Jim Wohlford, Sanus: The Accidental Innovator
Like many notable businesses in the tech world, Sanus started out in a garage.
But even before the company got to that point, Jim Wohlford had a simple idea that proved to make a lot of sense.
It was back in the early ‘80s. Wohlford was studying for a master’s degree in psychology at the University of Minnesota and working part time selling AV at the local Sound Center to pay the bills. He had his eye on a career in education or social psychology, and viewed audio as a hobby. But for someone who began subscribing to Sound Review magazine when he was 10, it was a pretty passionate hobby. “I’ve always been an AV geek,” he said. “I’ve always been into this stuff.”
By the time he was at Sound Center, Wohlford had developed a keen ear for quality sound and a sharp eye for aesthetics. As he walked the sales floor, he couldn’t help but notice the poor quality of the speaker stands. Most were made out of plywood, cheap particleboard, flimsy laminates or vinyl. There was no thought behind the design. You couldn’t adjust the height and they vibrated when the sound was turned up. “The problem was that people didn’t think about the stands,” he said. “They just thought of them as a cosmetic.”
The core designs of Sanus’ speaker stands, TV mounts and furniture today are pretty much the same as those of the original products. If you start off with the right design, high-quality materials and sensible features that solve everyday problems, those foundations should carry generations of products.
“The same thing that makes a speaker stand good today applied back then,” he said.
As a hardcore audiophile, Wohlford knew what he had to do to make a better stand. He built the platforms from medium density fiber core to minimize resonation, and used adjustable stands so the consumer could set the speaker at the right height and angle. Unique screw heads, a high-gloss black lacquer finish and hard wood columns provided the aesthetics missing in exiting stands. “Now the stands had a quality that matched the quality of the speakers we were selling,” he said.
Wohlford decided to call his new line Sanus, based on the Latin word for healthy and sound. Shortly after he had set up a few of his new stands in the Sound Center, the national sales manager for Allison Speaker happened to come in. “He said he never saw stands like that and had never seen his speakers look so good,” Wohlford said. He ordered up a dozen or so to use in the Allison booth at the 1988 CES, where a buyer from The Good Guys happened to see them. He got in touch with Wohlford and ordered a thousand. Sanus was on its way.
“That spring, we had orders for over 1,000 pairs. We were in a garage assembling them on a card table. It was a daunting task building the stands and financing the business,” Wohlford said, adding that soon after that, Sanus moved its operations into a small warehouse. “That’s when we went from a tiny garage operation to having a really big customer.”
One really big customer soon turned to many as executives from Boston Acoustics, B&W, Klipsch, and Polk, to name a few, began placing orders. Sanus still manufactures stands for most of those companies.
What started as a hobby and a way to pay his college bills soon turned into a 60-hour a week job. “The business kept getting more and more complicated, and it took a very short time for our dealer base to grow to thousands of outlets,” he said. Wohlford decided to take a semester off; he never returned.
Although he left school, the University of Minnesota still played an important role in Wohlford’s career. One of the smartest things he ever did, he said, was to pick up a book on business accounting 101 from the student bookstore and study it cover to cover.
“The hardest thing with business is understanding the dollars and the cash flow. Failure to do that is the single biggest reason a lot of businesses don’t make it,” he said. “The best thing we did was get our financial act together within a few years. I think we grew the top and bottom lines every single year.”
Wohlford and his team took the same approach developing its TV mounts as it did the speaker stands: identify a hole in the market and fill it with the best solution possible. When large-screen plasmas started to hit the mass market in a big way during the early 2000s, Sanus AV dealers began complaining about having to carry separate mounting brackets for each TV model. It was a supply chain and inventory nightmare. A universal bracket would make their lives so much simpler, Wohlford thought.
In 2002, Sanus delivered the VMPL50 Flat Panel Plasma mount, which included the patented Virtual Axis finger tilting mechanism, enabling the user to adjust the TV with their fingertips. That innovation was carried over in 2007 to the Virtual Axis 3D feature, which allowed the user to easily move the TV in many directions.
Wohlford followed up with many other patents, innovations, awards and product lines, including the Vertical Foundations line of on-wall furniture. In 2004, Sanus merged with Milestone AV Technologies, where Wohlford now works as a consultant. He resigned as general manager of Sanus a few years ago but still puts in about 30 hours a week there helping to oversee operations. He’s currently mulling over a few new business ideas and working on several patents. “Who know if lightening will strike twice,” he said.
Who knows, but there’s always a vacant garage somewhere if it does. DS