William Wang owes as much to his failures as his successes.
The co-founder and chief executive of Irvine-based Vizio Inc. made a fortune in computer monitors before he turned 30. Then he lost everything developing the first Internet-enabled TV under the banner of short-lived Princeton Graphic Systems.
“It was a great product—everybody who used it loved it,” he told a crowded room of OC entrepreneurs and executives at the Hotel Irvine in a keynote speech for the Business Journal’s inaugural Innovator of the Year Awards on Sept. 24 (see related stories, pages 4, 6, 7, 9 and 10).
There were shortcomings, though. The product cost $4,000 to $5,000, and its connectivity was clunky. Wang, meanwhile, had no plans for distribution, no relationships with retailers, and no marketing strategy.
“Even though I had this stellar team of engineers and this great company, I ended up losing all my money,” he said. “It was probably the lowest part of my life.”
Wang was given another chance—in more ways than one.
On Halloween night in 2000, he was aboard Singapore Airlines flight SQ006, which left Taipei’s Chiang Kai-Shek International Airport just before midnight bound for Los Angeles. The 747 attempted to take off in typhoon conditions and crashed into a runway that had been closed for repair, killing 83 of the 179 people aboard.
Wang escaped largely uninjured, despite a dose of carbon monoxide poisoning.
His business setbacks no longer consumed him after the accident, and he vowed to make his mark on the global business stage once again.
“I’m going to innovate myself out of this situation,” said Wang, who took home one of the six awards at the Business Journal event.
Wang and three other co-founders eventually launched Vizio with $600,000, a funding mix that included friends and family, and taking out a $400,000 second mortgage on his home.
“No one really believed in me, so no one gave me money,” he said.
Vizio and Wang’s mission was to build quality TVs at a lower cost.
The initial reception: Company watchers and colleagues thought he was crazy for taking on the likes of conglomerates Panasonic, Sony and Samsung.
Ironically, his story of surviving a plane crash gave him an air of luck to some prospective contractors in Asia as he pitched the startup.
A handful of factories extended Vizio credit, forming a roster of manufacturers and suppliers.
One of them—Taiwan-based Amtran Technology Co.—became an investor and now has a 20.4% stake in Vizio. Q-Run Holdings Ltd., an affiliate of Taipei, Taiwan-based Hon Hai Precision Co., holds an 8.3% stake.
Hon Hai, better known as FoxConn, is the world’s largest contract electronics manufacturer, with annual revenue of about $130 billion.
Wang then set out to find a distribution partner.
He sold Costco Chief Executive James Sinegal on Vizio’s product strategy and landed the company’s first distribution deal.
Vizio’s products now are carried in more than 8,000 U.S. outlets run by the nation’s largest retailers, including Walmart, Best Buy, Target and Sam’s Club.
The TV titan perennially battles Samsung for the top spot in U.S. market share for smart TVs, and it is the leader in 4K Ultra HD TVs and sound bars.
Financials disclosed in advance of an expected initial public offering indicated that Vizio has been profitable for the past nine years, posting sales of $3.1 billion last year, with net income of $44.9 million.
It has just over 400 workers companywide, with a large percentage based at its Spectrum headquarters.
Vizio has had some setbacks along the way.
A brief flirtation with LED light bulbs four years ago went nowhere. So did plans for an Android smartphone targeting Chinese consumers.
The company also ditched 3-D features on newer TV models after the segment quickly fizzled, and it halted production of PCs and tablets last year when the segment didn’t generate the same sort of buzz that helped power the quick rise of its high-definition, flat-screen TVs.
The company notched a few firsts last year, as well, including a pair of strategic investments in wearable technology startup Pear Sports LLC and smart-lawn sprinkler maker Blossom, both based in Irvine.
“The second time around, I learned a lot,” said Wang, who plans to take Vizio public and raise a stated $172.5 million in the pending IPO.
His roller coaster ride in the ever-changing technology sector not only shaped his leadership skills but altered Vizio’s strategy along the way.
“It shaped the foundation of Vizio and helped me transform myself from an engineer to an entrepreneur and an entrepreneur to a real businessman,” he said. “Hopefully that will be my legacy.”