an acquisition of a company at the time, brought that in and then there was a big change at Harman. They rid of the division presidents within all the divisions, so I reported to the CEO who had come in from Scotts Miracle-Gro. If you could figure that out. He was a nice guy, I liked working with him. I became Senior Vice President for Global Brands so I was responsible for all of the engineering, product development, strategy, advertising, branding for about a half a billion-dollar business.
Ron: Holy moly. Was that stressful or fun, or both?
Mike: Well, it was a different kind of stressful, yeah. It was almost as stressful as running my own small business. I managed to have a lot of experience in audio and in a lot of dimensions of audio. I had been, by the way, at different times I'd been a rep, I run small retail, I did a one and a half year stint within big retail. That's pretty much everything I've done, but when I started off I was selling Heathkits and Jensen triaxles. When I ended up, I was launching portable navigation under the Harman Kardon brand name.
Ron: Many of our audience, watching and listening, probably seen you or heard from you over the past few decades.
Mike: I'm trying to hide for most of them.
Ron: You're not hiding anymore! I ran into you, Mike, at the ProSource show in Vegas, seems like a year ago but it was only four weeks ago. But that's when I ran into you and I swear it was so interesting because I had never heard of Help Lightning, I had multiple friends and customers of mine at One Firefly coming over to me saying, "Ron, have you seen this stuff over at Help lightning?" and I had no idea. Keith from Total Home ended up saying, "Ron, you gotta stop what you're doing and come with me. We have to go see this thing."
You were one of the more busy booths at the ProSource show and you guys had a pretty cool demo. Do you mind sharing with our audience here, what is this thing called Help Lightning? If you want to weave in how you discovered these people as well.
Mike: Help Lightning is software as a service. I've been in hardware all my life. I discovered it through a friend who was using it in a custom integration business. How he discovered it was weird because he wasn't really exactly the target customer for Help Lightning at the time. What they've developed is what's called merged reality or virtual interactive presence. It's essentially a way of merging two video streams in real-time so that a person in one location who needs help can receive help from somebody somewhere else, it could be a thousand miles away. In receiving the help it's a lot more than just FaceTime. It's a lot more than just telestration, although it uses common mobile devices that just about everybody has. The helpgiver can actually put his hand in the field of vision of the help receiver.
You can also telestrate. There's a lot of software out there that enables you to telestrate, but there's nothing else out there that enables you to do the most natural thing in the world, which is the second-best thing to really being over somebody's shoulder and helping them, and that is to put your hand in the picture to use natural gestures and natural language. For instance, you don't have to say, "I'm circling this RJ forty-five connector." You can say, "This connector here needs to get plugged into this input right here." You can do it just as if you were standing there. If being there is the gold standard of giving help, this is the closest thing you can get to being there to help someone or the closest thing you can get if you need help, to having someone roll a truck or show up where you are and show you how to get things fixed.
Mike: What attracted me about it is, first of all, the company's got a unique position with regard to using virtual reality. Virtual is a big word right now. It's a big buzz word in our industry. The CEO of this company, who's a serial entrepreneur, his name is Gary York. He's also a Smithsonian Innovation Fellow among other things, computer scientists, taught at UC Berkeley, educated at Carnegie Mellon. This is about his fifth startup. He's done very well with all of them. All of them have been, what he calls, the intersection of the practical and the possible. That's a hard place to find. When you hear about virtual reality, you hear about things that require headsets. Right now, if you were to deploy headsets to get help out in the field you would be spending, minimum, a thousand bucks a headset for everybody. They're heavy still, they're monocular, they only usually give you one one eye vision, and the battery time isn't all that great, and so forth. What Help Lightning, this is before I was part of the company, what they did was they said let's leverage all the mobile technology that's out there. Everybody's already got it.
People go to jobs. People who are out doing field service, they go out and do field service with iPads. Mobile technology is pervasive. This is a way for somebody to take what already exists and also to take behavior that already exists. You already know how to stand over somebody's shoulder and point out how to fix things and how to help people, now you can do it but not make the trip, which is especially relevant today when you have this shelter in place directive. If you don't have the directive, you should have enough sense to do it anyway because it's kind of risky out there. This really is a pandemic. This is a way to give very natural help, to use natural language, to use words like this and that instead of technical terms for things when you want to help people. It even overcomes foreign language barriers, but there's more to it than that.
You can also telestrate, which that is to say to draw on the screen, that somebody is receiving help can see for sure what you've circled or pointed to. You can zoom in and out and where that telestration was made, stays in place. It stays attached to the piece that you pointed out. You can bring in schematics, you can bring in photographs, you can even bring in a third party. If you're an integrator and you've called for help within your team to somebody you think knows how to solve the problem and he says, "I don't know that piece as well as Sam and he's on another job at another place. Let's bring him in." You can bring him right into the call and then you can become the observer and he can become the help giver.
"You have on any team, different levels of skills knowledge and experience. Something like this enables you to really take that top-level experience and distribute it across your workforce."
Ron: That's the idea, Mike, that was just crossing my mind. You have on any team, different levels of skills knowledge and experience. Something like this enables you to really take that top-level experience and distribute it across your workforce.
