Home Automation Podcast Episode #148: An Industry Q&A With Gregg Dixon
In this weeks home automation show of Automation Unplugged, Gregg Dixon of AV Specialists, shares his approach to making 2020 their most successful year.
This week's home automation podcast features our host Ron Callis interviewing Gregg Dixon. Recorded live on Wednesday, December 2nd, 2020 at 11:30 a.m. EST.
About Gregg Dixon
Tampa-based AV Specialists, was founded in 1995 by Gregg Dixon once he and his family moved to Florida from Buffalo, NY. Gregg decided to open up shop and focus on installing the same technologies he loved designing into his own home.
Now 25 years later, AV Specialists is having their most successful year in company history thanks to his dedicated and growing team and a renewed focus on home construction and remodeling from his core customer base.
- Gregg's approach to making 2020 their most successful year
- What projects looked like for Gregg in 1995
- Major changes Gregg made to help take AV Specialists to the next level
- Gregg's approach to company culture
Ron: How are you, sir?
Gregg: Doing fantastic. Thank you.
Ron: Gregg, thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule. Let's tell the audience. Where are you coming from us now? Are you at your home or your office?
Gregg: Yeah, I'm actually in the showroom at the store right now sitting next to some Macintosh gear and some speakers.
Ron: Is this your two-channel room or is this a theater?
Gregg: Yeah, it's the two-channel room.
Ron: Okay cool. And tell us a little bit about A.V. Specialist. Who and what is AV Specialist? How long have you been around and then we'll as always go back into your backstory but let's start with your business.
Gregg: Yeah. We started in '95. We have always done about 50 percent commercial 50 percent residential and obviously with COVID, the residential is way way up because everybody's stuck home. The last kind of three-four years have been fantastic just nothing but growth straight up. It's been fun.
Ron: What is a typical type of project residential ly that you would do and what's a typical commercial project that you would do?
Gregg: Yeah. The residential can be all over the place from a soundbar in a nice TV in a condo with maybe a Control4system to whole house automation with Control4, ceiling speakers, and Wi-Fi, locked door locks and you name it, it's in there. You never really know what you're going to get. And so could be big could be small anywhere in between.
Ron: Got it. Understood. And what does a commercial project look like for you?
Gregg: That's also another thing that's really varied. It could be anything from a restaurant. It could be something to do at a church could be board rooms occasionally although that's gotten really scaled-down. We do more of a lot of huddle rooms which is not all that different than what we're doing right here. We'd like to do a possibly a classroom where you're doing a big audience or just a couple people around the table.
Ron: I'm assuming that some of the commercial stuff has been maybe harmed in some ways due to the COVID economy there.
Gregg: Yeah, I think so. Although the residential has been really growing anyway so it's hard to tell how much of one is the other since business has a slowdown and we've really got all we can handle at the moment. It's probably a good thing that the commercial slowed down I guess is what I'm saying.
Ron: Now I want to dive into the state of business but before we go there I want to go in the way back machine and before I go there I want to address our live audience folks that are tuned in. Don't forget to drop comments or questions if you have questions for Gregg and as long as they are fair and suitable and maybe even if they aren't very suitable, I'll still read them but let's have fun so drop in a comment or question. Also, let us know where you're coming to us from. I love that folks are tuning in live. But yeah, Gregg let's go back. How did you get started? You're here in this A.V. business you've been running your business since '95. How did this all start?
Gregg: Yeah. This all goes way back to when I was a Regional Manager of an auto parts chain back in Buffalo, New York. We were building a house and it's probably way early in the automation business. A friend of mine, Steve Powers, back in Buffalo New York, was putting in some speakers and doing some stuff for us in our new home. And I was like, "Oh my God this is a thing! You could actually do this. There is a business doing audio and video? I want to do that." Coincidentally, at the same time, the economy tanked up there in Buffalo with both my wife and I's business. We decided to relocate to Florida. If we had to start over again, we'd go somewhere with good weather and better sports teams. Here we are. Basically, we started with 50 bucks in my pocket and a fold-up ladder in the back of a convertible. Just built little by little each year til we got to where we're at now.
Ron: Back in '95 when you started, you didn't start with a physical brick and mortar facility right? It was just running it out of your house?
