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145: Crafting a Compelling Story — and Badass Products — with Austere

Written by Rob Stott

November 15, 2022

When Deena Ghazarian, founder and CEO of Austere, launched the luxury A/V accessories brand in late 2019, she (like everyone) couldn’t have predicted the coming storm and the challenges it would present. As a brand in its infancy, Austere should’ve stood no chance against a raging pandemic. But Ghazarian and her team created such a compelling brand story — not to mention some seriously awesome product — that the business not only survived, but is thriving.


 

Rob Stott: All right, we are back on the Independent Thinking podcast and yeah, we’re dancing. You know it’s going to be a good one. Ms. Deena Ghazarian, I appreciate… It’s been a while since… Did we ever do a podcast in my previous life? I feel like we had to have, right?

Deena Ghazarian: In your previous life we did.

Rob Stott: Yeah, we did. So we’ve bumped into… at shows throughout our time and it’s nice to have you now on the Nationwide, our Independent Thinking podcast, the owner of Austere. I appreciate you jumping in and doing a podcast with us today.

Deena Ghazarian: Yeah, happy to be here though Rob.

Rob Stott: Yeah.

Deena Ghazarian: Can’t wait to talk more.

Rob Stott: Most interesting, we said it before we went on, but if you’re watching the video version of this, the most interesting background I’ve ever had on the podcast. So, I appreciate the map. You want to tell the…

Deena Ghazarian: Yeah, it’s the world here people. It’s the world.

Rob Stott: Tell the story of the map.

Deena Ghazarian: Yeah, so my husband, when he redid this office, he’s in sequestion and so obviously a map of the world is pretty critical for him. It looks like it’s fake obviously, but it is not. It is like real wallpaper. And then, we have pins and each one, my children both have a different color. I have a color and Arn has a color and we actually pin where we’ve been in the world together and/or separately. So, just trying to make the world a place where my children understand it’s much bigger than Southern California. So, part of our intent in educating I think global minded citizens.

Rob Stott: No, I love it. And that kind of story, I know we’re going to get diving into a lot of the story talk today and I love it and I look forward to it. But, for our listeners that aren’t familiar with you and aren’t familiar with the brand, tell us a little bit about yourself and background.

Deena Ghazarian: Absolutely. So my name’s Deena Ghazarian. I have been in the consumer technology space for about 22 years. Tripped into it actually from fashion, which is kind of where I came from. But, being in stores and selling in department stores for the first portion of my career. So, always have an affinity for the love of a sales floor and what it takes to actually do probably the toughest job in all of the world.

Working in retail is not easy and there is a special love and skill for it. So, I totally admire those owners of retailer storefronts and things like that because it is not the easiest. And so, everything I think about and do in regards to the brand, we obviously think with a retail hat in mine. So, that’s kind of one of our fun things that we bring to the table.

But, I own a brand called Austere. Austere is a home theater accessories company. We kicked off in 2019 but for those of you who do know me, I’ve been, of my tech career, a good portion of it has been in the accessory space. And so, the strategy and skill that I bring to the table is definitely something that is in my blood and something I’ve done for a very long time.

So, we’re here to help build a culture that understands why it’s important to educate the customer around accessories and make a good decision so that you have the best home theater possible in their home. I think I say all the time, the most frustrating thing is could you imagine someone buying hardware that has some of the most unbelievable features that are available to all of us and then they don’t buy the right accessories and can’t unlock those features so they get home and they have a subpar experience.

And so, we’re here to help educate and make sure that the sales floor knows everything they possibly can so the customer gets a great experience at home. So, that’s really the intent of last year. We also want to make sure a product has the best technology with the best design and colliding those two worlds together. So a lot of what you’ll see from us is just beautifully designed product. I would say the best materials inside and out. Not only to provide the best technology but some gorgeous looking stuff at the same time so the customer gets just the best of what they can get at a value.

So, we’re not the most expensive, but we’re not entry level either. But when you really understand what we put into our product, the value of what someone is purchasing is really second to none.

Rob Stott: Yeah. The funny thing is you mentioned that launch in 2019. Not until you mentioned did I remember the fact that I was there.

