John Wheeler, AVO Marine Systems Ltd, Cowes
I went straight from school into working on the family farm until I was offered a chance to buy a record shop. My friend Tim and I were often in there, listening to music to play in our band. The owner wanted to move and said “You two are always in here, why don't you take it over?”.
That was the first of many opportunities to say “Yes!”. Happy Daze was born.
Tim moved on about a year later so, no longer playing in bands, I started to hire out my equipment, which led to requests for disco gear, public address systems and installations in pubs, clubs, churches etc.
Then someone asked “Do you do systems for boats?”- Yes! AVO Systems Ltd was born - which led to developing our own marine Intercom and CCTV systems that now sell across the world.
In 2013, I sold Happy Daze and AVO Systems Ltd to concentrate on our marine equipment.
I seem to be able to sense an opportunity, even in a casual enquiry. “Can you?”, “Do you?”, Would you?” - “Well, ‘Yes!’ comes first and ‘How?’ comes later.”
It usually works out – though once I was told to double my price if I wanted to be taken seriously...
Commentary from Dave Simon
Business is not really about money, machines or management. Contrary to popular belief, it's all about marketing – the fourth 'M'.
The first three 'M's don't bring customers in. Marketing is essential.
Marketing works best by asking questions rather than making announcements.
This way, you can get better contact with people. “Succeeding in business is all about making connections”, Richard Branson says.
And it is the key to understanding your customer's needs. The best question ever invented in selling is “What's important to you?”.
And asking is really the only way to discover whether customers feel a price is too high or too low compared to the value of your product or service gives them.
Many business owners focus on their trade or profession. It makes sense to them because their confidence in those skills enabled them to start-up.
They have to buy customers because convenient marketing methods cost money before they produce results.
But it costs almost nothing to ask questions face-to-face. And it can create customers almost immediately. So it's cheaper than advertising, and faster.
If in doubt, chat to people. Talk to groups. Learn. Ask how you can help. Say “Yes!”
Free Tips: 'How To Find More Potential Customers Cheaply'.
John Wheeler's story continues...
I never had any training in business, no-one else in my family was in business and I never had any desire to go into business. It just happened.
I left school early, in the middle of a term. I took no exams, even though they said they thought I was capable of reasonable grades. I was always in the top few in my year - but I hated it. My teachers were disappointed, and the Deputy Head ridiculed me for it, in front of the whole school assembly. So there was no way I was going back, especially after that!
After a few years working on our small family farm, I tried door-to-door selling, which I have to say, I quite enjoyed. But the love of my life was music; I played guitar in bands and duos and I wanted to be a full-time rock star!
We rehearsed in a disused stable on the farm and stored all the equipment there. One Sunday morning, for a laugh, I linked all the band's amplifiers and speakers together on the lawn in the front of our house, plugged my record player in, put on Led Zeppelin II and drove off - to see how far the sound travelled! Crazy! I could hear it over two miles away; it reminded me of being at the first IoW Festivals in 1968, ’69 and ’70.
One of my band-mates, Tim, and I discovered a new record shop in Newport, called Sounds Around, and we spent most of our days in there listening to new music. When the owner started the shop, he and his wife wanted to ‘educate’ the Isle of Wight with their choice of music, which was mainly rock, and far more ‘progressive’ than we were used to. Unfortunately it didn’t work out for them and he wanted to move on. As we were in there almost as much as he was, he jokingly suggested Tim and I should take it over - and we thought we might as well have a go!
As he left, he looked around the shop, sighed - and said “Oh well - Happy days!”, quietly, to himself. But I heard it and that became the name of our shop. It really was a happy daze for me – at least, to start with...
I was sure it was a good idea but hadn’t a clue what to do. We didn’t know how or where we were supposed to buy records and so I drove to London in my van, bought lots of albums (LP's as they were called then - short for 'Long Players' - records!) from the new Our Price store, where they were selling them at £1off the Recommended Retail Price. We peeled off the ‘£1OFF’ labels and sold them at the full RRP, making a pound per album.
Soon after we started on this new adventure, the bailiffs arrived! They gave me a piece of paper and started packing our records into boxes. We were dumbfounded. I said “You can't do that!” but they said that it was for debts owed to someone who'd taken us to Court. I looked at the piece of paper – it was addressed to the previous owner! I tried to explain but they said they'd heard it all before.
