77: Sound Designs on Its Booming Custom Install Business

Written by Rob Stott

July 6, 2021

Like other home-renovation segments, custom integrators have experienced a significant boost in business during the pandemic months. Bryan Koutsky, president and co-owner of Sound Designs in Mequon, Wisconsin, shoots on how they’ve been keeping up, their plans to expand, the role their new website has played in it all, and more.

Rob Stott: All right. We are back on the Independent Thinking podcast. And I’ve been looking forward to this one for a while. Because for all the members I talk to Bryan, I think you might be the first HTSN member. So this is kind of cool for me and you. I’ll say that too. I’ll give you that distinction, that it’s cool for you too. But no, I appreciate you taking the time, Bryan Koutsky, the president and co-owner of Sound Designs up there in Mequon, Wisconsin. Appreciate you calling in and checking in for the podcast here today.

Bryan Koutsky: Absolutely. My pleasure, Rob.

Rob Stott: Excited to have you. Before we dive into the business and Sound Designs and everything, tell us a little bit about yourself and your background and entry into the business.

Bryan Koutsky: It’s interesting now. My career has come full circle. So I started back in early nineties, 30 years ago, ironically, the same year that Sound Designs was founded by my partner and his wife. I started in retail slash what was quasi custom business. It was a large retailer here in Wisconsin. And my career went from there and into being a manufacturer’s rep and then working directly for a couple of manufacturers. 14 years at…obviously where we met.

And I was presented with an opportunity to come in and be president and co-owner and carry the torch for my partner as he’s looking at potentially retiring soon. Found it to be a tremendous opportunity. I always thought maybe I should do it. Maybe I should get back into the custom business. And the opportunity really was something that when I sat down and thought about it, what do I miss and weighing the pros and cons. And the pros were that I missed the customer interaction. It’s that last five yards, if you will and putting it across the end zone. And customer smiling and saying, wow, we love it. Sound Design has been doing this for 30 years. They’ve had a great history with customers and they’ve got a really good customer base. It’s a large referral. And being in business for 30 years, it said something to me.

Rob Stott: No, that’s awesome. I want to go back even further because I always find in this space, when I talked to the guys that are in this integration space, there’s always something from the childhood. Tinkering with toys or opening things up and messing around with them that really got them interested in. You don’t realize that it started more as a hobby than a career. Is that the same for you? Are you in that same boat?

Bryan Koutsky: It’s funny you bring that up, because I thought whether or not to add this into our conversation, but you actually went there. For me, it was when I was three years old. So my mom and dad, my mom was a Motown gal. My dad was a rock and roller. In our industry, there’s two things that move people, typically. It’s either music or movies. And for me, that thing is all music side. And the age of three, my dad almost killed me because I’d taken all of his albums, he is a big album collector, and I’d taken all his albums. I’d taken them all out of the sleeves or jackets. Laid them all across the floor. And he woke up at eight in the morning to me dancing on top of his albums.

Rob Stott: Oh, no. I can just imagine.

Bryan Koutsky: He came downstairs, and he looked at me and just went, does he make his fourth birthday? Or is this where he’s headed? And so my mom and dad, if you ask them, they’ll say we knew at the age of three or four or something in music or entertainment or something. So that’s what started me.

Rob Stott: No, that’s awesome. And then obviously it always snowballs and you dive deeper into it. It just, it’s cool to hear those origin stories of how you said it, it always starts at those early ages in one way or another. That’s what’s I think’s so incredible about this industry is that for most of the people, a majority, I’m not going to put it in an exact percentage on it, but it always feels like it’s a hobby or passion for them. It’s a career, but it’s not the defined career that you’d see across most other professions. It’s something they care about and it always shows through in the work that they do.

And that takes us to Sound Design and what you get to do today. Because as you mentioned, you’ve been in different parts of the industry. Starting there, what does that other experience bring to the table for you now at Sound Designs as a president and co-owner?

Bryan Koutsky: Well, I think, I mean, when I was talking to Jack about originally coming on board, it was really about structure. Sound Designs in ’91, it was really a two channel audio company, high end speakers, turntable. I sold them a lot of stuff when I was a rep, Krell and Parasound. Some of the brands that back in the day were top brands in our industry. Some of them are gone today…and some others. And so really, the passion of Sound Designs and what I was brought in to do is put structure into the organization. In ’91, they were really fly by the seat of your pants, hang on because things were great. I brought a lot of structuring from my manufacturing days at a big company and so forth, et cetera. And that’s really what he wanted to see. And so we’ve done a lot of things that we’ll talk about I’m sure in the next couple of minutes. But Sound Design is formulated as a high-end experience. And that’s really where I love to be.

