Many integrators are accustomed to serving Hollywood stars as part of their clientele, but there is at least one custom integrator who is a former star himself.
Radames Pera, who starred in role of Kwai Chang Caine, aka ‘Grasshopper,’ in the classic TV show Kung Fu starring David Carradine from 1972-75, has been part of the industry for 26 years as owner and operator of his own one-man custom installation company.
In the TV show, the bald young Grasshopper was taught lessons of the world by Master Po. Today, it’s Grasshopper himself who is doling out the lessons to other one-man custom integration companies, from juggling cash flow to offering personalised service to clients.
His experiences are not any different from most small custom integrators, including losing jobs due to clients’ fears of using a small company, the inability to take on large projects that require upfront cash outlays, and the perennial lack of name recognition.
But the tradeoff of being your own boss and the stress-free nature of not having any employees is worth it to Pera. Besides, along the way the former child star has become a ‘star serving the stars’ with a client base that includes Johnny Depp, Sharon Stone, Nicolas Cage and, ironically, martial arts master Chuck Norris (who had no idea of Radames’ common martial arts roots from his Kung Fu days).
After a quarter century in custom installation, it’s funny that the former Hollywood actor says the anonymity of the industry is still its biggest problem. But that hasn’t stopped him from forming three separate one-man custom installation companies in four different cities over the years, and migrating his business from simple A/V setups to sophisticated IT and control.
Kung Fu Comes Calling
Radames Pera’s acting career reads like a who’s who of Hollywood. His late mother was an actress trying to land a role in ‘a gritty-yet-sentimental drama’ starting legendary actor Anthony Quinn.
“I met the director, Daniel Mann, after disobeying my mum’s orders to hide from sight while she threw a dinner party for some Hollywood friends, including the director whom she had just met,” Radames recalls. “I must have charmed him, since he asked my mum to bring me down to the studio as he thought I looked much like his vision for Quinn’s dying son in the movie (A Dream of Kings). Surprised, she agreed, which was followed by a screen test and then 11 weeks of production.”
That role led to a part in an episode of Medical Center opposite…OJ Simpson. During that filming, Radames met Academy Award nominated actress Cicely Tyson and they subsequently became lifelong friends. It began the pattern of making connections in Hollywood that would serve him well for his custom installation career that followed.
“I was still in 6th grade when I was cast to play the young Kwai Chang Caine. It was a long shot by Warner Brothers, this ‘Movie of the Week’ about a half-Chinese Shaolin monk who flees to the Wild West US in search of his full-blooded anglo brother. But it worked, and a unique ‘pilot series’ evolved from it.”
Radames had his head shaved on-camera, in the script, so he had to return to public school with a wig “that lasted about two hours before the school bully chased me down and plucked it off,” he says. “It was (name calling like) ‘skeeball’ and ‘eight-ball’ and ‘cancer boy’ and ‘lice boy’ after that for the next three years,” he recalls. Ultimately, Kung Fu was in production for four years, spanning the ages of 11 through 14 for Radames.
Custom Installation Comes Calling
So how does somebody go from acting to becoming a custom installer?
After spending his teen years in Hollywood, Radames turned to his second interest: hi-fi gear. He had always enjoyed stereo equipment since his mom bought a pair of JBL-100 speakers, a Garrard turntable and a Pioneer QX-949 receiver back in the ’70s.
Radames discovered he had a proclivity for the equipment and he started keeping track of audio innovations. After the acting gig ran dry, which happens for 99 percent of all child actors, Radames landed a job at a major movie studio doing engineering work and eventually doing post-production video editing for companies around Los Angeles. He also started helping friends create great sound systems in their homes.
He suddenly realised there was a business in this and by 1988 he had formed his own custom installation company called All Systems Go! He plied his services at local videocassette repair shops and various discount A/V stores in the LA area. Soon, salespeople in those stores were referring customers to him.
“One day they told me I was making them look bad because I charged too little. They were getting $50 an hour (this was back in 1989) and I was only charging $25,” he says. “I was surprised and pleased, and still on a learning curve – I instantly went up to $35, then $50, and no customer batted an eye! Suddenly I was supporting myself and my wife at the time.”
Before you know it, Radames had Depp, Cage, Stone, Dwight Yoakam and others as repeat clients. He says he also worked for a few Hollywood producers and directors of note.
“I think because I was steeped in ‘The Biz,’ these notables felt comfortable with me. I was in fact an insider of sorts, and they trusted me with their privacy – a highly sought after commodity in their line of work. I went on to do multiple homes for Depp and Cage, and word-of-mouth spread as I did homes for the likes of Robert Downey Jr., Winona Ryder, Ben Stiller and Chuck Norris. So the background certainly helped,” he says.
Time to Move…Again and Again
By 1993, Radames says he’d had enough of LA and the “intense congestion, pushy, cheating a-holes and unaffordable housing,” and he decided to move his family to Portland, Ore.
Having a pedigree track record under his belt doing custom installation helped Radames get in good with two major A/V retailers, Magnolia Hi-Fi being one of them.
Soon, the Beaverton store “enjoyed recommending Grasshopper to its customers; plus I did fabulous work, and this kept the business flowing.” Radames says his clientele included three houses for Phil Knight, CEO of Nike, and eventually many other Nike executives. He also branched into doing restaurant installations.
After nine years in the rainy Pacific Northwest, Radames moved back to Ventura, California and recreated All Systems Go! for a third time.
“There, I got in with Volutone at their headquarters in Simi Valley and also served several of my old LA clients who were happy I was ‘back,’” he adds.
