SEMA News—October 2011

Ideas Alive

Celebrating the Innovations and Entrepreneurial Spirit That Animate Our Industry

By Mike Imlay

     
The 2011 SEMA Show celebrates Ideas Alive, a theme showcasing the ideas and concepts that explode into industry-changing products and trends.
     
It happens over and over. Someone has a good idea. They may not know it at the time, but eventually, that good idea becomes a product, that product starts a business, and that business becomes a brand. What started as a single drop of water becomes a stream, then a river.
But in the beginning, there was only the idea.

Each successful idea was brought to life through entrepreneurial vision and risk-taking—the courage, willingness to put everything behind an idea and sell it. There is no one single formula for success; in fact, fresh, new approaches are constantly emerging in the automotive specialty-equipment industry. These are the stories of products and individuals whose ideas grew to power a new business, and in the process, created a whole new landscape.

The first, Ed Iskenderian, made his mark in the industry’s formative years. The second, Myles Kovacs, is imparting that passion to a new generation. We hope their stories offer insight and inspiration for the experimenter and groundbreaker in all of us.

Ed Iskenderian: Patient Tinkering and Bold Marketing

     Ed Iskenderian: Patient Tinkering and Bold Marketing A SEMA founder, Ed Iskenderian became the industry’s “Camfather” through patient trial and error in cam-grinding and fresh, clever marketing bravado during the ‘60s and ‘70s.
     
If not for a twist of fate, Ed Iskenderian might have been a vintner. The son of a Tulare, California, vineyard owner, the young Iskenderian relocated to Los Angeles with his family when a Depression-era frost destroyed their vines. After completing high school, Iskenderian set his sights on a machining career, which gave him time to monkey with cars as a hobby. His enthusiasm for hot-rodding during the ’40s led to frequent trips to Southern California’s dry lake beds, where he met racer Ed Winfield, whom Iskenderian now calls his mentor.

“He was probably one of the foremost authorities on racing engines and obtaining horsepower, and he showed me the machine he built [for grinding cams] and I was fascinated by it,” Iskenderian said.

Finding camshafts in short supply for a Ford T-Body roadster he was building, Iskenderian got the idea that, like Winfield, he could easily refit his machining equipment to grind his own.

That simple realization would have huge ramifications for the burgeoning specialty-equipment industry. He first made one cam, then another. Word of mouth spread, and soon a whole gang of young hot-rodders was requesting Isky’s creations. He found his little machine shop suddenly ripening into a thriving specialty cam business.

To hear Iskenderian tell the story, the idea sort of drove itself, and he just hitched a ride. Yet the truth is that Iskenderian was a tinkerer who was unafraid to experiment and even make a mistake or two. His patience for trial and error led to innovation after innovation in an era devoid of computer-aided design and other high-tech R&D tools. Plus, Iskenderian simply loved grinding cams.

     Ed Iskenderian: Patient Tinkering and Bold Marketing Like many idea men, Iskenderian got his start solving a simple problem: The lack of performance cams for his hot rod. A machinist, he asked, “Why not grind my own?” The rest is history.
     
     “Isky displayed a heretofore-unseen gift for loudly promoting his cams. The Iskenderian Racing Cams booth at an early SEMA Show, underscoring the now-giant company’s humble beginnings from a simple idea.
     
“They were so fascinating,” he said. “The cam was a very mysterious thing. It was prestigious to be a cam grinder. I guess in a way, [the cam business] needed new blood—guys who didn’t know much about it but were willing to try things. I never was really ambitious and never thought it would get big. I thought, ‘Gee, if I could just make $100 labor a day, I’ll be satisfied.’ I just wanted to be part of it, you know. And by golly, before long, we could make $100 a day.”

The catalyst was a rather basic 2-in. line ad that Iskenderian placed in Hot Rod magazine offering his cams at $20 apiece.

“A North Carolina shop bought two cams by airmail without even questioning my experience,” he said. “They liked them and kept ordering them, much to my surprise.”

Gaining new confidence in his product, Iskenderian decided to kick up his marketing, figuring no one ever gets ahead in business by being shy.

“A lot of people know their stuff, and they’re good at it,” he said, “but sometimes they’re modest. For some reason, I’d brag in the magazines about our customers who were doing well. It worked, and the ‘cam wars’ started. We touted our stuff, and pretty soon the other cam grinders started to brag.”

That statement is in itself ironically modest. Iskenderian actually introduced a whole new level of marketing to a ’60s industry that was still rather naive, employing tactics that are standard now but shockingly novel then. His ads “good-naturedly” tweaked competitors—although some rivals didn’t see the humor in his approach.

As Hemmings Muscle Machines noted in a December 2004 retrospective: “Isky displayed a heretofore-unseen gift for loudly promoting his cams. He gave his newest profiles dynamic or exotic-sounding names like Polydyne 505 Magnum, Five-Cycle and Superleggera 550. At major drag races, Isky was one of the first to promote himself with T-shirts, which were by his own silk-screening outfit.”

He also created slick, full-color product brochures for distribution to buyers at events. By the ’70s, his combination of technical and marketing innovation had earned him a new industry moniker: The Camfather.

“I’m just grateful I was able to bluff my way in, you might say,” he said. “I guess that’s what it took. Some engineer who really had a formal engineering background would make fun of what I was saying in my ads, but then I finally realized there was no one [else] with the practical experience, except Winfield.”

