Griffin’s grand plans

The local pioneer of consumer electronics accessories sees big opportunity in parts of the enterprise market

Since its launch more than two decades ago, Griffin Technology has consistently been run with little formality, “a minimal amount of organization without absolute chaos breaking out,” says President Mark Rowan. Case in point: It wasn’t until there were more than 50 people on board that workers reported to anyone other than founder Paul Griffin.

The approach has worked like a charm in many ways: The company that employed 25 people when Rowan joined it about a decade ago now has 30 workers just in a manufacturing sourcing office in Guangdong, China, and more than 300 in total. It has ridden the rocket-powered growth of the mobile device market by helping create a market for peripherals such as protective cases, transmitters and wireless speakers. Partnerships with leather bag maker Colonel Littleton and Jack White’s Third Man Records have only added to the Griffin brand’s cachet.

But lately, innovation at Griffin has been a lot more about focus and rigor. As they have branched into developing products specifically for the business-to-business marketplace, Griffin’s leaders have had to put on some blinders and drill down into specific markets to figure out where the company can best strut its stuff.

“We won’t be successful if we’re trying to solve everyone’s problems,” Rowan says. “We’re learning how to say to no to ourselves.”

Those are important statements for a company that for years made its name on the back of jaw-droppingly rapid product development that kicked into gear the moment a new Apple product was unveiled. From design to engineering to prototyping, producing and refining — it all couldn’t happen quickly enough. In a 2010 Post magazine story, Rowan said a peripheral product that was flat out better than its rivals might disrupt the market. But far more often than not, he said, “fastest to the peg wins.”

But for businesses looking to move beyond their traditional turf the way Griffin is doing, taking the time and getting the basics right is crucial, says Mark Montgomery, founder of Flo Thinkery, a local business strategy firm. Montgomery this spring helped country star Kenny Chesney launch his premium Blue Chair Bay Rum brand and says a key to a market extension like that — and like Griffin’s — is being true to your brand.

“What you do has to fit in with the overall narrative customers are hearing from you — and it has to be a killer product,” he says. “Technologists are often too deeply in love with their technology. It’s about asking better questions.”

Deep dives

That’s the approach Griffin is taking now that the Android and iOS ecosystems have organically moved into the business world. Rowan says many of the ways the devices are being used are ripe for innovation because chances are they weren’t designed for B2B use. App developers around the world have been quick to supply product but there’s plenty of room for new hardware accessories that enhance the user experience.

Director of B2B Product Development J. Curtis says there has long been a gray area in mobile devices between the consumer and enterprise markets. But that gray area also was sparsely populated and customers regularly asked Griffin about features that weren’t yet on the market or that simply weren’t hitting the mark.

“If you’re hearing that, you’re being viewed as a trusted partner and you should probably listen. It’s great when people are really negative about a product,” Curtis says. “Once you separate the wheat from the chaff, you can find out that it doesn’t meet specific needs. If you can identify that basic need, then you can look at design and function.”

Early this year, Griffin team members rolled out three high-profile results of such market research and product development work. In January, they decamped to the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas to unveil accessories for point-of-sale use in retail and restaurant settings. The plan, says Curtis, is to get a piece of the “massive middle area” that exists between retail’s giants and minnows. So many retailers, says Curtis, are constantly looking for better software to help them handle transactions or manage their inventory while limiting the costs of their point-of-sale terminals. Via partnerships with software shops ShopKeep and POSiOS, Griffin’s Kiosk Retail and AirStrap Retail — both incorporate credit card readers — are looking to disconnect retailers from the upfront costs and licensing fees of terminals and move them to cloud-based systems.

“The market for better devices is immense,” says Curtis, who has a background in video production for the music business and joined Griffin about 10 years ago.

Two months after CES, Griffin was in the house at the 2013 HIMSS conference — one of the biggest gatherings focused on information technology in health care —previewing Olli, a protective case that incorporates a bar code and magnetic strip reader and can be hooked up to other clinical software programs. The goal: To help front-line providers move patient information — medical histories, insurance records, medicine schedules and the like — from the nurse’s station or admin desk to patient rooms.

Olli will come to market this month, but Curtis is tempering his initial expectations. He is well aware of the health care sector’s reputation as being slower than others to invest in new technologies. Plus, health IT can be a bit of a walled garden, he says, with vendors of electronic medical records acting as the gatekeepers.

But Olli is a health care quality play that has long-term legs. Hospital administrators may not be clamoring for something like it now, but the nurses and doctors shuttling between patient rooms and desktop computers would be able to spend more qualitative time with their patients if Olli gives them the info they need at the bedside. And commercial and government payers are increasingly calculating reimbursements based on value rather than volume.

Both Olli and the new retail products are quintessentially Griffin in that they take good products and add to them products that take their capabilities in a different direction. Rowan, Curtis and others at the company talk regularly about finding and exploiting white space between existing products and services — often at the behest of customers clamoring for something that fills a specific need.

“What’s interesting to us is where humans interact with technology,” says Rowan. “We don’t have to unseat multibillion-dollar companies to give the end user a better work experience. We can focus on carving out small gaps.”

Griffin’s approach is one of the keys to real innovation, according Montgomery.

“The best ideas are simple and solve a real problem,” he says. “Yet they’re the hardest ones to get at. Those ideas to me are the most exciting.”

Hitting the books

Griffin’s move into the massive B2B market is a reflection of how the Apple and Android device markets have blossomed and how Griffin itself has followed them. Its home office in the so-called Sawtooth building off Wedgewood Avenue is nearly full barely two years after the company relocated from space in three buildings near the airport.

“By the time we finish an org chart, it’s outdated,” Rowan said. “Every couple of years, this looks like a different company.”

For Rowan, too, the B2B has meant a changing role. In working with Curtis’ team of six, he says his main role has been to narrow down the process wherever possible. Chasing down every possible gizmo won’t always deliver value.

“It’s not fun, but I have to be the adult in the room sometimes,” he says. “Not all things are going to work. My job is to consistently ask, ‘What do we really want to put our energy into?’”

Going forward, one of those areas will be higher education, where the various players have long been wrestling with the transition to digital formats and have as a result created a mishmash of policies and systems. (Sounds a bit like health care, no?) Curtis says he sees a role for Griffin — perhaps more behind the scenes than in other industries — in partnering with educational publishers to build an ecosystem of both content and the physical ways to deliver it. The result would enable university departments to provide devices to their students knowing they have the infrastructure — protective cases, chargers and mobile stands, for instance — to protect their investments.

Rowan expects Griffin will run into some familiar foes in higher ed but also see plenty of new faces coming at the problem from the other end of the spectrum. The key question, he says: “Can they learn about the iPod space faster than we can learn about the classroom?”

And while Curtis and his team’s focus near-term is on the opportunity in retail — without being able to name names just yet, he says, “We have some things in the works hat will blow people away” — it feels right to think that Griffin can also make a lot of headway with Olli into one of Nashville’s calling-card industries. Curtis says he understands the massive financial and time investments needed to update hospital software systems. But he’s confident Griffin has another winner on its hands.

“We’ve been knocking on the door,” Curtis says. “We’re looking for the time when the light bulb goes on. We’re ready for it.”