Ben Hobbs, Managing Director of H3 Digital kindly offered to do an interview for SimpleHomeCinema. I welcomed the idea as I believe in supporting each other in this line of business and our readers who may be passionate about starting their own business might well take encouragement to do the same. The interview has been printed below. Should you have any other questions for Ben, please use the comments area below the post and I’ll see if we can get Ben to help us answer them.
Roland: Ben, please tell us a bit about yourself so our readers can get to know you. Where are you from originally? Where did you grow up?
Ben: I’m from the UK originally, I was born in Brighton and then moved to Milton Keynes when I was young. I moved to Thailand when I was 26 years old.
Roland: What made you move to Thailand at 26? Is there much of an English community where you are?
I’m into technology and after the dotcom crash it just felt like there wasn’t going to be much growth in that sector in the UK for a while. Yes there is quite a big expat community of people from all over the world here, Thailand is a great place to live or holiday.
Roland: It does sound like an great place to live and work. Was audio-visual science and home cinema a passion for you from a young age or did you fall into it – so to speak – later on?
Ben: Yes, very much so. I keenly remember applying for a Student Loan when I was at University and spending more time, and being more excited by planning what HiFfi gear I was going to buy, than on my college work. (Sherwood CD Player, Sony Amp and Mission 732 speakers if anyone is curious). It was then that I knew I had the bug.
Roland: How and when did the idea of making a business out of it come to you?
Ben: It was always a hobby of mine, I had always had a very special interest in Home Cinema and Music – It wasn’t so much that I listened to music a lot or even saw a lot of movies, instead it was piecing it together that I enjoyed, planning it and hearing and seeing what amazing setups I could build. It never occurred to me that I could do this as a living.
Roland: That’s really awesome, Ben. It sounds like you share the same passion as me and some of our readers. How did you find your first paying client?
Ben: After the dot com bust in the UK I had a choice to make, either stay in the IT industry – I was in recruitment, pays well but not particularly fun – Or come to Asia, Thailand in particular. My Father lived in HK and some of his friends were building holiday homes in Phuket, the problem was there wasn’t any Technology expertise. My Brother and I came over and helped design intelligent cabling and systems into those holiday homes.
Roland: So it sounds like you kind of fell into it through connections that you had?
Ben: Going into business for yourself is a big life decision. We saw an opportunity and grabbed it with both hands, the safe thing would have been to stay back in the UK. Moving abroad and starting a company at the same time is fairly risky for anyone – it was useful that we had some insight into prospective work.
Roland: Were you successful straight away or did the business grow slowly?
Ben: We were always busy, that doesn’t necessarily mean success. We have had our ups and downs. So we grew slowly, then quickly, then shrank after the Global Financial Crisis and then grew again in a slower more measured manner.
Roland: What were some of the challenges you faced as you were growing the business?
Ben: At first when you start a company there is so much to do to get the ball rolling, then once you come up with the processes, products and have staff it’s all too easy to become complacent. You have to make sure you keep busy. Constantly find new ways to make yourself useful and relevant in such a fast moving industry.
Roland: Did you have to have much of a capital investment initially?
Ben: There was some outlay to get the company up and running, mainly involving getting the company started, work permits, vehicle, etc. We’ve always tried to keep it as organic as possible though. My advice here: be as sparing as possible with startup money – if you start with a big lump of cash it’s more than likely going to get wasted.
Roland: What were the critical success factors in getting the business where it is today?
Ben: Not giving up. Running your own business can be really tough at times, sometimes you just want to roll over and give up – You can’t, so you make sure to fight through the hard times and you learn constantly through the whole process. We’ve tried to keep it as much fun as we can, I didn’t get into this industry to get rich, I do this job because I love it. That helps.
Roland: That is a great attitude to have, Ben. What is your business model? Do you charge clients for the man hours / consultancy or can you also make money on the equipment by getting wholesale prices? Did the business model change over the years?
Ben: We make some money on equipment and some on the installation, it’s probably around 50/50. Initially we started out by billing labour as a percentage of the equipment cost but later we moved over to a per unit install cost, where we charge a set integration price on equipment install, That way our customers are fairly charged according to our time rather on how expensive their equipment is.
Roland: How do you make sure the business can be sustained? How do you get new clients coming on board?
Ben: Easier to keep your current and past clients coming back than advertise and market for new ones constantly. We’ve done two or more properties for more than half of our clients now, sometimes the same property twice! When we first started iPhones weren’t even around so many customers have used us many times to keep their properties up to date.
To do that you must give good service, never cheat people and do your best to make your customers happy. As a company there has been quite a few times that we’ve ended up losing money on jobs, through no fault of our own – perhaps a supplier let us down or raised their prices. The customer though is our client, he is dealing with us and we have always been fair.
Roland: What are your plans for the business in the near and mid-term? How do you intend to grow it?
Ben: We are currently building a brand new office which will feature better demo facilities, a coffee shop, better staff facilities and more room for us to stock products. In addition to designing and installing home cinema, audio and lighting systems ourselves we also distribute some audio and cinema products to other companies. We hope to include great training facilities and warehousing for those products.
Going forward we are making sure we keep it fun, make sure our clients are happy and look forward to all the great new technology that will be coming out in the future.
Roland: Finally, is there any advice you’d like to give to our readers who would like to get into the business?
Ben: Do it! If you like home cinema and audio as a hobby, you will more than likely enjoy setting up big systems for others. Look into if there is a CEDIA in your country and try to get some certified training. Even if you don’t have experience, I think if you know your stuff and have a CEDIA qualification you could probably walk into a junior position in the industry.
I’d like to thank Ben for his time to answer my questions and I’d like to wish him – on behalf of all our readers – good luck with his business.
If you’d like your Home Cinema business to be featured on our site, please contact us.