In just under two years, AV Imagined has grown from an idea among friends to one of the more successful custom integration firms in the Detroit area. Lawrence Walters, a co-owner of the business, was with us in Nashville for the first-ever Oasys Summit, and sat down to share what it’s been like to build a business from the ground up.
Rob Stott: All right, we’re back on the Independent Thinking Podcast coming to you, right now from the Oasis Summit in Nashville, Tennessee. A neat opportunity to get face-to-face with some of our CI members here. Lawrence Walters, AV Imagined, up in Michigan, right?
Lawrence Walters: Yes. Yeah in the Detroit area, yes.
Rob Stott: Okay, so that, that’s lower Peninsula, correct?
Lawrence Walters: Yes it is.
Rob Stott: But, still close to Canada?
Lawrence Walters: Yeah.
Rob Stott: Can you see it from out your window in your office?
Lawrence Walters: Yeah. Not our office, but some days you’re not too far from Canada, yeah.
Rob Stott: That’s awesome. But, like South, right? Canada’s south of you, which is the-
Lawrence Walters: It’s both. Yeah, it’s east and south. Yeah.
Rob Stott: That’s so disorienting to me.
Lawrence Walters: Yeah.
Rob Stott: But, well we appreciate you taking the time owner over there at AV Imagined.
Lawrence Walters: One of the owners. Yeah.
Rob Stott: Yeah. Appreciate you first of all being here with us in Nashville.
Lawrence Walters: Yeah.
Rob Stott: This is awesome to be able to get together. What’s the couple days been like for you? We’ll start here at the summit.
Lawrence Walters: It’s been great. I mean, it’s been trying to find our way a little bit with the group. We’re new to Nationwide since August of last year. So, our this our first Oasis Summit, but also our first time, whether it was HTSN or Oasis, it was kind of our first time as sort of a standalone meeting and it’s been really fun. It’s been good.
Rob Stott: Well, new to the group, but also what I love, new business too. We’ve talked a couple times here this week, particularly during our scavenger hunt last night. Had a good time getting to learn a little bit about your business and give a little background on yourself. We’ll dive into your business in a second. But, background on yourself and how you got to AV Imagined and what’s going on.
Lawrence Walters: So, I’ve been kind of in AV since just out of high school. I worked at Best Buy for a few years while I was in college, selling TVs and stereos and things like that. And, then I got out of college in 2008, found a job with an integrator that basically, delivering televisions out of college because I kind of came out of college at the downturn when we hit that last recession. So, just finding work was difficult. So I went, delivered TVs for them for a while. Things slowed down so much that eventually got to a point where I went and worked for Best Buy again.
And, then I hired back with that integrator for sales and I was there for 10 plus years. And, then I went to another integrator as their sales and marketing manager where I met a few of the people that I’m with now. And, we launched AV Imagined. So, it’s an interesting, we’ve kind of had different stopping points, just part of different parts of the industry and kind of seeing it from different perspectives.
Rob Stott: One word there, but one word kind of undersells, sort of what you guys have done launched, right? You launched this company. A lot of cahones, right? Go out on your own and start a business. So, talk about the process of getting to the point where y’all came together and felt, “Okay, this is something we can do.”
Lawrence Walters: So, I think with AV Imagined what was kind of interesting was that all of the partners that make up AV Imagined none of us would’ve jumped and started our own business-
Rob Stott: Sure.
Lawrence Walters: Solo, right?
Rob Stott: Yeah.
Lawrence Walters: So, the idea of starting a business from scratch on your own and looking at building something that’s very scalable and that can grow quickly and become this great thing. We had myself, I have a sales and marketing background. My business partner, Andrea, she’s got a CFO background very business or-
Rob Stott: So, taking care of them books?
Lawrence Walters: Yeah, but also all of the processes and business development.
Rob Stott: Absolutely.
Lawrence Walters: All the things that we really needed to structure the business and build a great foundation. And, then our other two partners, Corey and Andy, Andy’s our engineer and our chief technology officer and really make sure he vets anything that we have as an idea of a technology we want to jump into, a product that we want to jump into. It’s really a good experience and a really good mind for making sure that we’re picking the right products.