Mike: It's kind of interesting. When I was at the ProSource Summit there was one of the programs that I decided to attend and that was on onboarding new techs. I thought it was a relevant thing for me to try to get up to speed on in the CI industry and it was. It was presented by Donte Walston, who's now sort of running the Pro Source University initiative. He pointed out a lot of interesting things, but one of them is that we are not very productive in the CI industry. We have about 62% productivity based on surveys that they've taken. That means for every hundred hours that you pay a tech, they've been able to generate 62 billable hours. There are 38 hours you're paying for something that isn't generating any revenue. One of the biggest culprits there is downtime for truck rolls. You get a call, you've got to transition out of what you're doing, put things away, make sure you have the right parts and things that you need, put them in a truck, you might drive for thirty or forty-five minutes or an hour. This is something that takes care of that right off the bat. In most cases, you can reduce truck rolls by an enormous percentage with Help Lightning.
I have a little ROI analysis spreadsheet that I've put together where I ask people a couple of simple questions to help end-user customers. How many hours spent to help techs remotely that need some help on a job? What's the average cost of a truck roll you know when you go to a customer's house to do it? How many of them are fixed for the first time? Oh, it's about 90%, so 10% of them will require even another truck roll. You roll all this up, the average that I've been generating is that people will get a return on on on their investment and Help Lightning in almost all cases at well under 5% reduction in truck rolls. It's kind of a no brainer.
Ron: What are the financials, base on what can you share on this show? What's the structure? Is it a per-seat model?
Mike: Yeah, the cost is per-seat. We have an arrangement with ProSource, and in fact, my initiative in developing this particular vertical, which is consumer electronics, CI, etc. It is requiring some different sort of pricing structure than we have typically had with the larger enterprise businesses.
Ron: You were mentioning off-camera, you have multiple multi-thousand seat customers.
Mike: Yeah, we have RICOH, Johnson Controls, Husky, Siemens, and Oxford Instruments, Boston Scientific.
Ron: A lot of big names!
Mike: Yeah, and the pricing structure is different. We have special group pricing for ProSource. We're trying to get that kind of pricing together by aggregating people within groups so that we can make some economic sense out of it. Suffice it to say, in this case, you can kind of work backward from it. I don't want to disclose something that's proprietary to Pro Source.
Ron: Do you sell the software to non-Pro Source members?
Mike: Oh yes. We sell the software to everybody who is using it. Right now, we're having trouble keeping up with everybody who wants it because they need it now. Yeah, the standard pricing is a fixed cost of about, smaller businesses, which is a fixed core price for services of about six thousand dollars a year. And then there's a per-user price, which can be as high as 1080 per year per user. Now Pro Source, because we anticipate we're going to wind up with a lot of dealers, we have a price that is nowhere near that large.
We're hoping to be able to aggregate other groups and get that sort of pricing together. But anybody who's a custom integrator can expect that they won't be paying that full standard price, that's for sure. Let me put it this way, I would tell anybody - if I can't demonstrate an ROI to you that makes sense and then some over and above it, I wouldn't buy it. But I think I can. It's a program that pays for itself.
Ron: Mike, we have some people watching and listening to us live here. McKenzie says she's coming to you from Salt Lake City and she's excited to hear from Mike. Angel is coming from Mexico, he says, "Hello, Mike!" We also have Jamie Lynn, she's from Birmingham. Is that England? That's not England, now. That's Alabama!
Mike: That's Alabama. Yeah. It's actually a little sort of Silicon Valley going on in Birmingham. It's got a big tech industry. In fact, the building that Help Lightning is in, which is a very cool old industrial building, it's Altech. It's like an incubator sort of building.
Ron: Mike, what are some of the numbers you can share here - what was March quarantine month been like for you? What are some of the high-level facts that you could share? What has been the increase?
Mike: One of our metrics, as opposed to revenue metric, and that's how many calls have been made? This is indicative of how many times has this software been used to contact somebody and conduct the remote help or remote expertise session. In the month of March, the number was more than six times higher than the next biggest month we'd ever had. And that is all attributable to COVID-19. It was a huge revenue month.
We added a lot of companies that were in a scramble to have something in place and get it there quickly. They're in the business of providing customer service, but you know the last thing that anybody wants to see while they're quarantined at home is something break or something goes down that they need some help for. Except for one other thing that they want to see even less, and that's a tech showing up.
Ron: I was going to say, that's you or me showing up at their doors carrying something more than a tool case.
Mike: You don't know what they're carrying but if you're taking all this time to shelter in place, you can blow it all by opening the door for one strange visitor. Not only that, but companies themselves want to take care of their people and make sure that they're not in it putting themselves at risk by exposing themselves to situations where they have no certainty as to whether or not you know that's a safe environment.
As I said, if the gold standard of giving help is to have somebody standing over your shoulder and pointing it out using natural gestures, this is the next best thing to that gold standard. This is as close as you're going to come and you can get there using equipment that you already have and really using skills that you already have. Aside from learning how to touch a button on the side of your device that says, "You're going to telestrate," then telestrate. Or, touching another folder and bringing in a picture or freezing a frame, which by the way, I should mention is an important thing that you can do. If I'm giving help and you suddenly need two hands to do something, I can say, "Well, let's get a nice picture of it. I'll take a screenshot." It will freeze the frame and now that the frame is frozen, I can still use hand gestures on it.
