Integrator Spotlight: Tom Stone
Connected Design: Tell me about who you are and how you have crafted such an interesting niche in the Custom Integration industry.
Tom Stone: I've been an integrator for 33 years with this company. Before that, I worked for companies that were local, Bryn Mawr Stereo and Sound Works in Cherry Hill. I came up from the audio and video end of things, and it just morphed into audio video in home automation. I've also done two terms with ASID on their board; still a member not on the board. I was on the board for IFDA - a design group in Philly - joined AIA, and I've been on the board of directors for Home Builders Association. And I'm currently a member of Del-Chester Homebuilders Association.
How do you employ that experience as someone who knows both sides of the AV and architect coin so well?
I'm a Senior Outreach Instructor. There's about 600 of us now around the U.S. I've been doing it for ten years or so, and there's a list of 10 AIA certified CEU (Continuing Education Unit) courses that CEDIA put together. They assume the cost of developing the course and getting it approved by AIA and by ASID. They're also accepted by NARI, which is a remodeling association and Home Builders Association. So, I reach out to architectural firms, design firms and say, 'My name is Tom Stone, this is what I do, would you be interested in a teaching opportunity?' This year I've really re-engaged on teaching more, and I'm going to try to do two CEU's a month going forward with architects and designers because I think it makes a lot of sense. I think that's what's really important.
So where do you find middle ground with architects and designers?
It is our go-to-market. Everybody else out there struggles with how to get seen or heard. Larger companies have a regular marketing budget. They have big, big money to spend on billboards and radio advertising and even some occasional TV advertising. I have no interest in that at all. It's more of a retail-driven approach, which is perfectly fine, but I don't believe in throwing money at a wall to see who's going to come in. So I started reaching out to builders back in 1987. A little bit before the recession, closer to 2006, I turned my attention to the architects and the designers. And that go-to-market means attending events and meeting builders, meeting designers, meaning architects who were open to having a discussion about integrating technology.
How has that language changed over the years you have been doing this? What are you saying now, that you weren't saying when you first started?
More architects are beginning to think that larger integrated systems aren't needed anymore because of the Internet of Things. I call it app-based approach or integrated approach. Right? So an app-based approach is so encompassing these days. Sonos app for music, ADP app for your security, Nest app for your cameras, Ring doorbell app for your doorbell, another app for cameras, and five, six, seven apps that control stuff. Some of them consider that a smart home.
And fair enough, it's got some smart features. The other side of that is everything I just said but under one umbrella and a Savant system. I think they think by moving away from the integrated approach; things will get simpler. They don't get simpler. They get harder. One of the best lines that I ever hear is, 'I don't need to wire anything anymore. I'll just do it wirelessly. That's a misnomer that we have to correct them.
Now the nice thing is that the Savant solutions, the Crestron solutions, the Control4 solutions that are out there have gotten smart and they made the price delta much narrower. That means I can give accurate pricing on the first meeting. And I can also tell you that there's only a 20 percent difference between doing it all integrated and doing it all app-based, assuming performance is the same of course. We're getting traction on this way of thinking but it starts with educating the architects and designers because to them it's all marketed the same. The biggest challenge is before they thought of us as the only guys who knew it and now they're being told they can do it themselves.
It sounds like the difficulties are a pretty natural progression alongside modern technology and the emerged DIY market.
Exactly. And, in fact, they need us more because all of this DIY stuff relies on a ton of moving pieces, especially a reliable network, and it often goes overlooked. Some are very cognizant of it, some are starting to acknowledge it, but most don't.
Does that anchor your CEU topic?
They are actually specific topics, and I like to call it a fireside chat. I don't want to commend it; I don't want to teach you a CEU. I just want to buy you lunch, feed you, water you, talk to you about technology and what we're seeing in the field. Those are very productive meetings. The ones that taught last week I taught introduction to lighting control, all I talked about was the typology of lighting control, pros, cons, things to plan for, things to look out for.
I always cover the course topic, and in a straight CEU, it goes exactly like that. But when I can cherry pick a CEU and get the topics I want in a fashion that's real world for them, my feedback is always much more positive. We get a lot more time because I can talk about the frustrations they have maybe their past experiences and misconceptions, right out the gate.
What are the common misconceptions that you are hearing?
The number one thing is that expensive is more complicated. It's actually the opposite. The bigger your budget, the easier we can make a system work for you. That's the biggest misconception. The other misconception is that everything's wireless, right? They think 'I don't need to wire anywhere' and that's a huge misconception out there. I tell them the next time you sit there, and you fire up Bridget Jones' Diary, and then halfway through you get a spinning ball, well, congratulations on your decision to go wireless.
Would you consider yourself a hybrid firm or just a technology-savvy company that knows how to talk to the right industry partners?
Stone: We're the only company in the Delaware Valley who does what we do on a regular basis. There are other companies who will participate, and we certainly have competitors who were not as immersed with the architectural and design firms.
For example, in a very organic and smart way, they'll meet an architect on a project, the project goes well, and they ask to spotlight the architect in a newsletter. Then they see if the architect wants to do a CEU with their home automation rep who will drive the meeting. They will do those CEUs once or twice a year. I'm trying to do two a month with firms all over the Philadelphia area. We really want to be known in the Philly market as the integrator of choice for design professionals, and that starts by developing a continuous relationship. We hang our hat on that connection to the design community because without it we have no jobs.