Serial Agent for Change
Jason Lockwood ’91 has been described as a serial entrepreneur—but he prefers “serial agent for change.” Indeed, over the course of his career, the current President & CEO of the earphone company Westone has overseen a great variety of businesses from the U.S. Playing Card Company to Tech for Less to ClearChoice Dental. We talked to Lockwood about Westone, about his past experiences, and about the many leadership lessons that have helped him along the way.
For the past several months now, you’ve been overseeing Westone. Briefly, what is Westone?
Westone is an in-ear audio product company. Specifically, two-thirds of the business is hearing-health care related, making custom-fit ear molds for hearing instrument earpieces, hearing aids, and hearing protection devices. And then the faster growth portion of the business, one-third of it, is music products: everything from in-ear monitors for professional musicians to universal-fit products—that is, a retail line of in-ear ear phones that does quite well.
What are the challenges in running a company that is simultaneously targeting such varied consumer groups?
What you find is that no market is homogeneous—that every market is made up of multiple segments and understanding each segment’s unique needs can be a challenge…. One of our difficulties is on the music side: more than half of our business is international. And the cultural differences, as well as language differences, make it difficult to feel like you really understand the subway rider in Japan or China, versus the musician who plays in a worship band at their church, versus an audiologist who is making hearing aids for the elderly. Very different consumer segments and therefore very different needs.
What’s an example of an “unconventional” application of Westone products?
Here’s just one: 94 percent of all fighter pilots in the U.S. Air Force use our earpieces. It’s a custom proprietary system that was developed in 2006, and it’s called the ACCES system. It has comfort, higher retention, and unparalleled sound quality. It can be 140 decibels inside the cockpit of an F22, and at that level, the ear protection that’s built into the helmet just isn’t sufficient to create enough sound isolation for them to be able to communicate. So that’s where Westone came in and designed a proprietary solution in what is one of the more demanding work environments out there.
In your opinion, what is the biggest challenge that Westone is currently facing?
Making sure that our message gets through in a very cluttered market. There are a ton of headphone companies out there nowadays, and many of them have celebrity endorsement from athletes or musicians – it’s cluttered the marketplace. And, in some cases, there’s a lot of misinformation in the consumer marketplace. Beats, for example, is by far the 800-pound gorilla in premium headphones, but the truth of the matter is it’s not a very high-quality headphone. The reality is it emphasizes the base disproportionately, so that gives people the sense that it’s very roomy. So that’s the challenge: trying to really educate people as to what music should sound like when it’s accurately represented. Our goal is to make music sound just as if you were there listening to it in person and to get the Westone story out, even though we’ve been around for 55 years.
What is the Westone story, briefly? What is its history with the music industry?
For a long time, we’ve been behind the scenes. This is a company that invented the first custom-fit in-ear monitors for Def Leppard and Rush back in 1991. We were the exclusive manufacturer of all custom ear pieces when Ultimate Ears was launched. And then Shure, the large microphone and belt-pack musician company, had us manufacture all their universal monitors. So we’ve been there the whole time; we just always did it behind the scenes.
Starting in 2007, we came out from behind the scenes and launched our own brand. We build custom in-ear monitors at our labs in Colorado Springs for hundreds of famous musicians and entertainers each year, including The Band Perry, Josh Groban, Peter Frampton, Cirque du Soleil, and The Blue Man Group, as well as many professional sports and news broadcasters. So far I’d say the biggest challenge is just getting that story out and doing that in a very crowded marketplace where there’s a lot of media clutter and a lot of misinformation as to what true, high-quality music really sounds like.
As this transition continues, what would you say your personal vision is for Westone? Where do you hope to see it in, say, ten years?
We hope to continue to serve the whole continuum in hearing space from restoring lost hearing to protecting it to enjoying it. What’s happened is that people are consuming more media on mobile devices—an increase of more than 500% since 2009. But they need an audio experience to keep up with the video experience.
It used to be, back in the day, that people invested tens of thousands of dollars in their home theater system, and they wanted to have an outstanding screen with fantastic high-fi equipment and expensive floor speakers. But now that’s no longer the primary consumption point for media. It migrated for a while to the desktop from the screen on your wall to the screen on your desk. Now it’s about the screen in your hand, whether it’s a tablet or a mobile phone. Both the network and the visual side of it have kept up pretty well. But the audio experience, for most people, is stuck either listening to the Apple earbuds that come with their smartphone or an uncomfortable, bulky, relatively distorted over-the-ear headphone. That’s our vision: to bring the in-ear audio experience to the masses and help them enjoy the mobile media for which there is an insatiable demand.
How would you describe your role as a president and CEO? What about your role as a leader? How are the two similar or different?
As president and CEO, my role is pretty straightforward: express the vision for the company, relentlessly communicate it, and get a team aligned and motivated to go achieve it.
My role as a leader has much more to do about inspiring people to want to be of this team. It’s not about capturing their head. It’s about capturing their heart. Getting them to run through walls—not for me, but for the organization, for their team.
You’ve been described as a “serial entrepreneur.” How accurate do you think that description is?
It’s interesting because I’ve never actually founded my own company, which is probably what people typically think of when they think of an entrepreneur. I’d say I’ve been a serial agent for change. I think what has defined my career is that I find myself in challenging environments where you’ve got to take a different approach than the team has been taking. And I have always come from outside the industry in every one of these opportunities. But it’s the approach. It’s the philosophy of how I engage these teams. Especially the shop-floor workers who generally have the right answer…[as well as] organizing the rest of the organization to get on board, and to listen, and to act with urgency. That’s really the defining element of my career.
Could you tell me about a moment when you felt like a great leader?
I was actually the number two guy back at the U.S. Playing Card Company, and we had suffered a tragic, fatal accident at the plant. I was the Chief Operating Officer at the time, and so I was personally responsible for plant operations. A long-service employee—I believe she’d been there 27 years—had died when a freight elevator collapsed…. We were in a 100-year-old, 600 thousand-square-foot facility that needed these elevators to move giant rolls and stack of paper around. So we needed to find a way to heal as an organization, to figure out what had happened, and then to get back into business for the livelihood of 600 families.
It took compassion. It took a ton of work. It took a real sense of humility but still dedication to the cause—the idea that “we’ll get through this,” even if it might be hard. This was a moment that has marked my career and given me the confidence that you can get through any circumstance. Because when you go through something that is truly the darkest of times, the rest doesn’t seem so bad in perspective.