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Business Observer Friday, Jan. 18, 2019 3 months ago

Sound and fury: Entrepreneur finds innovative ways to fend off attacks

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A small company that manufactures niche automobile accessories has somehow made a lot of enemies. It fights back with quality, consistency and customer education.
by: Brian Hartz Tampa Bay Editor

Manufacturing entrepreneur Matt Heller has learned to live, and succeed, with a target on his back.

His Zephyrhills-based company, HornBlasters Inc., which makes high-powered air horns for cars and trucks, has been on the receiving end of lawsuits, threats from cut-rate competitors and social media backlash for years, proving even micro-niche businesses must be on their toes at all times to survive the pressures of success. In defense of his company, Heller has also learned some key business lessons, including the sometimes unseen value of consistent marketing. 

HornBlasters’ horns, which emulate the sounds made by trains, cargo ships and other large vehicles, are insanely loud and completely unnecessary qualities, Heller says, which make them irresistible to a certain strain of automotive enthusiasts in southern states like Florida and Texas.

“Rednecks,” Heller says with a chuckle. “But we’ve also sold them to millionaires who give them to their personal chefs as Christmas presents.”

The horns range in price from $30 to $3,000. The majority of the parts used to build the horns are sourced from U.S. suppliers, says Heller, 37, a high school dropout who sold his first homemade air horn in 2002 and founded HornBlasters a year later, while working at Home Depot. That insistence on quality has proven to be both a blessing and a curse, though.

“Our stuff is top notch, but I’m competing with all of these junk products. It’s just a nightmare.” Matt Heller, founder and operations manager of HornBlasters Inc.

“We were first to market,” he says. “We probably have three of four other direct competitors. Some are just trade companies that flood the market with really cheap, plastic stuff.”

HornBlasters, Heller says, is regarded as a premium brand that charges top dollar for its products — a stance that leaves room for low-quality imitations to pop up. And because the company’s technology isn’t proprietary — many of the horns it uses in its systems are salvaged from scrapyards — Heller has little legal recourse when it comes to protecting his intellectual property.

“Our stuff is top notch,” he says, “but I’m competing with all of these junk products. It’s just a nightmare.”

Competition, in whatever form it takes, can be healthy. While the privately owned HornBlasters doesn’t see huge profit margins on its products, revenue has been growing steadily, at an annual rate of about 10-15% over the past three years. (Heller declines to disclose specific revenue figures.) “Slow, steady, organic gains” is how he describes the company’s financial performance. The company has 12 employees. 

LESSONS LEARNED AND TAUGHT

To fend off cut-rate imitators, customer education is key, Heller has discovered. That means one of HornBlasters’ biggest expenses is marketing. In the days before YouTube, Heller would spend thousands of dollars per month on web hosting for the company’s many promotional videos.

“YouTube changed everything for us,” he says. “We hit it so hard. Ours were some of the first videos to get a million views. Instantly, it just took off.”

But because it aspired to be thought of as a leader in its niche market, HornBlasters went a step further and paid "a couple thousand'" dollars  for an automotive product tester, Doug DeHaven — Heller refers to him as a “super nerd” — to make a video comparing 26 different horns made by different companies to see which one produces the loudest blast of noise.

“We funded the whole thing,” Heller says. “We told him to go out and rent the best microphone, the best everything, and he went way technical with it.”

DeHaven found HornBlasters’ Outlaw and Shocker models were louder than all competitors, save only one: the AH-K5 Nathan K5LA — a horn used on diesel locomotives. The results confirm Heller's emphasis on quality parts and workmanship over profit margin, and has positioned the company exactly where he wanted it to be: at the top of the market.

“I’m just trying to arm people with knowledge,” he says, “just trying to educate them.”

Heller says his profit margin on the company’s most popular horn kits, like the Shocker, which retails for around $800, is around 15%. Cheap knockoffs made by Chinese companies could easily be double that, he says, but the undercutting doesn’t bother him. If anything, it’s validation, he says, adding there are plenty of customers willing to pay top dollar to have the best horns for their tricked-out trucks and cars.

“Some people will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars” on aftermarket accessories for their vehicles,” Heller says. “They have huge egos and want a big lifted truck, you know, the loudest, nastiest thing … they almost want to pay more. They want premium, because they’ll get hazed and roasted online if they buy the eBay special for $100.”

SOCIAL ANXIETY     

Speaking of getting roasted online, HornBlasters is no stranger to social media controversy. Its Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube feeds are full of videos of people getting the living daylights scared out of them by vehicles equipped with the company’s shockingly loud horns. An page of the company’s website is dedicated to “hate mail” — angry emails received about HornBlasters’ products.

One of them reads: “Just come across your videos and you should be prosecuted! Noise is a pollutant and it's not at all funny to scare people! You or others using these stupid horns will cause an accident or cause somebody to have a coronary! Idiots!”

Mark Wemple. Matt Heller refuses to be intimidated by critics of Hornblasters' products and business practices.

The juvenile approach to marketing has rubbed some people the wrong way, and Heller admits it’s not always an ideal image for the company. “It’s kind of a double-edged sword,” he says. “We don’t love it, but it is what brings business in.”

Not even the company’s Wikipedia page has been safe from criticism. In fact, it got vandalized so much that Wikipedia removed it entirely.

“There’s a community of air-horn nerds that really love the hobby, and they go out into these valleys and honk their horns,” says Heller. “They see me as a threat to their hobby because of some of the ‘nefarious’ ways that our customers use the horns. These guys have slowly destroyed my Wikipedia page, calling us ‘HornBastards’ and all this stuff. They don’t like our scare videos.”

Some people, though, have embraced the shock value of HornBlasters’ products, notably Mike Calta, who hosts a popular show on Tampa’s 102.5 FM “The Bone” radio station. “Whenever he has a celebrity in the studio, he’ll blast the horn at them,” Heller says. “I try to work with different influencers to get the word out there.”

ONE-STOP SHOP

Graham Adams, who owns Defiant Motorsports in Monroe, Ga., has been a customer of HornBlasters since 2014, when he connected with Heller at the Specialty Equipment Market Association Show in Las Vegas. That show is one of the world’s largest trade shows for aftermarket auto parts and accessories, attended by tens of thousands of buyers. Adams says HornBlasters is set up well to survive whatever competition comes its way.

“You know, people ask, ‘What’s the biggest bang for my buck?’” Adams says. “You can get a competitor’s horn for a similar amount but it’s nowhere near as loud, or you can get a super-cheap horn off of eBay, but it doesn’t sound as good, nor is it as loud. With HornBlasters, they have horns for every price range. If you want a super budget friendly horn, they've got it. If you want a top-of-the-line horn that gets put on trains, they've got it.”

Mark Wemple. Matt Heller says he fights back against cut-rate competitors by spending money on third-party product reviews.

Adams says HornBlasters also sets itself apart by being a supplier of hardware and parts. “If we need a valve, or fittings, or an air line, we can get anything air-related from them, not just horns,” he explains. “Having them as a one-stop shop for anything we need is key.”

HornBlasters, Adams adds, also does the little things well, like sending out printed marketing materials, such as brochures and catalogs. “Some companies don’t send out paper copies of anything anymore; it’s all online, so we have to tell our customers, ‘Oh, well, look at their website.’ HornBlasters sends you a box of catalogs and stuff — you can give it to somebody to take home and they can physically hold it and look at it.”

Adams is also a fan of the company’s online presence. The “scare videos” get attention, but he says it’s the many photos that show how the horns are installed that drive business for him: “People get numerous ideas of where to install the horns and what they look like. Continuously posting photos of customers’ products and the final installation setup is key to selling the product.”

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