i3 | September 23, 2020

Innovator Deena Ghazarian

Austere was founded in June 2019 by long-time consumer technology executive Deena Ghazarian. The goal was to develop high-performance home theater accessories combined with a consummate sense of style. The company’s products follow the motto of: More than Expected.

Based in Wilsonville, Oregon, the high-performance power, cable and cleaning products are designed for consumers who seek to power and connect their multiple devices including home entertainment systems with a stylish flair. To design this new generation of products, Ghazarian pulled from her 20-years of experience as a global sales leader and her 10 years spent in the fashion industry where she honed her love of minimalist design.

The Austere brand has expanded its reach beyond regional U.S. retailers into Canada, the Middle East and India, and soon will be available in Australia, Ireland, the Netherlands and the U.K. The company recently partnered with ProSource, the largest audio, video and integration buying group as well as Nationwide Marketing Group. Sales have been lucrative in the COVID-19 environment as more people are working from home and researching how best to connect their numerous devices. In fact, Austere’s future plans include tech accessories for every part of the home and eventually lifestyle.

Having a startup mindset came naturally to Ghazarian growing up with an entrepreneurial father. In addition to founding Austere, in April she also co-founded the Los Angeles-based shoe company ChloeNickie that supplies high-end shoe brands at reasonable prices. A portion of the proceeds goes to children who are Autistic.

In 2015, she joined TargetPath LLC, a business accelerator, as a senior partner leveraging her extensive experience in channel strategy and building partnerships. In January 2018, TargetPath named Ghazarian as its third managing partner, along with co-founders Scott Hix and Brad Gleeson, to head up global sales strategy for customers and share responsibilities in driving global business development. Prior to that, she worked at Monster for over six years, first as vice president of sales and strategy beginning in 2011, and then as senior vice president of global sales and finance from 2014-2015. She also worked at Monster previously as a national sales manager from 2000-2007 leaving for executive stints at AVAD LLC and MTI/Andrews Electronics.

Ghazarian is a mentor to many in the industry. She has received many honors including a Powerful Women in Consumer Technology (CT) Award, 40 Under 40 and a Women in CT Legacy Award and currently sits on CTA’s Executive Board. Before that she served as a member of CTA’s Board of Industry Leaders. She shared her experiences and lessons learned from building a startup with i3. 

What prompted you to found an accessory company to enhance the home entertainment experience?

There is a huge gap in the accessory’s category right now. You either have super-premium accessories or interchangeable non-descript ones that are not reliable. This gap was felt not only by customers, but also by the global consumer technology retailers. Austere was created to fill that gap. We use exceptional materials and the latest innovation to ensure the best performance. But beyond that, Austere pays unique attention to the details. Everything is done with purpose, from the packaging to its brand elements. It’s design with intent. Our name, Austere, defines our style discipline. But our tagline “More Than Expected” tells our customers that they should expect more from a brand.

How has your 20+ years of experience in the consumer technology industry helped to inform your insights as an entrepreneur?

Since I began my career in consumer technology, nearly every project I have worked on has been entrepreneurial —from an actual start-up to start-ups within a business. So, I’m very familiar with developing new products that solve customer needs and establishing the appropriate markets to reach them.

No matter the challenges, the roadmap for success is the same: being laser-focused on your goal. When establishing a business, it’s important to be quick, nimble and able to work amidst chaos. It’s not real sexy the first few years and you will fail often. But my team and I at Austere have our eyes firmly on the prize of offering technology accessories that collide performance with style for the home. Because I have spent 20+ years in consumer technology, I was able to see what was available in the market —what is there too much of? Not enough of? And I used those boundaries to build Austere to serve the needs of the customer as well as the retailer that simply weren’t being addressed.

By being incredibly disciplined on this strategy, Austere has weathered both unprecedented tariffs as well as a global pandemic in our first year of operation and we still deliver what we promise: home theater accessories that are driving a market resurgence that is more than expected.

What differentiates Austere from its competitors? Can you talk about your aDesign philosophy?