I panicked and phoned home. My parents had never needed a lawyer but told me that the son of a family friend was a solicitor in Newport. I ran down to his office in Quay Street and he came up to the shop and explained the situation more successfully to the bailiffs. They left empty-handed and gave us seven days to sort it all out - or they would be back!
It turned out that the previous owner had left owing money to several record companies - and the person we were paying our rent to was not allowed to sublet the property and shouldn't have rented it to the previous owner either! Thankfully, the solicitor sorted it all out but I realised that day how little I knew about leases, landlords... and business!
Originally we did the same as the previous owner and sold just albums - and we didn’t stock ‘Pop’ music! But soon customers were asking why we didn’t sell singles or LP’s from the charts.
I knew that, if we were going to make a success of this, we had to give the customers what they were looking for and said we should start selling singles. Tim disagreed - he saw risks. Small independent shops like ours had no sale-or-return facility, so if I bought more than we could sell, we would be stuck with them and if I didn’t buy enough, customers would be upset if we ran out – more skills to learn!
After a year or so, Tim decided he'd had enough and set off for India, which was all the rage in those days, and I had to buy his part of the business. I was now a business owner and customers were pouring in. Happy Daze indeed!
The shop was taking all my time and so I no longer had time to play in bands. I had amassed quite a lot of equipment over the years and, as I wasn’t using it, people asked if they could borrow it - but they didn’t look after it and so I started to hire it to them instead.
They soon started to ask what else I had, and I bought whatever they were looking for - disco decks, lights, smoke machines etc.. Yes, of course! Then people asked if we could install equipment into their pubs, clubs, churches etc.. Yes!
A few years after starting Happy Daze in Newport, a shop became available to rent in Cowes and I thought it might be worth trying a second Happy Daze there. That turned out to be not such a good idea and we closed it after a couple of years.
However, another opportunity came up while we were there. There was a derelict room at the back of that shop and I had been trying to think what we could use it for. My wife was an experienced hairdresser and I knew she wasn’t happy working where she was at the time, so, with the help of the landlord, we renovated it and opened her own salon, Menz Hairdressers, which she went on to run very successfully for nearly thirty years. So something good did come out of it after all!
Around the same time, my parents were asked if they would like to buy the house and farm buildings that our family had rented for three generations but they had no money or means to do so and neither did we.
However, as luck would have it, an old family friend wanted to retire and he was trying to sell his small basketware business. Ping! The penny dropped! If we took over his business, we could relocate it to the farm buildings and, hopefully, we could build it up enough to pay a mortgage to buy the house and buildings. It did - and we did!
Whenever people ask me how I am or how business is, I usually say, “ Oh, Blundering On” because I've never had a plan - short or long term. I've never done a business plan or financial projection because it’s impossible to know what might happen tomorrow, let alone over the next five years! I hate bureaucracy and jumping through hoops! Obviously I have an idea of what I would like to happen but you have to deal with things as they come up.
I've always said, “The next phone call will decide what we do next” - and that’s how I came to move into the world of marine electronics.
I had a call from Neutrik, who were supplying the recorded announcement machine for a boat being built by FBM Marine in Cowes. The caller said “You do Public Address systems, do you do them for boats?”. My answer was, of course, “Yes!” then I turned to my colleagues and said “We’d better get a book on boats!”. That was the start of a whole new direction for us. Over the next few years, we supplied and installed not only PA systems but Intercom, CCTV and Audio-Visual systems for 33 vessels with FBM.
Sitting at a table full of men in suits, from the M.o.D, RNLI or some large shipping corporation, the name ‘Happy Daze’ always caused a smile, or rather a smirk. I soon realised that we needed a more serious-sounding name for that scale of business. And so Audio-Visual and Observation (A.V.O.) Systems Ltd was born.
Then HMV took over the supermarket almost opposite Happy Daze and we lost most of our music-buying customers! We still had the sound and lighting side of the business but we no longer needed High Street premises, so we moved to the Dodnor Industrial Estate.
The High Street shop remained empty for over six months and then, at a retail exhibition in Birmingham, I thought I saw another opportunity. The electrical retailer Tandy had a stand there, looking for people to open franchised outlets. I had always loved playing with electronics, cables, tools, etc., and this seemed right up my street - so I said Yes! (again!).
We took out a loan from the bank - I had to make up a business plan and forecast on the spot, sitting at the bank manager’s desk. It was all rubbish of course but it ticked his box!
