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January 2007
Zen in the Entertainment Zone
By Lisa Hoffmann

Do you Zobo? If not, you’re probably accustomed to juggling five remote controls each time you want to watch your favorite program or listen to a little jazz. It’s likely you don’t use many of the system’s dazzling (or so the salesman said) features, either. Jay Faison, founder and owner of Zobo.tv, felt homeowners’ frustration and saw an opportunity. His mission? To make home entertainment the simple pleasure it’s meant to be.

 

A Zeal for Simplicity

So what’s a zobo? The 1902 Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog advertised it as “the simplest musical instrument made.” It was a kazoo of sorts and was easy to play. When Faison was searching for the right name for his home entertainment company he wanted something related to entertainment that was catchy yet had a simple feel. “Zobo” was perfect. He tagged “tv” on the end and was well on his way to successfully branding a company meant to fill a niche for headache-ridden homeowners.

After business school Faison took a job in Portugal where he got involved with a group of people that wanted to bring Blockbuster stores to the country. Faison lined everything up but then the group backed out. An entrepreneur through and through, Faison figured “why don’t I just take them on myself?” and oversaw operations of 25 Blockbuster stores (now run by a former business partner) for a few years before returning to the states.

Faison had become more interested in technology and home theater systems and in 1999 he founded WirePath Home Systems. WirePath focused entirely on custom audio/video and automation systems for new homes. By 2002, WirePath was the largest provider of custom audio/video and automation systems for new homes in the Charlotte market.

Being in a prime position to research the home entertainment industry from the inside out, Faison uncovered a common thread running through most everyone’s experiences with home entertainment systems.

“I was hearing from customers time and again that what electronics stores and installation services were providing wasn’t what they wanted,” Faison says. “Industry experts were describing their products as “easy to use” and “great values”; customers were saying “too complicated, overpriced and unreliable.” I figured there had to be an approach that leaves the customer feeling better about their investment and enjoying their systems more.”

Faison saw a niche and set out to figure out how to fill it. He set about evolving his business to tame the complexities of home entertainment systems and offer the greater value and reliability customers thirsted for—to fill the gap between high-end custom home entertainment installation companies and the big box stores many people on a more modest budget resort to.

“When I realized there was no one in the middle, my vision really started to come into focus,” Faison says. “I decided I wanted to position my business somewhere in that middle ground.”

 

The Niche Master

Faison formulated a business strategy that focused on simplicity, value and reliability, and re-branded the company as Zobo.tv to best represent his vision. He opened his first storefront in the Pineville Design Center in 2004, offering systems ranging in price from $4,000 to $25,000.

With his vision clearly developed, Faison fashioned his new business like a jigsaw puzzle piece fitted snugly into the open niche. Basing each decision on his mantra of simplicity, value and reliability, Faison began steering Zobo.tv toward setting up home entertainment systems for homeowners in addition to wiring new construction for builders.

The first obstacle Faison faced was simplifying the highly complex field of home entertainment. As he walked through the cavern of a big box store’s television displays it became clear that narrowing the choices was a good first step.

“If you look at four different brand receivers of the same class, the guts are the same and you can’t hear a difference. So here we just offer one,” Faison explains. “We just give you what you want and not a whole lot more that you don’t need. If there’s not a big demand for a product we don’t offer it. And that simplicity allows us to keep it simple for the customer, deliver on our promises and really understand our products inside and out.”

Simply by narrowing the choices, Zobo.tv streamlines the entire buying process. Although it may seem as though fewer choices is a negative thing for the consumer, Faison—and his customers—view it as entirely positive. All Zobo.tv set-ups are packaged for maximum value and performance in each respective price range and application.

Zobo.tv’s customers spend a fraction of the time choosing their systems that customers at the most expensive custom home entertainment companies or big box stores spend. All package prices are posted prominently nearby the displays. “You can come in here, look at our set-ups and in 15 minutes you can decide what you want,” Faison says. “You’ll know exactly what it’s going to cost and you can be assured that you’ll have one simple remote for everything.”

Zobo.tv’s showroom is divided into “rooms” so that customers can see various set-ups in settings similar to what they have at home. If they’re looking for a living room system they can visit the living room section. If they’re looking for a basement set-up they can check out the basement displays. “You spend more time here talking about your room than the TV or receiver,” Faison says.

