Home Automation Podcast Episode #104: An Industry Q&A With Erick Burton
In this weeks home automation show of Automation Unplugged, industry leader and VP of Western Audio/Video, Erick Burton shares his background as a custom integrator and how him and his business are approaching this pandemic with stride.
This week's home automation podcast features our host Ron Callis interviewing Erick Burton. Recorded live on Monday, March 30th, 2020 at 3:15 p.m. EST.
About Erick Burton
After meeting David Wilson of Wilson Audio as a teen over 25 years ago, Erick was inspired by David’s passion and began spending his time experimenting with audio and custom installations. In 1999, Erick began his career in Salt Lake City when he joined Audition Audio as an installer. The following year, he founded The Media Room. Although The Media Room ultimately failed, Erick says that the lessons he learned led to his career as an independent AV contractor specializing in estate level projects and interior design.
Later in 2014, Erick joined San Francisco-based integration firm, Western Audio/Video, where here is now a partner and Vice President. WAV was founded in 1977 and while their roots are with high-level residential AV integration, they’ve transitioned into a firm with an 80/20 focus on commercial AV over the last five years.
- How Erick and his team are handling the challenges brought by COVID-19.
- How Erick's unique experience with Cystic Fibrosis prepared him, his family, and company to stay safe during this pandemic
- Why Erick limits his media consumption and ways he limits anxiety during these stressful times
- Erick's thoughts on preparing for the new normal after the Coronavirus pandemic is cleared
Ron: Welcome to another episode of Automation Unplugged! Hope this message finds you well. We were dealing with some challenges with Comcast out there in San Francisco where my guest is coming to you from. Ladies and gentlemen, we have Erick Burton, Vice President of Western Audio Video. Erick, how are you?
Erick: I'm doing good thanks.
Ron: The Internet's actually working and you're not fully pixilated.
Erick: You know, you'd think we do this for a living or something. Of course right before we go live everything blows up completely. So yeah, it's great.
Ron: It's hilarious. Well, it looks like you are in quarantine or sheltering in place there maybe at your house.
Erick: Yeah that's true.
Ron: How was your weekend?
Erick: It was great. I think that being stuck at home with my wife is actually, as long as nobody stabs anybody in the next little while, it's going to be a great learning experience.
Ron: For our audience, obviously these are strange times, strange strange measures. Why don't you tell our audience a little bit about yourself and your business? Let's go in the way way back machine and look at where you got pulled into this audio/video and automation industry and where you're at today.
Erick: I got sort of introduced to the high-end audio scene through Dave Wilson when I was a kid in Utah. I met his kids in high school and got pulled into his listening room when I was about, I guess I was 16 at the time. It just got me. From then on I think I was always seeking that sound. It's been quite a ride. I was at the University of Utah when I got an offer to come work at Audition, which was sort of the high-end audio/video shop in Salt Lake City.
I was there for about a year before they changed hands and rather than going along with new ownership, I grabbed a good friend of mine at the time and we went and started The Media Room in Salt Lake City as a competitor. Honestly, we got killed. We thought having a business was a different thing than what it turned out to actually be like. I think a lot of people probably have.
Ron: Oh, I think there's a lot of in the world of entrepreneurship, there are people that observe management or owners sometimes and they're like "oh they're just driving nice cars and it's just all easy.".
Erick: Yeah, it's so easy!
Ron: So easy! And I'm smarter than them, so clearly I could be more successful!
Erick: My dad's a contractor, my family's always been self-employed so I didn't think anything of it. Honestly. It was like "okay I'm just gonna go do this and it'll be fine," and just get wrecked like it did not go well.
Ron: When you say wrecked, like as in personal debt wrecked? Or just like you bought a bunch of expensive lessons but you left with some scars?
Erick: I paid what I would have paid to go to a top-end school get an education on what not to do. We built a great, beautiful showroom. It was fantastic. We did all the things we thought we're supposed to be doing, we got all the lines but nobody really wanted to buy anything from me.
