Fastest to the peg

Griffin Technology makes itself an accessory to Apple's success [From the November/December issue of Nashville Post magazine]

Mark Rowan isn’t making eye contact as he talks iPhone cases. From behind his semi-rimless glasses, the Griffin Technology president is gazing past a note-filled white board and out the window of the small conference room, looking at nothing in particular.

He’s describing how the proliferation of smart phones has fueled demand for cases. Functional cases, fashionable ones. To keep pace, the company has doubled the head count in its industrial design department in recent years and added a new division focused solely on device cases.

Exactly how much of Griffin Technology’s revenue these products account for, Rowan won’t say. (Nor will he hint at the company’s sales figures.) But he offers that the most popular cases are those created through Griffin Technology’s partnerships with textile designer Sandy Chilewich, T-shirt designer Threadless and…

He pauses.

He’s about to mention the company’s work with Franklin, Tenn., designer Jeff Garner, but he stops short. He brings his attention back to the room, to company marketing director Jackie Ballinger, who’s been sitting quietly next to him. And something registers as the two make eye contact.

“I always have to remember which ones are real and which ones are announced,” he explains.

Griffin Technology made public its partnership with Garner’s Prophetik brand exactly a week prior, when their co-developed leather wallet for the iPhone was unveiled at London Fashion Week. It’s a recent announcement, to be sure, but Rowan checks himself like this several times during the interview at Griffin Technology’s Air Lane Drive headquarters – giving the impression that the company has much up its sleeve, and that in its highly competitive industry, one can’t say too much too soon.

Cases in point

The personal computing, digital media accessories and technical solutions industry that Griffin Technology calls home is expanding. As device manufacturers come up with more and more gadgets – newer, better, faster smart phones and tablet computers – companies like Griffin Technology have an ever-fresh crop of products for which to design cables, chargers, stands, speakers and other extras.

The market for mobile phone accessories alone is expected to reach nearly $100 billion by the end of 2010, according to ABI Research analyst Michael Morgan. By 2015, that market is expected to reach $152 billion.

Exactly how large a slice of that market belongs to Griffin Technology, however, is difficult to discern. (The company declined to disclose revenue, break down what products account for what percentage of its sales, or quantify its growth rate in recent years.) Morgan’s best guess places the company’s annual sales in the $300 million to $400 million range, though he adds, “You know, I couldn’t say in a court of law.”

What he can say for certain is the advent of the iPhone has helped fuel the explosion of smart phone accessories, and in particular, cases. Cases will bring in $5.4 billion in sales this year, Morgan estimates, and that figure will grow at a 10 percent compound annual rate over the next five years. The growth is partially due to consumers buying more than one case per phone as they seek out better materials, unique designs and options to fit their clothes or mood.

Before the iPhone, in other words, a company like Griffin Technology probably wouldn’t have had a role at London Fashion Week. But today, Ballinger is talking about the video she’s having made of the fashion week interview with Jeff Garner that showcases the Griffin + Prophetik iPhone folio.

“Did we get James Cameron?” Rowan asks. The famous movie director owns one of these cases, he adds in a quick aside.

Rowan groans when Ballinger says Cameron didn’t make it to the show. Similar response to news that actor Colin Firth wasn’t there, either. And for a minute, it’s easy to forget we’re talking about tech accessories.

But looking at Griffin Technology’s product line over the years reveals the path that brought us to fashion small talk. While the company is, on one hand, focused on creating useful and innovative products, its commitment to elegant engineering and design – which Rowan says is one its differentiators – is equally important.

That culture was hatched years before everyone had smart phone fever.

Apple of his eye

As the story goes, Griffin Technology was founded on Paul Griffin’s kitchen table in 1992. Griffin was a Mac lover. He was using Apple’s products and engaging with other users in online forums; and he discovered a market opportunity: The printers, monitors and other peripherals that worked with PCs and cost less than Apple-made equipment were not compatible with Macs.

So Griffin found a deal on some overstocked PC monitors, did some reverse engineering, and made them Mac-friendly. The monitors sold out quickly, and Griffin got to work on creating a PC/Mac adapter cable so he didn’t have to mess with monitors. Thus was born Griffin Technology, a now 200-employee company with a global sales force and product distribution, and a business model tied to the success of Apple.

“We never had a vision that we were going to be a big company,” Griffin says of the early days. He was simply hooked on Apple products and enjoyed the process of making accessories and solutions – and learning along the way.

“The goal was just to do what I love doing,” Griffin says.