Deena Ghazarian: You were there.

Rob Stott: It was in New York City.

Deena Ghazarian: Yes, it was.

Rob Stott: It was a CE week, a side event from CE week going on there. I forget the building we were in but the view outside of that window, seeing the New York skyline all around us was… it kind of set the stage for the next several years of what you have been able to accomplish with the brand and everything. So, it was a fun time for sure.

Deena Ghazarian: Thank you. We enjoyed it. I will tell you it was definitely… 2019 was an exciting year and then we went into 2020 and was a little bit of a, “Oh crap” will be the very polite word that I use. But, I think lucky for us because everybody focused on their homes and a lot of people in focusing on their home, focused on their home theaters and electronics in general. We definitely benefited from that growth that happened in our space. So, it definitely set us up to come out the other side of the pandemic as a strong, established brand. I did not think we would get.

Rob Stott: I know, and I mean you mentioned it, it’s barely been three years since the launch of that brand. How is business? How are things going with the brand and what kind of things are you… are new and exciting that you’ve got going on?

Deena Ghazarian: Yeah, absolutely. So, when we first started with the brand, I would say cable probably led the way in regards to attachments and the familiarity of the floor to attachments and HDMI. And, HDMI has made so much progress in what can be actually done in a single cable from a video perspective. I mean some of the most stunning picture you can get with all the different color options through the ultra high definition that’s out there, as well as what can be done for audio.

I mean the fact that you can actually have some of the best audio kind of capability through Dolby Atmos. Those solutions just is pretty amazing. And then, the fact that the data can control through one cable and the cable, you don’t even have to tell anything to do it now with how advanced they are. You just plug it in and it works. It’s pretty spectacular for the customer and their experience.

But in three years, power has just exploded. I think the customers are really starting to understand. I think they always knew about surge protection or they have some idea of what surge protection means, but our hardware friends and family as I like to call them, have done a very good job in making my job a little bit easier where, if for some reason there’s surge damage on any kind of a TV and there’s no surge protection in place, their warranty becomes null and void.

And so, that drives a lot of purchases of our surge protection with these better TVs. And so, that’s a wonderful thing for us and what we try to go out there and educate as a leading point so the customer does not get blindsided that they weren’t set up the right way at their home.

Rob Stott: Yeah, and the funny thing is you mentioned kind of a couple ways we can go with that, but you mentioned the sort of how things have evolved in the HDMI cable specifically. I think back to your early days and all the different wires and cables and things you used to see and just how that’s evolved. What’s it like seeing the massive cables that used to be behind a TV to now that’s all sort of… it can be done in one seamless product basically?

Deena Ghazarian: Yes. Well, it’s a user experience number one that becomes just so much better. But number two, which you really truly understand what Austere is meant to be, we want this minimalistic look and feel across everything in someone’s home and lifestyle experience. So, an HDMI cable absolutely contributes to that in the most elegant of ways. And so, what we did is… I mean because it’s really hard honestly to innovate on an HDMI cable.

If you’re truly following the HDMI.org standards either for premium certification on a 4K cable or ultra certification on a 2.1 cable, what do you do? And so, then it comes down to how do you make it the thinnest cable possible? How do you make the thinnest connector and tightest connector possible because the TV manufacturers are getting thinner and thinner. And so, the space to plug that in, if you have any kind of access or what I like to call fat on the cable, it makes it a very difficult experience.

Most… at least the retailers that we’re selling to, the customer will probably go home in 90% of the instances and plug it in themselves. So, we wanted to make a cable where if it did show there’s a gorgeous weave on the outside. If they wanted to hide it on their own, actually it’s a very flexible cable so you can… Cable management on it is super simple where you can actually hide it and wrap it around the back of the mount if there’s any excess or the way you weave it up a stand to be able to go into the back of the unit itself.

So there was a lot of what I would say design involved in the HDMI cable for better functionality for the customer. And so, that all kind of roots back to You have one cable, it’s simple, it looks great, it’s easy to install, you can hide whatever you don’t want to see. Customers are pretty happy.