Ron: You had the product line - I know it's really not that funny at all, but only having been there done that in my own ways can I laugh with you. Not at you, but with you.
Erick: We had I think at one point about 10 people on staff and we kept the lights on but as people, you know, wanted to quit and go do other things and even my partner quit to go to his country music career. I just didn't hire anyone back.
Ron: What year was that?
Erick: The ending of that whole thing? It's probably like 2007, something like that? 2006, 2007. I just didn't hire anyone back as people left and so eventually it was me with the lines and the showroom and a bunch of contacts. I was really doing custom work and still high-end work, and I got pulled into some projects in the San Francisco Bay Area from Utah. I was commuting back and forth from Salt Lake City to San Francisco every other week for four years. It got kicked off and really what I bought myself was a career and a bunch of experience.
Out here just did a lot of estate-size projects and had my little subcontractors and did that for a long time before I opened an interior design firm servicing the same client. I had just gotten used to being in that world and it just made perfect sense. I ran that for about three years and a half years. Then Larry Whitney my partner here at Western Audio Video, we met up and I offered to do some sales for him because I wanted to get back into the tech life and since then we've just been rolling. We've gone from about a little less than a million and a half in sales when I joined about five years ago and now we're about three million. We transitioned from doing almost all residential work to now we're like 80% commercial and 20% residential work.
Ron: Got it. What's the area you guys are in?
Erick: Yeah, we do all of the San Francisco-Bay Area but we're actually about 20 minutes south of San Francisco in San Carlos. Our corporate office is in the La Honda district just over the hill from me.
Ron: OK. Elephant in the room. How's the virus and the lockdown affecting you and your business? What's going on there?
Erick: Yes, so I think my situation is kind of unique in that I have a genetic disease called cystic fibrosis. Just to give a quick rundown on who I am outside of business stuff, it's this genetic disease that really screws with your body's ability to move chloride across cell membranes, that's the big thing. What it really means is that all of the mucus, everything in my body is screwed up. My lungs don't work right, my digestive system isn't quite right. There's a bunch of gnarly things that go along with it. There are about 18,000 people in the US who have it. It kind of had been categorized as a childhood disease because most people who had it didn't live very long. Honestly. But a lot of things have changed and I didn't get diagnosed until I was 24 because I'm a mild case. Between medication and doing all the things that I'm supposed to do, I live a pretty normal life other than I'm very susceptible to getting a cold or flu. If I get the flu I can expect to spend two to three weeks in the hospital. For some time I was doing those stints in hospital two or three times a year. I was spending up to a month to a month and a half in a hospital bed. Medications have gotten better and I've gotten a lot healthier. The Cystic Fibrosis Foundation has done some amazing things with drug manufacturers to partner with them and gives us some great options.
Now, I maybe wind up in the hospital once every couple of years which is great. But we are probably among the most affected or at the most risk for this virus that's rolling through. And we don't have a lot of anecdotal evidence, because there's so few of us, about what happens exactly to somebody with severe lung disease who gets the virus. But just going on prior experience to it with things that have rolled through that have tagged me personally we're treating it like catching it at this moment it's about the closest thing to a death sentence we that we've seen. We've been very concerned about it. I've had my ear to the floor ever since it became a thing in China. When they started talking about a pandemic, my ears perked right up. I think because of that position, we watched this come in a lot earlier I think than a lot of our sort of peers in the business world. We had a plan for what we were going to do. As soon as we saw community spread here in the San Francisco Bay area, which was more than a month ago now, I pulled out all social contact for the most part.
We started treating it as if it was something that was out there in the community that needed to be guarded against. About the time that Francisco or the Bay Area, in general, went to lockdown we had already gotten to the point where we had a plan for our staff and make sure that they were taken care of, and just get everything buttoned down and prepared for the long haul. That's about where we stand right now is we've pretty much-ceased operations, we're just keeping the lights on right now. Everybody is at home. As far as we know all of our people are safe and at home. We're expecting it to be a pretty long process to get back on our feet.