Although Griffin Technology creates accessories and technical solutions for other manufacturers’ products, its line is heavily weighted toward the hip Cupertino, Calif., company. Griffin Technology has an agreement with Apple to sell is products in Apple stores and big-box retailers. And you can match spikes in Griffin Technology’s revenue to the timing of Apple’s product releases: iPhones are early or mid-summer, iPods always come out in September, and now the iPad – if it follows the model – every spring.

Given Griffin Technology’s growth, which spurred plans to move into the larger Sawtooth Building on Lindell Avenue next year, the company’s marriage to Apple hardly seems a bad thing. But getting to this point took time. Prior to 2001, the company had only 20 employees. It wasn’t until the launch of the iPod that year that the momentum began to build.

As Rowan tells the story, Griffin had purchased a first-generation iPod and wanted to play it through the FM radio of his car. There were FM transmitters on the market – but they were ugly, clunky and required a constant supply of batteries. They didn’t fit the “striking piece of art” that was Apple’s iPod.

“He said this deserves an accessory that lives up to the product it’s accessorizing, and that was the original iTrip,” Rowan says. It’s been a mainstay of the Griffin Technology product line and set the company’s aesthetic: that it’s making accessories for nicely engineered, beautifully designed products, so “it’s not acceptable to make something ugly or utilitarian just because it’s the easy way.”

Rowan, who joined the company in 2003, is telling the story because Paul Griffin deferred most questions to his current crop of company leaders. These days, Griffin isn’t in the office every day. Though the CEO used to be “very involved” in product development, his participation at the company is more “episodic” these days.

At least, that’s the characterization given by David Owens, clinical professor of business strategy and innovation at Vanderbilt University’s Owen Graduate School of Management. Griffin recruited Owens for a yearlong stint as the company’s chief executive in 2007.

Coming of age

At the time when Owens first encountered the company, Griffin Technology had about 30 employees, Owens recalls. By 2003, it had achieved international distribution in several countries, including the United Kingdom and Japan. In 2004, its products became available in big-box retailers like Best Buy and Target.

Owens recruited Griffin Technology as a client for his product development class. And during the three or four years his students were making product prototypes and pitching them to Griffin Technology brass, he developed enough of a relationship with the company for Paul Griffin to coax him in as CEO to help the company through some growing pains.

“When I arrived there, it was a great company – and very exciting – but it had the problems of any successful start-up,” Owens says. With about 125 employees, the company was lacking business structure.

For example, the company had never passed an audit. Its accounting was “sound from a practical perspective,” Owens says. “They knew how much money they had in the bank and how much they owed to whom.” But the books weren’t being handled according to financial accounting standards, so Owens brought in a CFO to put a new accounting system in place.

Owens also implemented processes around product planning and management so the company could accurately estimate and keep track of costs for product development, marketing and shipping. He helped open the company’s first office in China.

“It was a lot, and I was tired,” Owens says of his year at Griffin Technology. But the year was a success because he was able to put some business structure in place without stifling the company’s innovative product development work.

Staying ahead of the curve

Rowan wears a subtle smile as he tells one of his favorite product innovation stories:

One Monday morning, a software developer arrives at the office toting the remnants of a paper towel tube. He’s sliced it open, reconfigured it, and added some foam. And if you put your iPhone speakers against it just so, it makes the sound louder. You know, like an old Victrola, he says, miming the shape of a horn.

Over the weekend, the employee had been listening to music on his iPhone when he hit upon the idea for an acoustic amplifier – a simple dock that gives you bigger sound with no additional power source. His crude prototype eventually led to the creation of the AirCurve, which Time magazine listed among the top 100 green design innovations last year.

A software developer creating a clever piece of consumer hardware? It’s just one example of the Griffin Technology culture that great product ideas can come from anywhere, not just product developers.

Of course, a big part of the company’s strategy for winning the wallets of consumers has to do with speed. When a new device or product version release is pending, Griffin Technology starts designing and building prototypes of the easy-to-anticipate items. For the iPad, for example, that included book-like leather folios and stands. When the new device hits stores, Griffin Technology employees are in line with the masses to buy one so they can fine-tune their own products.

Although superior products can come along and disrupt the market, Rowan says most of the time the “first to the peg wins.”

Products like the AirCurve, on the other hand – the solutions that aren’t obvious at first glance – those are the kinds of “really unique and innovative” products that Griffin Technology prides itself on creating. They’re the ideas that come from using and understanding the devices, figuring out the problems users run into and what those devices are missing.

Some examples?

Well, there’s CinemaSeat, a case for iPads that hangs on the back of a car seat to create an easy entertainment system. And there’s the three-meter iPad charging cable that Rowan thought up in a hotel room after feeling too tethered to the wall.

Presumably, the list goes on. But Rowan stops, drawing his gaze back into the room and away from the view out its window.

“That’s the kind of thing that I can talk about now, anyway,” he says.