Let me start off by saying that this has been the interview I have really been looking forward to. I had the chance to interview Jordan Reiss, the Co-Founder and VP of Astro Gaming. For those of you who haven’t heard of Astro – Astro Gaming is a company that is one of the leading brands in the gaming audio market, and at the moment, my personal favorite. In the past we have reviewed both their A40 Audio System and their new A30 Cross-Gaming Headphones.
Hello Jordan, please introduce yourself to our readers
Hi Dan. Thanks for the interview. Happy to introduce myself. I’ve been living and working in San Francisco now for over 10 years – developing and managing various B2C Internet businesses. My e-commerce career started in 1999 after hooking up with the owners of Timbuk2 Designs – the bicycle messenger bag company. They wanted to take their business onto the Internet and I was brought on board to figure out how to do that. We ended up launching an award-winning site featuring one of the first e-commerce-enabled product configurators on the Internet and I had the pleasure of then managing the web business.
Timbuk2 was a total blast – being able to connect consumers directly to our San Francisco factory floor via an entertaining web interface, watching hundreds of custom made bags go out the door every day and then seeing them all over the streets in cities all around the world. It was a really fulfilling end-to-end experience for me. We ending up selling the company in 2003 and in the process I met Brett Lovelady, the owner Astro Studios – one of the top product design firms in the country. I was way into the B2C business model and Brett was looking for a way to do more with his company’s product design capabilities. Astro Studio’s pedigree in the video gaming space was well known and it didn’t take long for the idea of Astro Gaming to crystallize. We wrote a business plan and got the company funded a little over three years ago behind a pretty simple concept – to make the world’s best gaming peripherals and to actively support the lifestyle & culture of video gaming. So that’s what I’ve been doing for the past few years.
Please describe your experience working at Timbuk2 and the reason why it became so popular
When I joined Timbuk2 in 1999, the company was a ten year old cult brand with hundreds, if not thousands, of small retail bike shops and outdoor stores selling their bags around the world. The bags sold well, the company had tons of happy customers, but retailers weren’t tapping into the real unique aspect of the brand – the customization and build-to-order capabilities the owners had spent so much time perfecting.
Retailers didn’t care about the fact that we could crank out a custom-made $100+ messenger bag in any one of a billion combinations of colors, fabrics, features, etc. They just wanted the lowest common denominator basic black, blue or green bag and didn’t want to be bothered with custom orders.
Luckily the Internet and e-commerce had started to take root and the retailers’ loss was our gain as we were able to offer a personalized shopping experience that put the power of product design into the hands of the customer. And I think that was key – giving consumers some say in the design of the product they’re purchasing, and then being able to deliver that custom-made “unique to me” product in a day’s time.
Of course in the success you can’t overlook the fact that the Timbuk2 brand had ten years of real grass-roots brand authenticity behind it and the product itself was a great product. That’s the real difficult part, in my opinion – making great product and creating an authentic brand. The purchase experience and delivery mechanism are both important, but you’ve got to be able to deliver on your product and brand promise otherwise you don’t have much longevity in the consumer products business.
After selling Timbuk2 in 2003, what was the process you went through with Brett Lovelady (Founder of Astro Studios) to create Astro Gaming?
When I met Brett in 2003 we hit it off immediately. He had been running Astro Studios for over 10 years and he was looking for a way to do more with his business. I was totally jazzed by my experience at T2 and wanted to create a new consumer-centric business and here was Brett with a team of really talented product designers cranking out amazing product concepts for some of the biggest brands in the world. You should look at their portfolio – it’s amazing – Nike Triax Running Watches, the Compaq IPaq, Alienware Computers, the Xbox 360, HP Blackbird & Firebird…. As far as video gaming hardware is concerned there can’t be another independent design firm in the world that’s done more iconic products than Astro.
Brett & I started talking about how we could harness some of his team’s creative horsepower to proactively create our own products. Given Astro’s pedigree in the gaming space it quickly became an obvious decision for us what we needed to do. Video gaming had transformed from a slacker hobby for kids into a multi-billion industry – bigger than Hollywood and music as far as I can tell – and some gamers were even making six figure incomes playing video games. We felt that gaming peripherals were severely behind the maturation curve of the industry so decided that we’d leverage Astro’s expertise in product design and pioneer our own brand of high-end peripherals. As Brett likes to say – we want to develop products that improve the “sport” of video gaming
How is Astro Gaming different from other companies such as Logitech and Turtle Beach?
I think there are a lot of differences between us and other companies in our space. We all have our strengths and weaknesses. One of the biggest differences that I see stems from the fact that we don’t sell through retailers. We’re 100% direct to consumer. This enables us to put so much more build into our products because we don’t have the 100%-200% markup inherent to the multi-tiered retail distribution model. Having no retailer in the mix also means that we’re able to design our products purely with the gamer in mind – versus trying to hit some retailer’s artificially created price point. That almost always leads to a neutering of the product down to some lowest common denominator version of what the gamer really wants.
I also think we’re taking the time to set the foundation for a real lifestyle brand at Astro Gaming. We spend the vast majority of our discretionary marketing dollars supporting gaming events and tournaments – we’ve been the Official Licensed Headset of Major League Gaming (MLG) for three years now… it’s these grass roots activities that we think are critical to creating the long term value in the Astro Gaming brand.
You demoed the first prototypes during the 2006 2007 MLG seasons with Str8 Rippin and Carbon, what was that experience like?