Ron: What determines when you do reopen? Or for you personally getting back to life as usual? I mean if the disease is a potential death sentence it sounds like that's how you're reading it and interpreting it, which makes a lot of sense. How do you evaluate when is the risk to reward ratio in your favor to restart?
Erick: Sure. Well, I think that there's a couple of things, the first is when can my guys go back to work because that's really it. When is the world going to be open for business again? Or our area open for business again? I think that that's definitely completely separate from when is life going to be the same for me because my staff's not at the same risk I am. My clients aren't at the same risk that I am. For our staff, we would love to see it be like a two or three-month thing where they get it under control enough that the hospitals aren't overwhelmed. To me, that seems like the point where it becomes safe enough to start sending people back into people's homes or not feel like we're putting our people in harm's way. I think that's really the main danger, is that right now if someone gets sick, that's fine but if you have any sort of complications, even if you're a young person. This is still just really destroying people. And if you need oxygen or you need to be seen in the hospital, this is the last little window of time you've got before it's an "if" whether you will get treatment or not. I'm already seeing that in New York.
The danger isn't that younger or healthier people will for sure get this and die, it's that 20% of people who are having symptoms and wind up needing health care and there's just no room for them, it becomes a really dangerous thing. That's what we want to avoid. We just don't want anybody to be put in unnecessary risk. Then for me personally, the world returning to normal just doesn't make it any safer as long as there is no treatment and there's no like regimen of drugs or antivirals or anything so that when I do get sick there's some safety net. Until then, I just can't re-engage. I have to stay in quarantine. It'll be an interesting experiment to see if we can kick the business back off with me sort of running things from the sidelines.
Ron: How do you handle the mental stress that this must be putting on your shoulders? I mean, my family is stressed but we don't have a pre-existing genetic disorder that has the severity that it has for you. Do you meditate, read? What's your thing? How do you cope? Because you seem rather relaxed and I've been talking to you all along over the past weeks and months and didn't even realize the severity, so shame on me but when I did, I said let's tell the world. That's why I wanted you here.
Erick: Well I appreciate you bringing me on and having the conversation with me about it because. Honestly part of how I've coped over 20+ years of having this run in the background, I went from being a kid that ate dirt and didn't even think about germs or staying well or any of those things, like as far as I was concerned I was just an athlete business person. That's what I did. From then now until now you go to the hospital enough times that it just gets drilled into you to stay healthy. That's the only real thing you can do, make it through flu season without getting the flu, make it through cold season without getting a cold. Manage to work out and exercise and put a lot of stress on your body without doing it so much that you make yourself sick. All of those things just kind of run as background programming for you long enough and it becomes how you live that when I'm out in regular life not really thinking about this, like wash your hands, don't touch your face, use hand sanitizer, run immediately to the bathroom when you shake someone's hand. All of those things are just kind of how we live anyway.
I've been wearing an N95 mask on airline flights for I don't even know how long. All these things are part of the background and have been for me for a long time now. I have friends and family and people that I care about that the way I do that part of my life actually means something now. I felt like I can help with that. Talking to people about like here's what you do, do everything you can think of. If you wonder, "Should I do this? Is that person infected? If I go out, am I going to catch this?" Just act as if everyone's infected out there. Honestly, it sounds a little counterintuitive, but you treat everything as if it's a threat and once you do that, your brain stops processing, "What should I do? What am I going to do?" Because you've decided what you're going to do and now it's worked into a routine and you can relax.
For me, at the moment I'm doing the shopping if we do go out I'm going to like a full respirator, I've got a layer of clothes to strip off when coming home in the garage, we get sanitized up before we come upstairs, we go immediately to wash our hands. I usually jump in the shower just to get completely cleaned off. Everything that comes into the house gets sanitized before it comes into the house, the food gets sprayed down, any boxes we wait three or four days in the garage before we'll bring them inside, mail the same thing. All that sounds like so much like, "Oh my God. How do you deal with being that worried about everything?" And that's kind of the thing, once you start doing that and the way you deal with it, I don't have to worry about being in my house and I don't have to worry about the food that I'm eating and I don't have to worry about so many things that I think are really keeping people cooped up or keeping people in a state of fear. And that list can just go on and on about the things you're going to do like, wipe down all that high touch surfaces in your house once a day with something, vacuum two or three times a week.
