So the USA is full of Schiit?
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I guess you've never seen Jason Stoddard's real picture, not the fake one he uses when posting.
The Modi and Magni have a smaller form factor because they were designed by Mini-Me.
The First Order Is…For Something We’re Not Selling
Launching a product isn’t like live theater in one respect: at the theater, you’ve got a play date. The show’s gonna go on, whether you’re ready or not. It doesn’t matter if all the costumes were lost because a drunk truck driver drove them down a ravine, or if the lead actor is sick, or if you really don’t have the whole performance gelled. You need to get on stage and do something.
So, with a product launch, you’re lucky in at least one respect: you can pick the date. And you can move it if things aren’t ready. And, if you’re not stupid, and don’t talk about the product until it launches, then nobody will be the wiser. You’ll look like a company that profoundly has its Schiit together.
(Oh, how I wish I could jump in a time machine, go back 4 years, and yell, “Never talk about Ragnarok and Yggdrasil until they are DAMN GOOD AND READY to launch.”)
But launching a new product, especially when you’re also launching a new company, is like theater in at least one respect: you’re baring yourself to the ruthless examination of the public. What will they say? What did you mess up? Is it gonna be “meh” or “omg?” What could have been better about it? What if everyone laughs you out of the game? What competitor did you miss? What if you, well, just screwed up?
Because I gotta believe that even Steve Jobs, when he got up on stage with the first iPod, had no idea how it would go. And some of the first press commentary was pretty scathing. “Too expensive, from a niche company nobody pays attention to, why would you want to put all your music on one device?” But we all know how that played out.
Look, I work with creative people every day. And not one of them can sail blithely into a client review, thinking, “They’re gonna love it, no question.” Because they might not love it. They might think it’s stupid. They may even make some very pointed, personal remarks about how the creative director is an unoriginal hack. I’ve seen it happen.
And that’s why creative people get so cynical. “The client won’t get it. Give them something easy and obvious. I’ll save my best work for myself.”
Except you can’t. Because then you really are a hack.
Do you think engineers are any less creative than artists? Do you think they’re hurt any less by savage commentary that questions their competence?
Do you think this might have something to do with how so many audio companies act like they’re living in an ivory tower, dispensing wisdom from on high? Or something to do with the fact they’d rather not talk to customers, and relax behind the walls of distribution?
Anyway, enough with the emo stuff. When we launched Asgard and Valhalla, we had a chance to look supremely competent—and had to settle for “almost.”
It was June 15 of 2010. We had about 20 Asgards built and ready to ship. It was time to make the website live, send out the press releases, and see what the public would say.
There was one little catch, though. We had no Valhallas. As in, we had exactly one working prototype board without a chassis. As in, the prototype wasn’t even fully worked out yet. I knew it kinda worked, but I wanted Mike’s expertise on the tube side to get it fine-tuned.
So, yeah, we launched with ½ of a product line. Like I said, almost competent. We could have shut the hell up about the Valhalla and surprised everyone a couple of months later. But no, we had to go and show that we were going to have a full line.
This is what you call “ego talking.”
This gets you in trouble. Shut up. Perfect the product. Then launch it. Anything else isn’t “product launch.” It’s “product escape.”
And yeah, I know, everyone likes to talk about what’s coming up. A lot of companies do it. But that doesn’t mean it’s right. Product escape blunts the impact of the launch. By the time you’ve gotten it out, everyone might be tired of hearing about it. (I’m hoping that isn’t the case with Ragnarok and Yggdrasil, but we’ll see.)
And, wouldn’t you know it…the first order we got was for a Valhalla.
How to Launch (Not an ICBM)
Okay, let’s take a little tour of that marketing niche known as PR, or public relations.
Nobody really knows why it’s called this, because it would be more aptly known as press relations. Because them’s the guys who have the relationships with the editors, writers, opinion leaders, market makers, dudes with a blog and a million unique visitors a month, guys with 40,000 forum posts, etc. And because of those relationships, your PR guys can get you “free advertising” in the form of mentions and reviews.
Please note: the scare quotes are not there just for show. To a good PR company, “free advertising” equates to “pay us $4,000 to $20,000 per month for the chance of coverage in the WSJ.” Not exactly free.
The reality is, a brick can get free coverage. Probably not in the Wall Street Journal, though. That is, if the brick can write, send emails, and follow a few simple rules.
Here’s how you do it:
This is exactly what we did when we launched Asgard and Valhalla, and it resulted in coverage on virtually every audio site, as well as breakout coverage on Wired, Engadget, Gizmodo, and TechCrunch. YMMV.
(And yeah, I know, you thought there were payoffs and backroom deals going on here. Sorry to disappoint you.)
Before we launched, I worried that we were gonna fall flat on our face. Within 2 days after launch, I was terrified we weren’t going to be able to keep up.
