The Man Behind the Company
Words: Jimmy Beckett
Do you ever wonder what it’s like to work in the airsoft world? I had the opportunity to sit and talk with Kenneth Wu, the CEO of AirSplat.com, to learn what it takes to run one of the largest online airsoft retail companies in the world and find out more about their newest project, setting up brick-and-mortar locations.
AIRSOFT INSIDER: What is your daily routine at AirSplat once you arrive each day?
KENNETH WU: The first thing I do is make my rounds; I hang out in each department for 30 minutes, poking my finger into things and making sure everything is up and running optimally. The company is like a living organism and it’s my way of getting a pulse of all the individual pieces that add to the sum. I also like to just check in with the people to make sure they are feeling good and ready to conquer the day.
AI: What are the responsibilities of your job title?
KW: My job title is President, or what’s been popular now is CEO. My responsibilities, simply put, are the wellbeing and success of the company. And if that means I have to clean the bathroom or fix the sink, that’s the hat I wear. But as I always tell my team, my focus is “working on the business” and that varies from putting out fires to the strategic planning.
AI: What made you decide to start AirSplat.com?
KW: To be honest, I started this with very little knowledge of airsoft. This is a business that has grown into a hobby. It’s actually been all-consuming. When you love the product and love running a business, suddenly it becomes everything. It takes a lot of effort to prevent it from becoming all-consuming.
AI: Did you ever think that it would grow into what it is today?
KW: It’s funny that you ask that. I really had no expectations. My mindset was always just do the best I could and see where it went. And that’s really how I approach life; ultimately we all have some limitations, whether it it’s related to nurture or nature. So why stress on the details? Just do the best you can and have the best people around you to get there.
AI: Are you still an airsoft player? What is your favorite type of game play?
KW: I still play occasionally. At this point, I’m getting a little old for the game and I’m indoctrinating my children on the sport. As for playing styles, I go on either end of the spectrum. I either like to play CQB and be light and nimble with one gun, one side arm, and one extra mag. Or I play full-out strategic games with huge teams and lots of moving parts. Each satisfies a specific thirst and desire.
AI: What direction do you see airsoft moving in as far as buying trends, game play, player base and the like?
KW: Airsoft is such a new and young sport that there is a lot of movement and transition in this infancy stage. I think we’re on the tail end of the infancy and we’re about to transition, as an industry, into a more mature adolescent industry. In this tipping point between stages, it’s hard to determine how things will turn or change. I think many of the main players involved, including AirSplat, will have a hand in deciding how things end up in two or three years when we emerge into an adolescent industry or come crashing down, like paintball.
AI: What sort of things do you offer to the airsoft community aside from your great online store? I’ve heard about donations to events and the like.
KW: We try to do be heavily involved with the community. We have our community outreach where we sponsor events and local games. These can be small gatherings on meetup.com or full-on games. We also have our AS Army, which is our street team. They are an additional layer of community outreach. We’ve opened two stores; one in Los Angeles and the other in Seattle, both as ways of rooting into the surrounding community and developing our relationship with them. We have more locations coming so stay tuned.
AI: What is your favorite part of AirSplat?
KW: I love the product! After all, airsoft is just so fun! We can have lots of fun doing crazy off-the-way things while having a positive impact in people’s lives. Our industry is leisure/hobby-based, so if you can’t have fun in an industry such as ours, you shouldn’t be here.
AI: How large is your company?
KW: Interesting question. I guess this really depends on how you look at it. We have lots of inventory, probably the most inventory that any single company has in the U.S. We have a decent amount of employees, but I would say far from the government definition of medium-sized business of 400 or more employees. If you combine all our different entities and ventures, we have well over 100 employees and over 250,000 square feet of space.
AI: How can someone become an employee of AirSplat?
KW: We are always looking for people with skills and who are ready to have some fun. If you’re looking for a job, just walk in and tell us. We’ll get your routed through right on the spot and do our best to place you in a position where you are contributing and productive. Our number one goal for personnel is self-actualization; being the best you can be. That’s very important for us, we have some techs who are just gear heads, they can’t put two words together to form a comprehensive sentence, but put a gun in front of them and they and take it apart with their eyes blind-folded. We focus heavily on this and have weekly training sessions we call development meetings where, motivational speakers will give speeches, or we’ll do some team building exercise. Some of it is for self actualization/awareness and other times it’s to improve on problem-solving skills. We also have some specific job positions we’re looking for located on our website www.airsplat.com/jobs.htm
AI: What is the most difficult part of your job?
KW: My job in specific? Great question! I think for any CEO/President/leader of a company, the single hardest thing is people and personnel management. When you have so many personalities coupled with egos it’s a completely different dynamic. And for me, having everyone understand and work towards the single vision with all these dynamics is probably one of the most difficult parts of leading a company.
AI: Is it difficult to spot and keep up with trends in the airsoft world?
KW: I think like most trends, it’s easy to spot, but it’s difficult to see what will happen, how far it’ll go or how much traction it’ll gain. The more things change, the more fun they become. So, we welcome the trends and new things. It’s always fun. Almost everyone here is a player or was a player, and this part of the industry is always exciting and fun for us.
AI: What prompted the new retail store in Los Angeles?