There are lots of those things that you can do. My wife has been quarantined up for, I think we put 19 days on the board that she's been out of work. I've been doing this for more than a month and it probably won't stop any time soon. That's why.
Ron: I told my team this morning about my fun COVID-19 clearing routine story. My birthday was this weekend and my team.
Erick: Happy Birthday.
Ron: Thank you. Thank you. My team had got me a fun gift. And my days have been starting early and going till late. On Friday I finished at 10 pm, I was on the phone with clients and video conferencing, working through things. And so a package had arrived at my house on Friday and it was the birthday gift from my leadership team at One Firefly, they got me a fun little novelty gift. I didn't know this and the long story short, it was this Ron bobblehead from China. So my wife sees this box from China and inside of the package it comes with three face masks. There is a bobblehead and face masks, like very odd but maybe appropriate for the times. It immediately freaked her out.
She's like, "This thing's getting totally Lysol down." She Lysols the box, opens it, Lysols this puppy down, wipes it down. And of course, it wiped the One Firefly logo right off the bobblehead's t-shirt. That was the only paint that didn't stick there. But in our house, my wife is particularly amazing and particularly amazing around being mindful of this virus out there so I mean every grocery, every letter, every package gets thoroughly wiped down. And so that at least we have a higher probability of not getting sick I suppose.
Erick: Yeah, That's great man. I think anything that you can do, anything you can think of to do just decreases that risk. Any little thing not only decreases it a little bit but that risk is cumulative. If you have like .01% chance that you could possibly get it that way, you stack up enough of those things and it goes from being from playing like the Mega Lotto to your odds of blackjack. You also get to relax and turn your brain off and not have to worry about it.
Ron: Speaking of this subject of anxiety and preparation, one of my questions was, "What are the ways you keep yourself sound of mind?" You said through.
Erick: Education and freaking out.
Ron: Education balanced with freaking out. How much news do you watch a day on social media or TV? Do you watch it every day?
"Any news that I get is mostly like places I've found where either doctors or scientists are talking about what they're going to do or what research they're looking at or reading some of this really fantastic journalism and put together papers that people have been producing that explain things really well. That's where I'm getting my information."
Erick: Zero zero zero. Any news that I get is mostly like places I've found where either doctors or scientists are talking about what they're going to do or what research they're looking at or reading some of this really fantastic journalism and put together papers that people have been producing that explain things really well. That's where I'm getting my information. I haven't had actual cable or satellite subscription for like 15 years or something. We cut the cord a long long time ago. That's just not in the background for me. We don't really have it on here and then social media I'm not really a huge social media guy either. Pretty private. Most of it is, the information you go looking for rather than information that's given to you has been translated by someone else and sort of framed for you to understand or feel a certain way about it. I find that that really helps me keep my anxiety lower because I'm looking at it and I'm deciding what I think of that thing, I don't have somebody in my ear telling me that we're all going to die or it's okay or like that flash between what a scientist is saying, what the person on TV is telling us, and those two things don't line up, who should you be listening to? Who should you plan for?
And I think that's kind of, to roll into another discussion, that's part of what I think is keeping people so anxious about this at the moment and making this so much harder. It sure seems like the goalposts for what should we expect to get moved constantly, daily. To go from, it's a hoax to it's gonna be gone in a few days, everything's gonna be OK to there's nothing to worry about, it's something that's happening to people over there to now we will do a good job if only 100,000 people in the US die from this. The story changing and then it changes again and changes again, it's just terrifying for people. I completely understand the anxiety and the fear of this. And that's why I would recommend to anybody is go read what the scientists say about it, read what the doctors say about it, find the study from China that says this is exactly what we did, how we did it, and how it went. Look at what Korea is doing, look at what all these other places are doing and if you do it enough, what becomes pretty obvious is that this is not going to be a short thing, it's going to be a minimum of two to three months of us just doing everything we possibly can to stop our hospital from becoming overwhelmed.