Gregg: Yep started at the house, moved to a storage shed, moved to bigger storage shed, moved two storage sheds, moved to three, moved to a business, moved to a bigger business, moved to yet another bigger business.
Ron: What would a project in '95, if you sold a system or sold something to a customer? What were you out there doing?
Gregg: It could have been anything from like hooking up a TV antenna with direct TV or I actually might have even done a satellite or two I heard some I heard the guys the other day talking about that. So I remember being out in the cold actually doing my first one back home. We used to love the satellites because we could get to the games before you could. You get a live feed it was really interesting. You hear a lot of comments that don't make it on-air and it's kind of fun. We did that, I put up a satellite dish down here one or two maybe for local restaurants. I might have done some speakers at a church some coax wiring and a lot of modulators I remember back in the day. Getting the TV and the cameras and stuff over the wall.
Ron: You were still in Clearwater in '95?
Gregg: Yep, that's when we moved here.
Ron: Were there many integration companies the concept of an integrator or a technology contractor was that a thing? Were there lots of those businesses around?
Gregg: Yeah, it was. In fact, I went to a couple of local places to try and get a job as a sales guy and I never got hired. Somebody wanted to start me as a low-level installer. I'm not opposed to installing but that wasn't what I was looking to do if I was going to work for somebody else. I'm just like well that's what we're gonna do we'll do it for myself.
Ron: Got it. That makes sense. Now tell us today, you're in your two-channel listening room. Tell us about the facility that you have today. What's the purpose of the facility and how has it played out with COVID and have your customers been shy about coming into the store? What has that been like?
Gregg: Yeah updated. We do something maybe once or twice a year to keep it better. We've got a two-channel room, we've got a theater. More than anything, we're not really a walk-in kind of a place. We like to bring the client in so we can show them what he's buying and why he should buy this pair of speakers over that pair of speakers something like that. Put the remote control in their hand let him see how easy it is to use because a lot of people are afraid of that. No, this is so easy. You'll have no problem using it. That's why we have this basically. It's so much easier to sell somebody something better when they can see it or hear it. If you put five hundred dollars difference on a pair of speakers on paper people won't do it. But when you bring them in and you say listen this one. OK, we'll take it.
Ron: They'll take it. Just that experience. This is an experience center really.
Gregg: Yeah, that's a good way to put it.
Ron: How often are you finding that you're upgrading the technology? Is that a burden or is that just part of the business that you know you have to keep things updated or what's the state of that? I always imagine that could be a pain that maybe you sell a unit now the room doesn't work anymore but you've got so much money in the room. How do you manage that?
Gregg: Yeah. You know it is it's it is a burden but it's also part of the business. I mean you don't get one without the other. The cool thing and the annoying thing about our business is it changes so fast so it gets frustrating every year trying to sell your TV that's no longer applicable because there's a new model out. You have to find a way to get rid of it. It's also one of the fun challenges. It lets people get deals that might not normally be able to pull the trigger some vendor upgrades a model you might move the model that you're sitting on to get the new one in. Yeah, you win and the customer wins. Sometimes the employees win sometimes they end up with the stuff too.
Ron: If there was a theme for 2020. I'm going to throw a curveball question at you. You're coming to the end of the year here so I'm kind of thinking in a holistic way about the full year. If there was a theme for 2020 what is that theme for you?
Gregg: The theme for 2020. I think it's based loosely on a Warren Buffett quote in several different versions I've heard but it's something like, "When everybody else is spending cut back and when everyone else is cutting back, spend. "Earlier this year in March the whole COVID thing happened and originally we're all terrified because we didn't know what that was going to mean to us. I thought about it and I was like well you know what. Everybody else is kind of afraid of this I'm not really afraid of go for it. I mean like whatever bring it on I'll get second and I'll get better. Let's spend some money and while this could be our chance to really be a bigger player in the market, in our area, move us from wherever place we are at. Move us up 5-10 notches be a bigger player in the area. We spent some more money we actually increased. We talked to you we spent more on our advertising budgets, now's the time. More people are going to be home, more people could be looking. I didn't know how it was gonna work out I was actually really scared. But it worked out really good. We also did the same thing, we acquired probably three more employees. One was really scary because we hired a new guy. And then the next day we had a sticker on our door that said you shut down. I'm like Oh no, I just hired this guy.
