Anyone contemplating the upgrade to a flat-screen television faces the inevitable dilemma of where to put the speakers. With a 50-inch screen, you've got to go with surround-sound, right? Then you'll want the stereo on the same system. The next step is speakers all over the house. And shouldn't the lights be on the same remote control?
It's a home technology domino effect.
"Don't forget the iPod," said George Borghi, founder of House Gadget Inc., a Culver City consulting firm that installs home entertainment systems. "People will be holding their Apple laptop with all their music on it, they have audio (speakers) throughout their house, and they want to know: 'Why can't I just make this my audio system?' "
Borghi represents the new breed of contractor. Part tech guru, part carpenter, part designer, part troubleshooter, he wants customers to think of his company as their "tech guide."
"We're finding that you can't just work on audio-video systems anymore," said Barry Snyder, another principal at House Gadget. "You need a wireless connection, and phone lines, too. And the first question they always ask is if they can hook it up to see who's at the front door."
Founded in 2004, House Gadget set out to combine technology expertise with home design and installation. They do more than hide wires and hang screens. They research products based on a customer's budget and TV-watching habits. House Gadget then comes back to the customer with a few options, makes the purchases and installs the system.
Staff designers mesh the technology with a homes' design. They work with architects on new construction or renovation jobs and have worked with custom cabinet-makers to fit equipment specs. Just don't call them installers.
"We love the installation process and we're awesome at it but that's not the only service we want to provide," Snyder said. "We want you to call us whenever you need information. We want to be a part of every 'tech spend' that you make."
The average project is in the $30,000 range, and about 65 percent of the company's projects have been installing home theaters: flat screen TVs, surround-sound and "distributed audio" speakers throughout the house. But the company also takes on projects in the $500-$1,000-range. It's good business, Snyder explained, because it often leads to other jobs.
For business customers, there's Office Gadget, which handles about 35 percent of the projects, such as video conference setups. The company has also done specialty projects including museums, retail locations and is currently working on a temple's audio system.
Of the company's 25 current projects under way, almost a third are repeat customers.
"They're unique," said Jeremy Dicker, a 29-year old financial planner. "You want to keep them around." Dicker hired House Gadget to install a home theater in his new house, which included three flat-screen TVs and surround sound in every room. Then he realized he needed wireless access to his computers.
"While they were doing my computer work, I asked them to figure out how to wire sound into my master bedroom," he said. "I call them up whenever I have a question." Multiple CD players, DVD players, lighting and security are all integrated. The best part? He has only one remote control for everything.
"Life with one remote can be just phenomenal," Dicker said.
A former post-production executive, 48-year old Borghi started the business in his kitchen, telling just a few friends what he was up to. Snyder, who had worked at Warner Bros. and Sony Studios, and formerly headed Post Logic Studios, joined the business six months later.
Borghi and Snyder leaned on their entertainment industry contacts. A few "personal favor" jobs later, they started getting real customers.
In its first year, House Gadget had 6 employees and billed about $500,000 in business. But in the entertainment industry, word spreads fast. Last year, the company swelled to 13 employees, and about $1 million in revenues. Most of the company's 600 customers are word-of-mouth referrals.
House Gadget is brand agnostic, and will purchase based on the customer's preference once they've talked over the options.
"They speak in English," said Julie Moody, an interior designer who uses House Gadget for the technology component of her projects. "They bridge the gap between the techno-nerds of us who are less tech-oriented."
Moody said she's had trouble in the past with "tech guys" who were unable to simplify the equipment for the everyday user. "You'd be surprised how many people don't know how to use the remote control," she added.
House Gadget employees scour the Web and consumer technology magazines to keep up with the newest products and trends. They boast of "future-proofing" houses installing extra power access, for example, in anticipation of upgrades. "As a designer, that's key," Moody added. "With technology changing so rapidly, there's no way I can keep up with it."
The company's design staff includes Trevor Bryant, who designed theme parks for Walt Disney Imagineering. Later, as a senior executive at Sony Corp., he designed the Sony Metreon Theater in San Francisco.
Borghi's entertainment industry background comes through in the company's eagerness to fulfill customer needs. "When a director asks you for something, you always have to have an answer," he said. Regardless of the tech request, Borghi's standard line is," Give us a day, and we'll research that for you."
The company is launching a monthly subscription service, called Gadget Partners. For $99 per month, House Gadget will be on call to answer any tech question or need.
The House Gadget guys admit their services are not for everyone. A customer who knows exactly what he needs and doesn't need probably wouldn't benefit from House Gadget's services. Customers who want a contractor to come in, do a job, and disappear aren't a good fit either.
"We want to be in their lives on a daily basis," Snyder said. "The person really has to want us to be there. It's a partnership."
House Gadget Inc.
Year Founded: 2004
Core Business: Consultants who design, wire and install most technology for home and office
2005 Revenues: $1 million
2006 Revenues: $2.4 million (projected)
2005 Employees: 15
2006 Employees: 17
Goal: To have 100,000 clients ask, 'What did I do before House Gadget?'
Driving Force: Homeowners confused about complicated electronics
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