It can be really hard to launch a product in a space you're not known for. If you can't talk to your consumers, you might not have any. The days of making something and releasing it in a vacuum are gone.

NOT FOR RESALE

I’ve been taking guitar lessons to improve my music theory on the fretboard at my local guitar shop, a Taylor authorized reseller for years. This week, instead of an Epiphone Firebird, my instructor had a Taylor solid body with “Not for resale” stamped on the back of the headstock.

Apparently, Taylor decided to pull these solid body models from the product line and gifted 2 per lesson studio to top resellers as a way of clearing out stock of models that aren’t selling.

This should have happened first, not last.

SCARY

What’s really alarming is that Taylor has been making these solid body guitars since 2007 and gone the path of putting them in stores, putting them in traditional print magazines, but not really broken into the awareness of the regular consumer as “a Taylor electric is a legitimate option for me.” Equally scary? That Bob Taylor, founder, is quoted as saying he wasn’t interested in making an electric guitar but changed his mind when his staff showed him their better electric pickups. I would have rather they quoted Bob as saying something like, “We always wanted to make guitars with the best materials and craftsmanship and focused for almost 40 years on acoustic guitars. It wasn’t until someone could show me a better pickup made by using better materials that I realized it was time for a Taylor solid body.” Note: On the Taylor web site this point did get across. It didn't make it across in the online reviews.

This strikes me as a problem with the go-to-market strategy for the Taylor solid body line. It’s true, Taylor has an amazing reputation for acoustic guitars and semi-acoustics like the T5 - but solid body guitars were a stretch for Taylor, with almost no solid body reputation, no solid-body artist sponsorship portfolio and no placement in player's hands.

I’m sure Taylor had a product launch strategy, but I would have attempted to put the instruments in the hands of players first.

HOW TO FIX THIS

Glossing over the details of this work,

  • I would have done consumer surveys, not proposing a Taylor electric, but asking people what they shopped for when they shopped for their first good electric guitar. What model did they buy? Why? How did they find it, where did they read about it? What makes it good? What are they looking for in their next electric?

  • I would have done reseller surveys. What models do they sell the most of, and what what price points? Double, single cut, humbugkers, single-coils, stop tailpiece, tremolo? Get the breakdown on the biggest sellers. Then, get the breakdown on the biggest non-Gibson / non-Fender sales. Parker Fly? Line6? PRS? Compare that with the clone LesPaul / clone Strat / Tele sales.

  • Determine the cross-section between these two data sets. What do people say they bought and why, versus what sells.

  • Put the models in the lesson rooms before product launch, as a soft-launch, just before NAMM. Provide almost no information, no spec sheets, let it be a mystery. Leak it to the bloggers. Build some buzz. Then, at NAMM, press release, announcement and put it in the hands of journos. Tell them you have XYZ number of resellers around the country who have been using them in lesson rooms with ABC number of students for the past month and the difference is huge - there’s both a “we’ve vetted this in the marketplace” and a “Taylor supports music education” message here, that by putting consistently good instruments in the hands of young players, you remove the major roadblock of a bad instrument getting in the way of learning. Speaking of bloggers and traditional journalists, this is one area Taylor got right for the release of the solid body series.

  • Support young players? For students who are taking lessons at an authorized reseller, you subsidize the purchase of a Taylor solid body. The benefit? Strengthen the partnership with your dealer network. They get lesson fees, they get people to keep coming into the shop each week. Taylor gets to have the solid body model presented as “by the way, I know you’re looking at these other solid-bodies, but the Taylor is available if you’re taking lessons here.” The risk is that someone signs up, buys at the discount, and quits taking lessons. But it means more guitars in the hands of more players overall - this isn't a bad thing.

  • Artist sponsorship. Go back to the consumer discovery interviews. Who are the people who responded listening to? Who are the people taking lessons listening to? Who are the electric guitar heroes who don’t have a guitar that is uniquely associated with them solely? The artist sponsorship department does an amazing job with acoustic artists. The sole electric artist is Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath, and he plays Taylor acoustics and acoustic-electrics.

  • Price the Taylor lower than it has been. Taylor solid-bodies are priced at $1300-$1998. That’s on level with a Gibson LP Studio. You’re entering a market that is unknown to Taylor. Price lower initially and raise prices YoY. Rolex was originally a tool watch priced at $300. Rolex raises prices YoY and now retail at $7000 and more. Or, create the 1600 dollar model, subsidize it for the student, but also make a lower dollar model without the inset top (really, an inlaid flame maple top, which I first confused for photo-flame!), without the frills, nickel plate instead of chrome, made in Mexico - what is the Melody Maker of the Taylor solid body line? What is the Squier? It’s okay to issue only premium pricing when you’re king of the hill. Right now, this is uncharted territory for Taylor and it appears as if Taylor is ceding it.