And then Corey, our operations manager, has 25 years both in the alarm space and in the integration space as a technician and has held a lot of different seats. So, he’s been integral in training our new staff and bringing up the next generation of technicians. So, it’s kind of cool having the four pillars of the industry within one company. It’s also allowed us to grow very quickly over the last couple of time.
Rob Stott: Well, you’re making the segues here awesome, because my next follow up is going to be about the growth. I know one of the things we’ve been talking about is how you guys, you launched, but you have a really aggressive plan and I almost need really to grow quick. That’s what at the outset, the mindset was for you guys.
Lawrence Walters: So, that’s something that makes us a little bit unique is that we built AV Imagined as a growth model business and then the first year we really had to set up the organization. Had to get our processes in place, build out our infrastructure, build out our showroom, build out our warehouse, have the operation in a good place to then start to grow. But, now that we’ve got it set, we’re starting to bring in now more and more technicians. We’re starting to bring in sales people and the business is ready to just keep going and it’s been really, really cool.
Rob Stott: I mean obviously you’d like to see the fast growth, any hurdles or things like that you guys? And, I mean as a start really a startup company, right? So, a lot of those growing pains I’m sure. But, what are some of the big challenges that you guys have had to face early on that you’re sort of tackling now?
Lawrence Walters: Yeah, I mean the obvious one is with a startup is always cash. It’s cash flow and cash. We built it to grow quickly. We did a really good job of an Andrea especially built out performa where we had a really good idea of how much funding we needed and at what points we needed additional injections and to try to keep things going.
Rob Stott: Sure.
Lawrence Walters: The hard part was not having a pipeline and not knowing how much business you’re going to have and not knowing where your clients are coming from. So, the ups and downs of those first few months in the first year or so of trying to build a pipeline, get clients calling, get the phone ringing, get your referral partners in place. That was probably one of the biggest challenges and still our constant challenge that we’re kind of fighting through right now.
Rob Stott: And, you mentioned the pipeline. Another thing we’ve talked about is how you know guys are taking a real unique approach to that too in your market. So, you talk about some of the things, one thing I love that you said is that there’s integrators out there that are busy that their pipelines may or for better or worse are full, can’t take on new jobs. And, there’s some clients in your market that you were talking about that have a need. They still have needs. They need to get these projects done and things like this. So, talk about your approach to the type of client you’re going after.
Lawrence Walters: So I mean, a big thing for me is it’s relationships and it’s experience. And, if we can deliver a better experience for our clients, I’m all for that. But, what I’m finding is that there’s a lot of clients that maybe over the last couple years, they’ve built a new home or they’ve invested in these systems, but now they’re kind of underserved in the ongoing upgrades or the ongoing, “Hey, I’m doing a renovation” or “I’ve got this next project.”
And, we’re finding that if we can deliver a really great experience to those people, the turnaround is much quicker so it’s helping us with cash flow, helping us keep things going. But, it’s also leading to more referrals and more business and higher customer satisfaction too. Because, now we’ve got projects that we’re flipping over in a matter of a couple weeks or a month rather than a year or year and a half. And, it’s a lot easier to lay out expectations for a project and deliver on those expectations.
Rob Stott: And, the thing I love too is that you’re filling a gap, right?
Lawrence Walters: Yeah.
Rob Stott: It’s an area where another firm sort of had the opportunity, “Hey, this is a client that they already have.” That simple phone call, to your point, relationship building and it’s being there for them and being that go-to resource for them for their integration need. So, the fact that you’re able to just step in there and sort of fill that need.
Lawrence Walters: And, one of the biggest challenges I’ve found going out and doing business development and networking and meeting new people is people’s understanding of what our industry is, is very minimal. And, you spend a lot of energy sort of explaining what your company does and how you can serve your client and what type of experiences you offer.
But, when you find these clients that are already familiar with a business like yours or that’s been served by an integrator before. You’re fighting a lot less of an uphill battle and it’s a lot easier to then gain trust and offer solutions and give them an experience and they’re a little more familiar with how the process works and what you’re going to be doing and that sort of thing.
Rob Stott: Is there anything you guys are doing that you think is unique or different from just whether it’s the go to market or I mean anything at all? The one thing you think that sort of stands out. Being new, you kind of have that ability to be innovative and try things and as you’re looking to grow quick. So, is there one thing that you’ve seen that’s worked really well or some sort of thing you’re working on that?
