Issue #12: From Startup to Market Leader - Martin Jue on Innovation
It was 1948 when Martin Jue’s father moved the family to Hollandale (Mississippi) to build a small country grocery store that became the center of his family’s life, and a later home to Martin’s first ham shack. Martin became interested in radio as a scout, working on crystal radios and reading through old 1930’s electronics publications at his school library. One night he was lying in bed listening when a voice came through his radio that sounded as if it were someone in a conversation.
“I had to find out who this guy was that was talking,” Martin told me. “I tracked him down and found out that it was a Radio/TV repairman who was a ham, and he got me interested. Soon afterwards, I had set up a small station in the attic of the grocery store – which didn’t even have a floor. I had to put a few boards down first, and then I got my station assembled using a surplus 1625 vacuum tube and an old TV set transformer. I strung an antenna using wire from loudspeakers that I had disassembled. It worked! I was able to talk to people all over the world using morse code out of that little novice station, KN5FLU.”
Martin’s interest in radio soon had him hooked for a career as well, and he went to Mississippi State and later to Georgia Tech to come out with a Masters in Electrical Engineering. He put in a year designing military electronic circuits in Illinois, but when he got the call to go back to MSU for a PhD, he jumped at the chance to go back home. Even while taking that coursework, Martin operated a small business producing circuitry for the professors and researchers at his school.
“We didn’t have a lot of large corporate employers at that time. Most people I knew were in their own businesses. . . bricklayers, shoemakers, grocery store owners and so on. It just seemed natural for me, my next logical step, to have my own business as well,” as he described in our exchange. “Because I was a ham, I thought of products that other hams might need, and I started MFJ Enterprises out of a room in a run-down motel that I rented for 50 cents a day. I had two little kits for sale, and I had other people help me assemble them so that I could get these out the door for less than $10.”
Martin described to me how his first products were manufactured. While teaching classes for his professor at MSU, Martin brought little bags of parts into class and dangled them in front of the students to see if they’d like to get some real-world experience to go with their education. “I offered them the opportunity to help me assemble those kits, for 25 cents apiece – my first production line. Those two products became the start of the MFJ you know.”
Fifty years later, as I see the MFJ products spread around my shack, from the MFJ Magnetic Loop, to my car antennas, the vertical out in my yard, and a zillion little gadgets and cables all over my garage, I see why the company is known as the world’s largest provider of ham radio products. I’m not sure which company holds the title for largest revenue in the field, but there is no one even close to MFJ in the sheer number of products produced for our hobby. As “Trials and Errors” is all about important innovations, I asked Martin about his secrets to success, and how a little company in a rented motel room becomes such an enterprise a few decades later.
“As I look back, I think the most valuable part of my experience at that time was the struggle. Not having anything, just pushing at it, probing to find what works and what doesn’t,” described Martin. “For me, the most important ingredient in innovation is the “want to” about what you are doing. It has to be something you love. And you’ve got to get knocked down, so you’re confident that you can get back up again and eventually make it work.”
There wasn’t only growth and glory along the path to MFJ’s current position in the industry. I asked him to tell me where he had been knocked down and when. Like any entrepreneur, this innovator has had numerous instances of things not going as planned . . . Martin has had many opportunities to – as he calls it – get back up again.
“I’m proud of the fact that I started with no cash at all, and only rarely went to the bank. But there was a time when I bought buildings and grew too fast, and we couldn’t handle that growth out of our turnover. I had to get loans, but once they were paid back, I never did that again,” he said proudly. “Most of our lean times were because of recessionary periods. We also found out that you can only sell a limited number of any one ham product, so if you’re going to grow, you’ve got to have many products. Over the years, we have designed and developed a lot of new gear but have always found it to be quicker, easier, and cheaper to acquire companies with existing products. That led us to the point where we have 2000-3000 items for sale.”
I asked Martin if he had patented any of those thousands of products, and how he felt about the “copy cat” approach that some companies use when they target MFJ products. We’ve all seen eBay listings that have a remarkable similarity to Martin’s brand.
“I never went much for patents, although we have a number of them. Patents are very expensive, and the whole process takes a lot of time. For us, it is important to get the product out there as quick as possible and then to greatly outsell our competition. I don’t worry about copy cats because our whole concept from day one was to come up with something unique, something that no one else had, and then to do so much advertising that no one could catch up and customers would buy our brand,” he stated. And as anyone who has ever picked up an issue of a radio hobby magazine will agree, MFJ does not hold back when they’ve got something they want to pitch.