  • Build one model initially, based on the consumer interviews. There’s no sense in building one of everything.

  • Build a model based on a crowd-funding pre-order exercise with some limitations imposed - base price with a few upgrades or options. Let people choose to pre-order and run it like a kickstarter campaign. Potentially run it on kickstarter. The goal will not be to “fund the development of a Taylor guitar” - the goal will be “fund the development of a guitar made by guitar fans - This is your guitar, part of a two-way conversation between fans and guitarmaker, not a traditional “we make, you buy” relationship.” Crowd-funding pre-orders vet the development so what’s built translates into sales, or at least enough sales to fulfill the pre-orders.

  • Where is Taylor on the Van’s Warped Tour? Excellent job on SXSW. How can Taylor do more of this? How can Taylor do this for other music festivals in the US and UK?

I can’t promise my approach would have delivered different results, but my plan would have definitely built things people have proven to be interested in, and definitely put them in the hands of players.

When I went off to live at University in the fall of 1993, everyone had a hi-fi. On move-in day at the dormitories, parents and students unloaded the family car, full of clothing, posters, a computer, and the hi-fi. Before leaving for school, my father had given me three big presents. They were the IBM PS/1 386SX PC, and speakers: a Marantz left channel, and a Marantz right channel.

This is very a much a boy thing, part of the male ego and maybe even it has some anthropological basis in a male's need to mark territory or establish a sense of alpha male, king-of-the-hill-ism. (Not to say that hi-fi is a male thing: my girlfriend at the time had an amazing pair of dbx 3x2RS speakers in black veneer.)

The first thing every boy unboxed was the receiver and speakers. The first act was to start playing move-in music, loudly. We showed off musical tastes. We showed off dominance by decibels. Or maybe it was stupidity, I can't be sure.

I admit, I cheated. I also had a guitar amp with two 12 inch speakers, a solid-state affair pumping out 100w mono. I ran a portable CD player into it with low pre-amp gain and the master turned high. You'd never listen to music like this, but it was fine for move-in.

The truth is, it probably wasn't a contest. Memory is a funny thing, and retelling it now, it seems as if it was a contest. The truth is, I probably was making it into one where there wasn't a real competition.

Ten Years Later

I got the first generation iPod.

The first iPod speakers were lousy little affairs that used the headphone port.

Somewhere between April and September of 2003, iPod docks started to appear.

The first was an Alpine car radio, to replace factory-equipped radios. This was soon followed by home audio solutions like the SoundDocks we all know of from Bose.

The era of the hi-fi was over.

Docking speakers really took off around 2005, with iHome selling their first alarm clock solution. The iPod had been a hot selling item for two years, with kids asking their parents for one each year. Usually hot products that appeal to kids lose demand after a season. The iPod lasted years without losing demand.

The introduction of the iPod mini and its replacement by the iPod nano further cemented the iPod in kids hands. Parents bought the iHome alarm clock as the logical accessory for kids.

Griffin solved the car audio problem with the iTrip FM transmitter. People don't want to replace their factory-equipped car stereo and aux-in options in cars are only now being provided by manufacturers who are traditionally 10 years behind the technology curve. They're just realizing in the past few years that they aren't providing methods of transportation, they're providing entertainment systems that happen to have engines.

For in home use, everyone from iHome, Bowers and Wilkins, Arcam, JBL, Altec Lansing, Klipsch, Sony, Philips, Logitech and more had entered the speaker dock market. There are winners (iHome, Bose, B&W) and losers (Altec Lansing.)

By 2010, the docking speaker had seen its best days go by. In part because it had become a commodity item, and in part because the market had been flooded and you didn't need to change your dock with the regularity that you needed to upgrade the iPod, people just weren't buying in as large numbers as they once had. The economic downturn in general didn't help.

In the summer of 2010, a person at a company teased us with the notion that Apple would do something to reinvigorate the speaker market, and give everyone a reason to re-buy. We now know this to be AirPlay, and we know that it hasn't had the wide adoption that anyone hoped.

The truth is, I really wanted AirPlay to take off. I wanted it to be available as soon as Apple announced it in September 2010. Sure, I had used AirTunes on 802.11g AirPort Express, but they weren't really robust and you could only play from iTunes or Rogue Amoeba's AirFoil - limited to music on your computer. Streaming from the iPhone I'd been carrying around for 3 years was going to be awesome.

It didn't work out that way. The most extreme example was iHome selling their IW1 portable AirPlay speaker for $299 one year after it was announced. And that speaker didn't even sell that well.

