Talking Shop with John Selby, owner of Stereo One in Cape Girardeau

Monday, August 23, 2010
John Selby is the owner of Stereo One in Cape Girardeau. (Kristin Eberts)

John Selby, owner of Stereo One in Cape Girardeau, has seen countless advances in technology since he began selling stereos in the 1970s. Today his store sells much more than stereos, including home theater equipment and home automation systems that allow people to control everything from alarm systems to thermostats on their iPhones.

Q: How did you get into the electronics business?

A: My dad had a nice stereo when I was a child. It is currently stored in my basement. When I was in high school, my brother was stationed in Vietnam and bought a stereo system at the BX. The idea was ship it back to the States and have me sell it for him at a profit, then use the money to buy a better system. I advertised the system and sold it to the first person that came by to look at it. So, I guess I sold my first stereo system when I was 15. Out of college, my goal was to become an architect and I worked in an architect's office in Kansas City, until the economy went south. I needed a paycheck, so I answered a help-wanted ad for a salesperson at a large appliance/TV store. I remembered that selling my brother's stereo was pretty easy for me, so I thought it was worth a shot. I got the job, and a year later I was offered a position as "stereo manager" of Kemper and Dodd and moved to Cape Girardeau. Six years later I went out my own and become the principal owner of Stereo One.

Q: How has your business changed and evolved over the years?

A: I think it's interesting to note that revolutionary, sweeping changes in our industry don't happen very often. We've just recently abandoned our 70-year-old analog television broadcast system, for example. The VHS recorder, first introduced in 1975, is still around. Even the CD is going on 30 years old and is still the preferred medium for quality music playback in the home. We have vacuum-tube stereo equipment and turntables on display [that] sonically outperform any hi-tech digital equipment around. Over the years, the computer, the Internet, robotic assembly lines and digital technology have resulted in feature-rich products that are very inexpensive and accessible to just about anyone who wants them.

Q: What aspects of your industry have stayed the same through the years?

A: Regardless of what technology is on board, I still find that when it comes to the performance of audio and video gear the same rules that applied 35 years ago, when I started, are still true today. You still get what you pay for and solid engineering, quality of individual components and structural integrity still play a major role the delivery of the overall music and movie experience. There are vast differences in the performance of entry-level versus premium gear. The entry level is just much less expensive than it used to be. Which is a good thing. All in all, I would say that the price of admission, greatly increased functionality and access to services would be the most profound changes I've seen over the years.

Q: Why do you think the concept of having a movie theater experience in your home has become so popular?

A: The activities of individual family members are very fragmented, making "quality time" at home more difficult for parents to manage. A home theater system is something that families can experience together, and parents can use this as a tool to keep their children, and their kid's friends, closer to home. Gaming also takes on a new perspective on larger-screen TVs as well. There are some great movies out there.

Q: Tell me about how new computer-based home automation programs work for controlling things in your house when no one is home.

A: When we started to get seriously involved in home automation back in the mid '90s, the stuff we were controlling was pretty unspectacular: lighting control dimmers, thermostats, motorized screens, security panels, whole house music, etc. We tied all these devices together that didn't do anything special on their own, made them work together, and we looked pretty smart. Today "smart" devices like the iPhone, iTouch and iPad and do things that were unimaginable 15 years ago. Whip out your iPhone while strolling on a beach in Maui and take a look around your deck back home [with a] camera installed above the deck. Or have the system send you a text message at the office letting you know that the children are home safe after school. Or take a look at how much power you are using when you are away, and get an alert if the freezer hasn't turned on for a while. The possibilities are truly mind-boggling. We were the first authorized dealer for Control4 and Apple-based Savant Systems, and have a good number of Crestron systems installed in the region as well.

Q: As a small-business owner, how has competition from large retail chains affected the way your store operates?

A: Actually, very little. I would say that their impact has been negative overall, but not in the way people might expect. There has been very little price erosion. We sell the same products for the same price as them, so competing head-to-head on pricing has never been a problem. The larger issue is the degree of credibility and power they have due to their size. People assume that the national chain stores must have their act together. In my opinion, this is equivalent to going to Taco Bell or Wendy's for advice on fine dining. We spend a fair amount of time sorting customers out who have received incomplete or incorrect information. The chain stores are masters at moving boxes and they know how to use buzzwords and trends to their advantage. We enjoy engaging customers on any budget. What matters to us is that we deliver the highest-quality experience they can obtain for the money invested.

Q: What advice would you give to someone wanting to start their own business?

A: I would say three things: Know the business inside and out. You have to be certain that what you bring to the market is valid and relevant, and working in the business is a pretty crucial step. Be very good at fourth-grade math. You have to be able to add up a column of numbers labeled "income" and another column of numbers labeled "expenses." Then, hopefully, the income column will be greater than the expenses column. If it isn't, you've got some tough decisions to make. Do this exercise often. Know the limitations of yourself and those working with you. Overcommitting your resources, including yourself, can make you a slave to your business, which can result in a life sentence.

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