Ron: What was the sticker for?
Gregg: The sheriff went around and put a sticker on every door and said Your business is closed whatever because of the COVID thing.
Ron: Was it legal? Was it like a county mandate or a state mandate?
Gregg: Yeah, like a county mandate, a county mandate and I don't exactly remember what it says because we never paid attention to it.
Ron: You just kept operating regardless of the sticker.
Gregg: Yep. We tried to make sure everybody was safe you know kept everybody away from each other. Nobody knew what the deal was. The people that were scared we had them take their vacation and stay home. The people that wanted to come in came in. Little by little kept plugging along so you'd asked about the showroom. W have clients that are nervous to come in. We have others that come in and they don't care about masks that are like we had COVID already. We don't care. Do you care? I'm like, we're here to do whatever you want to do. My thing is whatever you're comfortable with, do. I will wear a mask if I feel like somebody needs to. If I was on a plane or in a crowded subway I might want to wear a mask. But walking down the street or going for a run. No thank you.
Ron: Yeah, I guess I don't understand. I know in some states around the country and I don't want to get too political because this is a polarizing topic as silly as that is. I don't know that it should be. But the idea that like I walk every morning. Right. That's my mental health and physical health activity I try to walk you know 3-4 miles every morning seven days a week. And the idea that I would wear a mask while I'm walking where no one's within hundreds and hundreds of feet. That makes not even a little bit of sense to me.
Ron: I don't do that. But I would also add I don't think we're required to do that here in Florida. But there are some states where you are required to do that and that just strikes me as a little bit silly.
Gregg: Yeah, this is like way back at the beginning and then we got declared essential and then none of that stuff really mattered.
Ron: That makes sense. You said the residential business is booming. Give us just what has that meant for you. When they engage with you, what do your customers want? What are they asking for?
Gregg: We're seeing a lot more of what you might expect. People are realizing how bad their Wi-Fi is. The budget for the Wi-Fi has increased tremendously and we're selling brands like Ruckus and before that it would have been, you want how much money for Wi-Fi? Well, if you want it to work this will work. Even if they don't want to do the Ruckus there are other options from Araknis and Pakedge and all that at a little bit lower price point depending on how important it is to you.
Ron: They're asking for home networking solutions?
Ron: Do they care how much they spend or is this time maybe the demands on their network. Has it changed their willingness to purchase quality or robust solutions?
Gregg: Exactly. That's what I'm trying to get at. But yeah exactly, the price has become way less important and the function has become way more important. Especially with kids home from school and all that.
Ron: You mentioned that you'd hired three new techs and you ramped up your production capacity before the demand was there so kind of as a predecessor. You were hoping the demand would be there. Have you filled that demand that that capacity? Now your team is all busy?
Gregg: Yeah. One we had hired right before because we were seeing that it was getting tough to finish the jobs with what we had on the table because business was already good before and then it kind of dropped off for just the end of March was bad and April was bad. Then it came right back. We had a new tech, we went out and got another tech that was pretty recently. One of the biggest differences really is that we brought in a sales guy that's a lot better at selling than I am.
Ron: I'm seeing we got a friend here commenting. You've got Joey there commenting. I'm going to put that on the screen in just a minute. Hey Joey, thanks for tuning in. But I want to ask a question. You told me something I don't even if you had told me this before Gregg. I don't know that I heard it. Sometimes people say things and it's in one ear and out the other. But you said something to me recently and I heard it and it really struck my curiosity. And you mentioned that you had started Av Specialist in 1995. I'm trying to do the math. I think that's twenty-five years ago.
Ron: And you mentioned it's really been in the last two to three years that your business has really taken off.
"In the last so many years there's been a big change, there's been a notable change in the trajectory of the business."
Ron: There was you know 20 some years where you were here and you were doing okay. In the last so many years there's been a big change there's been a notable change in the trajectory of the business. What caused that? What do you think about what do you attribute that move to or that pivot?