It was madness. In less than two hours after the press release went out, the first online articles showed up. Then, a thread, Cool Looking Schiit, was posted on Head-Fi by Roscoeiii.
The emails started pouring in. They were a mix of disbelief and delight. Disbelief at the name, and delight at the looks and the price of the products. We got emails from prospective buyers, engineers, Mike’s old friends, my old friends, other manufacturers (including Audeze—one of our first emails), writers, bloggers, audio press, mainstream press.
Then that first Valhalla order came in. Rina called to let me know. She knew we were nowhere near to shipping any Valhallas. She wasn’t thrilled.
I looked up the order online, and thought I recognized the name. I Googled it, and crazily enough, it was a reviewer—Vade Forrester, who wrote for SoundStage.
Ah, hell. The first order was for a reviewer. For a product we wouldn’t be selling for two months.
“So what do we do now?” she asked me.
“Contact him,” I told her. “Make sure he saw that it was a pre-order only. And offer him an Asgard to try in the meantime.”
(Sidenote: don’t offer pre-order. Ever.)
“You’re the marketing guy. You do it,” she told me. “I gotta go stuff some boards.”
“But I’ve got like a million emails!”
“And whose idea was it to do those pre-order Valhallas?” she shot back.
So contacting Vade fell on me. And good thing I did—he took the Asgard loaner, liked it, and wrote a nice review on it for Soundstage. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to get the Valhalla in there, though he ended up liking it even better.
And all the other emails fell on me. It was overwhelming. How overwhelming? I actually went home from my marketing company, claiming illness. And that wasn’t really far off the mark. My guts were churning as I realized, Holy schiit, we may actually have something here. Now what?
I called Mike.
“Hey, uh, Mike, I think we might have a winner here with Schiit,” I told him.
“Yeah? Cool.” Mike replied, sounding unconcerned.
“No, I mean really. People are going crazy. I have like a hundred emails to answer.”
“That’s a good thing, isn’t it?” Mike asked.
“But, you know, we never really did the business details,” I reminded him. “You still want to be part of this, right? You still want to help?”
And that’s the truth. We had no formal agreement in place when we started up. Just a couple of old engineers, playing with gear. But when it gets real, you have to get real. And Mike, I knew, was doing Hollywood work. What if he couldn’t break away from that? What would I do?
What had I done, going and launching a new company?
“Of course I’ll help,” Mike told me.
“But this might get big.”
“We’ll make it work,” Mike told me. “One way or another, we’ll make it work.”
“We’re going to need that DAC now,” I reminded him.
“Ah,” Mike said, pausing for a long time. “Does it have to have USB?”
Mike groaned. “It might be good if you want to print your music.”
Mike grumbled a bit, but promised he’d start thinking about it.
As soon as I hung up, the phone rang again. It was Jude from Head-Fi. Yes, that Jude. The founder. No, I didn’t slip him a Krispy Kreme box full of Franklins. He called us. On the first day.
Holy schiit, again. I knew who Jude was, of course, from the press research we did. But we never thought we’d hit the biggest audio forum on the planet so hard, so fast.
Jude had a lot of questions—many of which seemed to boil down to, “Are you guys insane?” How can we set the prices so low? Did it sound any good—what were we comparing it to? Were we making enough margin to be a sustainable business? What plans did we have for the future? Did the stuff look as good as the pictures?
The answers, in order, should have been, “We’re good production engineers and crappy CFOs, we certainly hope it does or we won’t be around for long, hell if I know, answering about a billion emails, and yes.”
I don’t remember all I really said, but I must have sounded confident enough to convince Jude to buy an Asgard and try it out for himself.
Which was both exciting and terrifying.
Exciting, because in a couple of days the founder of the biggest headphone site was going to be listening to our Schiit, and terrifying, because if he didn’t like it, we wouldn’t have to worry about having a company for long.
The New Normal
Luckily for us, Jude liked the Asgard. A lot of early owners liked it, too, and added their impressions. I jumped on Head-Fi with the truly awful username of SchiitHead and began answering some questions.
And, in the evening, we built. Because the orders were coming in. Lisa stuffed and soldered boards, I tested and assembled them, and she shipped them the next day after burning in overnight. We could, full-out, assemble about 10 Asgards a day. Of course, most days weren’t full-out.
The orders kept coming in, and we kept shipping. It became the “new normal.” In the little time I had, I finished up the Valhalla tweaks, got Mike’s blessing on the sound, and got the PCB artwork and metal drawings out for production.
For a while, things became almost sustainable. Or at least tolerable. I began running numbers in my head, and decided that this could end up being a decent hobby business. Maybe I could put in an outbuilding behind the house so we’d have enough space to run it out of, and not have to spend money for an office.
Yes, I know, don’t laugh. But hindsight is always 20/20. I wonder what I’ll be thinking, when I look back on 2014.
Then the Valhalla metal came in, and our world imploded.