An Aside: The Griffin Twenty

In January 2012, Griffin showed the Griffin Twenty at CES. Twenty is a 40 Watt (20x2ch) amplifier with speaker outputs, subwoofer out to amplified subs, and optical input. You're meant to connect an early 802.11N AirPort Express to it and play it through your existing hi-fi speakers. The tag line on the box is, brilliantly

The good speakers miss you.

God-damned copywriting genius.

Slight Return

In 2012, it became clear that AirPlay wasn't selling in great numbers or selling in any numbers outside of Apple retail stores. Bluetooth, an audio technology that had been around since 2001, had always been terrible to audio and was only now improving. Consumers weren't buying AirPlay and weren't buying Bluetooth in numbers to replace their existing docking speakers.

I put car stereos in my cars with Bluetooth and mounted microphones in the interior. I gave stuffed animals with Bluetooth in them to my daughters. My girls used them once and my wife always changes audio source to iPhone instead of the car stereo. As for me, I have all kinds of trouble with the pairing nonsense that Bluetooth requires.

Even Apple introducing a new connector on the iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad models didn't spur speaker purchases in Bluetooth. How do I explain this?

Headphones

In 2003, Rick Alden founded Skullcandy. By 2005, he'd had the "ink'd" and "smokin' buds" ear buds ranged in Target retail.

Skullcandy has had great successes with 9 USD earbuds and has had some success moving up the price point range, notably with the Fix and Aviator headphones. They've had less success moving into speakers (The Pipe and Vandal did not do nearly as well.)

The Beats by Dré phenomenon started in 2009. It's been copied by every headphone mfr. who thinks that adding a rapper as the 'head of development' for a headphone line will result in sales. What they're missing is that it isn't about rappers as much as it is about authentically caring about a certain type of sound response and having the marketing, engineering, and marketing of engineering to back it up.

Here's the point of this retelling of near-history: The hi-fi became the iPod speaker dock. The speaker dock has become headphones.

Headphones are available in a variety of price ranges and form factors, all doing about the same kinds of things, but with some variations on features and all over the spectrum on sound quality and frequency response curves. There's a earphone for every price, for every market segment, and for every form factor.

Headphones Are The New Hi-Fi.

Speaker docks are on their way out, although it may take a few years for this to become evident. Bose will remain strong, B&W will remain strong, but there just isn't a lot of room for other speaker docks.

Since Apple introduced the Lightning connector, only JBL and GEAR4 have released speaker docks with Lightning. It's been 6 months. 183 days.

With headphones, people can buy in at a price point and sound performance level, re-buy whenever they get more money and a more fashionable item becomes available, and re-buy again when they inevitably leave them on the bus/airplane/whatever, or break the cables. They cost cheaper initially, have more margin potentially, and can peak at price points equivalent with docking speakers, if the performance is there. This breaks, however, when manufacturers decide to do fast-follower-at-worse-quality-same-price-point plans.

What Of The Hipster?

There's an exception to this. The hipster will buy headphones, preferably on-ear or over-ear that look like the ones used in public school language learning labs. Panasonic makes a brilliant version of this in the RP-HTX7.

But the hipster also illustrates the revival of vinyl albums. Urban Outfitters sells the usual Crosley record players, but also sells an Audio Technica turntable. Shoot, they even sell the records.

It's bigger than just the hipster. There's also the people that never left vinyl. Whether it's Urban Outfitters or the fact that there's a record store with racks of vinyl not far from a local co-working spot, vinyl is back. Most representative is that Crosley still has a record player carried in Target stores season after season. If it weren't successful, it'd have been kicked out long ago.

What The Future Holds

The way forward is headphones. Retailers, Rep Firms, Brands, and Contract Manufacturers all make good profit on headphones, and the replacement / repurchase rate is high.

The vinyl resurgence is smaller than the headphone space, but it's telling: people place a high value their listening experience, and dedicate not just the equipment, but the time to pay attention to every note, to every dynamic swing, and enjoy it.

It's a far cry from cranking a 4x over-sampling cd player through a guitar amp.


Note: I worked for Griffin from the end of 2008 to 2010. I worked at GEAR4 through early 2013.


Jan 5, 2013

DESIGN

I was recently having lunch with a very good friend. He was speaking about design a lot and how to communicate about it.

I thought for a moment and while it's really pithy, I've defined design.

Design is the result of attention and intention being paid on an experience or outcome.

Jan 5, 2013

The "whoa" business model

Neven Mrgn writes about going to the movie theater and seeing a movie with no trailers or advertisements. He was suitably wowed, because his expectations were exceeded and the experience was better than he expected.

I think about this a lot in the products I've been involved in making: How do we make the experience, from the moment you open the box to the first use, how do we make that experience impress you? How do we make you feel like you got more than you paid for with each use?

Dec 17, 2012

On Quality and Optimization

You have to decide what you're optimizing around. Many people and organizations optimize around cost, placing quality as a lesser priority.