Gregg: That's all actually pretty clear in my mind. One of the other guys down here told me if you want to make money on TVs you need to join something like a Pro Source. So we did. And joining Pro Source just opened my eyes to the other possibilities when I saw the kind of jobs people were doing and the education that they gave you, I was like, "Wow!" We got involved with Pro Source which brought us to meet other people like we saw brands like Control4, brands like Sony, brands like Macintosh.
These big brands where we spent the money for the buying to put these brands in place, it was terrifying. Am I going to be able to sell this? But we did. Around that same time, we also got hooked up with you and your company. One of the biggest differences we ever made and I know I told you this one before, is changing our website just because that's your first impression. People see they dial-up and see your website and that's their opinion of you. That led us to you that helped everything and then funny enough we were Joey's ears must've been burning.
Ron: I'm going to put his comment on the screen now. There's Joey. He says, "Hey gents. Some of my two favorite people in the industry." Thanks, Joey likewise. Thanks for tuning in.
Gregg: Yeah. Hooking up with Joey's company was another thing. It is terrifying to be writing that big check compared to what kind of monies we were used to but it was the right thing to do and it really helped me turn a corner because I was trying to figure out what he's doing for the last 10 years and haven't been it wasn't able to pull it off.
Ron: Let's expound on that. You were trying to do what for 10 years that you were not able to pull off?
Gregg: Some kind of recurring revenue or some way to charge for all the return trips and have it organized ticketed and make money off of clients. In this AV business and I'm sure a lot of us have done it. You're helping people on the phone for hours for a system they've had for 10 years. And it's like that's nice and all but in the meantime what I started noticing was I'd need a proposal done and one of my guys would be talking to a client that hasn't bought something in 10 years and we'd love to help the guy but I actually need that proposal before we need to help that guy. And it wasn't working that way. By hooking up with Joey and his system it just takes care of all that. It basically gives you the structure that you need. Because I'm not a big structure guy.
Ron: And how long have you been engaged with One Vision which is Joey's company?
Gregg: I think it's two years now.
Ron: Two years. How does it work? A customer has a need. They want to call in on that Friday afternoon or Friday evening. And they have an issue or they think they need support. What happens?
"Now we have different plans that we offer clients depending on what kind of help they want."
Gregg: Basically, there is a number a specific extension for support and now we have different plans that we offer clients depending on what kind of help they want. It's crazy to expect that somebody could call up on a Friday at 3:00 and we could immediately roll a truck out to go and help them. Based on what kind of tier or support that they would pick, it was already preset what kind of service they would get. And if somebody doesn't want to do it that's great.
We're never going to not help anybody but you realize that when you're not on a plan, that you're going to go at the back of the line. There are other folks that are ahead of you. It's interesting too with the hurricane it just hit this area. You really realize how important that is. And a lot of folks that just come down to this area and they visit they have their main homes out of town. It's really important that their system would be monitored because we had almost everybody, all our nice houses are on the water. All the best houses have the very worst infrastructure as far as Internet and power and their expectation is they come down and everything works. But with the power situation in the rest of the grid, it's just terrible. It's a lot of work to keep everybody happy.
Ron: This might be a silly question certainly Joey's going to slap his hand to forehead when I ask this question but educate me and educate the audience. Let's say you have a client they bought stuff from you 10 years ago and let's say that the network goes down and let's even say some stuff burned up or broke. What do they do or how are you preemptively managing that and how do you coordinate that with Joey and One Vision to get that client system brought back to life in a way that's fair to you? From a business and a money standpoint and it's fair to the client because they're happy because their system's alive.
Gregg: Yeah. That's one of the other beauties of this is so you have a ticketing system a ticket would come through to you. In the past, we've just basically winging it. Oh, this guy needs help again and we'd go help him. But now there's a written record so everything that we do is in a ticket. Every time we've been out to our house we have a written record of what we did what we recommended. And it just makes it a lot easier.
In the past too, we were small and one guy's taking all these calls and now we've got 12 different people here. You could say I'm looking at your notes and I see that we've talked to you about this on this day and this day and this day. Are we ready to do this yet or are we going to keep on just coming out? We can bill you forever if you want to but we can also fix it. You've already given me seven hundred dollars to fix it. We only wanted fifteen hundred dollars to be done with it.