 

Screening Costs

Narrowing the choices led Faison to solutions for his other business goals. Zobo.tv buys in quantity, negotiating a reduced price with its electronics vendors. Zobo.tv is the third largest dealer of Pioneer/Elite products in the Southeast. Faison has furniture made offshore and buys it by the container load. Mounts, cables and other commodities are often bought straight from foreign factories, cutting out the expensive middle man.

“We save money any way we can and then pass that savings on to the customer,” Faison says. “It’s a formula that works for us in a lot of ways. And we have a lot of delighted customers.”

Having one remote control for all their home entertainment components is a significant benefit for many customers. “I’ve heard every story there is out there about how hard it is for people’s parents or baby sitters to figure out how to use their TV,” Faison says with a laugh. “It doesn’t have to be that way. All our remotes are pre-programmed for a customer’s components. Anyone can learn to use the remote in a quick minute. It really is that easy. We encourage customers to shop around and compare us to other companies. It’ll make them feel great about the value they’re going to get here.”

Limiting the number of components it offers also allows Zobo.tv’s technicians to become completely familiar with the equipment they’re installing, using the same installation process every time. Faison oversees time-motion studies at his warehouse where installers are run through the process over and over again to ensure maximum efficiency. Supplies are pre-loaded the night before scheduled installations so that installation crews are turning the ignition keys in the delivery vans at 7:01 a.m.

Zobo.tv has also removed many of the layers of communication for the customer. The salesperson becomes the customer’s single point of contact for everything from choosing a system to scheduling installation to troubleshooting any issues that come up. Zobo.tv installs about 90 systems per month.

“We establish a certain comfort level with our customers,” says Kyle Ray, Zobo.tv’s general manager. “I see salespeople becoming real friends with their customers all the time.”

“And we’ve developed a real reputation among our customers; more than 50 percent of our business comes from referrals. Many of those people are pre-sold when they walk through the door,” Faison adds.

 

Past, Present and Future

Faison knew he’d hit on the right formula almost from the day he opened the doors in Pineville. “We were lucky enough to have a lot of success right out of the chute.” A little luck and a lot of planning results in happy customers who like to tell their friends about Zobo.tv.

“I get an e-mail every other day from customers who are just delighted with the whole experience,” Faison explains. “That’s how I know I’m hitting the mark. People won’t take the time to tell you they’re happy unless they’re absolutely thrilled. Our whole business is predicated around delighting the customer and getting them to tell someone else about us.”

When Zobo.tv first opened Faison was spending seven percent of sales revenue on television, radio and print advertising. Today the company spends only two percent of its sales revenue on advertising, most of which is devoted to direct mail for new home owners. Sales figures topped $4 million in 2005 and were forecasted to reach $6.8 million at the end of 2006.

Now that Faison has simplified the home entertainment system installation process for customers, he faces new challenges for growing the company. The very things that make Zobo.tv unique are the same things that are difficult to market. The concept doesn’t easily fit into a sound byte or television commercial. Faison plans to add more information and videos to his Web site in the hope that people will surf through and spend a little time getting educated. “Instead of getting a master’s degree in home entertainment, they can take a few minutes to see how we can make the whole process easier and more enjoyable,” Faison explains.

The full cost of ownership of a home entertainment system is another concept that’s difficult to communicate to the public. Zobo.tv is careful to do the job right the first time and protect customers’ investments with things like surge protectors. This isn’t common practice, according to Faison.

Faison just bought each salesperson a new car to promote the business and offer one of the perks that makes Zobo.tv is a nice place to work. “It’s great here,” Ray says. “We’ve gotten quite a reputation for being a great place to work because employees are treated with respect. The stores are closed on Sundays, for example. Being well-trained makes you feel good about your job, too. The employees believe in the products and it shows.”

Faison recently opened a second store at the Northlake Mall in north Charlotte and says he’s well-positioned to open more stores in the future should he decide to. The Zobo.tv concept is now so well-defined that replicating it would be easy. More stores are not part of the current growth plan, though.

“Our next initiative is to go beyond these four walls and out into the community and build relationships with realtors, interior designers and builders,” Faison explains. “We’re aiming for $15 to $16 million per year (sales) by 2009.”

It may not be as easy as playing a zobo, but if past history is any indication, Zobo.tv will hit the mark.

Lisa Hoffmann is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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