The path into the world of custom integration typically has one of two starting points: music or movies. Talk to any number of professionals in this industry and you’re likely to find that they got their start because of their backgrounds as musicians, audiophiles, movie buffs, the family-sound-and-speaker guy, or some combination of all of the above. Custom integtration is, more often than not, a passion-turned-profession kind of industry.
That was exactly the case for Gordon van Zuiden, owner and founder of Los Gatos, California-based integration firm cyberManor. But his entry into the industry is very different from that of his peers. Rather than music or movies being his driving force, Gordon found his way into home integration through the power of home networking — back in the late 1990s.
“The seeds of the company really started back in the mid-80s through the 90s. When I got out of business school, the first company that I started back then was a small IT company,” van Zuiden explains. “Back in ’83, ’84, that was really the beginning of the rollout of the IBM PC and Macintosh computers. And there were companies like BusinessLand and ComputerLand out there back in those days, providing essentially microcomputer-based services to corporate clients. We were one of those concierge, smaller companies, and we essentially were integrators of IT platforms for the enterprise.”
It turns out, van Zuiden was working with technology that would help lay the groundwork for an early version of the whole-home network. As cable-based internet began to roll out in his area, van Zuiden took the concepts he learned at the corporate level and decided to test them out in his own home.
“Suddenly it was the advent of having this pipe of information that could always be utilized in your home,” he says. “I figured, if I could architect and plumb it so that we could have multiple PCs and printers on that pipe, just like we did in the enterprise, then it could create something of value. And I could get on the internet, our kids could get on the internet, my wife could get in on the internet, and we could all share that resource.”
The whole home network turned out to be a success for the van Zuidens. Enough so that his neighbors got to talking and convinced him to help network their homes as well. Van Zuiden obliged, for a small fee of course, and before he knew it, he had himself a new business venture.
“What was started really just kind of as a personal interest and hobby of mine then kind of morphed into, ‘Okay, I can do that for you,’ and I did three or four households,” he says. “I set up essentially their data lines, their data networks for their homes and for their kids, and charged a few dollars for that. And then I thought, well, maybe there’s something in this. There’s a potential business.”
A Data-First Company
Now, more than 20 years later, cyberManor finds itself at the forefront of the custom integration space that’s bursting with innovation and opportunity.
Of course, home theaters and luxurious, over-the-top home entertainment experiences remain at the heart of this industry. But today, more than ever, a strong and vibrant home entertainment experience is reliant on a solid and stable home network. Streaming movies and music uninterrupted and at high resolution can’t happen without a strong home network. Then, consider all the other network-based technologies that are coming online in the form of smart appliances, smart mattresses, smart irrigation systems, smart HVAC systems — it’s an area where van Zuiden stepped in early and put cyberManor in a perfect position to excel.
“We understand the importance of audio and video, and certainly do our fair share of theaters, and we do our fair share of high-end video and audio systems, but it’s not the sole purpose of our company,” he says. “Our DNA is to really create a really great overall home network experience. We look at it as, okay, what are all the things that this integrated IT network-based home can enjoy? That’s what differentiates us is this view towards, how can we be the overall home technology provider? How can we address the needs across the entire home platform?”
Ironically, van Zuiden was so far out in front of the whole-home network concept that he had to exhibit patience with the custom integration industry as products began to catch up with his concepts and expertise.
“I remember going to CEDIA each year, one of the first things I would do when I went to the various product booths is flip the product around,” he says. “All the interest is in the ports on the back. And as years went by, I literally could see all of these analog ports go to digital, all of these RS-232 ports going to RJ45 or ethernet. Step by step by step, products that used to be non-intelligent were becoming network connected. So, suddenly — it’s almost like being a chef. You think of the different ingredients you can build something with, and I now had all these wonderful new ingredients that were all now IP connected.”
Beyond simply being prepared for the shift to network-based technology, cyberManor’s expertise in the area of home networking gave van Zuiden an in when it came to working with some of the major players early on.
“We actually had Sonos come to us when they first released their product and say, ‘Hey, we think we have something that’s right within your wheelhouse,’” he explains. “And we had Kaleidescape back in the early days come to us and do the same thing. And Control4 did the same thing. So, I think the fact that we are the custom integrator trying to promote that type of technology and design has helped bring some of these vendors to us. And we’ve been able to experiment, work with those, and then kind of validate that those are in fact systems that people enjoy.”
For van Zuiden, his approach to business is akin to the old Wayne Gretzky quote about skating to where the puck is going. As such, news of a merger between Nationwide Marketing Group and Azione Unlimited — which cyberManor has called home — perked his ears and brought about a sincere sense of excitement. He immediately began to envision the possibilities that the newly combined organization could afford Azione’s custom integrators, and the groups’ shared consumer base.
“I really do think technology is going to continue to enhance the experience in every room in the home,” he says. “We’ve already seen it. We’ve already done it. And yet what’s missing is the collaboration between that retail channel and our custom integration channel. We’ve kind of got both going in our own directions. And I think in the end, that’s been a disservice to the customer.”
A perfect example of the type of potential collaboration he sees is in the luxury appliance space. It’s that type of customer, one who aspires to the highest of end kitchen experiences, who also may consider investing in their in-home entertainment experience and technology needs. The opportunity exists, there, for custom integrators, retailers and manufacturing partners to work together to create a seamless experience for the consumer — and provide business to one another.
“Manufacturers realize the importance of these devices, but it hasn’t been conveyed well necessarily to their retail channel. And it certainly hasn’t been conveyed to us in the CI space,” can Zuiden says. “I think it’s just a coming to the table together to share our respective strengths so that we meet with a builder or we meet with a client, they have a sense of assurance that this is an end to end solution supported by a unified group of people.”
Again, van Zuiden finds himself surfing out in front of another major wave of innovation in the custom integration industry. And he and cyberManor are ready to help lead the charge in an even more connected smart home experience.
Rob is the corporate communications manager for Nationwide Marketing Group.