Rob Stott: No, that’s awesome. So boiling it down, you’re starting to tell it there, but what is that elevator pitch on Sound Designs today?

Bryan Koutsky: So Sound Designs, it started in ’91, so first and foremost, I think that’s a huge compliment because 30 years in the business as a small integrator doesn’t happen very often. There’s a bunch of them that are out there, but if you look at the whole scope, it doesn’t happen. So our elevator pitch is really about making sure that our client’s needs are met. We try to pick out the things that they like to do in their lives and make their technologies simpler for them.

What started as a high-end two channel audio system back in the day, has now morphed into home control and whole house audio, outdoor entertainment. We’re going to get involved in pool controls and stuff. So our elevator pitch really is to make sure the client, if you look at the application, every application is different. And we make sure that we have the means. And we’re not like a lot of people out there that they can get tons of product from tons of manufacturers. We focus on specific manufacturers. My saying to everybody in the company is we’re very important to a few manufacturers. We’re not just a dealer for a bunch of manufacturers.

And that helps us in our ability to be efficient when installing systems. It helps us from a technology and understanding of what the customer has in their system. And really it’s about the customer service. We’re a pro business. And if we do the things right for the customers. And by and large, they’re going to come back to us matter of course. And that’s where our business thrives.

Rob Stott: No, that’s awesome. Thinking on the product side, you mentioned it started as just a two channel sort of company. Is that really the bread and butter still? Or is there other areas? What would you define as that sweet spot for Sound Designs?

Bryan Koutsky: The company has changed. The business has changed. The idea of large speakers sitting in a room to listen to an album, it hasn’t really continued on. As things have gotten smarter and solutions from big speakers have gone in wall, some of those solutions with the JL sub in the wall or something like that, you get really good sound out of in wall technology. So the technology has changed. You don’t need the large speakers. However, we still do quite a bit of large, three channel listening room. It doesn’t start there today, though. It starts with hey, I want entertainment in my home. And then, like I said earlier, if there’s an application for it, the customer is passionate about it, then we’ll present what you need to be able to do it.

Rob Stott: Well, that lends itself nicely to something else we were going to talk about, which I know … I feel like you can’t have a conversation with someone today without talking about their business and how the last year has impacted them. Did you notice a lot of customers coming to you? Was that the crux of over the course of the past year when you had projects come your way, was people just wanting to improve that in-home experience and just that sort of thing?

Bryan Koutsky: I think there’s probably two parts to it, Rob. One part is, over the last year and a half of the pandemic, nobody’s been traveling. And just like we saw in 2008 when nobody was traveling, the people that still had some money that were disposable money, spent that on their house. They may not have taken the trip to Mexico or the Caribbean, but they dumped it into their house.

The other part of it, and a certain side of it, is people had to learn to adapt themselves. I think we always talk about internet and we talk about how the standard cable modem or standard cable router isn’t good enough in the home, et cetera. And I don’t think that was felt any greater than this last year and a half with the pandemic when everybody’s at home and they’re trying to do Zoom call meetings. They’re trying to stream video and stream audio. The entire family is home at one time. Not only they’re home, but their neighbors are home, and so the pipeline became essential for us to be able to maximize delivery.

We got one of our guys to….certification class. We do a lot of training and we doubled down on making sure our guys are certified in different lines of products that we carry. We also scaled back. We went from four different lines to two because we wanted to be efficient. We wanted to be accurate. We wanted to be able to track the system correctly. And we’ve been able to do that.

The network inside of it has helped us get into audio and video and other things in the home. And so while the business changed, I think we adapted quickly to it. We’ve had a great last couple of years. Like a lot of other dealers that I’ve talked to across the industry, if they adapted, they’re doing well. If they didn’t, then they’re struggling. The ones that went oh, boy, what do I do are the ones that are struggling. We looked at it and said it’s an opportunity for us to get back into the homes if the infrastructure is good.

