“Welcome to your electronic lifestyle.” That’s the greeting customers see on a large, inviting sign when they enter Audio Video Intelligence Inc. (AVI). This is a fitting introduction to the Easton, Massachusetts, business, which offers customers a world of electronic solutions to fit their home and business needs, from smart automation to audio and visual, security and surveillance, networking, intelligent lighting, and more. Today, we shine a light on AVI’s ambitious and forward-thinking cofounders, James Shapiro and Allan Waldorf, who have been friends since sixth grade. Specifically, we had the chance to talk with James about how the business got started and how he and Allan have grown it over the years.
Morse: Did you and Allan head right into the electronics industry when you started out as young entrepreneurs?
James: No, after I earned my degree in business administration from the University of Hartford’s Barney School of Business, I followed my dad’s lead into the clothing industry. When I was a kid, he had been a rep for a clothing manufacturer—a “rag man,” as they said in those days. While I was in school, he invited me to sell a few clothing lines, which helped me pay for my education. I also did some merchandising for high-end retailers in the Boston area. When I graduated from business school, that prior experience helped me land a job with Mr. Tux, expanding its market in Florida. I ended up buying into several stores and had a great business going, even selling uniforms to Disney.
My friend Allan and I kept in good touch. He was working at his parent’s dry cleaning and chemical supply business, and we both realized we were ready to do something else. We both had a passion for cars and electronics. Allan suggested we team up with a friend who owned a body shop in Stoughton, Massachusetts, and use one of his extra bays to start a car detailing business. In 1995, we opened Detailz, and in addition to working on higher-end cars, we sold accessories and automobile audio equipment. It was supposed to be a small shop, but we can’t do anything small.
Morse: I guess not, since you now employ several dozen people and occupy a 10,000-square-foot showroom. What fueled that tremendous growth over the years?
James: In 1999, we moved to a larger location in Canton with eight bays, and Allan and I began really customizing cars—with big speakers in the back, special wheels, and video screens. We were doing the kinds of things you see nowadays on those car customizations shows on the Discovery Channel and even had some of our own celebrity clients, like some New England Patriots football players. We added a second location in Canton in 2000, because the growth was overwhelming.
Around the same time, Lucasfilm came out with Star Wars and gave birth to the surround sound movement. Our rep for Pioneer car stereos encouraged us to purchase a large-screen television and gave us the idea to expand into the audio/visual home theater market. We didn’t have a ready market for TV sales at our shop, so we had the idea to install the TV we purchased in the Blockbuster video store up the street, as an advertisement of sorts. We began renting space at a kiosk at Blockbuster, selling televisions with surround sound. When flat screens came out, businesses began buying them for marketing purposes, to raise awareness and keep clients informed. We sold flat screens to all kinds of people, including stockbrokers in the financial markets, who used them to display stock prices. Homeowners got into flat screens as well, mounting them in their homes. At the same time, we continued to serve our car audio customers, and, as technology continued to advance, all our business ventures did, as well.
Morse: How did you begin to pivot as you experienced this exponential growth?
James: Allan and I eventually sold Detailz, and I sold the Mr. Tuxes that I still had been hanging onto, so that we could focus on a bigger idea. We launched AVI in 2002 and our first home theater store in Canton, a 1,200-foot showroom. We grew out of that within three years, so in 2005, we expanded into a space in the Easton Industrial Park, and in 2009, we decided to build a location in Easton, which we still occupy. I handle all the marketing, merchandising, management, and branding for the business, and Allan handles logistics, operations, and tech. Today, our product lines and services are wide-ranging, from selling, installing, and maintaining audio-video systems, security systems, lighting control, and even power window shades in homes and businesses to video surveillance, home automation, and computer networks.
Morse: In addition to really growing along with technology, your business has also done well because of your focus on customer satisfaction. How do you keep people coming back for more?
James: Listening is the first part of selling. You have to listen to a customer’s needs and come up with solutions to fill those needs. With a business customer, we need to know what will help them best serve their clients—how many televisions in a restaurant or a gym and where they need to be situated, for instance. When we’re working with a homeowner, we ask things like how many kids they have and what everyone likes to listen to and watch. Their answers inform what kind of system we create for them. You also need to tune into what they are most excited about and if they have any pain points, perhaps where they got confused or frustrated in the past. In helping customers to understand our products, we take away the fear they have about technology and build a system they will enjoy and which will enhance their lifestyle.
Another key to customer loyalty is responding to issues quickly and effectively. We’ve made reporting and resolving issues as easy as possible for customers by employing software that allows us to diagnose their electronics problems remotely. Our clients can call us anytime for assistance, including nights and weekends, whether they’re experiencing slow internet service, a malfunction with their cable box, or something else. We can typically fix over 90% of these types of issues remotely and swiftly.
Morse: In recent years, where have you seen the greatest demand?
James: COVID-19 caused a spike on both sides of the business. With so many people working from home, there was a great need for software and hardware, and businesses needed networks to communicate with their remote employees. We offer products such as wide-angle computer cameras, enhanced audio, and ceiling microphones, which helped make it possible for people to work at home and stay connected to their companies. The high-level, integrated home networks we install can handle a lot of devices on one network, so family members can be studying on laptops, streaming movies, and riding exercise bikes with streaming classes in different rooms of the house, all at the same time.
Another recent trend that has created a spike in demand for our products and services is the residential development boom. Most of this new construction is for homes that will be fully integrated with smart devices from the start, so contractors have us do installation during the construction phase. We have intentionally built great relationships with architects, designers, and builders so that we are invited into a home build early and can get the systems built along with the house. The platform we use for all new construction automation is called Control4, a device that integrates all a homeowner’s smart systems so that they have one remote—or smart screen—for their televisions, sound system, security system, lighting, and window shades.
Morse: Your business is involved in many ways in the community. What are some examples of how you and AVI give back?
James: Supporting the community is very important to me, Allan, and our whole team at AVI. I was the commissioner for the Easton youth baseball program for 12 years, and I helped raise money for the league through fundraising efforts and campaigns that ensured the growth and sustainability of the league. Allan was an influential part of the Foundation for Excellence in Education and helped provide technology to the Easton schools in need. As a company, we sponsor local youth sports teams, graduating high school classes, and special programs like Mothers Against Drunk Driving. We also make donations to many different organizations and projects, including one we recently made a grant to, the Oliver Ames High School’s robotics team. In addition, we host community fundraising events in our building and lend the facility to leagues raising money; they appreciate the amazing audio and visual systems that we have available, as well as the ambiance.
Morse: You’ve been a part of the Easton community as well as a member of the Morse family for over a decade. How did you get to know Morse?
James: Allan and I first met Dan Morse through the Easton Chamber of Commerce, We had just moved our business to this area after finding the perfect parcel of land to build on. Like me, Dan was very involved in the youth baseball league. Our kids were in the league at the same time, and we were both coaching our sons’ teams, so I also saw him on the fields a lot. We found we shared a lot of the same values: supporting other local businesses, giving back to the community, a strong work ethic, treating customers like family, and the list goes on. He’s a great person, and I knew I wanted to give my insurance business to Dan and work with the Morse Insurance team.
In the meantime, if you need assistance finding business insurance coverage for your unique operation, please contact us. We would be glad to review your current commercial policies for any gaps or savings opportunities or to provide a quote on a new policy. Morse, of course, is here to assist you in finding the best business insurance solutions to protect your success story.