Not that this disease is so deadly to everyone, but if you care about the older people in your family or your friends that have problems or you have health problems that the medical establishment is not gonna be able to take care of you well for another two or three months probably before we get it under control. And then once we do get it under control it doesn't make it safe. It just makes it so that they're there for you if you need them. What I'm seeing is two to three months of being locked down the way that we are and probably 12 to 18 months of sort of going back and forth between being released move around and having that cause a flare and then moving back and just trying to stay under the capacity of our hospitals and move through like 60 or 80% of all of us having been infected so that it stops traveling.
Ron: That makes sense. For those that are listening a lot of our audiences are folks from the audio/video integration space at varying levels and capacities. What do you think should be considered in terms of preparing their business? Assuming they intend to stay in business and they want to get back to some level of normal whatever that new normal is. What are your thoughts?
Erick: For us looking at it, it's how long is this gonna take? That's kind of the first thing. Everybody needs to meet there. I don't want to say it's going to be exactly this because I would love to be wrong. If it turns out I'm wrong, we all get to go back to life much earlier and that would be ideal.
Ron: I'll go on record, I hope you're wrong but go ahead.
"Owners are very familiar with how much it costs to run a company or an outfit for every month and if we're not working, what are the expenses we can't get away from?"
Erick: Yeah. I also really hope I'm wrong. There's no money riding on being right about this. We want everyone to be as healthy as possible but we also want to get back to some business as usual for sure. For us looking at what are we willing to do, what is our birth rate? What can we get our burn rate down to through this downturn? Owners are very familiar with how much it costs to run a company or an outfit for every month and if we're not working, what are the expenses we can't get away from? What are the things that we can knock down without putting our vendors in a tough spot or putting their people in a tough spot? We want to continue on and so that's kind of the balance, is trying to get your expenses knocked down as far as you possibly can. For us this is a really hard thing to do, to furlough people that are working for you that we've had great relationships and we are really loyal to and they're really loyal to us to say, "Well in order for us to have a company for everyone to come back to this is what we have to do."
We have set ourselves up to be able to go for six months or longer and still be able to reopen the company and hire our people back. We decided that was the best thing that we could do for our people, is make sure that no matter what happens, Western Audio/Video is going to come back and they're going to have a place to work as the economy comes back online. I don't think that any approach is wrong. There are people out there that are saying, "Well you know there's going to be these SBA loans that come along that will help people. We'll give you the opportunity to help people keep their jobs or help pay a portion of their salaries to keep them on." I definitely can't say that our way is the only way to handle it. I would just say that I would start with doing the math and say, "Well how long do I think this could go? What do we think the market's going to look like when it does turn back on?" And given those two things, "What tough decisions do I have to make right now?" We've gone to the folks that we leased the property from and asked them to do push back on our lease terms for a few months. We've decreased the number of seats we have across all of our software, everything that we can do, every expense that we can knockdown.
We have this conversation you and I about what can be done and we decided that every possible thing we could take down we needed to but there were some things we needed to keep on, our advertising sort of reorienting the message that we were sending out to people about what we can do to help them and really try to prepare ourselves for when things do turn back on, that we are there to start picking up the pieces as soon as possible.
Ron: Yeah, that makes sense. Erick, if people in our audience want to get in touch with you personally or learn more about Western Audio/Video, do you recommend they go to your web site or they contact you directly?
Erick: Definitely go through the web site, and contact it all gets sent to me anyway so that's probably the best way to get it. Welcome to message me on Facebook too. That's fine.
"One of the charts I was looking at was the rise in internet usage and overall throughput through the ISP's around the country. As we've encountered with you and I trying to go live it's spiking exponentially in a lot of markets as has social media use."
