Those of us who love home theater (that would be all of us), may have mused at one time or another, "I wonder if I could make a living at this." We recall the old adage:
"If you really enjoy what you are doing, you'll never work a day in your life."
From time to time, friends, clients, past clients, readers and those only doing ISF calibrations ask me about life in Installerland.
My Business Model
My first discussion with the prospect is about the "grass is always greener" syndrome. Not wanting to scare you away... really, let me offer more detail about the lawn going "plus green" (a calibrator term). But the first thing you might want to do is test the water in your area. First of all, check the quality/reputation of the competition. Is there anyone who stands out in your area? Maybe have one of them come out and calibrate or suggest upgrades. Observe what they do and say...and their attitude. Are they credible?
Most companies who do complete home theater projects are small-to-medium size operations who attempt to do whatever the client wants. Most need to, in order to keep the lights on. Yet another adage comes to mind: "Jack of all trades, master of none."
From the beginning I decided to do only complete home theaters—eschewing whole house audio, phone systems, car stereo, vacuum systems and complicated programming (you can bring in a specialist for that). If I find a client I really want (read that "big $"), I will agree to do a modest A/V system in the bedroom, dining room or outdoor area. Every time you violate your known, trusted model, you ask for risk.
Here's the thing. If you decide to have a staff (not recommended until you have at least 2 or 3 years of installing and the experience that comes with it, you and/or your staff will spend at least 25% of your billable hours in various training classes trying to learn/stay up with the current technology. Billable hours will take a big hit. Can your bottom line afford it? And, of course, with staff come people problems and a full-time accountant...and a few sleepless nights. Yes, been there, done that.
Audio vs. Video
One's hard, one's easy. Most people care more about how their theater looks than how it sounds. You should strive to deliver excellence on both sides, but an ISF class is mandatory on the video side. It's a bit expensive, will cost you three days and some travel, but hey, you want to be the best, right? With a certificate comes a ton of credibility. Look for a write-up about ISF's new virtual course coming soon to this space.
If you want to establish a reputation as "The Man" in your area—and you shouldn't do this if that isn't your goal—be good at video. Don't ever hang a screen, panel or projector, that you don't then calibrate. That will help in really knowing what's good at that time so you know what to quote your next client. The best engineered products are the easiest to calibrate.
Tuning the theater for audio has two flavors. In the short version, you go in with an octave or 1/3 octave analyzer and look for "standing waves". The biggest offender, by far, is the subwoofer. Watch the offending peak on the analyzer and move the sub a few inches one way or another. "Boom" is probably gone. Using several mics or moving one mic to all critical listening positions and investing in a 1/10th octave analyzer will fix 95% of most sound issues. The real, 100% fix is to bring in professionals who do this all the time. They take hundreds of critical room measurements, computer model the room, identify where reflective and absorptive panels should go and finish the install. I have used this method twice and I, and the client, were totally satisfied. Expect around a $20,000 bill. Yeah, I know—only for the rich and famous!
As you grow your business, your reputation is your most potent weapon vs. the competition. With today's miniscule margins, don't try to compete on price. Make your client comfortable with the notion that, at the end of the day, they are paying for your expertise, equipment, experience and post-sale attention. Look for trouble. Call every finished job every six months or so (one month just after install) to be sure they are happy, plus it's a good chance to discuss possible upgrades.
What I have outlined so far are the big pieces. Here are some important, but lessor ones:
Always leave a handful of business cards behind. Your client will likely "show off" his new investment to a neighbor or relative and if you have done your job right, the new watcher will ask "who did this" and your client will have "hard copy" to give him. My working metric is that I expect to get one, maybe two referrals for every install I do.
Watch your inventory closely. Don't fall for the "We've got a great deal for six" pitch from your wholesaler. A/V technology changes quickly and therefore so does every product you offer your client. They don't want a 1080 display any more. Don't be stuck with receivers, processors and panels that don't meet current standards. If it's a client who is most interested in total cost, it's OK to offer him/her last year's gear so long as you clearly explain the difference and the features they will be forgoing.
Be careful who you deal with. Some wholesale distributors are more "friendly" than others. Explore return policies and restocking charges. Only deal with organizations that have been around awhile and show indications of being there into the future. This business, especially lately, has been ripe with acquisitions, takeovers and just plain financial failures.
Build a relationship with one guy at the distributor (preferably the manager, although he's the one most likely to change). At some point, he will do something for you that he might not do for a "new" buyer. Maybe calibrate his (home) system, N/C. Do a good job and now you have an inside salesman.
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Watch your cash flow. This business is prone to fits and starts. Sometimes the phone won't ring for a week and then before you realize it, you'll actually have more jobs than you want...just kidding.
Always do a site visit, maybe even a second look to confirm what you thought you saw the first time, even if it sounds simple and routine. It's awkward and bad form to increase your quote because of something you forgot at first look. Look for difficult cable pulls, enough convenient power outlets, the lighting situation. Remember, ambient light is the natural enemy of any display. Is the client willing to invest in motorized blackout drapes? If not, he may be watching washed out, low contrast images for life. There go your referrals.
Consider some light control from Lutron. Don't put it in the quote. It's a great surprise when it's time to hand over the remote and it's not too expensive!
Check the client's attitude. Yes, I have fired a few. You don't need the grief of an unreasonable client—at any cost!
Always leave two or three "reference discs"—anything from the BBC. My current favorite is "Rocky Mountain Express." These will be the programs he "demonstrates" to the aforementioned neighbors. You want that first impression to be as good as it can be.
So, if I haven't scared you away by now, come on in...the water is (almost) fine!
For the record, both Joel Silver, the founder of the Imaging Science Foundation, and I left reasonably lucrative careers to follow this passion...and neither of us have looked back![BAN4]