Building on the Buzz: Utah Companies thrive in the Device Accessories Ecosystem

Every year, the likes of Apple, Samsung, Google, LG, Microsoft and Lenovo push out their latest and greatest personal device. For the past few years, it’s been mostly smartphones. Before that, smartphones and tablets. Next, who knows? Whatever the gadget of the day, however, it spawns a whole industry of accessories. And several large players within the accessories sector have their headquarters here in Utah.

Located in the center of the Salt Lake Valley, ZAGG Inc specializes in protective coverings for personal devices. “Smooth, tempered glass protects all the possibilities that fit in the palm of your hand,” the site proclaims in its description of its “glass+” line. “Glass+ features new Ion Matrix technology,” the site explains, “the most advanced impact and shatter protection available.”

Bodyguardz, in turn, specializes in phone cases, along with screen protectors. BGZ Brands owns the company; both BGZ and its flagship brand, Bodyguardz, claim Thanksgiving Point as their home base.

Where the products proffered by Bodyguardz and ZAGG are designed to accommodate (or be accommodated by) an electronic device, Skullcandy’s offerings complement the device without the necessity of a precise fit—with the obvious exception of headphone jacks, which tend towards universality anyway.

Each of these three firms faces compatibility challenges of one sort or another, whether that be of physical conformity or of some other sort of interface prerequisite. Additionally—just as with the primary devices for which they’re designed—they must stay abreast of style trends and changing customer preferences. At least if they want to remain profitable.

The mania for new releases

Steve Jobs was the master techno-showman, staging product launches with theatrical mastery. Apple product releases gained a newsworthiness normally reserved for terrorist attacks, high-profile infidelities and election-cycle mudslinging. Even now, some six years after Jobs’ death, Apple products get the lion’s share of buzz; the October 2018 iPhone X preorder sold out minutes after opening, while scalpers flooded eBay with $1,500 iPhone X preorders. To less fanfare, Apple’s competitors regularly release their (arguably better, in many cases) device iterations. But a device is less, well, device-y without its accoutrements and augmentations, most of which come from third-party manufacturers.

To be sure, many smartphone manufacturers offer accessories to accompany their devices. Case in point: Apple’s iconic earbud headphones. On its website, Samsung offers everything from Bluetooth headphones to protective cases. For whatever reason, however, first-party accessories have difficulty getting the same traction as their third-party counterparts. Chalk it up to the afterthought principle—the smartphone company decides “oh yeah, maybe we should make a phone cover”—or to lack of initiative. If Samsung, et al, are pouring their resources and attention into designing, launching and promoting their primary product, accessories get the scraps.

In contrast, a company that makes (for example) smartphone cases only has all its technological eggs in a single basket. If it can’t do better than a multi-offering manufacturer, it probably doesn’t have much of a future.

Skullcandy: the rebel from Park City

“What if there were headphones that could seamlessly switch from music to calls? And what if those headphones actually looked as good as they worked?” From such ponderings was born the Skullcandy line of headphones—at least per the brand’s website.

The company cultivates a nonconformist persona, right down to its cadaverous logo. Marketing its headphones to a demographic “at the intersection of sport, music, youth culture, art, film and fashion,” requires considerable research to stay relevant as a brand and as an image.

Skullcandy employs just over 20 product engineers, per Sam Noertker, senior manager of product experience. To complement the brand’s product management team, “the product experience and product creative teams participate in many forms of human-centered design research.”

All of which falls into the crucial area of market research. “The main method Skullcandy uses to stay ahead of the [market intelligence] game is diving deep into research on technological trends that are going on globally,” Noertker says. “Human-centered design research helps us get a clear understanding of what really gets our consumer excited and connects with them emotionally.”

So that’s the style/fashion component. But looks don’t matter much if the product doesn’t perform. Or if it fails to keep up with the latest technological innovations. “The product team keeps a ‘technology roadmap’ that helps us track new technology in the market,” says Noertker.

Bluetooth tech is old news by now, but back when it was newer, the Skullcandy team got ahead of the implementation curve. “By understanding how Bluetooth technology was going to shape the product landscape, it gave our product team time to go out and discover the best options,” he says. Skullcandy’s prescience paid off. Bluetooth has shown remarkable staying power; no other technology has emerged as a serious contender for wireless connectivity between devices. By reading the signs correctly and taking effective action, Skullcandy now boasts “some of the top-selling Bluetooth products on the market.”

The protection racket: ZAGG and Bodyguardz

Bodyguardz aims “to make the ultimate device protection for all the devices that keep your busy lives going,” says Leslie Greve, vice president of product management. The company makes and sells one thing only: screen protectors (actually, they also sell “protective skins” that extend the concept of the screen protector around the body of the phone. Still.). By keeping such a narrow focus, Bodyguardz can direct their resources to staying abreast of the newest device dimensions and shapes. Ideally before those devices ever hit the market.

“Staying ahead of changing devices is what we do.” Greve explains how the company “make[s] sure we are not only getting device shape intel, but also some of the key attributes that may change the way our accessories will complement the user’s experience.” For example, the widespread adoption of flexible phones would almost certainly demand a shift in the design and formulation of Bodyguardz’s screen protectors.

ZAGG has a similar imperative to stay ahead of developments in primary product releases (i.e., the smartphones that its products complement). “We work closely with several of the key OEM manufacturers to get early release of specifications,” says CEO Randall Hales. With luck, “our accessory products will be available at the same time … as the [smartphone] OEM products are launched.” Sometimes, electronics manufacturers stay tight-lipped about product details. In which case, “we do all the pre-work we can and then move quickly once specifications are made public.”

ZAGG’s specialty seems to be phone/tablet cases, though it also offers screen protectors, portable chargers, wireless keyboards and a few headphones (both in-ear and over-ear). Interestingly, the website’s dropdown is oriented according to primary product even more than by ZAGG’s own offerings. Which is to say, the online shopper can select from “Google Pixel 2,” “Google Pixel 2 XL,” iPhone 6/6 Plus,” “Samsung Galaxy S8/S8+,” and so forth. Click the name of the device, and see the myriad products ZAGG has for that particular device.

By placing the primary device as the object of selection, ZAGG reminds the shopper that its own selection augments and expands the smartphone’s native qualities. Hales describes how the company’s product management team “works closely with our design and engineering teams to make sure the products include the right design elements and desired features and benefits.”

No small potatoes

While Zagg, Bodyguardz and Skullcandy are nowhere near the size of an Apple or Samsung, they’re not tiny, either. Bodyguardz declined to disclose its company size. Skullcandy has over 200 employees “including our headquarters in Park City and our five international offices,” per Noertker. ZAGG is even bigger, with around 500 employees in Salt Lake City and an additional four locations around the globe. Clearly, even a niche business can be big business.

Jacob Andra tracks tech trends, especially blockchain and cryptocurrency. Keep up with his commentary on Twitter.

Jacob Andra is a writer, award-winning digital marketer, and technologist living in Salt Lake City. Specialties include account-based marketing, growth hacking for startups, blockchain, fintech, and international issues. He enjoys history, the outdoors, podcasts, and a good book.