Rob Stott: No, that’s awesome. As you look at the last year, and certainly there were areas, I mean, you can’t think that everything was positive. There was a lot of challenges and struggles across so many industries. But this in-home space, from whether it’s custom installed to … I know you look at events that we’ve attended over the past year, virtually of course, like NKBA and hearing about just the boom in the in-home market and renovations and stuff like that. Crazy how the opportunity presented itself for designers and architects, and obviously integrators as well. Do you see any of those changes being long lasting? Have you had to completely adapt to where you won’t go back to the way it was before?

Bryan Koutsky: So, yes, I think they are. I think a big part of it is customers have gotten smarter. I’d like to say we were the ones that drove it from our side, but our customers understood … We always talked about that router situation of is the spectrum router. So whatever you have, is that good enough for you. I think this last year and a half, it taught a lot of people that it’s not good enough, and I need to hire a technology advisor to build, to spec this out for me.

We’ve had a long history of like I said, a full business and we’re treating our customer right so they come back to us. And so they thought of us for that technology. I think it’s long lasting. I think the challenge that we face now, part of the reason why we consolidated some manufacturing lines, was that product choice. I had a customer just only this last week, he said, he owns a business here locally, and he said Bryan, the issue that we face is that right now there’s 60% capacity or 70% or whatever that number is. Once you get to a hundred percent again, the manufacturing side of it will ramp back up. But that may not happen for a while.

And so we’ve been challenging. We’ve got great manufacturers. They’ve been great with us about communication. And was just designing a system for a customer yesterday. One of the questions he asked me was, is everything ready. And we’ve been getting smarter about doing that, making sure that products are available before we spec them, because otherwise the lead times are ridiculous.

Rob Stott: Yeah. About the availability, have you noticed it come in ebbs and flows or is it getting better? Because I know anyone following the space, they know, obviously it’s not just the manufacturing of the product itself, but also availability of chips that are causing a lot of lead times and that sort of thing. So has it gotten better at all? Or are you still having to navigate some uncertain waters?

Bryan Koutsky: There’s some areas, Rob, that have gotten better. A lot of cases it hasn’t gotten better. We’re doing a lot, we talked to you last week about this, we’re busy. And we’re doing a lot of piecemeal. My guys are even though we have product shortages, our guys aren’t short on the time. We’re still working 45-50 hours a week. And they’re really working well. We might have to send somebody out twice to a customer’s home where before we would do it once. But that’s the nature that we’re into. It’s part of the business. I mean you’ve got to learn to do it. Hopefully we can get better efficiency and get product and do an entire job at one time, but right now it’s kind of piecemeal.

Rob Stott: Yeah. So on that, the surging demand, you’ve taken on a large amount of projects from what we were talking about. To the point, I mean, what’s it like managing all of that? Is that slowing down at all or do you see more customer demand right now? What’s the business side of it for you guys like right now?

Bryan Koutsky: Business is hot. It’s really hot. And that’s a good thing. We lost a couple of competitors in our market space during the pandemic. And we’ve picked up some of that business and got it. Juggling it has been tough, but I have a great team and we’ve got pretty good scheduling of all the jobs. But we’re slammed and it’s tough. It’s not an easy thing. But I love the 7:30 AM in the morning until 9:30 PM, 10 o’clock at night hours right now. That’s what it takes getting the orders out. Even though we have a ton of jobs that are out there, we’re getting more people coming to us and wanting to do business with us. So Sound Design’s philosophy has always been if you have a customer that wants to do business with you, do it. I mentioned earlier that we’re a high end detail shop. We take jobs for under a thousand bucks. They go as high as the customer needs to go. So we’re working and we’re busy. It’s great.

Rob Stott: Yeah, no, that’s obviously a good problem to have rather than not being busy at all. We had talked about it before as well. Is the influx in projects something, I mean, does it lead itself to you guys expanding as a company, growing as a company and those types of things?

Bryan Koutsky: Yeah, absolutely. We’re a small shop right now. It’s eight people total in the organization and we are looking to expand. It’s one of the things that as I came into the company, laid out a roadmap for expansion. But I have to be my guys busy. I have to make sure that it’s that delicate balance of how many hours to too much, too many hours for the team. And if I bring somebody on, as a business owner, I have a responsibility to make sure that we’ve got enough work for them to do. And so, yeah, we’re looking to expand. We probably need some sales people, a couple of installers eventually as business warrants and we get to that maximum capacity we expect.

Rob Stott: And bringing in a little bit of Nationwide here too, I know we had talked about how some of the new offerings. The Lockton program as an example, the health insurance. How big of a benefit to you is that right now as you are looking to expand. What kind of opportunities does that present to you that maybe you wouldn’t have had?