Rob Stott: So the cool thing in hearing you describe all that is, and what I hope, if anything, someone listening to this takes away is that you’re taking the accessory space and making it sound awesome. I remember one of the first headlines I wrote is Making Cables Sexy or something like that, along those lines. And, that’s what you’re doing and I think that gets to the ability of you and the brand to build this awesome story around the accessory space.

I want you to dive into that because what’s that… I mean the heart of it, you’re talking about cables and the power strips and you’re making it really cool and fun to… And, not say that it’s not. Don’t take it that way. I hope you’re not taking it that way.

Deena Ghazarian: No.

Rob Stott: But, you have made this space fun and very design centric. So, talk about just what that creative process is like to take these products and just turn them into something that is just a joy to listen to you talk about.

Deena Ghazarian: Oh, well, thank you for that. So again, it kind of leans a little bit on my fashion background because if there was ever an industry that understood how to take anything and I mean anything. If there is a premium feel to it and make it where the customer’s like wow because… So if you roll back when we really thought about Austere and said okay, how do we do it differently because there’s been some amazing players in the space for years when it comes to the technology side of the business.

So, it’s like, well you could either be me too and just try to innovate and do better tech or there could be another angle. When you went and looked at other categories of the business, not accessories but other categories of business and I would say those brands that have really listened to the customer and taken it to the next level, it’s brands like Nest who took probably the ugliest thing in somebody’s home and made it gorgeous. Absolutely gorgeous.

So, you look at an experience and there’s multiple brands you could throw in there and you look at what they’re leveraging and design and then saying, “Okay, how do you make it look better, have better functionality, ease of use for the customer, all of those things.” No one’s done that in the accessory space. So it was like, okay, why not?

But if we do it, I don’t want it to be the flavor of the year or flavor of the month when it comes to look and feel. I wanted this design that would last for decades no matter what happens in someone’s home. It was streamlined and minimalistic enough where it could live no matter what the reiteration of the home looks like for the consumer. Plus if you… I mean even if you look at what’s going on right now, minimalism in general is just hot. People are stripping it down to the basics but would rather spend a little bit more for something of value and elegance.

And so, it’s a good fit there for us as well on what is I think desirable right now but will last for a very long time. And so, that’s one piece. The second piece is just the technology and what we’re trying to do to put into the product for innovation. We also kind of want it to last a long time for sustainability reasons. So, I hate to make that what’s really trendy, but I mean if you care, and I have kids, so I really care, if you look at what’s happening, anything we can do to lean into sustainability.

Because by the way, when you make a brand, you are definitely not leaning into sustainability. If anything, you’re contributing. So, if you’re going to contribute to that, what can you do to really consciously think about how do I make things better? So, core to everything we do, if you have a product that’s going to last for the longest amount of time you can, then you’re doing a really good job of not having it be, especially coming from the fashion space, fast fashion of replace, recycle, replace, recycle, replace.

Unfortunately for our industry, we do a lot of that. So, we’re trying to do the opposite of that and create a lasting product that will take you a long while. So, that’s one. And then two on the sustainability side, I’ve talked about before, the packaging was a big deal for us. We didn’t want to use plastic because it doesn’t get recycled even though it is recyclable paper really.

I think they say something like 18% of the products that are in our space are made with paper and 85% of that can be recycled and is recycled. Where if you look at plastics, 60% of what’s out there is made and packaged with plastic yet only 7% is recycled.

Rob Stott: That’s unbelievable.

Deena Ghazarian: It’s just mind boggling. So we looked at that, leaned into that, leveraged design for that too. Even tried to make a box that someone would reuse for organization in their homes. So, they don’t even put it in a recycle bin. Reuse it and kind of leverage that in your, I don’t know, organization throughout your home. So, I think all of those things kind of leaned into what the brand is and what the brand stood for and how we took it to the next level.

Rob Stott: And, I love that you brought up the packaging because that is the one thing… with the sustainability side of things, that’s the one thing that stood with me or stuck with me back from that launch party and seeing the boxes and the fact that an organization thing, these boxes, you call them boxes, but they’re very design centric and you guys… I mean they could be gift boxes that you reuse and put things in and share with someone.