Lawrence Walters: Yeah, I think building a great foundation of process and building out, it’s the idea that… So, basically one of the things that we do is we keep a fractional fractionally hiring out services that generally would burden a business. So, one of the first things that we did when we started our company was hire a managed IT company to handle all of our backend for our email and for our internal server internal communications, handling all of our technology needs so that we don’t have that burden and we don’t have to think about it.
So, that there’s a lot of things that are happening behind the scenes that just go. And, whether it’s our website or our IT or whatever it is, HR is nothing that we fractionally hired to just keep things moving and not burden us or not bog us down too much that we’re free to keep performing.
Rob Stott: The term that comes to mind is efficiency, right? And, I feel like to bring it back to the summit this week, a lot of what we heard from in between the one-on-ones with the speakers from whether it was Jason or Matt that were here talking about process, business process and building out, whether it’s the business plan, the roadmap and things like that of the customer journey and but just having that plan and finding those areas of efficiency and that, that’s sort of neat to see that that’s something that you guys are working on too.
Lawrence Walters: And, every business has talented people and it’s all about trying to free those talented people up to do the thing that they’re really talented at. And, also letting them, if you find that someone that has a specific skill or a specific need, something that they can really benefit your business, finding a way to relieve them from other responsibilities to allow them to do the thing that they’re really great at. Because, that’s what’s going to accelerate growth and it’s going to accelerate your business. It’s also going to create better culture because you don’t have people that feel like they’re being underutilized and that sort of thing.
So, that’s been something that’s been a really big just driver for us where we’re trying to make sure that as we hired a culture, that culture that we’re building, everyone feels like they have a place. And, if they have those skills, we want to make sure that those skills are being utilized.
Rob Stott: Well, that’s the seabird culture. That’s a big thing that also came up this week a lot and being so new, what’s it like being able to set that culture and honestly, and define what it’s going to be for you guys?
Lawrence Walters: Honestly, it’s been great. I mean, one of the things we’ve been growing quickly, but at the same time we’ve been able to hire two culture. And, we’ve been hiring new young technicians that are basically inexperienced, are either very little or no experience in our industry. But, our whole hiring process is based around our core values and our culture for our business so that everyone that we’re bringing on has those key things.
So, even though we’re all different, we’re all individuals we all kind of get along because we have similar characteristics and similar things like that. So, it’s been really fun watching this next generation of technicians. So, we’ve actually have four new technicians that we’ve got guys at different stages. We’ve got two that are about a year in one, that’s six months in, and one that’s in his first 90 days. But, it’s really neat to see these guys kind of grow and that sort of thing.
Rob Stott: No, that’s awesome. Well, last question for you, because we got an event to get back to, I don’t want to keep you from. But you know, what’s next right now? I know there’s a lot of things that you could identify that areas you got to go and move into, whether it’s on the product you’re doing, things like that. But, what’s one area you’re focusing on right now that you think is most important for your next step?
Lawrence Walters: So, within AV Imagined right now we’re at the point where we’re trying to accelerate our growth by hiring sales now. So, we built out the infrastructure, now we’re filling those seats and now starting to expand the sales teams and also the technical staff. So, we’re trying to grow very quickly that way.
On the product side of things, I mean, we had a really great meeting with Kaleidolight this week, and we definitely see lighting as a category that has a lot of potential for growth for our industry, but also for our individual business. And, trying to figure out where we fit in the lighting, the spectrum of lighting. Where does our business fit and where are the opportunities and sort of trying to grow on that end of things.
Rob Stott: And I know that that could be a whole ‘nother podcast with you. We’ll probably have to circle back on that because I know you guys are doing some really interesting things there that we’ll let you get into it and see and figure it out and then we’ll talk about it.
Lawrence Walters: Absolutely.
Rob Stott: No, well Lawrence, we appreciate it. Neat to have you guys here. Awesome to have you as part of Oasis.
Lawrence Walters: Yeah.
Rob Stott: And, look forward to continuing to follow your growth story along the way. So-
Lawrence Walters: Thank you.
Rob Stott: Thanks for joining us and until the next summit.
Lawrence Walters: Absolutely. Thank you so much.
Rob Stott: You bet.