By: Mark Guarino
April 23, 2015
One night, just for fun, Joe Born and his daughter, Lily, decided to go through old boxes and set up his stereo from decades ago. Then came what he calls the “pivotal moment.” After plugging in the receiver and connecting it to his vintage wooden speakers, they realized the music sounded richer and more alive than from the Bluetooth-enabled system they use throughout their Skokie home to stream digitized files.
Born is CEO of Aiwa, a re-startup that just came out with a 12-pound stereo speaker that combines the ease of Bluetooth technology and the fuller, more dynamic sound of old-school component stereos. Aiwa is a rebranding of Hale Devices, a Chicago startup Born founded in 2011 that made devices such as a $79 nightstand alarm clock dock for Android smartphones but that has been losing out to wireless technology.
“Music is about emotion and moving people, and you can’t do that with computer speakers,” he says. “The pendulum swung toward sheer convenience and with total disregard for an audio experience.”
Aiwa should be familiar: It once was a well-regarded Japanese brand of home stereos and boomboxes that went dormant under parent Sony in the 2000s. River West Brands bought rights to the name a couple of years ago and then teamed up with Born to revive it. Though millennials wouldn’t recognize the name, Aiwa has the brand equity Born says is essential for reaching his target market: Men aged 35 to 55 who care about quality audio but not at steep prices.
DONE THEIR HOMEWORK
The revamped Aiwa strategy is to bypass most retail outlets and sell online, which lowers marketing costs and allows the company to spend more on production.
Bill Fienup, president of Catalyze Chicago, a West Loop cooperative space that houses Aiwa’s eight employees, says he’s impressed by the lengths Born’s team has gone to to develop the new speaker. That included analyzing Amazon reviews of existing speaker systems, investing in Google surveys and drilling deeply into focus group results. “A lot of people build products based on their experience and what they think people want, and they’re usually doing it wrong,” Fienup says. Aiwa “is doing it right.”
To date, Aiwa has raised $1.5 million, Born says. He won’t disclose Hale Devices sales, but he says he got 1,000 orders for Aiwa’s new $299 Exos-9 speaker before its March launch. An overseas factory will begin a second round of production in July.
Born, 45, has spent his life inventing. While a student at the University of Texas in Austin, the Lincolnwood native invented SkipDr, a device that repairs CDs and DVDs. He sold 10 million of them. Lily also has the bug: The 12-year-old devised the Kangaroo Cup, a three-legged spill-proof cup meant to aid Born’s father, who has Parkinson’s. More than $60,000 was raised on Kickstarter, and they hope to hit $500,000 in sales over its first 12 months on the market.
That sounds good to both of them, too.