Bluffing his way in? Again, ironically modest. Few today question Isky’s cam-building skills, let alone his business acumen. And as one of SEMA’s founders, he has this simple advice for other performance builders who would bring their ideas alive:

“Try some funny things, even though they go against the grain. That’s how some of the great things [in this industry] have happened.”

Myles Kovacs: Passion, Trends and “Edu-tainment”

     Kovacs’ brainchild, of course, is DUB magazine, founded in 2000 and now boasting an estimated 4.8 million annual readership
Myles Kovacs’ Gen-X entrepreneurism rebooted automotive media for today’s lifestyle-conscious youth market with DUB Magazine.
     
In the ’40s, Chris Economaki’s National Speed Sport News propelled automotive racing into the mainstream media. From the ’50s forward, Robert E. Petersen cobbled niche enthusiast magazines together to build an automotive publishing empire. But it took a Gen-X entrepreneur named Myles Kovacs to reboot automotive media with a high-gloss mixture of urban car culture, lifestyle and entertainment cues for today’s trend-conscious youth market.

Kovacs’ brainchild, of course, is DUB magazine, founded in 2000 and now boasting an estimated 4.8 million annual readership. With total business reportedly topping $50 million annually, DUB Publishing Inc. has become a marketing kingmaker—with major automakers routinely turning to Kovacs for insight in connecting with a younger, hipper consumer demographic. So fresh was Kovacs’ approach that Newsweek six years ago named him one of America’s “10 Big Thinkers for Big Business in the 21st Century.”

But DUB is more than an innovative media property. It’s a living, breathing, social brand that just happened to start as a car magazine. Grasp that, and you’ll grasp the idea behind Kovac’s entrepreneurialism.

“When I got the idea for DUB, I was actually promoting a nightclub magazine and producing events for concerts and nightclubs,” said Kovacs, who grew up in East Los Angeles. A fan of Lowrider magazine, he realized there was a dissonance between its lifestyle advertising and editorial. “I thought to myself, ‘If somebody came out with a magazine that actually matched that ad content to the editorial, it would probably do well as a more specific place for advertisers to go.’”

     Launching DUB, Kovacs confronted the usual hurdles facing a business startup: financing, gaining the confidence of all the right people and establishing market share.
“If you build it they may come, but if you educate them, they’ll be loyal.” That’s the highly successful philosophy that brought Kovacks’ DUB idea to life and built it into a $50 million-plus annual business. DUB branding imparts industry passion to legions of new fans.
     
     
An early DUB magazine cover featuring Kobe Bryant. More than “cars and stars,” the DUB brand seeks to tap into young consumers’ passion points.
Launching DUB, Kovacs confronted the usual hurdles facing a business startup: financing, gaining the confidence of all the right people and establishing market share.

“A lot of people say, ‘Oh, you must’ve been really worried when you first started,’ but I wasn’t, because we had nothing to lose,” he said. “We were just kind of going and driving in the dark with no headlights on. Once you turn on the headlights and see where you’re going, that can scare you.”

While some have labeled DUB “cars and stars,” Kovacs says it’s actually the brand’s “edu-tainment” concept that attracts consumers.

“If you build it they may come,” he said, “but if you educate them, they’ll be loyal. We educate and entertain at the same time, much like a college or university with academics and athletics. People are loyal to our brand like they are loyal to their colleges for the rest of their lives. By utilizing all the celebrities and featuring them with their cars—that’s where the magic came from.”

Kovacs sees DUB helping to grow the specialty-equipment industry by introducing a younger demographic to car-culture passion.

“You have to look at it this way: Are you happy with your penetration in the market share, or do you want to create new market share?” he said. “That’s the key. DUB has created new market share. One of the things that’s going on with the youth culture is they don’t want to eat their dad’s food and they don’t want to drive their grandma’s car. They want to disassociate themselves from those things because there’s nothing cool about driving your grandma’s car. That’s what we see, so we’re trying to go and develop products and experiences for that next generation so they can have the passion.”

Kovacs believes that too many businesses seek to influence consumers, “dictating” their wants or needs. By contrast, the DUB brand strives to embrace its audience’s passion points: celebrity, lifestyle, electronics, video games and toys.

“It’s a different kind of marketing,” he asserts. “The consumers of today are dictating the trends. If you can teach them things that they don’t know and do it in a very cool and viral way, they’re going to be loyal, they’re going to be excited.”

An industry veteran since his teen years, Kovacs marvels at the chain reaction sparked by his idea come alive. “If I had to predict what we’re doing today, probably half of it would never even have been a thought,” he said. “The beautiful thing about DUB as a brand is it’s much larger than me. We got a great team, and it’s recognized worldwide. I think the most gratifying thing for DUB—and what really opened my eyes—was [realizing] that when making a business, we may want to make money, be famous, popular or groundbreaking. And then, as you progress in business, those things become less important than truly making
a difference.” 

Ideas Alive at the SEMA Show

The yearly output of an entire industry’s ideas can be viewed in one day at the SEMA Show New Products Showcase, a place where freshly born ideas share a powerful spotlight.

That’s why the 2011 SEMA Show is set to debut a newly themed section—Ideas Alive: Featuring the New Products Showcase. More than a display of products, the section seeks to inform and inspire by calling attention to the diversity of new ideas. Whether they begin as sketches on napkins or in computer-assisted research-and-development facilities, ideas have the power to change lives and fortunes.

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