The Sound of an Entrepreneur’s Evolution: An Interview With Custom Sounds’ Mike Cofield
Custom Sounds’ Mike Cofield knows what it’s like to go from having a bad business partner to having a great one. Discover what he learned from each of these partners and the way they shaped his ultimate success.
foundingAUSTIN: What can you tell us about your company, Custom Sounds?
Mike: Custom Sounds is the primary business. It’s a subsidiary of Sable Construction Inc. Custom Sounds does anything that has to do with automotive sound or window film. We put sound in cars and we tint cars. On the home and commercial side, we have Custom Tint Solutions. Custom Tint Solutions does window film and window coverings for residential and commercial “flat glass,” as opposed to automotive glass, which tends to be curved. We don’t do sound systems in homes currently, but that is something that we’re looking to expand to in the future.
fA: What was the big idea behind Custom Sounds?
Mike: I started a company in Austin with two other gentlemen called the Audio File doing high-end home audio before video was a part of what was considered home audio. Then, a company called Road Sounds was acquired, which grew to five locations. We received some help with the expansions from Bert Linda, the father of one of my partners. Bert was a banker out of Houston and was a member of the IBM 100 Club of Houston along with Ross Perot, so he had some pretty good company there. Bert was also responsible for the rollout in the South of the credit cards for First City Bank, which was one of the largest banks in the country at the time.
Eventually Road Sounds went out of business. One day, I got a call from Bert. He said, “I’m going to reopen the car stereo business. I want you to be my partner and I want you to run it.” I said, “Why would you want me to be your business partner if Road Sounds went out of business?” He said, “Well, I watched you boys for about five years and I’ve got to tell you, I’m pretty good at summing people up. What I figured out is that my son was really good at spending money, and you’re really good at making money. It’s easy to find people who can spend money; it’s not so easy to find people that can make money.” So he hired me on and our agreement was that he would teach me about business, and I would teach him about car audio. Well, either I was a terrible teacher or he was a terrible student because he didn’t learn anything about car stereos. I, however, learned a whole lot about business. Frankly, I don’t think he ever intended to learn anything about car stereos. His intention was always to teach me how to run a business. We founded Custom Sounds on November 4, 1987. Bert and I ran it for about ten years, and after ten years he promoted me to president of the company. What he tried to teach me and I tried to learn was that we may be a small company, but we’re going to run it like we’re a major multinational corporation. That was our philosophy from day one. When Bert passed away, the company continued on as if he were still here and it’s very much my desire to make sure that when I pass away or retire that the company continues on just as if I were still here.
fA: How do you measure success, operating that way?
Mike: We measure success in a variety of ways. One is by evaluating sales and profit at the end of the year. The other thing that we do is consistently train our own successors. That means whether you’re a CEO, a president, a vice president, a regional manager or a store manager, you’re always training someone to take your place, because if you don’t have someone to take your place, then you can’t move up the ladder.
fA: When did you discover that you wanted to be an entrepreneur instead of going to work for somebody else?
Mike: I would say at about eight years old. In the third or fourth grade they had a contest selling magazines door to door. The grand prize was an eight-pound bar of chocolate. I won that eight-pound bar of chocolate and I thought, “You know, this sales thing, I might be okay at it.” After that I always had little things I would do to make money. Wash people’s cars or mow their lawns or whatever. When I was in high school, my buddy and I started this company during the big-boom years of growth in Houston. We went around to the homes that had been constructed and we cleared off all the trash from the construction. They paid us $800, which was a LOT of money in 1976 for a 16-year-old kid.
fA: What is your favorite mistake?
Mike: I’ve made a lot of mistakes along the way. The biggest mistake that I made was having a business partner who didn’t have the same work ethic that I had. I was doing a lot of work and he wasn’t doing very much. He was getting most of the benefit, and I wasn’t. But then ultimately that led to finding a business partner that had the same or even better work ethic than I did. That’s how this company came about—through that initial mistake of not having the right business partners.
fA: Entrepreneurship involves a lot of creativity and because entrepreneurs are creating new solutions, there’s also a lot of skepticism. How do you deal with that?
Mike: You can’t be afraid. It’s like cooking a new recipe—every once in a while, you’re going to cook something and man, it’s going to be terrible. But then you can always go get some takeout.
Then there are times your recipes are going to come out great, and you can make them again and everybody loves them. It’s the same as being an entrepreneur. You have a problem, or you have something that you’re trying to do. So, you come up with a way to do it, and you know what, maybe the first try you don’t get it. And maybe the second try you don’t get it, and by that third try, you’ve figured out what to do. People tell you that what you’re doing isn’t going to work. You say, “Well, okay, whatever.” And you do it anyway, and sometimes they’re right and sometimes they’re not.
fA: What would be your best advice to an aspiring entrepreneur?
Mike: Work hard, believe in yourself, don’t give up. I had two failing businesses before I had a successful one. You can’t give up. You’ve got to just keep plugging away.
fA: You mentioned your mentor, Bert, who’s no longer with us. Is there someone else who you look up to now, or is there anybody else who motivates you?
Mike: Bert’s wife, Susan Linda, who is my current business partner. I very much look up to Susan. I’m also lucky to have a lot of very good employees. I’ll often call those employees, depending on the problem or the issue or the solution I’m looking for. I’m lucky to have some really good people. Fadi Issa just got promoted to vice president of operations, and he’s a guy that I lean on very heavily to help me when I need to have some good advice. Also, Brian Dorsey. Brian and I have worked together for almost 30 years and he’s a guy I can always count on.
fA: What is the best advice that you ever received from Bert?
Mike: He had great little sayings that we called Bert-isms. The two most recent ones that come to mind are: If you don’t have a plan B, you don’t have a plan; and Be prepared for the things that you don’t know that you need to be prepared for. That second one, you’d hear it and think, “Well, how do I do that?” Later on I realized that he was saying you’ve just got to be prepared for everything and then when something comes along that you weren’t prepared for, you’re already kind of prepared for it. It ties back to the first one, and having that plan B.
To find out more about Custom Sounds, visit their website here.