Bryan Koutsky: Well, if you ask our account manager Scott from Nationwide, or you ask Hank, it was day one decision on part of joining that group. The starting direction, Hank laid everything out for us and I saw the direction that they were looking to get into health insurance and stuff. In order to hire, on the last question expanded, I want to hire the right people. I don’t want to hire just a warm body.

In order to hire the right people and look at this not just the good job or a career opportunity for them, you need health benefits, you need health insurance. And as a small business owner, that’s tough to do. oftentimes the program are all over the place of what you offer, and as an owner, it’s a tough move as far as putting a benefit package together. Lockton brought all that together, saw the opportunity for it. And to be able to roll that, I enrolled July one. We’re working on finalizing our details and we look forward to being able to have full health benefits for our employees. And really feel that it will help me recruit and expand this company in this way.

Rob Stott: You mentioned that the timing is perfect to be talking about this. What has the lead-up been like to getting it up and running and ready to launch, to start being able to offer?

Bryan Koutsky: It’s been about communication. So from day one, meeting with my partner and laid out what we have currently for our employees. Looking at the opportunity that Lockton presented to save our company some money as well versus what we were paying, which is a huge benefit for us. The communications been great. Scott’s been great for HTSN. Hank’s been great as well in trying to line this up.

The first couple of calls with Lockton have gone really well, we’ve got all the finance stuff in place. It’s just a matter of us writing our own policy and procedure, which goes back to my structure question answer earlier. And we’re building that out. I hope to have it available by the 15th for the employees. And then that’ll allow us to look at expanding.

Rob Stott: No, that’s awesome. Obviously the business services side and then you guys too, I know you’re doing a lot. You mentioned again the structure, adding it to Sound Designs and what you’re bringing to the table and dipping into Nationwide a little bit too. You have a new website as well that you can kind of talk about all of this on. So talk to me about that digital arena, because I know and you can attest to this from the other side too I’m sure, looking at other integrators’ websites and what is out there, or really the lack of strong websites that are out there.

It’s not a space that they really like to dabble in, because I mean, to their credit, projects, you want to show a client what you’re capable of doing. And it’s hard to really present that in a website form. Images can’t do justice if I’m being honest. So, what’s it like diving into building a website for Sound Designs? And what’s the opportunity there for you guys?

Bryan Koutsky: Great question. Another day one map of what I wanted to do. So Sound Designs had a website. It was just like you’re talking about. It had some images on it. It hadn’t been updated in six years. And it was old. Talking to Nationwide and knowing that retail web services was part of their whole umbrella, I looked at it. And it wasn’t what I envisioned for our company. It was more appliance driven if you will and stuff like that.

So I started looking at others and went through about 35, 40 different websites that people that I knew in the industry and not in this market and trying to just keep it. And looked at things I liked. Then put my manufacture hat back on and knew the creativity and the marketing assets and everything were available from some of the key manufacturers that we do business with. And so we started talking about it, putting it together.

For us, it was less about selling over the website. In fact right now, we sell nothing over the website. But when you look at customers and how do they get to you, technology has changed to where most customers do their research first. And if I’m talking about a product, do I want them to research my website, or do I want them to research another person’s website? And for me it was, I want them on our website.

And in fact, so much so that I’m working with our account manager of retail web services. I told her that we’ve got a brand page which we have a few now on the site, that when you click on that brand page, I don’t want to go to go to the brand manufacturer so that they can go and find another dealer to go. You know what I mean?

Rob Stott: Exactly, yeah.

Bryan Koutsky: So it was important that each brand stayed within my page. But it allows us, like you said, images don’t really speak to the product and what we can do. Video, about 30 to 45 seconds, does.

So for example, we’re launching one of our brands on the website is Triad, and they have a great website or a video that just talks about the manufacturing process of it. And really being a wood shop out in Portland, Oregon, and there’s a brand story. My website’s up now. It’s going to move more towards brand stories, Sound Design stories. I have a drone and I fly it around the project for example, and give them a good outdoor experience for the customer.

It’s differentiated. And most dealers don’t do it. And so we invested a lot of money into it. We continue to invest money into it. The thing I love about the retail web services through HTSN, is that the website is live all the time. So in other words, if Sony were to change their promotion for two weeks and lower the price of their television set, that comes up on the website for those two weeks. I don’t have to worry about it.