One thing that I note here about innovation and MFJ is that the company, and Martin specifically, illustrates two types of innovation present in our hobby. One of them is technical innovation, which any ham with a project benchtop in their garage can take on, but the other is business innovation. Whether you are an MFJ supporter or not, you’ll agree that few companies have had this kind of impact on the shape of our hobby. I asked Martin for an example of an innovation that highlights both technical and business innovation.
“A good example of how innovation happens at MFJ is how our first antenna analyzer came into being. It was a Sunday afternoon. I was trying to develop an RF resistance bridge, and I couldn’t quite get there, but I had the basics of something else that I thought could be interesting. That afternoon our first device in that category was developed. It was copied by everyone in the world and sold like crazy. On the business innovation front, we had earlier introduced full page advertising and we were also the first company to have toll-free phone lines. For example, in one November, we advertised a new antenna tuner and sold more tuners than the entire previous year because we had run those full page ads supported by toll-free order lines.”
Hearing about the rapid scale-up of manufacturing operations over the years reminded me to ask Martin the tough question . . . whether it’s possible to keep quality problems at a minimum in an atmosphere of constant growth. Martin is proud of some of their recent changes. He reminded me first of how highly automated their processes have become, such as the use of computer operated machinery to produce metal cases, or the surface mount production equipment they’ve installed to automate MFJ PC board manufacturing.
“Much of the lingering perception of our quality control is from years past and with far less concerns in the last few years. When you grow fast, a lot of the issues you face stem from new employees who are not familiar with your production procedures, and we’ve made big improvements there. There’s now more training, with better quality checks on our procedures. Automated equipment has made a difference, as well, but even there, you can have issues when a product is put into a box,” stated Martin.
“As an example of what we now do differently, for HyGain, Cushcraft and MFJ antennas, we use what we call shadow boards. They have outlines of each part that goes into the box. Visually, the person packing the product can easily see that all the parts are included. And for smaller parts, like screws, bolts, nuts, brackets and so on, they’re placed into bags and weighed. They must conform to the standard on a precise scale. Later, it’s checked again for that exact weight by the shipper in the warehouse.”
As Martin and I concluded our exchange, I asked him to tell me what his forecasts are for the future of our hobby, and what guidelines for success he’d like to pass along to innovators on the same path that he pioneered fifty years ago.
“I think that the ham radio hobby will be with us for a long time because it is a social and technical hobby that keeps people interacting with each other and challenges the mind. As technology changes, ham radio changes. Technology enhances ham radio as evidenced by how FT8 and other digital modes enhanced radio, and how computers have now become radios,” Martin says enthusiastically. He carries this enthusiasm into some classic advice for those who are out there now, wondering (as he did) how to build a company with their stamp on it.
“First, find something you love, an aspect of the hobby that you can contribute to, and don’t start out thinking you’re going to get rich. I’ve never worked a day in my life, and I’ve been doing this for fifty years. In the end, it will work out for you if you do things right, from your gut. If it’s not right, keep working on it. One of my secrets of problem solving has always been that I keep thinking and thinking about it until I find a solution, and it always comes. That’s what you need to do . . . never quit thinking. Never say you can’t do it because you can. Instead of looking at the reasons you can’t do something, spend that time thinking about how it’s going to be done. With hard work and good problem solving, nothing can stop you.”
Thank you to Martin Jue, CEO and Owner of MFJ Enterprises for the insight and inspiration.
73 for now, Dave
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Dave Jensen, W7DGJ
Dave Jensen, W7DGJ, was first licensed in 1966. Originally WN7VDY (and later WA7VDY), Dave operated on 40 and 80 meter CW with a shack that consisted primarily of Heathkit equipment. Dave loved radio so much he went off to college to study broadcasting and came out with a BS in Communications from Ohio University (Athens, OH). He worked his way through a number of audio electronics companies after graduation, including the professional microphone business for Audio-Technica. He was later licensed as W7DGJ out of Scottsdale, Arizona, where he ran an executive recruitment practice (CareerTrax Inc.) for several decades. Jensen has published articles in magazines dealing with science and engineering. His column “Tooling Up” ran for 20 years in the website of the leading science journal, SCIENCE, and his column called “Managing Your Career” continues to be a popular read each month for the Pharmaceutical and Household Products industries in two journals published by Rodman Publishing.
Articles Written by Dave Jensen, W7DGJ
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