KW: Well, we had a small lounge, probably 1,000 square feet of show room/retail space just for walk-in’s or pick up’s. All of our customers told us that they loved it and wanted more. So we listened to them and made it four times larger for them. Our store is very unique in design. As a business, we emphasize our online store, but at the same time, we wanted to address what our customers were asking for. So, if you come to our store, the goal and idea is to just have a place to hang out and have other airsofters meet and interact with each other. And we’ll help you when and if you need it. All the guns are out on display for customers to touch, feel, play, shoot and do what they want. There is a shooting alley for people to Chrono or test their guns for free; or even shoot our guns. We have an Xbox and video game machine (Time Crisis 3) for all customers to play for free.
The goal is not to sell you on anything, we’re just here to provide a venue for you to hang out and have fun. Envision a Starbucks for airsofters where they can go to meet other like-minded airsoft enthusiasts.
AI: How is the store in Seattle, Washington, doing?
KW: The Seattle store is doing great. That was another benchmark and test for us on this format that we’re doing here in LA. Seattle seemed like a great location. I visited once with my wife 15 years ago and fell in love with what a great place it was. We’re so happy to see the nation fall in love with it. It’s been on many lists of great cities and it’s wonderful that they’re finally getting the acknowledgment.
AI: What are some of the challenges in the airsoft retail industry and what are some of the biggest hurdles for a major online retailer to overcome?
KW: There are always challenges in any industry and I don’t think we’re an exception. I do think that the industry as a whole is about to go into a major change and paradigm shift. I don’t have my crystal ball turned on yet, but I do see something big on the horizon. Airsoft the sport/hobby will still be the same, but I think the landscape for retailers/distributors will be very different. In fact, retail as a whole, both brick-and-mortar and online in the next three years will be drastically different.
Back in 2000 it was called the dot-com bubble. In that last iteration, the emphasis was on the transformation of what can be done online. There was an entire migration of services and products that moved online. Of course people feared the complete extinction of physical brick-and-mortar stores. However, like most up-and-coming trends, it was a gross over exaggeration.
This time around in web 2.0, one of the major focuses will be online retail. There is a huge power struggle between the major players and it’s hard to know what the outcome will be, but I’m sure we will feel and see the ripple effects.
In Web 1.0, part of the idea and power of the movement was the equalization or evening of powers. Now any Joe Shmoe could start up a website and sell items. A big player in web 1.0 was eBay and Yahoo. And this trend of flattening continues to progress with WordPress, Four Square, Weebly and more in web 2.0. Now anybody can start up an online store with virtually less money than it would cost for a dinner. All of this is changing and we’ll look back onto this time in our history books as the Web 2.0 revolution.
AI: What are your personal feelings on the rise of MAP policies in the business?
KW: I’m a huge believer in some structural pricing. It supports the industry and supports the retailers. It’s a level or standard that as a manufacturer they should expect and require. Can you imagine buying a Rolex for 50 percent off? It wouldn’t really seem like a Rolex anymore. Some of the value of an item is based on the perceived value that the product demands. And the used/second-hand market is a whole other sub-section of any industry. If the value is sustained and respected, a second-hand market has a better chance of flourishing. And with proper margins and profits for everyone across the board, it supports and lends itself to a healthy and thriving industry.
AI: What do you think the sustainability of airsoft’s amazing growth as a hobby long-term?
KW: This is a great question. In the early years I’ve always envisioned and noticed airsoft followed in the footsteps of its bigger brother; paintball. In general, it’s been lagging a few years behind. Unfortunately, paintball is now a quarter of its original size from several years ago. And the oddest thing is despite the how large paintball was, it all went away and no one could stop it or even tell you why. A lot of money was poured into trying to resurrect it when things headed south. You’ll probably remember when paintball was featured on ESPN for a season. That was a lot of money. But it didn’t help and now there has been huge consolidation and the industry, as a whole, is completely different. I suspect the lack of industry cohesion had a part in this demise, but I don’t think it was the only factor.
So for airsoft, we are really at a questionable and tricky state; a tipping point if you will. I wish I had a crystal ball, but I really don’t know what the future entails.
AI: What is the future of AirSplat?
KW: This I can answer with a little more certainty. To some extent, outside factors will always play a role, but we have more control of our own destiny than that of an entire industry. One of my favorite phrases when asked about what the future is “to infinity and beyond.”
The goal is always to grow and prosper. And have all our personnel grow and prosper alongside us. And hopefully the industry will do the same. We could and can’t do this alone. But as long as there is a need for airsoft we will do our best to meet those needs. As long as there is a desire for this great product we will do our best to meet it.
Our vision and goal as a company is to empower the customer to allow them to do as they want with the product. After all, everyone’s need and desire for airsoft is unique. And our goal is to meet them at where they need us to be for them.
If they need a custom gun, we’ll do it. If they need us to do the upgrade, we’ll do it, and for free! When they place the order, we’ll ship it out to you same day so you can get started. If they need to have it shipped internationally, we’ll do it. We’ll give you an industry leading 90+ day warranty to make sure you’ll be playing for the long run. At any point in time when you gun is old and just needs a tune up, we’ll do it, free of charge.
This is all part of our eight unbeatable guarantees to service and empower our customers. It follows the same mindset of our store; it’s a place for them, not for us.
The daily routine of this living, breathing company is pretty impressive. By no means is it a simple undertaking but Kenneth Wu and his staff seem to love what they do and it shows in their customer support and eight unbeatable guarantees.