Schiit Happened by Jason Stoddard and Mike Moffat (Part 3)

Finally, the $99 solution. Mike was the one who thought that $99 gear was possible. In the past, it certainly wasn’t possible. I had my doubts that we could do it. I was very thrilled that we managed to do it. Audio is a seasonal business, where demand is strong between October to March. Magni and Modi were products we didn’t announce beforehand. The good thing is that you won’t miss your deadline. However, without a deadline, you won’t work as hard. If there are delays, you may miss your first mover advantage. As a result, we could have chased our vendors harder. The metal delivery was late. We missed CanJam as a result. The boards were late too. Thankfully, we just needed to switch out the capacitors before we could fit them in the new chassis. On Dec 13, 2012, we announced Modi and Magni. They outstripped the sales of all our other products combined. Nobody expected that we could deliver it at that price point. I saw the headphone market growing. I wanted to release something of value, and Schiit managed to do that. First time users could have excellent sound with the Magni and the Modi. Magni was neutral and had a ton of power. Modi didn’t need drivers and works well. Of course, there are better amps and DACs out there, however, with the quality of music that most people are listening, this would suffice.

Making another pricey product – no matter how advanced and innovative – is cool and all, and makes for good ego fodder. But making a good, solid product that almost anyone can afford, that’s a whole another thing entirely. – Jason Stoddard

And that’s what I wanted to do – to set the value bar, and the barrier to entry, much, much higher. – Jason Stoddard

Twilight of the Gods – the Ragnarok Saga from 2009 Until Today. Ragnarok was a big saga since 2009 We shipped a powerful speaker amp. If you pre-announce something, you will be wise to stop talking about it. Do not confirm that it will be a cool product. Speakers are very large. They need much damping factor. Our second Ragnarok was much better. It was solid state and used DC servos. However, it would get hot and we needed to find a solution. There are 3 ways to get rid of DC on your outputs: coupling capacitors; DC servo; Trimpots. I wanted a microprocessor to run everything on the Ragnarok. I released info on the product even before it was released. Software has a lot of bugs too. We ran into a shit load of problems. However, one day, the Ragnarok just smoked. It was really bad. Ragnarok didn’t work well at an audio show. It was nowhere near ready. The thing kept burning up because of too much current. We kept trying to write code for the firmware to prevent this. However, even after the power right, it didn’t sound good. There are plenty of other sagas than those mentioned above. Making great products requires a hell lot of pain at times.

Blazing a new path isn’t to be taken lightly. You should take a long, hard look at your capabilities and resources, and plan for how it will impact everything you do. – Jason Stoddard

You’ll Never Do Any Upgrades Anyway. Some audiophiles didn’t think we would do upgrades for the Bitfrost. Audiophiles can be very difficult sometimes. Mike was at the cutting edge of audio when he was at Theta. There was no standalone DAC at his time. Digital audio is new too. Mike measured jitter too. Audio in the 2000s is changing, but at a slowing rate as compared to the 1980s and 1990s. Most DACs are delta-sigma D/A converters. USB is a lot more mature and it is improving. DSD is not that hot now. WiFi digital audio is there. Bluetooth digital audio is also up there too. We didn’t know when we could upgrade the Bifrost. Pick your upgrades carefully and keep them to a minimum. For DACs, the chip AK4399 is our favorite. When you have upgrades, everyone wants to have it NOW, without hesitation.

Worst. Customer. Ever. The customer is always right. Is the customer always God? You can’t do well in business if you don’t love your customers. Amazon’s rule of customer service is that if you have to contact them, they have failed. How can you architect customer service? The smaller your customer service team, the more consistent their replies and the better it is for you. Prohibit the ‘hard sell’. Ban discussion of other manufacturers’ products. Don’t do promo, points, or sales. Less discounts means less complexity. If you have sales, some people will think they would be screwed if they missed the sale. Audio is subjective. Always maintain a high standard of customer service. You can’t take a day to reply emails, that is too slow. Choose your contact options. Choosing your feedback channels are important. However, do not pick too many or you will be flooded. If customers call you, it is bad as it is time consuming to answer calls. If you hire an audio expert to answer calls, it is going to be expensive. A nasty customer we encountered was when his item was a little late. He went into absolute berserk mode. We refunded him in the end. Yet, he was still raging. Believe me, not every customer is worth having.