That level of attention to detail too, I think is something that kind of, not just in the packaging but throughout the brand and everything you guys are doing, that is evident I think in what you’re trying to accomplish.

Deena Ghazarian: Yeah, I think we’re proud of that too. Rob, if you talk to the team, I want to put them through, it’s just on the little details. Oh my god. They were like… But it’s funny, every time we go that extra step, to your point, and really then saying, “No, no, no, let’s do this”, oh my god, it’s the first thing everybody comments on.

Rob Stott: Yeah.

Deena Ghazarian: So, it is worth it to take that time and do it right.

Rob Stott: It’s those…

Deena Ghazarian: So, we’re very proud of that.

Rob Stott: It’s those things where I can almost hear it because I’m sure I’ve been through them as well, the internal meetings on what those are like and just the back and forth and trying to accomplish that and it’s a lot of work while you’re in the moment but then the end result is those things that you hear from consumers and years later the one thing that sticks with someone that happened to be at the launch party.

That is the stuff that matters and has an impact and I would venture to say worth the time, blood, sweat and tears that were certainly shed to accomplish that.

Deena Ghazarian: Yes.

Rob Stott: So, I think that’s something that hasn’t necessarily evolved with you, it stuck with you, you guys continue to do that. But in terms of staying fresh and staying relevant and keeping this story moving, what are those things or what are you doing to make sure that Austere stays ahead of the curve in the way you’re telling the stories, or I’m sorry, the brand story?

Deena Ghazarian: Yes, absolutely. So, power’s probably the easiest to lean into right now when it comes to that story because of what else can be done. We just started with two strips that we honestly took the best technology out there in chassis premium power and brought it into a strip. And then we said okay great, and I always listen to the floor. Again, I mentioned earlier I come from the floor. The people who are selling product are the best people in the world to talk about what is needed because they’re the one who hears the feedback from the customer on what they love and what they don’t love. And if you create that great relationship with the floor, they will tell you the answers always.

So when we took chassis and brought it into a strip and everyone’s like, Oh my god, that’s so great. Then the next question was, okay, that’s six and eight outlet. Think about the devices that are out there, especially in other rooms of the home. You don’t need six products, you need two, maybe three. So how do we get a four outlet? How do you get it so it’s smaller and tucked away? So, our new wall power product, and we call it wall power just because it’s easy, it plugs into the wall, but it’s really a four outlet power, allows you that ability through design that kind of takes that type of product to the next level.

Just about most of the power product out there, or at least when it started, had all the plugs in the front. So you plug in stuff in the front and then you try to go flush, you can’t. So, we actually took the actual outlets, stuck them on the side, spread them out, ran them on the bottom. So if you have the big transformer plugs, you can hang them off the bottom or they’ll easily fit two and two and then you know, look at the updated devices that are out there.

You’ve got a lot of devices that are being just using USB, either A and actually now even more so, C to charge devices. So, Added that in there. Set it up with the best joules that you could have in such a small space. So, we even start at 2,500 joules just in that tiny space and go all the way up to 3,500 joules with our seven series.

So, it’s just having that powerful joules, great filtration, the spread outlets you need and then the C and the A. But what’s funny is a lot of people said, “Oh my god, so now that’s great for a home theater and we love it, but make me one for my home office that has the capability of having that PD charging like you have on your seven series.”

So, we put a PD 20 watt charger on the five series and a 45 watt or a split feed for two 20s on the seven series, as well as the isolated filtration on the seven series. So, if you have a sound bar and a TV or a gaming and a TV, you can not have that digital noise interfere. I mean we just shipped three series. Five series is hitting the floor right now. Seven series leaves next week and these units out of the gate are on fire and we are getting sensational reviews because the design that we chose and the innovation that we picked and colliding those two worlds has just created an exceptional product that there’s really not anything else like it on the market right now.

Rob Stott: And, that’s a lot of obviously having the expertise in the space and combining that with what you’re hearing from customers. So, it’s being open to the requests that are being asked, but also being intelligent enough about the industry to know what you can do and then also just folding in everything we’re hearing in this space right now, the element of design and having it look sleek and that sort of side. That’s I mean at the heart of everything this brand has been about since day one.