However, that venture was one of the worst decisions of my life!
A few months after we opened, strange things started to happen. Popular product lines that we tried to re-order came back as ‘discontinued’ and new lines were added to the range - but they were all mobile phone related.
I then heard that Charles Dunstone of Carphone Warehouse had bought Tandy and that the company’s own stores were being turned into more outlets for his mobile phone chain! I didn’t want to be a mobile phone franchise and all the electronic hobbyist’s supplies that I had always known and loved Tandy for had all but disappeared from the product range. So we had no choice but to close it - but we still owed the bank all that money! So much for the business plan!
Thankfully, A.V.O. Systems was going from strength to strength. We had developed our own waterproof CCTV cameras and Intercom systems and we were exhibiting them at trade shows all over the world! We used to put one of our cameras inside a fish tank and display it on a huge TV screen, which people really loved!
The Price is Wrong!
The cameras that we had originally been using from major manufacturers kept letting us down, either leaking or misting up, so I said “Look, it’s not rocket science!” - and designed our own.
An RNLI representative saw our display at an exhibition and was very impressed with my perhaps extreme (naive!) approach to engineering. He asked me how much the camera cost but I hadn’t even thought of selling them - they were just our cameras that we fitted during an installation.
I was caught on the hop and had to do some quick mental arithmetic. I simply added up what it cost us and put on a few pounds for profit. He ordered one and, after trialling it for six months, they ordered 60 - and then he told me that the camera they were about to buy before they saw ours was FOUR times the price of ours. Doh!
Then someone else told me “You are so cheap, the buyers think there must something wrong with your products – they won't take your quote seriously”. So the lesson here is, say “Yes” but know the value of your product!
Still Moving Forward
We developed our Intercom system for similar reasons. I was unhappy with the audio quality of the market-leading systems that customers were asking us to install. We were having to fit filters to improve the sound! Coming from an audio background, I couldn’t stand it, so we had to make our own. Another opportunity!
I'm very pleased to say that we now have systems on all types of vessels in many countries around the world!
We have a new system coming out soon that should open up yet more markets to us. We were missing out on some projects that were budget-driven, rather than feature-driven, and so Vincent, our designer, has been working on a system that may not have all the ‘bells & whistles’ of our TC4000 but will still out-perform the other systems on the market at a similar price.
We sold the original AVO Systems Ltd and Happy Daze at the end of 2013, to concentrate on our marine products, so we started AVO Marine Systems Ltd. We had to keep a similarity in the name because there are so many systems out there with the name written on them and so many people who know they can trust it.
I suppose you could say it takes personal strength to do what I have and it’s true, you do have to drive yourself - who else is going to?
I realise my story could sound as though I am naturally very optimistic but it’s not that. For me, it’s really all down to gut feeling – I do like to feel in control. I enjoy challenges I think are achievable but I need to feel confident that I know what I'm doing - or at least that I can learn!
The success I've had was probably the combination of an impulsive “Yes!” and a determination to get the job done properly. I've never been able to leave things half-done. I'm very pedantic actually!
Luckily, I've always managed to pick myself up after things have gone wrong and kept on 'blundering on'.
I rarely consider the Island economy as a whole. It's a shame the tourist industry has suffered, and I do believe the ferry prices have done most of the damage. It's so cheap to go abroad now, with our unpredictable British weather, we are not a good alternative.
I think a University here would help us. We need to keep the young here instead of going to the mainland. We need their energy and up-to-date understanding of the world.
But I'm not a politician – I wouldn't know how...
We all need good advice. I never had any well-informed business advice to help me make plans - and I didn't think to ask anyone! I did get some help from BusinessLink and UKTI when we were exhibiting abroad.
I’ve had a lot of luck – but some say you make your own luck by grasping an opportunity when you see one.
A friend of mine, Geoff Underwood, is much more serious about business planning than I ever was –and he’s far better at it! I really respect his business acumen – he sees the bigger picture, while I'm turning ‘8’s up the right way and scribbling out erroneous apostrophes!
I started in retail, moved through hiring and installations to manufacture, and the profit margins change as the value to the end-user increases. Again, that's not a lesson anyone taught me, I think that’s maybe the sort of thing you learn if you stay on at school!
But although profit is important, in my opinion, it’s not as important as enjoying what you're doing. I have to enjoy what I'm doing and I'm very lucky to have been able to do that over the last 40 years; I couldn’t do anything just for the money.