If you’re going to get into business selling product direct to customers, you need to know two things: 1) You’re gonna get some buttheads; 2) You’re not gonna make everyone happy. – Jason Stoddard

We bend over backwards for our customers. But we won’t be bent forwards. – Jason Stoddard

Put enough information up about the product so most people can make their own decisions, but when they contact us, make the answers fast and simple. – Jason Stoddard

Anyone who emails us before purchasing is 8 times more likely to return the order. 2+ emails takes it up to 30 times. But again, are these bad people? Not at all. Merely indecisive. – Jason Stoddard

But you should be aware that you are talking to humans that can – and do – bend over backwards. But if you come in hot, that willingness to bend over backwards diminishes. – Jason Stoddard

Death of a Product. This will definitely happen some day. Should you cannibalize? It is important to understand product life cycle. No product can stay relevant forever. If you don’t cannibalize yourself, someone else will. It is easier to follow someone else’s rules rather than make your own. It is not smart to assume that sales slow down, it is time to upgrade. We killed the Asgard after the Magni was introduced. Asgard didn’t have gain switching and preamp outputs. The Asgard 2 was introduced and it was much better. It was dead silent on low gain. We had an absolute winner and knew it would be terrific. However, when we produced the Asgard 2, it had a hum. We swapped them.

R&D Sometimes Means, “Try it, See If It Works”. R&D can be very focused. However, at times, it shouldn’t be. Playtime is important. Let your engineers have fun as it will pay-off. We managed to get cheap tubes off eBay and we started tweaking to see how we could fit them into our products. This was the road to Vali. They were much better than the other tubes out there and required little power. The problem with tubes is that tube microphonics might happen and it appears as a form of noise.

But I strongly believe that R&D shouldn’t always be so focused. There’s value in making sure your engineering staff has time to play with crazy ideas. – Jason Stoddard

Name Me One Non-standard Format That’s Succeeded, Ever, Or, A Trickster Cometh. DSD was out in 2013. DSD requires a new type of filtering, which would create noise. We were initially not keen as our products would need a lot of upgrades. We were afraid of missing out on sales if we didn’t jump on the bandwagon. It’s a special software that will go nowhere. Many customers inquired on when our products will support DSD. Reluctantly, I managed to convince Mike to think about it. Our sales kept increasing though. We suddenly wanted to make the least expensive DSD DAC on the market. This would help to drive adoption. It would also have an option for PCM, where we could run a PCM DAC through it. It would be like an add-on. We didn’t have DSD capable USB receivers. We managed to develop a prototype that could play native DSD, using a crystal semiconductor DAC. It worked fine with the AKM DAC. We tried to bring it to market, if it did, we would work on 2X solution. Loki was introduced, where people could add DSD to any DAC for $149. However, it was received as well as we thought. Mike has mentioned no more DSD development until something big happens. However, the public didn’t seem interested in DSD all that longer. There are plenty of DACs out there that support DSD, but where is the software. DSD recordings are expensive for artistes and is it unlikely there will be happy. Also, the improvement in sound quality is marginal and may not be detected.

No Sample Left Unchanged: Digital Today. Let’s talk business philosophies. A typical AV preamp must have a lot of features. There are many standards, such as Dolby Atmos. It is hard to support all these formats. We have to pay licensing fee to put the logos on the box. Should we be at the whim of the standard-setters, like surround-sound standards? Would customers be okay with a processor that sounded good that didn’t support Dolby Digital or DTS? Digital audio has made steady progression over the years. The multibit technology has been improving. Jitter numbers have been decreasing steadily. 1-bit sigma-delta modulation is cheap and has good measurements. The phone DAC ain’t too shabby either. Today, it is a largely sigma-delta world. Lobby for better recordings in the studios, which will help us. DAC mostly upsample and use asynchronous sample rate conversion, affecting the original samples. Samples which have passed a digital filter are not the same. Yggdrasil aims to address that. We have the solution to retain the original samples, without oversampling. The more bits, the less the quantization error. The best DACs around can do only 20 bits. To achieve 24 bit linearity hasn’t happened yet. We have plenty of music in PCM format.