Talk about a fun product design experience. During the early phase of our initial product development program we had the fortune of meeting a few members of Str8 Rippin’ – one of the top MLG pro teams. They helped us understand the audio and communication deficiencies inherent to their in-person gaming tournaments so we created a prototype of a “team mixer system” consisting of a 9-channel mixing board (5 voice channels + 4 game audio channels) and five custom headsets. We then showed up at one of their tournaments in Orlando Florida to put it through the paces with them – with $20k of prize money on the line.
The mixer unit was an eye-catcher to say the least. Housed in a milled-out block of aluminum with all sorts of LED lights, powered by 12 D-Batteries, it weighed close to 40 pounds and had over a dozen different wires to connect to get it running. As you can imagine it was the talk of the show as one of the top teams was using this crazy device to help them with their game play and from their reactions we knew we were on to something.
To make a long story short, I found myself playing a one-man pit crew for Str8 Rippin for the rest of the 2006 season. Having to run ahead to every station they were playing at to set the monster up, then break it down, run to the next station, set it up, break it down… Then when the 2007 season started we added a second mixer to the equation for Carbon – the 2006 Champions, and I then found myself at one event carrying two of these crazy devices around the MLG events bouncing around like a pinball ahead of these two teams.
Luckily the devices ultimately got banned from competition until we had commercially available product to sell. So halfway through the 2007 season we were able to put the prototypes to pasture and focused ourselves on getting the final products ready for customer shipment, which happened with our product launch in April 2008 when we became the Official Licensed Headset of Major League Gaming.
Once you officially launched the A40, what was the reaction like?
We couldn’t have scripted the reaction any better. By the end of our first “official” season with Major League Gaming in 2008 we had just about 100% usage by all of the top teams, we’ve received dozens upon dozens of awesome reviews from various gaming magazines and websites… and we’ve done some special edition collaborations with folks like Konami, Penny-Arcade, Upper Playground. We’ve even got some of the industry’s biggest game developers outfitting their studios with A40′s to provide their developers with a best of class audio experience as they create the next generation of video games. So it’s been a great introductory product for the brand. No complaints whatsoever.
Congratulations on the release of the new A30s, what was the goal behind this new headset?
Thanks. We’re stoked on this product. The idea behind the A30 was to create a gaming headset that could be used across different gaming platforms while at the same time serve as your go-to headset for all your audio and communication needs. Most gaming headsets are purpose-built for the living room – big and bulky or with custom cables that don’t work on anything but gaming consoles… But today’s gamer isn’t just sitting in a living room playing games – he (or she) is out and about, using rich-media devices and connected to the internet at virtually every waking moment. We wanted to create a headset that supported that lifestyle, and the A30 does just that. It’s a gaming headset first – but it’s so much more…
What has the reaction been like for your recently launched UK branch?
The UK is one of the biggest gaming markets around and so far we couldn’t be happier with our launch there. There isn’t a big Console league like Major League Gaming in Europe, so we’re getting involved with more smaller events as we build the brand….and so far so good. Europe represents a good chunk of our business right now and given the reaction to date we’re investing now in expanding our European operations and eventually will add more foreign language support as we grow.
Many people right now are not sure what the new A30 headset is, can you describe how it is different from the A40?
The A40 was purpose built for the professional gamer using it in a LAN environment. It’s an over-the-ear headset with an open-back construction – so it doesn’t block out much outside noise, but you can wear them for 12 hours straight and your listening fatigue would be minimal. This is a critical element for the tournament gamer playing in matches all day and night for days on end. Also the audio of the A40 is tuned specifically for gaming – with less emphasis on the lows and highs and as the mid-range is so critical to game play sounds.
The A30 is an extremely light weight, on-ear closed back headset. While it’s lighter than the A40, it’s on-ear design and closed-back construction creates more of a seal around your ear and hence more noise isolation than the A40. So you can use the A30 out on a noisy street or in an airplane and not have your audio drowned out by the background noise. In addition, the audio has been tuned for more multi-purpose use – still with an extremely accurate mid-range, but with a little more support at the lows and highs – providing a little richer sound quality when listening to music. Last but not least, the A30 comes with an in-line microphone built into the headset cable – so when you’re out and about and you don’t want to have a big boom mic protruding in front of your face, you still get voice communication capabilities. Personally I use my A30′s almost exclusively with my iPhone and laptop and use my A40′s at home when gaming on a console.
So two pretty different headsets, although both with a heavy dose of the same Astro Gaming DNA.
Why is it that Astro has yet to release a product that doesn’t have an extremely attractive look? What are your design standards like?
Well first off, thanks for that compliment. It’s hard to describe what makes good design. But given that my co-founder, Brett Lovelady, is one of the leading figures in the product design world, I guess it’s not a surprise. I certainly can’t take any credit for it – that’s all Brett and his team of designers. I can tell you that Design is a C-level function within our business – meaning it’s on par with Finance, Marketing, Engineering etc. It’s an easy discipline to ignore, but you can see how valuable it is when Design is incorporated throughout the process.
What can we expect from Astro Gaming in the upcoming years? (A50?)
Oh man – we’ve got so many products on our roadmap right now. There are just so many product categories in the gaming space that need shaking up. We’ll continue with audio products of course, but at some point we’ll be adding wireless products, controllers too – you name it. We’re going to be doing this for a long time and have really barely begun the task at hand.
Thank you Jordan for taking the time to talk with us.