Corner Office: Vizio’s William Wang

It’s the hope of many an entrepreneur: Get your product not only into one of the big-box stores, but into the epitome of the big-box store, Costco. The murmurs of the crowd begin. “If we could get our stuff in Costco,” they dream, “just about everything would be well in the world.”

Meet William Wang, the slayer of Costco, the titan of TV, the visionary of Vizio. His company is the maker of what has become one of Costco’s most popular products: flat-screen televisions. That alone is a remarkable feat when you consider that not only is his company less than a decade old, but televisions were barely even on Costco’s radar when they started selling Vizio TVs in 2003.

William Wang single-handedly created a whole-new profit center for Costco.

But his story is far more interesting, and bigger, than merely transforming a big-box store. Vizio has gained an amazing foothold in the country and world at large. It is now the No. 1 seller of high-definition televisions in the United States. Consider these other milestones:

Vizio was named Good Housekeeping’s Best Big-Screen. Vizio won the No. 1 ranking in the Inc. 500 for top 100 computers and electronics companies for the second consecutive year. Vizio was named one of Advertising Age’s Hottest Brands.

So, how do you become, arguably, the world leader in the white-hot fl at-screen market in less than a decade? You see an opportunity—and then drive a truck through it.

“Don’t just listen to your own business philosophies, but hear the philosophies of your customers.”

Back in the mid ’90s, Congress began discussing a mandate that would force all television makers to convert sets from analogue to digital by the end of the decade. “At the time,” Wang says, “most digital televisions were going for around $8,000, so what I saw was a great opportunity: a legal mandate and a wide-open market for more affordable televisions to fi t that mandate.”

Wang had already been successful in the consumer electronics field, creating a successful line of monitors, which he sold at, you bet, Costco. With the congressional mandate coming into effect, and that corresponding huge opportunity approaching, Wang launched V Inc. in 2002 (later renamed Vizio).

It was a fairly audacious move. “Remember,” Wang explains, “there had been no new big player in the consumer electronics field in a long time. The players were old-school companies, like Sony, Sharp, Zenith and Panasonic.” It was, he says, “a crazy idea!” Crazy like a fox.

“I knew we could build a television cheaper, and since I already had a good working relationship and track record with Costco, I decided to pitch them the idea of working together.” Wang adds that the key was that “Costco is a great brand that offers quality goods at a reasonable price, so that is what I knew we had to create.”

So he did. Thus, shortly before the 2003 Christmas season, Costco stocked the shelves and tested a new product, a 46-inch fl at-screen TV made by a company no one had ever heard of, and that sold for a price less than half of where most competitors priced their fl at-screen TVs.

Three short months and $6 million in revenue later, the test was an overwhelming success. Costco sales records continued to be shattered by Vizio in the coming months and years, to the point where flat-screen televisions are now one of Costco’s biggest sellers.

So was it just a great idea at a good price? Wang says the answer is a resounding no. Like his partner Costco (where you can seemingly return anything at almost any time), Wang’s business philosophy is equally dependent on two words we all hear so much about, but that actually mean something to him: customer satisfaction.

“That is our focus, our main focus,” he says. Wang explains that great customer service and satisfaction require great teamwork. To be successful, you need to team with your employees, customers, distributors, everybody. “In a sense, they are all our customers. Costco is our customer, Costco’s customers are our customers, and so on, so our job is to make everyone happy—to make Costco successful. That requires great teamwork.”

Great customer service requires a few specific actions, Wang says:

“First, you must learn about your customers—what they like and dislike. The customer is always first.” “Maybe, more important, you have to listen to your customers. Do not force it. Don’t just listen to your own business philosophies, but hear the philosophies of your customers.” “You simply must take customer satisfaction seriously. That means not being too greedy. We take profits and pump them back into the televisions, back into the company, to make it even better for our customers.”

Given all of the above, it should not be surprising that, for Wang, the key to business success is to “give the customer more than they expect.”

Almost all entrepreneurs mention the importance of customer service. But Wang is one who actually took that idea to its logical conclusion: Customers are not just the end-users of your product or service. Instead, that word encompasses everyone dependent on your success—your suppliers, employees, even your shareholders.

So consider taking a page out of the William Wang success playbook. Expand your vision of just who constitutes your customer, and you, too, may conquer the world, one big-box store at a time. S

Steven D. Strauss is small-business columnist for USA Today and AOL. His latest book is The Small Business Bible, second edition.

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