Deena Ghazarian: Correct. So, we’re very excited for those three new products. I mean again, based on what we’re seeing, it’s going to do very, very well. And, it’s funny because sometimes you have to… Again, this is why I say all the time, the team on the floor is the team that has the answers. That space for the longest time has not been innovated. And so, it hasn’t been selling well. So when you talk to your partners, they’re like, “Yeah, no, don’t do it. It’s not a good space right now.”

It’s like, okay, but is it not a good space because it’s just not a good category anymore or is it not a good space because nobody’s innovated and listened to what’s needed in order to make it easy for the customer to use. And so, that’s a great example of exactly why we did it. And so, the results are starting to show that we listened and heard correctly and we’re very excited.

Rob Stott: And hey, I think that’s a message that’s translatable to any retailer out there too. Listen to your customers. They’re your sounding board or you become their sounding board and you hear their feedback and make adjustments because they’re the ones that ultimately are going to buy from you at the end of the day or recognize your brand in your instance.

So, kind of bring it full circle and back home, talk about just your… Again, I think it’s a message that can be shared with our retail community and the ability and desire and how you stepped out and went on your own and did your thing and you’re continuing to evolve that brand story over time. What would be… I’m sure you could see how it connects with the retail community, but what’s sort of that message to them about how you kind of bet on yourself and are essentially a independent business owner, if you will.

Deena Ghazarian: Yep.

Rob Stott: And you’re kind of in their shoes and what would you say to them about how you’ve been able to build this and have the success that you’ve had?

Deena Ghazarian: So, it’s funny because honestly a little bit of it is looking at the different… like the membership within Nationwide. They all went out on their own. They all started a business and it’s not easy. I don’t know, the easiest way I tease about it’s like having a third child that is your most high maintenance child because I have two girls. So, It’s like I gave birth to another child and this child is…

Rob Stott: So you’re telling the truth.

Deena Ghazarian: … way more needy, way more expensive, way more maintenance. There’s a lot involved there. But, when you think about it that way too, there’s a love and there’s a passion and I think that’s… if you have a love and a passion for anything, it’s easy to lean in and give it your heart and soul. Some of it’s timing. So I don’t want to be wrong. Now in fairness, I literally sat there in March of 2020 and said, “Wow, there is not going to be a business in here. I started and ended a company in one year. This is fabulous.”

But, the reason why I bring up that point is at first it was my ego like, “Oh my God, what if I really do build a company and then it closes down? What happens?” And then, you ultimately think about it and you’re like nothing. You just pick up and you go to the next thing. Passion will get you very far along in the process. It’ll keep you going. And people say it all the time. It is literally like this. There are the best days ever and then there are the worst day ever. And it is how do you get where you don’t let emotion, even though emotion’s amazing and that’s why you want the passion, but how do you get so emotion doesn’t take over from you being afraid to move forward.

And so, I would say that is probably… Now that I’m three years in, some of the things a year ago that would drive me crazy, upset me, I literally would have anxiety and not sleep at night, now are like, “Okay, keep going.” So, some of it’s experience and you just have to get out of your own way to be able to have the experience too.

Rob Stott: I’d say this was your third child, shouldn’t you have been there already? That’s what… you know?

Deena Ghazarian: No, this is that child where you have the first two, they’re really easy and you’re like yeah, having kids is a piece of cake and then you have another one and you’re like, “Whoa! Hang on a minute!”

Rob Stott: We’re done. This is the “we’re done” child, right? Is that what you’re saying?

Deena Ghazarian: Oh yeah, there are definitely no more children after this one.

Rob Stott: No, that’s awesome. Well Deena, this has been, as always and as expected, a lot of fun getting to chat with you about the brand and even diving into the behind the scenes and that sort of stuff as well. So, look forward to many more of these for sure. We appreciate it, appreciate you and look forward to the next one.

Deena Ghazarian: Yeah, we’re happy to be part of the Nationwide Buying Group. It’s really our partners that we have within Nationwide are fabulous. We’d love more. So please, reach out and let us know. We would love to be a partner by your side as you grow this part of your business.

Rob Stott: Awesome. Thank you.

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