Schiit Happened by Jason Stoddard and Mike Moffat (Part 2)

Isn’t the Symbol for USB the long flat rectangle? We transited from a headphone amp to a DAC/amp company. We are like both a hardware and software company. The problem with hardware are manufacturing while software is about service. A restaurant has both of these problems. When you talk hardware, you are talking stock. You will need capital upfront and also the added costs of personnel, facility, testing, shipping etc. For software, it’s about the salaries for programming staff, admin costs etc. However, distribution is easy. However, you must make sure your software can work with the existing OS. It is an ongoing business, where you need to keep upgrading. There are too many things that can go wrong with a restaurant. With Bifrost, we are a software company. We wanted 24/192, which needed Windows support as driver installation was a must. Firmware is not expected to change much. Software usually requires constant upgrading. Try not to allow pre-orders as if you can’t deliver on time, Schiit happens. The Bitfrost shipped out late. It was a nightmare as we ran into problems, one after another.

Although I’m a foodie, I have exactly zero desire to ever open a restaurant. Why? Because restaurants combine the problems of manufacturing with the problems of service with an extra problem of the stock actually goes bad. No thanks. – Jason Stoddard

Technical Help via Time Warner, and the World’s Most Irritating Failure Mode. Tony was our second employee and our first technician. It was late 2011. We have 4 products, Asgard, Valhalla, Lyr, Bifrost. Mike recommended Tony. He was laid off. He was a fast learner. The problem with employees are that they only do things by the book, have a stunning lack of initiative, prima donna-it is. It would be better to ask why and how they did something, rather than what. Tony was a great employee. However, one day, he pointed out that the Lyr was popping. The problem only happened with the back chassis on. We used brute force to fix the problem. However, that was the only batch of equipment with that issue. We might never know what the problem is.

Because people can’t be distilled down to a 2 page resume and a 1 hour interview. There are a ton of candidates skilled in the art of looking good on paper. There are plenty who can be friendly, intelligent, and make all the right noises in response to the standard interview questions. – Jason Stoddard

Selecting people with potential and ambition beats experience every day. – Jason Stoddard

DAC in a Toilet Paper Roll. One day, Mike showed me a USB card, which had RCA jacks on it. It was a USB DAC. Although Mike wasn’t fond of USB, this was an excellent device. We could get the chassis cheap and sell it for USD 99. This is for people who really want portability. It would be simply plug and play. Modi and Magni showed up in Dec 2012. Developing simple products take a lot of time. Modi needed a new chassis design and had to be simple as possible. It required huge production time too. Most companies would have just iterated on existing products to milk the cash out of them. We’re not like that. We set a price target on the chassis. Assembly would be simple at all costs. In the end, we only used 7 screws instead of 16. Modi was built in a steel case. We chose to save our own money rather than borrow money to grow. It might not be the best, but that’s the direction we took. We decided on a Schiit stack, a little DAC that was less than $99 or less too.

Assembly time is a function of chassis design. The simpler the chassis, the lower the assembly time. – Jason Stoddard

Growth, Garage Style. We mostly worked from our garage too. I was a conservative businessman and did not take funding. People thought we were stupid. My plan was to grow organically. By being picky and conservative, we avoided the web bust and managed to thrive. Even in 2011, I didn’t lease office space. Understand what a lease means. Note the lack of any outs. Subleasing sucks as any issue with the property is your fault. You’ll have surprises, and they won’t be good. There’s less space than you think. If you don’t pay, the landlord will chase you to no ends. We ran out of stock very quickly, and that was good. We didn’t need a lot of space. Mike were planning Mjolnir and the Gungnir. These were balanced amp and DACs, higher end things. It was the start of 2012 now.

The lease doesn’t give two craps if your business is in the toilet, if your cash flow sucks, if your sales forecast was wrong, or if you’re late on your mortgage as well. Pay us. Every month. Until the end. – Jason Stoddard

Leasing a space is very much one of those invisible lines in business. Once you do it, you won’t go back. Nor will you back out. So you’d better be damn ready to do it. – Jason Stoddard

Resurrecting the Circlotron and Other Mid-Centuryisms. This chapter is highly technical. Designing a balanced amp was ambitious. Some people argue for single-ended while some prefer balanced. There are pros and cons to both, just like everything in life. Whys, wherefores and design goals. Every car has its disadvantages too, there is no perfect solution. There are trade-offs. Single ended has lower noise and easier to connect. However, high rail voltages are required for high power and balanced input is problematic. Balanced has 4 times the power for the same rail voltages. No us, balanced offers better sonic performance. First law of audio: you can never have too much power. Second law of audio: see the first law. More power usually means higher noise, greater need for protection and paralleled output devices. I have a soft spot for circlotron designs for amps. There were none in the market at the moment. Our company is contrarian and I liked it. Some of the designs include JLH, Lin/ Blameless, CFA/ Current Feedback, Supersymmetry, CSPP / Circlotron, Chip / Integrated. Circlotron uses only P channel, however, it requires a complex power supply. We focused on the high-voltage VFT front end and the MOSFET output. Class A amplifiers run on the time and never turn off. They are hot and big and heavy, and no more than 25% efficient. Class B isn’t used for audio, the output transistors turn off as soon as they cross zero, because they are completely unbiased. Class AB, with bias on the output transistors so they run Class A sometimes. This is the most popular audio output stage and more efficient, with good performance. Class D are switching or PWM amps. Class H are class AB with voltage rail switching. Mike challenged me to include single ended option in the amp too.