But soon, the old days of long freeway commutes began haunting him again so Radames packed up and fled to Austin, Texas.
The problem there was that the city’s mass transit light-rail advertising campaign was already using the phrase ‘All Systems Go!,’ so to avoid confusion, Radames changed the name of his one-man shop to Get It Wired.
“Things got rolling rather smoothly after about a year or so, same timeline as the other two cities I started over in, and I prospered there for the better part of eight years,” he says. “Similar to the wave of economic activity I luckily rode in both Portland and Ventura, Austin was going through a similar thing and my timing was perfect. I was able to use AVAD there as well, since they had expanded from California to Texas, and the well-run Wave Electronics, and that made for a smoother transition since these places promoted themselves as being ‘your warehouse’ to mid-level guys like me.”
Gradually the Texas capital city’s weather got hotter, “all but one swimming hole had dried up, and the place was withering from both the heat and the influx of not-so-cool people from everywhere else,” he deadpans. So, as he had done multiple times already, Radames left last year…and again landed back in Southern California, this time in San Diego.
“By now, I had been in the A/V design and installation business for a full 25 years, and I was ready for a new challenge,” he says. “Not that the rather sudden move to IP-based A/V isn’t challenging enough as it is, I wanted to create a unique niche rather than compete head-to head in a very competitive market. So I launched a hybrid business in an attempt to unload some of the hard labour.”
His new company is called Remotelize and he specialises in control solutions. Radames still specs TVs, receivers, speakers and the like, but now also sets up home computer systems and networks.
“My approach is with homes and small businesses with existing equipment that either needs updating and/or far better interface solutions. I have been running Remotelize for a year now and it’s beginning to pick up the now-familiar momentum, so I know it will all be chugging away smoothly on its own in a few short months,” he says. “I did bite off a challenge, however, and getting the word out that there in such a niche is the hardest part. Once people understand what I do, it’s a no-brainer for them to hire me, especially since I don’t have the sticker shock of an entire system to overcome, I’m ‘just tweaking it’ into something better than the sum of its parts.”
Radames admits that moving his business four times “is no picnic,” adding, “All the great word-of-mouth and client base I worked so hard to establish and maintain painfully goes out the window, and it’s like Sisyphus rolling that boulder up the mountain again each time I moved.”
Whenever he moved, his first steps were to reach out to the local distributor and attend training sessions. There, he would “kindly offer to take some of the less profitable jobs/clients off their hands,” which led to establishing informal relationships with salespeople at some of the big-box retailers who prefer an alternative to their internal installation contractors for whatever reason (sometimes because their clients would rather deal with a one-man-show like Radames, he says). “I would also chat up as many people I met with what I can bring to their home or business. I do favours for friends and friends of friends to cultivate the word-of-mouth. I participate in networking events, formal or less so.”
Sound easy? It’s not – even Radames calls it “mother-effin’ hard” to do.
One-Man Shop Pros & Cons
In 25 years using three different business names in four cities, Radames has never had an employee. It’s just him, plus independent subcontractors when necessary. He says that many times he was encouraged by others to ‘duplicate himself’ and expand his business to make more money, while at the same time discouraged by others who saw his streamlined business as enviable.
“In the end the freedoms — from employee overhead, from the pressure/ responsibility for others’ livelihoods, to make my own schedule, close up shop and ‘go fishing’ anytime I wanted – these outweighed the almighty dollar,” he says of why he’s maintained the status quo. “Work to live versus vice-versa.”
Over the years, the number of systems he has done has varied. Some years, Radames had three large projects going at once; other years he was juggling several dozen smaller jobs.
Radames admits that he lost quite a bit of business along the way by staying small. He says there are various reasons that some potential clients do not want to work with a small integrator. He believes that often it is because they fear any potential confrontation on a personal level if they are dissatisfied with the services rendered. “Others are simply uninterested in doing business with smaller outfits,” he admits. “It all comes down to personal preference.”
Another drawback of staying small is the inability to take on larger commercial or residential projects, but Radames boasts that he never encountered this circumstance personally. In the same vein, larger projects that require lots of upfront inventory outlays can hamstring a small dealer. Lastly, Radames says for a one-man shop to try to do any marketing is a losing game. “It’s ALL reputation and word-of-mouth at this level, not brainwashing,” he says.
On the positive side, Radames says many of his clients “prefer to deal directly with the owner from start to finish. They get the sense that their project/home/etc. is special to the designer/installer (and it is!),” he gloats. As a one-man shop, he also takes pride in knowing “where every friggin’ wire went,” along with taking credit for a job well done or any “direct heat for any shortcomings.”
But ultimately it’s the freedom of being a solo artist that is the prime draw. “I can work as late as needed to get the job done on schedule or for the specific client demand. This often breeds undying loyalty and great referrals, the life-blood of my business model,” he says, reiterating that he has much less stress this way.
“I believe there is a sustainable model where I get paid to design infrastructure for others to labor on, then I come in and either trim and program, or just the latter. This way, I work directly with home/business owners and their contractors without coming home covered in sawdust and fiberglass any more. Those days are over, for me at least, thank goodness…I’d say I have paid my dues there a few times over,” he says.
“The worst part of custom installation is how little the general public still knows of the remarkable possibilities properly executed technology can bring to them. Even the majority of the wealthy don’t quite get it enough,” he says. “There needs to be a better cross-promotion consortium to more effectively penetrate our badass technology and innovation to the general population and help it shed some of its ‘elitist’ stigma.”
This story first appeared on CE Pro.