An example of this is the person who buys a mediocre bicycle, saying "it gets me where I want to go and when it breaks I won't care, I'll just get another." (see footnote.)

The polar opposite is the person who researches and buys the very best bicycle, "knowing that it will never let me down, so it's one less thing I have to think about or be disappointed in."

The approach chosen has to be settled on at all levels of the organization, from the owner to the project manager.

If the direction is to optimize around quality, then all decisions need to be made around delivering the very best possible experience and only at the last step of development working towards a cost target.

If the decision is to optimize around cost, then you'll find organizations making cost decisions incredibly early, saying things like, "you can have the subwoofer, but the left and right speaker drivers will cost less and be worse quality as a result."

That is, if cost is the target, you find organizations over-optimizing on cost and throwing quality out the window.

It comes down to whether or not you believe people want to own the very best, or people want to own something cheap and unreliable.

It comes down to what you're proud of putting your name on.

I know an engineer who I asked, "what do you say when you tell your friends about our products?"

"Well, there are some I'm very proud of, and some I won't talk about."

Why do we make things we aren't proud of?

Footnote: I think the "don't care" is a lie. We're all disappointed when things fail us, even if they were affordable.

Apr 9, 2012

How to fix BestBuy

BestBuy is in trouble. What are the problems and how can we fix it?

Their biggest problem is that Amazon (and other online) uses them as a showroom.

Their second biggest problem is that they aren't a destination due to their failed steps of service to the consumer.

There are some items you just can't sell online without having a showroom (Televisions, for one. People want to see the picture before they drop a thousand bucks.)

Fix the sales floor experience by fixing the steps of service. Currently, customers walk in and say what they're interested in. Blue shirt people then steer them to the product they make the most commission on, and try and upsell the warranty.

The correct way: Ask for key requirements. Probe to make sure the need is understood. Propose a solution. Listen for objections or concerns. Evaluate and close the sale.

End the commissions. Everyone gets paid. No more upsell targets for individuals. Do the warranty upsells, but divide the staff into teams, and make the teams have goals. This de-emphasizes the upsell, and makes it less offensive to the consumer. Re-org the team composition every few months so that it never stays stagnant.

Sales Training

Require vendors to provide training materials and reward staff for using break time to learn the training materials. By reward, I mean, the vendor donates a product for an employee who passes the training. Do I care that I'm asking vendors to come up with a product? Not at all. Even if it means that the staff are deluged in iPods? No one said it has to be the vendor's product. Get all of the staff who learn their stuff an iPod. Or, if the vendor thinks they have the best thing in the world, this is one way to convert a person on the floor into an evangelist.

Consumer Education

Reward consumers for coming in, too. Provide free information sessions on product types, that don't endorse a specific brand, but instead teach about the technology available at the different price ranges. Give rewards credits for attending, applicable to purchases made in that department. No one should care if a person comes in for many lessons and saves 15% on a large purchase - they've spent significant time in the store and know more for having done so.

  • Bring people into the store.
  • Give them a reason to keep coming back.
  • Give them a reason to buy in store.

Note that all three of those are inviting and giving, not taking.

Price matching

BestBuy has a huge problem. Besides Amazon using them as a showroom and offering 5 bucks off any purchase where the user browsed in a best buy first, BestBuy can't even get its own pricing online and in brick and mortar to be consistent.

When you do find an item on BestBuy.com that is priced lower than in store, you have to go to the customer returns desk (a wholly unpleasant place in the store) and wait in line to correct it.

The solution: barcode scanners at the end of every other aisle that price check against Amazon, target, best buy.com.

Tell the vendors they need to build in 15% for markdown price matches.

How badly does Sony want to beat Samsung? Badly enough to take that hit.

Enable every cash register and every employee to do this. Target does up to 10% with every employee, after all.

The ugliest location in a BestBuy store is the returns desk. It's next to online pickup and the Geek Squad. You don't want people price matching to see returned and broken product awaiting repairs. Hide those things and permit price matching to happen everywhere so you don't feel like a pariah for doing it.

The Goal

The goal here is simple: Make Best Buy the store you go to when you want the best price pre-tax and need a knowledgeable employee who isn't going to push a product or warranty because it benefits him more than you.

It changes the whole character of the place from the place you go for expensive cables to the place you go for a good consumer experience.

Mar 29, 2012

On fear in the workplace

You're only scared of your boss if you're either

  1. doing your job wrongly or
  2. you're not doing anything.

So why not buck up?

Mar 12, 2012

Don't differentiate

Don't differentiate. Make it better.

Better is all that matters.

Feb 22, 2012

If you don't say no

If you don't say no, then they won't know the value of yes.

  • Ashley Fina
Return button