Getting it set up - on your schedule

  • Article by: TODD NELSON , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 22, 2008 - 10:33 PM

This firm offers next-day, nationwide installation of home electronics. Plus, it's the customers who get to set the appointment times.

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Chris Mauzy led his staff on a reenactment of the Beatles’ “Abbey Road” album cover, stopping traffic on Calhoun Parkway. Tired of waiting for investors to get on board, he and his wife launched Zip Express themselves. He uses a network of 16,000 certified installers, Mauzy said.

Photo: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

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A weekend project has turned into what could become a $5 million company this year for Chris Mauzy and Zip Express Installation.

Zip Express says it offers something different -- the first nationwide, next-day installation appointment option for flat-screen TVs, home theaters, computers and other home electronics.

That's anywhere in the country, for a flat fee starting at $129, and within a one-hour window of a time and date the customer chooses. His aim, Mauzy said, is to be the UPS or FedEx of consumer electronics installation.

The way the company got started is different, too: Mauzy, who spent a combined 15 years at Best Buy Co. Inc. and Ultimate Electronics, got impatient as he pursued financing for what he felt was a sure-fire business plan.

Mauzy had met with two venture capital firms, six angel investors and the holding company.

"It was a very interesting lesson," Mauzy said. "I thought, 'You write a business plan, you have a background showing you can do this, you go get the money and you start.' That's kind of a fallacy. It could happen that way. But the amount of time that takes and the different ways to do it, it's crazy."

Tired of what he saw as foot-dragging by potential investors, Mauzy and his wife launched the company themselves. They spent a hectic November weekend creating a website to pitch the new offering directly to consumers. Mauzy initially had envisioned rolling out his installation service through brick-and-mortar retailers that sell home electronics.

"Through credit cards -- thank you, American Express -- we started building the company," Mauzy said. "I don't think we slept that weekend. We were saying, 'OK, we're going to kind of get guerrilla-style on this. We're going to buy some Google keywords, we're going to route people to this website and we're going to pray that they buy.' And fortunately, they did."

In its first three days, the site generated $3,000 in revenue. That was enough, Mauzy said, to persuade TRG Capital, a holding company in the Twin Cities, to invest.

At Ultimate Electronics, Mauzy got experience managing home theater installers. Best Buy then made him an offer, Mauzy said, and he moved to the Twin Cities to help integrate the company's Geek Squad business services.

Mauzy decided that he could capitalize on what he had learned working with electronics retailers and installers to create a new model for installation services.

"Finding that next model was what made me make the decision to go out, raise money and essentially build services for retailers that don't desire to own their own services unit," Mauzy said.

Consumers can schedule installation appointments through the company's website. Zip Express also is an affiliate of Amazon.com, appearing as an option when someone looks there for televisions, home theater systems or computers.

Target.com">Target.com also just became an online reseller for Zip Express, which hopes to announce brick-and-mortar retail partnerships soon.

The company projects revenue of more than $5 million this year, Mauzy said. While that's very close to what his business plan called for, most of it is coming from direct sales instead of through retailers.

Direct sales also are financing efforts to build consumer awareness of the Zip Express brand, which should help bring retailers on board, he said.

The key to the Zip Express model -- aside from continuing strong demand for flat-panel TVs, demonstrated recently in Best Buy's first-quarter results -- is the excess capacity of technicians who install big-screen TVs, computers and other such gear.

The company has a network of 16,000 certified installers -- typically small to medium-size local electronics specialists -- that it has contracted with around the country, Mauzy said. All installers undergo a seven-year background check, carry photo IDs and are covered by a $10 million insurance policy that Zip Express maintains.

When a customer orders an installation, Zip Express sends e-mails about the job to its top 20 installers in that area. "At that point it's a feeding frenzy," Mauzy said. "The first one that gets on their phone or computer and hits the accept button, that becomes a binding contract."

The technician contacts the customer to confirm the time and date of the installation. The company puts the technician's payment into an escrow account. The job isn't done until the customer signs the work order stating that it is complete, Mauzy said.

Jason Wood of Houston said he was happy with the experience he had in using Zip Express to install his 50-inch plasma TV. He wanted the screen attached to a special wall mount that allows it to swivel.

Wood found Zip Express through an Internet search.

"I was a little nervous talking to this guy all the way up there," Wood said. But Chris called me back, knew exactly what I needed and knew somebody in Houston who knew how to do it."

The expert says: Dave Brennan, a marketing professor at the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business, said Mauzy had identified a promising niche, given the increasing sophistication, and size, of home theater systems, TVs and other consumer electronics.

"There's a need for it in the marketplace," said Brennan, noting that he recently bought a big-screen TV at Best Buy, which offered delivery, instead of at Target, where he had found the same set but no installation option.

"The only question you have if you're a retailer or customer is: Is it going to be done when you want it done and to your satisfaction?" Brennan said.

Todd Nelson is a freelance writer in Woodbury. His e-mail address is todd_nelson@mac.com.

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