You can put it up you can, lean an iPad for instance up on a shelf and I can continue to move my hands around, telestrate, to talk about what you need to do but you don't have to be holding the mobile device in your hands.
Ron: Mike two questions here and then we're going to wrap up. One is, in terms of this virtual and or augmented reality capability, what is unique about Help Lightning? Are there lots of companies doing it the way you're doing it? Or are you the only ones and how did that happen? I'm just curious.
Mike: There are a large number of companies, by large I should say 6 or 7, that I know of who enable telestration. That is you can draw on the screen. There's nobody who has the ability to do the most important thing that we do, which is to put their hand in.
Ron: So that's patented technology?
Mike: That is covered by five patents in 40 countries. And by the way, this product, if you will, was created by a neurosurgeon named Bart Guthrie, a neurosurgeon who specializes in Parkinson's and he had come up with a surgical procedure that he wanted to share with the rest of the world. He wanted to remotely show other people how to do it and guide them through it and at that point, it was using a lot of specialized cameras and devices, but that's where it all started. And what it's now become is a commercialized business that's much more pragmatic and our philosophy is, when it becomes practical enough to make sense of it to be used by more people, then we'll bring it in. We're not unaware of, and we in fact support, a number of smart glasses.
Our software will work with these glasses. Until things are at the point, I believe where they're very practical, they're affordable, they make sense, they can deliver a very quick return on investment, that's when we make those moves. We have some really, really smart people. I've been blown away at some of the stuff that I've seen out of how Help Lightning and in particular I've been blown away how quickly they respond to things in the field where people are trying to do things. We come out with an update probably every 60 days that are pushed out. Some of them are small improvements some of them are major improvements.
When I started with the company, for instance, if you were helping an end-user you had to have them download an app. Well, that creates a tremendous amount of friction. In fact, CI people will tell you, if they use systems like that about half of the customers just say, "You know what? I don't want to do that. I just don't want to do it, so forget it." We got rid of that. Now we do it just through the browser. You can shoot a text to somebody that is having a problem and say, "You've got a smartphone? An iPhone or a Samsung Galaxy? Give me your phone number." You shoot them a text, they touch a button, they're in the session and you're giving help.
Ron: Mike, you have over 45 years of experience in the CI industry. We're going through unprecedented times, there's a lot of challenges out there for businesses. Any parting words or advice for the people out there that are either owners or in leadership positions within the CI space? Any words of wisdom to share?
"It really reveals their character and when you're tested and you're able to come up with a response that becomes something better, sort of purified in the fibers."
Mike: I would say this, I just, in fact, pushed out a little blog piece called The Coronavirus Crucible. And a crucible is not only a device in which you can smell things but it's also it's a trial by fire. It's when people are really tested. It really reveals their character and when you're tested and you're able to come up with a response that becomes something better, sort of purified in the fibers.
Right now is one of those times, if you own a business rather than focusing exclusively on, "Oh my God. What are we going to do? This is horrible." It's an opportunity to do a lot of things that you've not been able to have time to do. Install perhaps a new CRM program or learn something like Help Lightning. The beauty of Help Lightning right now is that you can kill two birds with one stone. You can get this program now, you can learn how to use it because you have a little more time on your hands, and it does work remotely.
"Use the downtime to add another dimension to the value proposition of your brand and your business and service is the biggest expression of your brand."
So you can continue to service your customers and I would say this. Distinguish yourselves from your competitors who are closing their stores and saying, "Hey, we're sorry. We'll be back at this point. In the meantime, we'll do our best to try to help you." If you've gone to the trouble to bring something new to the party that enables you to provide a much higher level of service at this time, I guarantee you it will set you apart from your competitors. It's a fabulous opportunity. Use the downtime to add another dimension to the value proposition of your brand and your business and service is the biggest expression of your brand.
Ron: There you go. I couldn't say it any better. Well, Mike, it has been a pleasure having you on episode 107 of Automation Unplugged. Thanks for taking the time out of your busy schedule to share your background and the exciting things you're doing at Help Lightning.
Mike: Thanks, Ron. It's been a pleasure for me as well.
Industry veteran, Mike Giffin VP at Help Lightning shares his experience in the CE space and the benefits of a remote servicing solution for smart home integrators, particularly during our current climate with COVID-19.
Ron Callis is the CEO of One Firefly, LLC, a digital marketing agency based out of South Florida and creator of Automation Unplugged. Founded in 2007, One Firefly has quickly became the leading marketing firm specializing within the integrated technology and security space. The One Firefly team work hard to create innovative solutions to help Integrators boost their online presence, such as the elite website solution, Mercury Pro.
Resources and links from the interview:
- Harman Kardon
- ProSource Buying Group
- Remote Expertise During COVID-19: Help Lightning Blog
- Bart Guthrie, Neurosurgeon
If you'd like to learn more about Mike and his team at Help Lightning, visit their website at helplightning.com or email Mike directly at
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