Today, orthodynamics are actually becoming more efficient, so the need for extreme power is abating. The headphone amp power war, which never really existed, will probably seem silly in a few years time. – Jason Stoddard

The Pinch-Off Problem. We were developing the Gungnir analog stage. We ran into problems of our prototype boards. We had a pinch-off problem. We chased down the source of the distortion. Swapping parts didn’t help. Analog isn’t the real story. It is important to segregate the analog and digital sections carefully. We needed to look at clock regeneration too. We use one stereo DAC per channel, giving balanced hardware. However, the components cost twice. Digital music has to be stored. There are different formats of music. Lossless audio preserves the original bits. These use the PCM (Pulse Code Modulation) format. DSD encodes using a pulse width modulated datastream (PWM). The DAC wants to see the bit clock, word clock and data. That means 3 or 4 BNC cables. However, nowadays, we only use 1 cable because the clocks are buried in the data. This is SPDIF. Optical is a flavor of SPDIF. However, it has its limitations and can sometimes can only accommodate up to 24/192. Coaxial is another flavor of SPDIF, however, it usually performs better than co-axial. USB is not a SPDIF, but a packet-based system. Bandwidth is no issue with USB 2.0 and up. There is a reception to process the signals. Some manufacturers choose to upsample everything to a specific data rate, this eliminates clock management. However, asynchronous sample rate conversion (ASRC) is not bitperfect. For a bitperfect DAC, clock management is needed. For digital filters, bit-perfect transfer dies. 99.9% of DACs use delta-sigma technology. It can support up to 24 bit or even 32 bit. However, it is not bit perfect either. Some DACs are analog also. Philosophy is the most important (why you do something). Without knowing your why, your company is rudderless. Therefore, there is a need to ask the why and there is a need to be very specific over your answer too. At Schiit, we want to make fun, affordable products that are as true to the musical source as possible. For delta-sigma, the best you can do is to reduce the jitter.

Every Road is a Dead End, Early Adventures with Magni. There is value in starting all over. There is a need to always be adaptable when coming up with new products. We wanted the amp to versatile for almost any headphone. We wanted an aggressive price point too. We planned a simple topology and a switching wall wart. We didn’t want Class A as there was too much heat for the chassis. The noisy power supply was killing my ideas. The Lin amp would work well with an AC supply. I turned to Alibaba for supplies. The AC wall warts were cheap enough. I played with many PC boards and found that they worked.

The HOA Problem. We were working on Magni, Modi, Gungir and Mjolnir. We were growing bigger now. HOA means Homeowners Association. The HOA prohibited operating a business out of your home. They would start complaining. We cracked 7 figures in sales. When you have your own business, you can’t say ‘That’s not my problem’. You have to deal with every problem. Everything becomes your problem when you start a business. It’s a ton of work, but it can be satisfying. We need to look to rent a space. I tried a space, however it was not meant for manufacturing due to zoning rights. Valencia, California is master-planned. It was zoned as a commercial space, not industrial. We are now in Valencia Industrial Center. However, I managed to convince the guy to let us look at his space.

We started this with $10k. 18 months later, we’re into 7 figures annually. In a garage. This isn’t interested to be bragging. This is intended to be inspiration for you. Starting your own business is absolutely doable – without taking loans, leasing tons of space etc. – Jason Stoddard

But don’t start a business because you think it’s going to be easy. Or because you think you’ll have more freedom. Because, if it’s your business, it’ll always be your problem. Until you decide to sell it and get out. And when you’re small, everything is your problem. – Jason Stoddard

You Catch a Cold, We Die: Bigger Products, Bigger Problems. It was the second quarter of 2012 now. Our supplier screwed up and couldn’t make the Gungnir and Mjolnir chassis. We had to learn to number the parts. We had to give specific revisions for the metal parts maker to edit our stuff. It is important to set up a parts numbering system that covers at least every custom part. You will also have to document your changes and revisions made. The chassis was too deep and they couldn’t bend it. Eventually, we settled on a three-piece chassis. Instead of pre-orders, we wanted to do an interest list instead. The metal was crap and the supplier disappointed us. They did a rush job but the quality was not good. The Mjolnir launch was delayed because of the metal supplier. Even with a big bugger between announcement and scheduled ship date, things still screwed up. We were not planning to do pre-announcements anymore.