Ron: Oh, yeah I was going to ask you that. I get the Wall Street Journal and I'm on their digital subscription and they send me such fantastic data and charts every morning. One of the charts I was looking at was the rise in internet usage and overall throughput through the ISP's around the country. As we've encountered with you and I trying to go live it's spiking exponentially in a lot of markets as has social media use. so Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn. I'm just curious, not with your business hat on but has this hiatus or this maybe breaks from the normal changed your own habits around being on any other social platform?
Erick: Definitely. I'm that guy who avoids them as much as possible. And so it's been interesting because everybody is switched on now. Even people who are really using it that much like you need as many ways to communicate as you can with your friends your family. So definitely, yeah I picked it back up. In fact, I think my Facebook account we've got for me for this is one that turns back on from long ago that I had inactivated.
Ron: Oh, so in order for us to do this interview today you had to activate any old account?
Ron: There you go.
Erick: I imagine some of the folks watching are friends of mine they're like, "Oh he's back!".
Ron: He's back! He's on the socials. Another quick thing. this is a form of video conferencing we just happen to have an audience. Has that changed in your life or for your business? The use of video conferencing versus maybe how you used to do things? Has anything changed there?
Erick: Yeah. It's interesting because I think we were kind of in a unique place where we did a lot of video conferencing work for our corporate clients. So this is a really normal thing for us. What you're watching me on right now is actually an A/V cart with a Crestron soundbar, mic and speakers on it. That was just like the first thing I ran down and got from the shop. I figured out we were going to be sequestered here for a long time and I want to be able to have kind of a lounge and family room experience with my friends and family.
We've been doing a lot of Zoom with our friends and family and even our business meetings haven't really changed that much because we were using it already to do a lot of our work. I've pitched it to a lot of residential clients honestly, too. Like here, we have this that can make your experience a lot better than everybody huddling around your phone or wrapped around your laptop. But for that, we ran out of time to get shipments of anything before we got locked down here. It's a great idea with a lot of interest and no actual product.
Ron: Maybe you'll see a surge in those sorts of installations post virus?
Erick: Yeah, probably.
"I have a unique perspective in that I'm kind of hearing what's happening throughout North America and some guys and gals are where you're at and they've had to furlough staff and they're fully locked down and other people are saying they've never seen such a surge in particular demands usually around that security surveillance and networking in some cases technology."
Ron: I would think so. I have a unique perspective in that I'm kind of hearing what's happening throughout North America and some guys and gals are where you're at and they've had to furlough staff and they're fully locked down and other people are saying they've never seen such a surge in particular demands usually around that security surveillance and networking in some cases technology.
Erick: No, that's interesting. When we were talking the other day and you said that, I was like, "Wow, we don't have those clients here!"
Ron: I was on the phone the other day with a client in Texas and this particular client they've been a good customer of mine for about a year and a half. I'm admitting I didn't know this particular feature of their business and I was chatting with them, and they said they'd never been busier in the entire history of their company than right now. And this is a mature business. I was like, "What planet are you from? What are you talking about?" And they just so happened to be servicing first responders and hospitals as a core customer. So police stations. firehouses hospitals. They're busy installing command centers for COVID-19 responses for cities throughout the state of Texas and they said their orders are through the roof, couldn't remotely address everything that has surfaced.
Erick: Wow, that's incredible.
Ron: Who would have thought? And I could tell different types of those stories, I wish all my stories were so exciting but they aren't all so exciting. But they do exist! There is hope out there if you're watching or listening there is hope. Well, Erick, I know that everyone watching and listening to this now is going to want to know how you're doing so that means we're gonna have to check in a couple of times here over the coming months. Are you down for that?
Erick: Absolutely awesome.
Ron: Well Erick, it has been my pleasure to have you on another episode of Automation Unplugged.
Erick: Thank you, Ron. I enjoyed it, it was a lot of fun.
Industry innovator Erick Burton, VP of Western Audio/Video shares his insight on how he got started in the custom integration industry and ways he's taking the COVID-19 pandemic in stride.
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:
- Wall Street Journal Article on ISP Usage Increase
- World Health Organization COVID-19 Information
- CDC COVID-19 Information
More Automation Unplugged:
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