Ron: Why not just replace it and move on? That's very cool. I want to jump on. I'm just mindful of time Greg because I know that actually you have things to do and I have to go do this other thing with the CEDIA talk. But I've got a couple more topics I want to jump into quickly if we can. And that is that I know that you have a philosophy that you have fun in the workplace from a company culture standpoint. You like to joke around with your guys or your team and then when you got to be serious with the customer you know you get serious and you talk about the proposal. What's your philosophy on running an office or running a company? I know you've had some members of your team stick with you for 20 plus years. How do you do that?
Gregg: Yes. That philosophy goes back to an auto parts chain I was telling you about. We used to work 60 hours a week there. We'd see each other way more than we'd see our wives girlfriends dogs whatever. I'm like if we got to do this and this is what we're doing every day, we need to have fun. We would joke around. We carried over to this business too. We'll hide we scare people, hiding behind the door playing all kinds of childish games. My wife says she would never work for me.
Ron: You guys will prank each other?
Gregg: Oh, absolutely the whole day is a prank. You're basically trying to have as much fun as you can and then there are just times where it's serious you get serious you solve the five minutes take care of the client put on your game face. Do what you need to do. You don't want to be laughing when a client's looking at you with a problem but other than that we try to just keep everything going.
Ron: One or two more nuggets of gold. What do you have for that business owner that's out there that has not been operating for twenty-five years. Maybe they've been at it for a few years and what's a word of wisdom or two that you wouldn't mind sharing? Something that you've learned along the way that now you practice that you wish you had known earlier.
"We try to always look for something better. Not necessarily something more profitable but something that will make something else be better."
Gregg: One of the things that we just do is just try to do what we said we're going to do. If I tell you I'm going to make your system do X, I like to believe that we would deliver that. My word is good. You don't need a contract from me. If I say I'm going to do X, you're going to get it. We try to always look for something better. Not necessarily something more profitable but something that will make something else be better.
Ron: Give me an example.
Gregg: Just take ceiling speakers, we started out with. I'll stay away from brands but a real popular one that we thought sounded OK. Now I think about that speaker I'm like, 'Oh my God this is horrible why would anybody even put this in their ceiling when we can put in this one for not that much more money?' It's a night and day difference. We try to give people a good bang for their buck.
"Better is better. I say that all the time around One Firefly."
Ron: Yeah. Better is better. I say that all the time around One Firefly better is better and your customer will appreciate it. Your team will appreciate it. That's great Gregg. How can folks that want to learn more about AV Specialists or that want to get in touch with you what is the best way they can do that?
Gregg: Well, we're on Facebook. I don't know if you have the links there but A.V. Specialists Incorporated.
Ron: I'm going to do this I'm gonna at least put your website up here on the screen so everyone could see that.
Gregg: Perfect. And there's a contact on there if you write on that website you can reach me.
Ron: There we go. I'll put your scroller for at least your website. Do you want to volunteer any social handles or phone numbers or emails or do is the website. The best way for people to get in touch?
Ron: It looks like our team at One Firefly in the comments already dropping in the Facebook link there. Great job team. Gregg I know this was a quick one we'll have to have you back on but thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to join us here on Episode 148 for Automation Unplugged.
Gregg: Thanks, Ron was a pleasure.
Ron: Awesome thank you. Alright, gang. There you have it. Show 148 Gregg Dixon AV Specialist. Great guy. He's soft-spoken and he confided in me that he was a little I don't want to say shy cause Gregg doesn't get shy. He doesn't like big crowds. And I said, "Gregg this is just you and me and a few people watching out there in the universe and or maybe listening through podcasts." That was a lot of fun. I have to run. Gang, I hope you have a great rest of your Wednesday this is December 2nd. We're right here in the middle of the holiday season. The frenzy that is the holidays at least here in the US and I want you all to have a safe rest of your week and weekend and I will see you next week with another episode of Automation Unplugged. Thank you all so much. And I will see you soon.
Gregg Dixon founded AV Specialists upon relocation of he and his family to Florida from New York. Now 25 years later, AV Specialists is having their most successful year in company history thanks to his dedicated and growing team and a renewed focus on home construction and remodeling from his core customer base.
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.
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