As a business owner, one of the biggest reasons why people in small business don’t have websites in our industry is because of it’s very time consuming. And so we hired somebody to basically stay on top of it for us. And I talk to them weekly. They send their updates every week. And it’s been great. We’ve had two projects already we hit off it. So I’d say it’s working. So I’ve been up for a few weeks.

Rob Stott: That’s incredible. I mean, that’s awesome to hear that you’ve been able to change the mindset on the website, to your point about you know that customers are going to be online anyway. So if they’re going to do their research, you want them to do their research with you so you build that brand familiarity with them. Even if it’s just your presence. You’re not on there talking to them, but they’re researching on your website, working on their own to build that trust with you even though they haven’t necessarily been in a store or a showroom.

This may be getting a little deep, but what did it take to turn that way of thinking around for Sound Design to get them to buy into the possibilities of the website and what it could do for you?

Bryan Koutsky: We talk a lot about how do we drive business. What are our key drivers. In 30 years, Sound Designs has not spent a dime on marketing directly to consumer. And so their business though has changed. People don’t walk into the showroom that often anymore. We have a 6,000 square foot show room. So what do we do to drive people to us is really what it comes down to. And if you’re not doing any marketing, it’s the marketing dollars. And people are really walking into the showroom as much anymore. You have to have a way to touch them.

And to me, there was no better way than the website, because I have something that I can point them to. It’s an honest signature of  that they can click on. And it also helps me when I’m trying to get designers, influencers and architects and things like that. That before they step foot in the showroom, they look at me.

Lastly, it’s about the differentiation. So one of the things I tell my guys all the time is vans must be clean. You never know if a customer’s going to walk out of their garage and their van doors are open and you need a clean van. So I posted up on LinkedIn yesterday, or the day before, a photo of one of the inside of the worker vans. It goes back to my old boss, my retail days back in the nineties said walk into the bathroom every day. If the bathroom’s clean, it sets an example for the whole showroom. It’s that mentality.

We drive people to the website with a new clean look, invites them to the store, gets them to call us. I can sit in the customer’s home or we can show videos off of our website to a customer. I don’t have to go in the manufacturer page or go to a different dealer page to show something. I don’t have to go to YouTube that might have a logo of a different dealer. I stay within my own home. And it’s really been beneficial. It’s changed everything. My partner’s been very good about just, go, go, go. And he said, you’re the structure. You’re the mind, go. And it’s worked well.

Rob Stott: That’s awesome. And we could have an entire other episode because you mentioned it in there the idea that, yeah, this is the customers that you’re talking to, but it’s also the parallel verticals, the architects and designers that are looking at this as well. And like I said, we could have a whole other conversation about diving into that space and the benefits there. You talked about it a little bit, but dive a little deeper into what the potential moving forward is for the website. What do you want it to be eventually? Obviously it’s something that you’re always working on, but in an ideal world, what is it that it’s doing for you and your business?

Bryan Koutsky: So when I look at it today, it’s more of a start to an education process about what we do. When I look at it three to six months from now, it’s more of a brand story. We’re not just Sound Designs, but the important brands that we cover. When I look at it going farther out, it’s going to be basically a portal. A lot of manufacturers have gone to a portal system. We’ll go to a portal system for our customers.

So on our website right now, there’s an account page to it. There’s nothing there, but it’s going to be a means for us to be able to take all manuals, streaming services, et cetera, and get to the customer a unique username and password. That way, if they ever need anything to access for their account, they want to know what the warranties are, they want to know what their user name is for Pandora or whatever, it’s there for them. They don’t have to call us for it. They can call us of course, but I want to make it easier for them. That way they’re going to our site more often too. That will help drive referral business for us too.

Rob Stott: No, that’s awesome. Cool way of thinking too. You’re making it that that one-stop shop for everything for the customer. Because I mean, the more you can drive them, the more they’re thinking about you, the higher likelihood that they’ll come back to you for more if they have projects down the road and things like that. So you’re building that customer ecosystem for them, which is awesome.

No, Bryan, this was awesome. This was a great convo. And like I said, we could go on for hours. Maybe we have a part two planned up here not too long from now. But I know you’re busy, so I don’t want to take up too much more of your time. And just look forward to seeing now, following your business, following the website, how it grows. And following your business as it grows as well. So best of luck to you and look forward to connecting here in person before we know it.

Bryan Koutsky: That’s awesome. Thanks, Rob. I really appreciate it.


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