We knew from day one that the power of the brand would make or break us. We needed the right name, style, out-of-box experience, product innovation and how we add value to both the retail partner and the consumer. Our relentless pursuit of the brand and applying its pillars to everything we do absolutely differentiates us from any other tech accessory brand out there. And it’s obvious from the look and feel of our POP and packaging to the performance of every single product that we are committed to challenging the status quo.

One of Austere’s founding brand pillars is our aDesign philosophy, which begins with a passion to create products with purpose and style. Every element of its design and material is handpicked for the consumer experience. I am very proud of that. You can go through every product we offer and find important design details that offer an improved experience.

How has being a female executive shaped your career and business relationships?

I started my career at Macy’s in fashion accessories. Through a happy accident, I found myself a few years later working in a different kind of accessories: consumer technology. Like so many consumers, I appreciate style, and that’s why I combined my business experience and passion from fashion with consumer electronics to launch Austere.

Specific to being a female executive, for most of my adult life I’ve had to navigate the work / home balance. I am a natural multi-tasker and problem solver, which are critical skills in business. Problem solving is just part of my DNA. I also strongly believe that women are holistic problem solvers —we look at the bigger picture and the details and tend to be more open to collaboration, ultimately looking at more options and finding the best solutions. With so many challenges this year —tariffs, COVID —all companies have been put to the test. But I’ve built a team that is balanced and diverse to ensure we are hearing all voices and that allows me to better serve my retailers and my customers.

Is the trade situation affecting your business? How?

It’s been an incredible experience to create a company and serve as its CEO and to offer a unique brand to consumers. But upon finally launching the brand and putting product into retail stores, we —like many other tech businesses and startups —hit a roadblock. It’s not something we overlooked and it’s not a flaw in our business plans: instead, it’s the increasing cost of tariffs and uncertainty that the U.S.-China trade war is imposing on American companies, such as Austere. 

My business, like many others, operates on modest profit margins —a choice we made in order to provide quality products at an accessible price. But the added cost of the tariffs is potentially crushing. The trade situation was very difficult to navigate, especially in our first year of business. Our priority was to get into retail and establish ourselves as a brand. We have already agreed on pricing and to increase a cost when you’re still an unproven entity would have been detrimental. We made some hard decisions, such as moving all manufacturing out of China and with the help of CTA have been able to navigate those waters. 

Has COVID-19 changed your business operations?

The one-two punch of tariffs followed by a global pandemic is tough. We are weathering the storm by staying focused on our core market: the home. Like most other companies we had to get a PPP loan and we also had to make reductions in spending and resources. But thankfully our focus is on the home, which is now the epicenter for work, education, entertainment...everything. 

Its serendipitous that we produce goods that are really important to keeping homes running, such as power solutions and cleaning products. For example, Austere Clean & Protect is one of the very few that is both anti-microbial and anti-bacterial and still safe for home electronics. It’s been of huge interest to our partners and customers as we navigate COVID.

How important is CES to your business?

Austere would not exist if it weren’t for CES 2018 where I met with many retailers who told me they need something new to address the loss in the accessories market. And then the next year being able to show those global retailers and distributors the brand, product, talk through the solutions, and incorporate their feedback —would not have been possible outside of CES. There simply is no other more important window in time than the first week in January where we have access to global partners. The time and money it would take to reach the same people in all of their locations would have been a non-starter. The access to the right people in one place during one week is undeniable.

Can you talk about your experience on CTA's Executive Board?

If there’s ever been a time to be involved with the CTA Executive Board, it’s now. We’re transitioning to a new format for CES that will set the tone for CTA for the next 10–20 years. The format will enable more people to be able to participate, observe and be involved regardless of where they live. And while it’s a bummer to not kick off 2021 with a show that is exciting and motivating to attend in person, the virtual event allows us to still meet and do business in a way that eliminates borders and keeps everyone safe. 

There is a particular part of the Executive Board that I am passionate about. The Diversity & Inclusion subcommittee is where CTA put their money where their mouth is to change the percentage of funds allocated to women-and-minority-lead businesses. To that end, CTA is investing $10 million in venture firms and funds focused on women, people of color and other underrepresented startups and entrepreneurs, which is so important and timely for the world right now. 

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