And “32 bit?” LOLOLROFLCOPTER. There will never be any 32 bit music. Because physics. – Jason Stoddard

Black Friday. It is important for a company to define why you do certain stuff. One day, the metal maker delivered us black chassis and we decided to sell them. We would make it a one-time special. In Nov 13, we announced a limited run of black Schiit products. However, there was no big wave of orders for them. The issue is because price and quality matter more than cosmetic colours ultimately. What has this got to do with Black Friday? Many companies participate in Black Friday sales. We choose not to participate. It is great not to stand against a trend sometimes. We don’t do fancy chassis to increase the cost. We do direct distribution too and don’t have a dealer network. A lot of audio experts and engineers have praised our products for our sound quality.

As a start-up, always remember clamor doesn’t always equal the demand. – Jason Stoddard

Niche features or functionality can evoke a lot of passion – and, while that passion may translate into many emails, it may not translate into sales. – Jason Stoddard

You Want to Pay How Much? Or, How We Moved Again. We were thinking of moving office. Someone else wanted to move into the building and we had to go. Good performers expect to be paid well. They also value flexible work hours. For instance, you can work from home etc. Our assembly team usually works at night. There could be a lot of problems. The owners could realize their profits are small or non-existent. When they exit, you have to buy back their shares and value the company. You will have to pay lawyers too to step in. There are also tax implications of giving away shares. Do not insult the intelligence of your motivated and engaged staff. Don’t minimize their worth. Don’t insult their intelligence. Tell the truth and keep your promises. If you can’t pay as well as some other companies, tell them that they might receive more benefits in the future as the company grows. Always keep to your promises. If not, things will get ugly. Provide personal motivation. The key is to get smart, motivated people to start with. We don’t have a sales department. We spend 0.2% of revenue on marketing. Always remember that your people matter and that your customers matter too. Motivated employees take the initiative to do things. We moved into a huge 5300 feet space. We started looking like a real company. Rina would sublease the space upstairs. We didn’t spend a lot of money on renovating or sprucing up the place. However, we bought a fridge, racks, desks and test equipment etc.

Exactly 2 things motivate high-performing employees: money and freedom. – Jason Stoddard

How do you pay good salaries when you’re just starting up and money is tight? Great question. Tricky answers too. Because the first temptation usually is to give away a percentage of the business. Which is exactly the worst thing you can do. – Jason Stoddard

If you don’t literally want to create everything by hand, yourself, you need great employees. Repeat after me: Don’t minimize their worth. Don’t insult their intelligence. – Jason Stoddard

Start with a livable salary, and add bonuses that are based on visible personal or company metrics. Number of products shipped. Number of products built etc. – Jason Stoddard

Motivated employees do not think that having a lounge matters. They think it’s funny. They’re thrilled to help us grow. And growth doesn’t come from Hermann Miller chairs and Steelcase desks and faux-finish paint and $600 LED lamps. – Jason Stoddard

A Real Company? It is end of 2013 now. Finding a niche is important. Be memorable and understand that not everyone will love you. Niche is where we want to be. We do not want to be like Beats, Bose etc. You have to love audio to be in this business. We have a unique sound at a unique value. It is important to run from both conventional advertising and social media both. It is hard work, but it is fun. There will be problems but we crack our head and solve them. There is still much work for us ahead. Remember that it is always important to be unique. Simply throwing marketing money at problems won’t work. Stay where we are, and get better at it. Do listen to your customers for their input. Continue to challenge the established wisdom.

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