In this ongoing series, we are sharing advice, tips and insights from real entrepreneurs who are out there doing business battle on a daily basis. (Answers have been edited and condensed for clarity.)
Who are you and what’s your business?
My name is Paul Barton. I am the founder and Chief Designer of PSB. We’re a Canadian-based consumer audio company that designs and builds premium loudspeakers for the residential market.
What were your early inspirations?
Initially, I was inspired by my love and passion for music as a violin player in my youth and by watching my dad craft a violin for me to play with his own time, care and passion for detail. I would call that a catalyst. Combined with my discovery and curiosity about audio reproduction during the early days of HiFi, I realized I could potentially make a living by marrying my love for music with an ability to conceptualize, design and build loudspeakers. That was all on a hope and wish, though, and I think the real “aha” moment came a few years into my journey as an entrepreneur, after we had developed a prototype based on intensive research we were doing on acoustic measurements. It outperformed the competitive set we were using as benchmarks, which were the best examples of speakers we had access to at the time. That validated to me that we could be competitive and that our methods, which were not considered orthodox at the time, were sound (no pun intended…okay, maybe a little bit intended.)
How did you differentiate yourself?
We started the business as an early form of side hustle allowing me to go to university (in engineering) while evenings and weekends were spent working at the company. The differentiation came when we got access to research facilities at the National Research Council (NRC) in Ottawa early on in our growth. It allowed me to gain an in-depth understanding of what was important in speaker design and the different ways that this performance could be achieved. I could make the right trade-offs to ensure we could keep 95% of the performance at 10% of the cost and it helped to differentiate the brand as value-for-money speakers.
Passif 50 Anniversary Edition Standmount Loudspeaker ($2499). Credit: PSB Speakers
How did research-driven product design give you an advantage in the marketplace?
Speaker design has been and is still in some ways a kind of “art” as designers play around with various design structures and materials to try to optimize the basic laws of physics of sound reproduction and try to guess what consumers around the world might like in terms of listening preference. PSB benefited by being the first consumer audio company to cooperate and partner with a research institute, Canada’s National Research Council, that wanted to use subjective and objective measurements of loudspeakers to build a vast database of listener preferences to help Canadian designers understand better what global consumers actually like to hear when listening to music. Once PSB learned what factors brought our designs closest to the listeners’ preferences, we never really looked back.
What were some of the risks you took in the early days?
The time I would spend at the NRC gave me so much access to academics and experts working in acoustics that conducting my product research there provided a more focused and specialized learning opportunity than any university could offer. When I recognized this I decided to focus on the business rather than finish my degree, which was a difficult decision and it felt like a career risk, especially since I didn’t know whether the business would be successful. However, looking back, I don’t regret that since I have gotten to live out my passions through my business with tons of engineering opportunities that I may never have gained otherwise.
Perhaps another risk, which I think a lot of entrepreneurs struggle with, is knowing when to bring in other partners and who to bring in as a partner. It can sometimes be difficult to be sure that a partner, especially if they take a controlling stake, will retain the essence of the brand or operate with similar philosophies. When I decided to partner with Lenbrook, another Canadian company, and sold them a majority interest in the business it was because I knew that they perfectly complemented my skills and interests, and had the capital resource to help make PSB a global company much more quickly.
What other benefits became apparent once PSB became part of the Lenbrook family?
The primary benefit of the Lenbrook partnership was to properly capitalize PSB and then to move from being a brand available only in Canada to becoming a globally recognized and globally available speaker brand. The strong capital foundation meant we could expand the portfolio and turn new generations of product over more quickly, which was fundamental to being taken seriously by the better dealers. This was especially true in the extremely competitive US market where we didn’t have any “home court” advantage. Lenbrook’s global distribution relationships in the HiFi industry were second to none and it proved to be the fastest and most cost-effective way to scale the business.
What is the best advice you can give to other passionate entrepreneurs out there looking to build or grow their own businesses?
My story would be one of following my personal passions and being propelled by the natural energy of working on the things you love to do – it really hasn’t seemed like “work” to me for 50 years. The other thing is to be secure enough to know your own limits and partner with others that you can trust to carry out all the other aspects of a successful enterprise; a lot of entrepreneurs fail because they extend themselves beyond their limits. In fact, it was a relief to partner with Lenbrook so that I could focus on the things I liked to do and the things I do best, and leave the other things to other people who could do it better or that liked it better.
Who was your biggest influence and was there a single inspirational moment that you look back on as most significant?
Clearly, my father was the biggest influence on my choice of career and inspired me to follow my dreams. I also have to say that Lenbrook’s founder, David S. Simmonds, taught me a lot about being a true entrepreneur in the most business-like sense. He also inspired me in terms of character traits that really separate some entrepreneurs from many others which is to make sure of people’s ability to trust everything you say and do and make your word your bond.
What do you attribute PSB’s longevity to? 50 years is a long time!
I think our longevity is the result of finding a good formula and sticking to it. We’ve worked really hard to maintain a principled approach to product development that rests on good scientific foundations. That’s why every PSB product, whether that’s a bookshelf speaker, a subwoofer, or headphones, at any price point, retains a distinctive PSB sound signature and are acclaimed for “performance for value” versus products costing many times more. This is our recipe for staying relevant in a highly competitive and populated marketplace.