When your vendors catch a cold, you get sick. When they have a problem, it’s your problem. Your customers don’t care about excuses or The Reality of Making Things Today. They want their stuff. When it was promised. Period. – Jason Stoddard

Introducing the Schiithole. We took a bit of risk in the commercial space. We got the space. In Feb 2012, we moved into the office. There are many hidden expenses in running a business which can bite you. DIY might be cheaper, but it is definitely different from production. When you run a business, there are expenses like liability insurance, facility lease, upkeep, equipment cost, bookkeeping, tax, sales or VAT. We needed to spend on renovating the new space. We were afraid that the city inspector might come. The place was incredibly dusty and messy. The place we leased was a Schiithole. Once you spend a lot on rental, it will kill you. You should only spend on the things you need. You need a functional space, effective places to work, equipment for your work, right connectivity for your business. Don’t buy high-end office chairs. Learn to pick the tolerable and cheapest chair. You must control your spending, or you won’t last long in business. Start-ups shouldn’t have private offices. I was burning out from doing 14 hour days. We needed to hire again.

The moment you build a palace is the moment you die. Now, it may take many years for that palace to kill you. You may end up with some very good years there. But the moment you start focusing on business wants, rather than needs, you’re dead. – Jason Stoddard

And that’s why we ended up with a space that was really nothing more than a large production floor, with no offices, in an ugly, run-down building. Because it had what we needed. And nothing we didn’t. And it was cheap. – Jason Stoddard

And I was quickly burning out from the long days. You can do 14-hour days for a while, but they’ll eventually kill you. – Jason Stoddard

‘I didn’t know people in the private sector were as lazy as incompetent as the people in schools’. We wanted to hire our first manager. Some level of management is necessary. You can’t do everything and you shouldn’t do everything. You can’t outsource everything enough. You still need to oversee some aspects to ensure things are going well. Hiring a manager will incur overheads. Why do companies have too much management? It is because of the 20/80 rule, where only 2 people are doing the work and the remaining 8 are hiding. Some people also think it ‘ain’t my job’. There is also a problem of title inflation. We needed to hire an operations manager. Rina’s own business was taking off and she had less time to focus on Schiit. Rina suggested Alex, Jen’s husband. I decided to give him a shot. He seemed smart enough. However, he worked in a school and I thought these people were lazy. Alex worked hard and suggested improvements and didn’t complain at all. He was the perfect candidate. Alex was an example of good management.

Management layers in a business is a necessary evil. Extra layers should be avoided at all cost. Like nuclear waste, you don’t want to get too much management on you. – Jason Stoddard

And that really is the challenge, more and more: not letting your company fall to the 20/80 rule, where a handful of good people do most of the work. Not letting the bozos on the bus. – Jason Stoddard

You can’t tread water. You can’t stand still. You have to sacrifice your babies. You need to look straight-on at cannibalizing your own products. You always have to be asking, “What can we do better, less expensively?” Even if it lays waste to your entire lineup. Because, you know what? If you don’t do it, someone else will. – Jason Stoddard

Getting Our Schiit Together. It was the summer of 2012. We now try to predict demand and buy ahead to meet it. The landlord wanted to spruce up the place. He suggested that I get the whole building. It was a reasonable and cheap price. I used to haggle in the past, but it has its disadvantages. To know whether someone is charging you fairly, you must know the general price of the product you’re looking for. You should do your research if you don’t know the general price. You should be aware of what is too good to be true. You have to be upfront too. I said yes to renting the whole building. The renovator hired by the landlord did a shit job. Finally, the space was ready and we were acting like a real company. Our space looked decent. Alex improved the business in the some aspects: 1) planning and scheduling; 2) facilities layout and production flow; 3) Shipping logistics and relationships; 4) General operations and vendor communication; 5) employee management, specifically hiring and training. However, on the planning front, we ran into some difficulties.

Dead Media Ain’t Dead: NYT Strikes. Learn to push the limits, common wisdom and experience. The Internet was a big push for Centric. We ignored much of the conventional press when we were at Schiit. We got money to do Adwords. Social media seemed like the leading edge of marketing. For an entertainment company, social marketing is definitely a must. However, if you are not, social marketing is dumb, with little returns. To capture your customers, you need a memorable brand and fast responses to queries. Invest in AdWords and constantly improve your product and not spend too much time on social media. If you are B2B, you need to focus even less on social media. You rather spend your money on advertising and PR. If you want social media, ask yourself, who’s going to create the content? Who’s going to respond to comments? Who’s going to decide what’s okay to say? Who’s going to measure and manage it all? Most of the content are posted by bots nowadays. It is more about crowd-sourced advertising. Paid advertising in big-name venues is here to stay. I said yes to the NYTimes, who wanted to review my product. After the article on NYT, customers posted a lot of newbie questions to us .It hit the print. Because of it, our Bifrost sold out and was on back-order. We had a huge backorder because of this news article. Old media isn’t dead, by any means. The mass media can be really powerful. The Magnis and Modis are targeted at first time audiophiles. One audio magazine gave a glowing review, but it didn’t bring much sales. Always stay open to traditional marketing.

Nobody is perfect. No matter how many degrees they have, no matter how high they scored on their IQ tests, no matter how many years of experience, no matter how many companies they’re launched. Period –  Jason Stoddard

And, while I’m absolutely for introducing everyone to great sound, we’re going to meet plenty of people who don’t care. And we have to be careful not to be tiresome proselytizers. – Jason Stoddard

Well, call me biased, call me old-fashioned, but I believe it will be done in only one way: with quality products made at a price that’s fair for its performance, construction, and looks. – Jason Stoddard

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